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Do You Know How to Avoid a Review Markup Penalty?

Just about every local business wants those review stars.

As marketers, we were familiar with the stars local businesses could get on their Google My Business listings from customer reviews, but everyone about fell out of their chair when Google introduced stars for organic results.

I’m talking about review rich snippets.

Review_Markup_Penalty

And if you’re a marketer for local businesses, there’s a high likelihood that your clients have asked how they can get them.

A Refresher on Review Rich Snippets

Google announced review rich snippets back in 2009 by saying:

Google helps users find your page by showing them a small sample of that content — the “snippet.” [Rich snippets are] a new presentation of snippets that applies Google’s algorithms to highlight structured data embedded in web pages. When searching for a product or service, users can easily see reviews and ratings. It’s a simple change to the display of search results, yet our experiments have shown that users… are more likely to click through.

Essentially, if you incorporate review structured data onto your page, you could qualify for an enhanced (“rich”) version of your standard snippet — one with stars. And when local business websites have stars next to their URLs in search results, their potential customers are more likely to click on them than the competition. Bingo.

But here’s the rub. Google is extremely careful about what they display on their search results. They want to avoid rewarding anything misleading or outright false, which is why they have extensive guidelines on how to use review structured data properly.

Manual Actions for Structured Data Issues

If you mark up reviews in a way that goes against Google’s guidelines, you risk landing the site you’re working on a penalty, which you can see in the Manual Actions report in Google Search Console.  According to Google:

Pages or sites that violate these content guidelines may receive less favorable ranking or be marked as ineligible for rich results in Google Search in order to maintain a high-quality search experience for our users.

There are currently 23 different structured data manual actions. Some of the most common for reviews are:

  • Structured data found on hidden content: If you mark something up with structured data, that content has to be visible to the user.
  • No mechanism for submitting a review: Because Google doesn’t want website owners curating/cherry-picking which reviews are allowed on their site and in markup, you need to provide a way for users to submit reviews on the page itself or clearly indicate where you’re pulling the reviews from. Ratings must be sourced directly from users.
  • Review written by the site or person providing the service: This should go without saying, but Google doesn’t want you reviewing yourself.
  • Structured data does not match content: Structured data needs to be appropriate and relevant to the contents of the page.  For example, don’t add site-wide review markup. Only mark up reviews that are relevant to that page’s content, like a plumbing repair review on a plumbing repair page.

Why Talk About This Now?

If review structured data has been a thing since 2009, why are we talking about this now, a decade later?

Because Google is always getting better at detecting when review structured data violates their guidelines. For example, although Google has never wanted website owners curating reviews (giving the website owner the ability to manipulate their star rating in Google organic search results), marketers have always wondered how Google would be able to tell where the reviews came from.

“Just hard code aggregateRating markup onto the pages to get the stars. How would Google even find out?”

Well apparently, now they can, because some in the local SEO community have begun to notice Google doling out penalties for that very thing.

The moral of the story when you’re playing with search engines? Always play by their rules. Eventually, they’ll be able to find out if you’re not.

2 Responses to “Do You Know How to Avoid a Review Markup Penalty?”

  1. tracy woods says:

    Hi Kameron-
    What if there are NO reviews on products? We see an “error” in GSC that says:

    Errors can prevent your page or feature from appearing in Search results. The following errors were found on your site:
    Either “offers”, “review”, or “aggregateRating” should be specified

    We don’t have any reviews or offers, but we did mark up the products with the basic information:
    Name
    Image
    Description
    SKU
    Brand
    Indentifier type
    Identifier

    What are the ramifications of not including a review?

    Thanks
    Tracy

  2. Adam says:

    Got a similar notification. Says this: Reviews must not be written or provided by the business or content provider unless they are independent, unpaid customer reviews.

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