Review sentiment reflects the prevailing opinion shared by customers in reviews of a business’s products or services.
Whether the sentiment is positive or negative is thought by some to have an impact on a business’s search rankings.
There’s legitimate concern over those claims, as it would leave businesses vulnerable to negative SEO attacks if rankings could be lowered with bad reviews.
Conversely, there’s concern about competitors artificially inflating their rankings with fake positive reviews.
There’s no question review sentiment can influence consumer behavior and impact metrics like conversion rate.
But does it have any influence on Google’s search rankings?
Let’s look at the claims and evidence surrounding review sentiment as a ranking factor.
The Claim: Review Sentiment Is A Ranking Factor
Review sentiment gets brought up in discussions about Google ranking factors, with some claiming that a positive sentiment can boost rankings and a negative sentiment can lower rankings.
There are a number of reasons for these claims.
One of the most frequently cited pieces of “evidence” is the correlation between high ranking websites and businesses that have positive reviews.
Sentiment analysis happens to be a feature included in SEO software, which may lead to the conclusion that review sentiment has an impact on search rankings.
Search Engine Journal’s Roger Montti published an article with more detail on where the claims around sentiment originate from and why they persist.
In addition to what’s mentioned in Montti’s article, Google’s Search Quality Rater guidelines play a role in keeping review sentiment a recurring topic amongst SEOs.
Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines
Google lends credence to the claim that review sentiment is a ranking factor in its Search Quality Rater guidelines.
Section 2.6 of the guidelines tells Google’s Quality Raters what to look for when assessing the reputation of a website or content creator.
There are a number of notes about checking review sites to understand more about a business’s reputation.
Here’s an example:
“Customer reviews can be helpful for assessing the reputation of a store or business. However, you should interpret these reviews with care, particularly if there are only a few. Be skeptical of both positive and negative user reviews. Anyone can write them, including the creator of the website or someone the store or business hires for this purpose.”
Some have drawn conclusions regarding review sentiment as a ranking factor based on the above.
However, Search Quality Raters have no direct impact on search rankings, and the guidelines they follow aren’t based on what Google’s algorithm uses as ranking factors.
Quality Raters gather feedback on Google’s search results to help ensure webpages displayed in the SERPs meet a certain quality threshold.
One of the ways webpage quality is measured is by examining the reputation of the website where it’s published.
Headlines related to this chapter of the Quality Rater guidelines circulated in 2017 after Google’s Gary Illyes spoke at a conference on the topic of reputation analysis.
Some in attendance misconstrued his statements and incorrectly reported Illyes said reputation can impact a website’s position in search results.
However, Illyes was only discussing how the Quality Rater guidelines work.
While customer reviews are a component of reputation research, the guidelines do suggest approaching them with a degree of skepticism.
Thankfully, Google has provided clarity on this subject and stated definitively whether review sentiment is a ranking factor.
The Evidence For Review Sentiment As A Ranking Factor
Studies may try to prove review sentiment is a ranking factor by showing a correlation between customer reviews and a website’s position in search results.
We’re only going to look at the confirmed evidence, and Google has stated repeatedly that review sentiment is not a ranking factor.
Google’s Gary Illyes swiftly denied the claims that began circulating online after his conference talk, which we referenced in the previous section.
Not only does Google not use sentiment as a ranking factor, its algorithms don’t even recognize sentiment.
Google’s Danny Sullivan confirmed this in 2018.
Google can’t use sentiment for rankings if it has no concept of what the sentiment is.
That should be enough to end the speculation around review sentiment as a ranking factor, but theories continue to linger.
In 2021, Sullivan was asked whether anything had changed since he last said Google recognize sentiment.
Sentiment is still not recognized by Google’s algorithm.
Review Sentiment As A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict
Review sentiment is confirmed to not be a ranking factor for organic search rankings, though we do acknowledge it is a factor for local search rankings.
This has always been the case, ever since Google’s inability to recognize sentiment was infamously exploited.
Back around 2010, a company was angering customers to the point that they would write bad reviews.
This was done deliberately because the links received from the reviews pushed the company’s website higher in search results.
Google didn’t recognize people linking to the company were saying negative things, Google only recognized the links.
Since then Google has gotten better at not rewarding websites that rip off customers, but Google’s indifference toward sentiment remains.
Review sentiment can directly impact other areas of online marketing, but search rankings are not one of them.
Featured Image: Robin Biong/Search Engine Journal