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The Discussion Forums Dominating 10,000 Product Review Search Results

Written by Glen Allsopp | +552 this month
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LAST UPDATED
February 14, 2024

In an analysis of 10,000 keyphrases where product reviews rank highly, Google’s increasingly prominent ‘Discussions and forums’ SERP feature was present in 7,702 of them.

Reddit was the most dominant brand in the results by far, but that’s only scratching the surface of what I set out to discover.

I wanted to know:

  • Can new forums rank well?
  • How many individual sites does Google promote in them?
  • Do any other sites besides Reddit dominate the results?
  • Do forums on subdomains or subfolders tend to rank better?
  • Are the top-ranking forums owned independently or by media goliaths?

We have answers to all of these questions and more, plus a prediction I never expected to make.

The Overall Numbers (And Just How Dominant Reddit Truly Is)

For this research we used 10,000 hand-picked product review terms which we’ve used for other SERP-based analysis. We looked at terms like:

  • Best electric toothbrush
  • Gifts for best friends
  • Best pregnancy pillow
  • Fastest external SSD
  • Best portable AC

And 9,995 more just like them. You can learn more in our supplemental Google Doc.

Across the 10,000 search results, the ‘Discussions and forums’ feature was present in 7,702 (77%) of them and linked to 766 individual forums.

Some example product review-focused searches where this SERP feature is now present

With hundreds of forums being listed, you might expect the spread of rankings to be quite diverse, but that isn’t the case.

The Reddit.com domain was present in 7,509 results and featured 14,263 times. This means that if the SERP feature was present, Reddit not only had an 97.5% chance of showing up, but on average had 1.9 of three possible listings.

Seventy-eight websites received at least one double listing, but most of those never appeared in more than five separate search results. The average number of search results a website appeared in was just six, compared to a total of 3,513 for Quora and 7,509 for Reddit.

Reddit and Quora were listed 18,095 times. Every other domain appeared 4,989 times in total. In other words, these two domains have more than 3X the presence of every other site combined.

I completely understand the popularity of Reddit and people actively seeking out the website (I’m a fan of it myself), but those numbers are far higher than I imagined.

Often, Google’s promotion of them feels excessive.

The following screenshot was literally the first search I made to take a screenshot of the SERP feature, and Reddit has seven links pointing to their site. Two of which are the same.

Reddit can be an awesome platform, but surely seven individual links (two of which are the same) is a bit excessive?

This SERP feature doesn’t just show up for product review-focused queries, of course, but this lack of diversity is not the Google that Googlers would present.

Google’s Product Review Search Results Are Now the Worst I’ve Seen Them. Here’s Why…

In 2023, we performed four separate analyses of 10,000 keyphrases where sites reviewing products as an affiliate are likely to rank.

In prior years we ran a 1,000 and 5,000 keyword analysis.

In other words, I’ve spent hundreds of hours looking at the top-ranking sites in this space and I’m dispositioned to notice any significant changes here. It’s not about being smart โ€” I’ve just put a ton of time into this.

Current search results are the worst I can recall seeing, so let me break down exactly why.

The ‘Discussions and Forums’ SERP feature was present in 77% of searches, and Reddit was present in 97.5% of those. What I haven’t yet told you is that 51% of Reddit’s top-ranking threads currently have spam as a top comment.

Essentially, more than half of Reddit’s top product recommendations – which Google promotes heavily – are not “real” recommendations.

First, I manually went through the top Reddit threads that appeared in 1,005 individual search results (I wanted to get close to 1,000). Of the resulting 122 URLs, 63 have a top comment with a self-promotional affiliate link. Often written months after the original thread was created.

I wanted to do this myself to see if there were any patterns in how people were abusing the site (Hint: There were).

I’m not going to give any specific examples because I’m not here to “out” anyone, but thought I should probably make something visual for people who aren’t familiar with the platform – or haven’t been there in a while – to get a sense of what is happening.

With that in mind, here’s a partially made-up (but mostly accurate) example of how the comment section of many well-ranking threads currently looks:

I just wanted to show what a comment section that’s been “spammed” looks like, but not reveal an actual one. Assume the link would be an Amazon affiliate link or the commenters’ own site, which contains one.

Assume that the “$40 Aeropress” link is an Amazon affiliate link or takes you to a list of the best coffee makers from a site you wouldn’t recognise, like Coffee Mojo HQ (again, made up). Top comments often have more upvotes than the post they’re replying to and are written months after a question was asked.

There are countless services where you can buy these upvotes for your comment.

The majority of threads which weren’t spammed were locked from anyone posting in them, either due to abuse or because comments are only open for a set period of time.

This thread, and the top comment, are real. I wanted to give an example that has been “cleaned up”.

If Google continues to give Reddit so much prominence here, and locking discussions is the only way to combat spam, then they’re going to have to regularly rotate the threads they rank, or you have to imagine they’ll quickly become less valuable (e.g. new versions of products being released that people can’t discuss).

I’m Not the Google Police and I’m Not Going to ‘Out’ Anyone, But This SERP Feature Surely Has to Change

The simple state of product review SERPs is that Google now promotes Reddit more than ever before, and Reddit has been abused to the point that a significant percentage of their ranking pages lack value.

As a big fan of the platform, it’s a shame to see this happening, but it was inevitable once Google started giving them 3-4x the search traffic as before.

The problem is so prevalent that I don’t even have to prove it to you: Perform a few ‘best product’ searches (in the US ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ), click on a few Reddit threads, and you’ll quickly see the problem first-hand.

I’m not going to give any specific examples of currently live spam because it’s not my job to do so and if Google rewarded different threads instead, tomorrow the problem would continue. As I say, it’s very, very easy to find.

And, of course, I’m not the only one to have seen this happening.

Google have a problem here, but surely they could have envisioned this happening before giving Reddit such an insane presence increase in their search results?

Data from Ahrefs, Semrush and more confirms how much extra attention they’ve been getting.

Reddit has seen a massive surge in search traffic at the expense of more diverse search results (via Ahrefs)

Keep in mind that these aren’t obscure search terms they’re ranking for, but product review queries where many pick up thousands of searches per month.

We can even hone in on the Discussions and forums SERP feature and see that Ahrefs believes this is a huge part of where Reddit is seeing such growth:

The huge growth may coincide with when Ahrefs turned on tracking for this feature, but we can still see how reliant Reddit are on it now

As per our supplemental documentation, my understanding is that these SERP features are viewed just like a standard organic ranking would be. We don’t know what the CTR estimates might be on them.

Check out the site in your favourite SEO tool and you’ll see the traffic they’re gaining for many popular phrases. In this example, I’ve specifically used the Ahrefs filter that shows when they’re ranking in the ‘Discussion and forums’ SERP feature.

Note: This screenshot was modified to show specific product review terms and remove the likes of ‘best movies’ but still highlights where Reddit ranks in the ‘Discussions and Forums’ SERP feature. No numbers were altered.

Perhaps they thought Reddit and Quora moderators could stay on top of things, which is a fair assumption for a site that has been hugely popular for years.

As I was writing this, Google’s John Mueller published a tweet suggesting that’s the case.

Google’s John Mueller tweeted this right as I was wrapping up this article.

The point I’m (hopefully) making here is that Google is increasingly giving Reddit more attention, and Reddit is not currently able to deal with it.

I get how popular it is for people to append Reddit to search queries to get results they can trust, but if Google is making changes based on that, it has ironically made their search results much worse.

It’s possible some future changes will pull them back down to earth…

To clarify, this comment was about search as a whole and not this specific SERP feature

Researching whether other people have come to similar conclusions, there are even some interesting theories as to why Google might make this SERP feature so prominent:

Source

I’m not entirely sure Darth was being serious here but he’s an intelligent guy and it’s an interesting thought experiment. I don’t think Google would risk their reputation in this way – and there has been leaked audio covering how Google Exec’s think Reddit makes their search results better – but they have been subject to a barrage of reporting about how bad their results are before this rollout.

In a sense, Reddit comment sections have ironically become the new search results page. The most clicks will go to links in the top comments, and everyone gaming them is effectively trying to cancel each other out.

(You can see this yourself by how many comments get deleted on particular threads before new ones take their place).

In light of an upcoming Reddit IPO this surge in traffic has to be an absolute dream for them, but users will become increasingly frustrated if they can’t stay on top of this as a platform.

I won’t sit on the fence and instead make a recommendation: This SERP feature either has to be removed, rotate the links shown far more often, or be made more diverse to give increased attention to other communities.

(We could push the boundaries and suggest Google only link to Reddit communities known to regularly lock comment sections / actually deal with spam, but that feels far too manual).

There is the argument that other communities might also suffer from abuse, but one key difference with a typical forum is that they don’t have voting systems so any spam would be the last comment, rather than the first.

They also don’t get tens (hundreds?) of thousands of new users per day like Reddit, so would more easily notice an influx of users signing up to abuse things.

Finally, I have to add the obvious disclosure that I’m very biased towards Google reducing traffic to a huge social media platform and sharing it more evenly among individual webmasters. I write about SEO, work with clients and teach people how to do SEO for themselves. It would be to my benefit if this Reddit domination wasn’t in place.

With that said, surely Googlers must see they’re promoting an awful user experience at the moment? Surely they don’t want to drive so much traffic to pages so abused they now offer little to no value?

Now that I have the data from 10,000 search results, I’ll come back to this every few months and let you know if anything has changed.

For now, let’s get back on topic…

The Top 20 Ranking Forums Overall

I’m going to annoy some people with how I present this next section but I’m not here to build an audience by “outing” people who might not want the attention of an SEO-focused audience.

I know this is true because when I write my quarterly reports I get responses from people who are happy to be involved and people who would rather not be.

An example of the responses to Detailed Q2. Not everyone wants the attention

With that in mind, I won’t list certain independent forums unless I have permission to do so.

I want to get lots of emails like this one, first:

If you aren’t happy with my approach here I completely understand – and I know it makes this report less valuable – but it’s what feels right to me.

As per the disclaimer on my quarterly reports, I believe it is “fair” to include sites of public companies, large brands, or anyone who has been very open about the success of their website and its traffic. For everyone else, I’ve emailed them to see if they’re OK with being included.

With that out of the way, here are some of the top twenty sites overall.

Ranking Site Niche # of SERPs
20 Permission Pending ๐Ÿด Horses 42
19 MacRumors ๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ’ป Technology 43
18 Permission Pending ๐Ÿ‘— Fashion 43
17 DC Urban Moms & Dads ๐Ÿคฐ Parenting 48
16 Audio Science Review ๐ŸŽง Audiophiles 49
15 Permission Pending ๐Ÿช’ Menโ€™s Grooming 53
14 AVS Forum ๐ŸŽง Audiophiles 59
13 Ars Technica ๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ’ป Technology 60
12 Permission Pending ๐Ÿช“ Survival 60
11 Permission Pending ๐ŸŽฎ Gaming 73
10 DP Review ๐Ÿ“ท Photography 74
9 Rick Steves Travel Forum ๐Ÿ๏ธ Travel 95
8 RedFlagDeals ๐Ÿท๏ธ Deals 103
7 Tom’s Hardware ๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ’ป Technology 139
6 MetaFilter ๐ŸŒ Everything 176
5 Permission Denied ๐Ÿฆ Investing 183
4 What To Expect ๐Ÿคฐ Parenting 207
3 Permission Pending ๐Ÿš™ Automotive 235
2 Quora ๐ŸŒ Everything 3,513
1 Reddit ๐ŸŒ Everything 7,509

I don’t think anyone who has been looking at search results will be surprised to see Reddit and Quora doing so well, but seeing the huge divide in how many search results they rank in compared to every other site was still unexpected for me personally.

Are Media Goliaths Still Dominating, Or Do Independent Forum Owners Perform Well?

A large part of my research here on Detailed over the years has been on how a small handful of websites dominate Google’s search results.

I’ve covered it in my reports on the 16 companies dominating Google, the companies dominating 250,000 SERPs, my deep dives into affiliate search results, and, more recently, my quarterly reports on what those companies are doing.

You could say this is a passion project of mine.

With that in mind, I was very interested to see whether media brands continued their domination with this feature or whether independent webmasters are now gaining ground.

For the top 100 domains overall, the numbers were:

  • Large brand ownership: 8
  • Media brand ownership: 22
  • Independent ownership: 70

It was a pleasant surprise to see that, unlike other research reports we’ve conducted, independent webmasters owned the majority of the top sites.

The huge downside is their visibility is tiny compared to some of the bigger brands. Remember, Reddit and Quora had more than 3X the visibility of every other forum combined.

One of my favourite examples, which I’ve covered here on Detailed numerous times, is Mac Rumors.

To be respectful I won’t reveal which terms they rank for, but the integration with their news content is such a smooth experience: To comment on one of their articles, you’re essentially leaving a forum post.

One of my favourite independently owned sites, MacRumors

There were a few forums by large brands I expected to see, but some I didn’t as well.

For instance, Discussions.Apple.com ranks well and isn’t a surprise, but I didn’t know the global camera brand Canon, which ranked 134th overall, had forums.

More large brands have forums than you might expect, such as Canon

Other large brands with forums include the BBC, Microsoft, Lenovo, gaming brand Steam and the social media powerhouse Facebook.

Yes, Facebook has a discussion forum for their Quest products, here.

Digital Goliath Future Are Better Prepared For This Update Than I Thought

While the Discussions and Forums SERP feature isn’t brand new, it is far more prominent now than ever before.

One company I didn’t realise had so many forums are Future, one of the 16 companies dominating Google’s search results.

Future and the success of some of their forums include:

What’s more, some of these forums are ridiculously popular.

The Android Central forum has over 3 million members and 6.9 million posts, whereas the AnandTech forums have over 34 million posts on them.

The forums at Future Plc’s Android Central.

Internet Brands and Ziff Davis – both also part of my 16 companies dominating Google report – had multiple sites in the top 100 overall.

Internet Brands are behind Bike Forums and FlyerTalk, while Ziff Davis runs communities on sites like BabyCenter and What To Expect.

Another Public Company That Has the Potential to Benefit: VerticalScope

If you follow me on Twitter then you’ll know that a few months back I talked about how forums were now starting to dominate search results more than ever before.

I noted how a specific brand, VerticalScope, is home to hundreds of forums on every topic you can imagine.

What perhaps makes VerticalScope more interesting for some of you reading this is that they’re a public company, though it hasn’t been the easiest of times for them in recent years.

It’s rare to see a forum-focused site builder on the stock market

VerticalScope is so dominant in the world of forums that they run DogForum.com and DogForums.com as two separate sites and have individual forums for most dog breeds you could think of.

Other sites they own (which they’ve written about themselves so I’m not “outing” them) include:

Our data (at least in terms of visibility in this SERP feature) shows them performing well.

In the top 100 domains benefitting from this SERP feature, VerticalScope is behind nine of them โ€” more than any other brand.

One of their sites, RedFlagDeals, was in the top ten forums overall.

In their Q3 2023 shareholder letter, they stated:

Our platform served 100.5 million monthly active users in Q3, a 1.8% increase over Q2. Users are increasingly discovering the firsthand, authentic perspectives that our enthusiasts share on our forum platform on a daily basis. We believe these authentic perspectives are becoming more valuable as the Internet is increasingly inundated with mass-produced, machine-generated content. Our forum communities MAU trend was up 5.6% in September versus the prior year, and up 19.7% in October versus the prior year.”

Emphasis my own.

I won’t claim to know much about VerticalScope plans or how their communities work together, but here’s an interesting thought: Do they have the potential to compete with Reddit?

They’re behind over 1,200 communities with 55 million members. I imagine a lot of those users have interests that expand into many other communities, and a single login across them all might make a lot of sense.

Of course, that massively depends on whether VerticalScope see potential in this direction, but I like to think about the future now and then.

Can New Forums Rank Well (Or, Should You Add a Forum to Your Site to Benefit from this SERP feature?)

I respect your time so let’s get to the point: In the top 100 forums ranked by how many times they appeared overall, I didn’t notice a single new or low-post-count forum.

Out of the 766 forums that Google listed across 10,000 keyphrases, I did find some that were mostly inactive.

CampingForums, by Digital Goliath Internet Brands, is one such example.

There are “only” 45,000 posts that have ever been made, and most forum categories haven’t had anyone write in them for years.

Note: The screenshot was modified to reduce the height, but no data was changed.

When a domain was registered is not a perfect solution for finding how old a site is (a forum may have been running another domain previously) but I did check WHOIS for every single one.

Our research revealed multiple forums built on domains registered in 2020 and 2021, but none were newer than that.

Again I need to emphasise that this approach is not perfect – people can add forums to their sites years after launching them – but I didn’t find any evidence of Google rewarding any new forums.

Even if the numbers showed that Google happily promotes new sites, I wouldn’t start a forum just to potentially show up in a Google SERP feature that might not be around for long and doesn’t show much promise at promoting sites evenly.

Start a forum because you want to start a forum and are prepared to do the work involved in getting one off the ground.

Of course, keep in mind that I was just looking at product review terms here. While we looked at a lot of them, there’s a big internet and lots of discussion topics out there, so there may be sites performing well for other information-based keyphrases.

Unsurprisingly, There Appears to Be No Benefit if a Forum is Hosted on a Subdomain or Which Software It Uses

It’s possible there may be some benefit that Google are giving a site if a forum isn’t on a subdomain (just like most SEOs suspect with blogs and similar), but I didn’t notice anything remarkable here, especially when the fourth most popular forum overall (WhattoExpect) is ran on a community. subdomain.

Some of the most popular forum software that websites use include vBulletin, Xenforo, phpBB and Discourse.

Finally, a Prediction: As This Spam Problem Extends Far Beyond Product Review Search Results, This SERP Feature Will Disappear, or Other Sites Will Feature More Prominently

If this Discussions and Forums feature remains in place, I believe the prevalence of Reddit’s multiple listings will decrease. Remember, they average 1.9 listings per SERP feature when most sites don’t have a single example of ever being listed twice.

Reddit will not be taken out of the equation – Google users clearly still want to see Reddit in their search results – but less prominence here means a lower volume of spam they have a better chance of dealing with.

I’m generally not one for making predictions as sometimes it feels like Googlers don’t even use Google themselves so anything can happen, but I don’t think this SERP feature disappearing is too far out of the question.

After all, it has only recently risen in prominence after being released in 2022, and still hasn’t fully rolled out to the rest of the world.

An alternative option is that nothing changes and Reddit gets a hold on this spam issue, or Google is happy to erode the trust in their search engine by sending people to pages with very little value.

I won’t get too much into the inner workings of Reddit, but generally communities are designed so that the creators appoint their own moderators and they typically function independently of administrators on the site.

There have been times when Reddit stepped in and had people moderate communities themselves, but keeping communities free from abuse is primarily an unpaid and often unappreciated job.

As I briefly cover in our supplemental Google Doc, this problem on Reddit extends far past the product review space.

Affiliate links to hotels top questions about things to do in [location].

Discussions on famous athletes are topped by affiliate links to books about them.

Movie recommendation requests, music debates, travel hacks or discussions on any topic you can think of now start with AI-generated comments that make zero sense but never forget to include a link.

It’s so incredibly easy to find that I’m almost surprised the SERP feature is still in place right now.

When you increase search traffic to Reddit 3-4x in less than a year and make it the number one product review domain on the planet – up from 235th just a few months earlier – you’re giving their unpaid moderators a lot more work to do.

Work that right now, they can’t seem to handle.

I like Reddit, and I want to see it continue to exist and be an incredible resource, but I also don’t want Google search results to be as terrible as they are right now.

I never intended to cover this angle at all, and only set out to see if independent sites were performing well against digital goliaths – a topic I’ve covered for years – but twists in the story happen sometimes.

Let’s see what happens next.

Thank you so much for reading!

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Written by Glen Allsopp, the founder of Detailed. You may know me as 'ViperChill' if you've been in internet marketing for a while. Detailed is a small bootstrapped team behind the Detailed SEO Extension for Chrome & Firefox (250,000 weekly users), trying to share some of the best SEO insights on the internet. Clicking the heart tells us what you enjoy reading. Social sharing is appreciated (and always noticed). You can also follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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