Product reviews: Reviewed

By: Rob Corbidge, 18 January 2024

plain cardboard box, gifttag with an eye, 1920s film poster, black and white, hi def

New research indicates search results for product reviews is experiencing a wave of awfulness,

One unexpected outcome (of many) of the introduction of Community Notes on the platform formerly known as Twitter has been the rapid use of the feature to undermine or even negate the reliability of product review-style posts posted it transpires by drop-shipping outfits.

Simply, users post in Community Notes that they are not real product reviews, and in fact the products being 'reviewed' are by middlemen for products able to be obtained more cheaply elsewhere. 

As far as scams go, it's a just a reinvention of an old theme for the digital age, yet such policing by users on X is something to be welcomed, at least by those of us who wish to earn our coin legitimately, and be parted with them in the same manner.

Product reviews and affiliate link revenues are no stranger to online publishing business models. We've seen everyone from giants such as the NYT move heavily into the area with Wirecutter, to much smaller publishers and creators finding audience and revenue in the same fashion. Where there's a market, there's probably a legitimate reviewer doing their best to help people spend wisely.

It will come to as little surprise to our industry then that a new piece of research from the University of Leipzig and the Bauhaus-Universit├Ąt Weimar reveals the soaring incidence of poor quality product reviews driven by SEO spam appearing at the top of searches.

Read the research paper here.

Looking at three leading search platforms across a year, the research team used 7,392 product review queries to gain an indication of the quality of results they were being served. 

It concluded: "We find that the majority of high-ranking product reviews in the result pages of commercial search engines (SERPs) use affiliate marketing, and significant amounts are outright SEO product review spam."

The difficulty here for our industry is that most publishers are trying to be on the side of the angels in this scenario. Not just for ethical and moral reasons, but also because simply there is no long-term benefit in selling your audience things that are no good if you want to keep them.

Yet when there is a financial drought, the pressure to take such money is immense. 

To illustrate this at the niche level, where readers are subject aware and hypersensitive to anything that smells a bit wrong, I've recently seen a favourite hiking and camping content creator swear themselves away from product reviews, despite their channel initially being based around the format, due to the commercial pressure to feature items becoming so strong. As he put it: "I don't want to compromise the channel."

The German researchers also make a strong point concerning SEO, saying "SEO is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes high-quality pages easier to find, but is on the other hand also a sharp tool for pushing up low quality results in the search rankings."

Quite. Some of the leading figures in the SEO world have recently pushed back against suggestions they are the villains of the current internet. The "double edged sword" phrase is entirely apposite here. SEO can assist in the surfacing of worthy content, but of course the reverse is also true for those that choose to game the system.

Finally, the team raises the prospect of the AI hydra eating everything: "The line between benign content and spam in the form of content and link farms becomes increasingly blurry - a situation that will surely worsen in the wake of generative AI."

Likely so. It still remains that good publishing brands, by fair dealing with their audience, can retain trust and therefore proffer the option to sell via reviews in good conscience, provided those reviews are thorough and fair.

So if you do see a Drain Buster 3101 from ManSpam Industries for sale on X, complete with wonder ALL DRAIN MAX FLUSHING POWER and a video showing it pushing a boulder through a hosepipe, here's our review: don't buy it. Or maybe do, and write your own a review once you've dried yourself off.