Is Sentiment an SEO Trust Signal?
We recently had an SEO repair project for a client with a penalized site. It’s a pretty common situation of late in the wake of Google’s core algorithm updates.
Our approach included doing a very deep dive, turning over all suspect rocks. We found areas for some improvement, which we passed on to their teams for repair.
Based upon finding so few things wrong with their site, in my opinion, their SEO team was doing their job.
The few improvements we suggested were made. But the site’s rankings did not bounce back enough in Google search.
Exploring Factors Beyond SEO
Google has repeatedly (and excessively) said there is nothing that webmasters can do about the core algorithm updates:
As with any update, some sites may note drops or gains. There’s nothing wrong with pages that may now perform less well. Instead, it’s that changes to our systems are benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded….
There’s no “fix” for pages that may perform less well other than to remain focused on building great content. Over time, it may be that your content may rise relative to other pages.
–Google SearchLiaison on Twitter
In other contexts, I’ve heard Google representatives say this differently — that with a core algorithm hit, there’s nothing “an SEO” can do.
So I dissected their statements.
Instead of taking it at face value (nothing can be done), I questioned the claim qualifiers. If a webmaster and an SEO can’t “fix” it — is there something someone else could do? What is neither a webmaster issue nor an SEO issue, but could still greatly affect SEO?
“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
So what is outside of direct SEO that impacts SEO?
Google has defined three basic attributes that it looks for to determine quality websites — expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (E-A-T).
One year ago, Google did an update. That was labeled the Medic update, and I believe it was a significant and obvious step focused on TRUST. Basically, it is my opinion that trusted sites that were interlinked with untrusted sites were penalized.
I believe the Panda update was about expertise, Penguin about authority, and Medic about trust. And I think artificial intelligence (AI) has allowed Google to make significant advances in sentiment measurement as a part of that trust component.
We also know that Google looks beyond the page content when evaluating E-A-T. Here’s what it says in the Search Quality Evaluator’s Guidelines … (Note that “MC” refers to the main content of a webpage.)
“For … pages that have a beneficial purpose, the amount of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) is very important. Please consider:
- The expertise of the creator of the MC.
- The authoritativeness of the creator of the MC, the MC itself, and the website.
- The trustworthiness of the creator of the MC, the MC itself, and the website.”
So when we’re talking about E-A-T, the content, the author when applicable, and the site as a whole all matter.
Trust Is a Big Deal to Google
There are other indications that trust is a high priority with Google …
- Google uses Pinkerton investigators to background check Google Local Services participants for its Google Guaranteed program.
- You can find a Better Business Bureau (BBB) rating for most GLS entries right in the search results. To see an example, search for “plumbers near me” and click the top link to view the Local Services …
- Google recently rolled out a new screening program called Google Screened. This will be a trust signal for searchers looking for professional services such as lawyers and financial planners. The designation shows up in search results based on Google star ratings and extensive background and license checks.
- In searches with local intent, the trust factor of user ratings has played into the ranking algorithm for years. Google stated it openly in its features tour of Google Maps back in 2014:
So we dug into trust.
Trust Extends Beyond (Traditional) SEO
Looking beyond the website, we found that the client had some big trust issues.
First off, this online retail site had a rating of “F” with the Better Business Bureau.
Consumers refer to the BBB to gauge how trustworthy a company is. And the BBB is said to provide sentiment data to Google. So this was a bad sign.
Secondly, many customer review sites contained very negative reviews of the company.
We dug deeper to find out why.
The company apparently ignored (certainly did not satisfy) complaints. Commenters had left negative feedback in plain sight. But either it was being ignored, or nobody was even reading the reviews.
In aggregate, it appeared that the sentiment (the voice of their customers) had poisoned the brand’s online reputation.
This destroyed trust and impacted their search engine rankings as much as if they had a penalty. There is no lever to pull that can fix this situation.
Or otherwise stated, “There is nothing webmasters can do about the core algorithm updates.”
Pushing the Boundaries of SEO …
Understand, reputation is not historically an SEO job. Brand protection and reputation management live elsewhere within marketing. That is why the client’s SEO team did not see it.
But if Google’s E-A-T factors grow in scope, the scope of SEO needs to expand as well.
By the way … when was the last time you checked your firm’s BBB rating?
A Radical Recommendation
Here’s what we did for our client. We produced a sentiment analysis report that documented what we found. It included quotes, charts, and screenshots along with sentiment measurements.
Our recommendations detailed many specific to-dos. But the general message cut far deeper into the heart of their business than the advice we typically give in SEO consulting — we recommended they become customer-centric.
How to Fix Negative Sentiment
A business with widespread negative sentiment and too many bad reviews needs a radical culture shift.
The only solution is to read all the bad reviews, identify the problems, and then assign staff to their immediate repair.
Answer complaints 10 times better than necessary. Overwhelm people with support.
Managers should personally contact each negative reviewer and do what is appropriate to address their issue. Then they can post responses with their resolution on those review sites. Responding shows that you care and can be trusted to support customer problems.
And by all means, immediately fix any BBB issues. Claim your business listing on BBB.org and start monitoring the reviews. It’s important to respond to bad reviews appropriately, but also be sure to appreciate the happy reviewers.
As a last urgent warning, DO NOT pay customers or reviewers to change their comments. The Federal Trade Commission will charge a massive fine if you do that. People can “update” their own reviews if they want. But offering them any kind of paid incentive is illegal. (Here’s where you can read what the FTC allows for business owners.)
Sentiment Expands SEO
As SEOs, we have to stay on our toes. With algorithm updates and SERP changes happening multiple times daily, we either adapt or we die.
Now we have to expand our role. We have built this into audits and penalty reviews and regularly monitor ratings. How about you?
I’m convinced that sentiment is a trust signal, part of the “T” equation in E-A-T.
Google evaluates a site’s online sentiment across the web. When sentiment trends negative, it can indicate many possible business problems. But we are convinced that it can also impact the site’s rankings in search.
If sentiment can affect a site’s rankings, either up or down, then it spills into the purview of SEO.
For this reason, I believe that sentiment analysis needs to be part of SEO now.
If you’re wondering how to do sentiment analysis for SEO, read my follow-up post on sentiment analysis for SEO.
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