Bizarre review schema implementation spotlights gaps between Google’s guidelines & how rich results really work
Google has made its review markup guidelines fairly clear and has even issued penalties to sites that utilize spammy or misleading structured data markup. But columnist Andrew Shotland points out that many sites are still violating these guidelines, intentionally or unintentionally.
Review snippets, in which review stars appear next to your SERP listing, have long been among the most coveted rich results sought out by SEOs. Unfortunately, the pursuit of these review snippets over the years led to a lot of abuse — webmasters and SEOs would attempt to gain the rich result by implementing deceptive structured data on their web pages.
Eventually, Google started to crack down on structured data manipulation by issuing manual actions (i.e. penalties) in Google Search Console. Since then, we have seen a wide variety of problems with rating and review schema — many of which were quite unintentional.
For example, a client of ours was displaying reviews from a third-party review service on their site, in addition to their own native reviews. The deal required that the third-party reviews be hidden from Google, but the client’s site displayed the total review count and aggregate review score as the sum of their reviews plus their partner’s reviews.
Since Google couldn’t see the partner reviews, it issued a manual action, which we guessed was for supposedly inflating the review count. Once we changed the review count to count only the client’s reviews, the manual action was lifted, even though this was now potentially confusing to users who could see all of the reviews, including the partner’s.
Review management companies can create issues
As more and more companies have begun to focus on cultivating customer reviews, the industry has seen a huge increase in review management companies, whose general purpose is to help companies obtain and manage customer reviews.
Of course, with the growth of customer review management services, there are now a wide variety of review markup implementation systems, many with their own special way of doing things. And while it can be great to utilize review management services, you need to be careful that their way of handling reviews doesn’t conflict with Google’s guidelines, which could lead to a manual action being taken against your site.
For example, I was recently in the market for a tank sprayer, and I came across this Lowe’s URL as the #1 result for “tank sprayers”:
Rather than a page for a specific product, what you’re looking at above is a category page result. So according to Google, the Lowe’s Tanks Sprayers category has a 3.5 rating and 244 reviews. Except it really doesn’t, because nobody reviews categories.
Google is fairly explicit that category review markup is against its guidelines. From its list of Review Snippets Guidelines:
Provide review and/or rating information about a specific item, not about a category or a list of items. For example, “hotels in Madrid,” “summer dresses,” or “cake recipes” are not specific items.
There’s also this from Google’s Structured Data Policies:
You can include multiple structured data objects on a page, as long as they describe user-visible page content. However, if you mark up one item in a list you must mark up all items; marking up just one category entity from all listed on the page is against our guidelines.
So, let’s look at what’s going on over at Lowe’s. If you go to the page, you will see that every product listed displays both an aggregate rating (# of stars) and a total review count. So far, no big deal. But let’s look at the markup on these items.
There are three main sections of products displayed on this page:
- “Featured” results (the main list of products in the category)
- A “Top Trending in Your Store” carousel
- A “Reviews on Tank Sprayers” carousel, with the first review visible on the page load
All of the “Featured” results products are marked up with the following properties, among others:
data-productreviews = the number of reviews the product has
data-productrating = the aggregate star rating of the product
“Top Trending in Your Store” products have similar markup. So far, still no big deal.
But when we look at the markup on the product in the “Reviews on Tank SPrayers” section, it tells a different story:
RatingValue, bestRating and reviewCount are all structured Aggregate Rating properties supported by Google. If I didn’t know better, I’d say these products are either marked up with Aggregate Rating markup, or they are marked up in a way that makes it appear to Google like it could be Aggregate Rating markup.
- Not all items in the list are marked up per Google’s guidelines (although one could argue they marked up the entire list of reviewed products).
- I’m not sure these qualify as “user-visible page content.” I asked several people to look at this URL, and some never saw the review content. And the marked-up reviews hidden in the carousel are not user-visible, at least upon the initial page load.
Again, if I didn’t know better, I’d say these Aggregate Ratings properties were implemented on this category page to try to get aggregate ratings and review snippets to appear in the SERPs attached to the category URL.
But perhaps this was just some one-off result. Maybe I just stumbled onto a glitch? Not according to this #1 result in the SERPs for “Trendy Handbags”:
Or this one for “Baby Boy Footwear”:
There are likely thousands, if not millions, of results like these floating around. A simple intext query for some of this code shows a lot of notable brands using this system.
There are four possibilities I can think of:
- This is a violation of Google’s guidelines, and Google has somehow missed these.
- This is a violation of Google’s guidelines, and Google is, for some reason, looking the other way.
- This is a violation of Google’s guidelines, and Google is working on a solution to eliminate these snippets at scale. (If this is the case and I were a brand using this system, I’d probably be working on a Plan B.)
- This is not a violation of Google’s guidelines, and I am just tilting at windmills. (And maybe this is just sour grapes on my part as none of our clients use this system and are getting out-maneuvered by those who do – Sad!)
Pretty much every SEO I showed this to instantly felt this was a clear violation of the guidelines. Of course, guidelines are not the law, so we are all free to do what we feel is necessary to rank well in Google.
But if Google wants to encourage us all to play by its rules, then it should clarify why this case is or is not against its guidelines. Until it does, I will have to give Google’s structured data guidelines a ⭐★★★★.
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