SEO 2015: Dealing with Google’s ‘Phantom Update’
by Al Gomez
Did you see a decrease in search traffic from April 29 to May 11?
You’re not alone, and yes – a lot of websites felt the hit. Hubpages was one of the worst, with about 22 percent decline in their search traffic. According to a post from Search Engine Land, this was no Panda or Penguin update. However, several ‘How-To’ sites such as WikiHow and Answers.com have also seen a drop. Search engine giant Google has NOT confirmed anything; so SEO experts and website owners are now left to ponder on what happened.
But what really happened? And if this is going to be a core factor in the algorithm, how can we prepare for it?
What Is The ‘Phantom Update’?
Digital marketing veteran Glenn Gabe sheds light into this matter thanks to his post about the Phantom Update. Although Google has not said anything about this so-called ‘update’, data from many digital marketers everywhere would tell another story. As what Glenn uncovered, several sites have already seen changes in their organic traffic from April 29. Some didn’t notice anything until May 3rd to May 4th.
Do note that search engine algorithms like Google DO make changes to their algorithm more than 500 times a year. However, most of these are very minor and will hardly impact your Analytics. This on the other hand, was obviously HUGE. And it only targeted sites that contained ‘public’ topics, like How-To articles.
You’re probably thinking that this is connected with the mobile-friendly update from April 21st. We don’t think that’s the case, as our data have remained the same no matter how many times we viewed. Glenn had the same analysis. Plus, the mobile update was meant only for mobile search results. The Phantom was focused on content – more specifically, content that’s overused, duplicated, and thin.
So what was Google thinking when it penalized those sites? Here’s a short list:
- thin, low quality content
- inconsequential supplementary content (such as stacked videos)
- unrelated, irrelevant comments
- ad heavy pages
- on-site navigation issues
In his post, Glenn mentioned that backlinks may have an impact as well. It’s still uncertain though, as there were sites that gained traffic even if they have low quality links. So this ‘update’ is more on content – not links.
NOTE: your safest bet when it comes to links is to gain them naturally. Don’t forget that Google doesn’t like unnatural surges in backlinks over a short period of time.
Similar to the mobile-friendly update, the Phantom doesn’t take things in parts. So if your domain contains pages with sub-par content, your entire website may be penalized. This is what happened with Hubpages. They are now taking measures to get their rankings up again.
How To Deal With The Menace
Don’t panic if you suddenly see your queries or search rankings drop. Keep your cool, breathe, and take a step back. It helps keep everything in perspective. Now, look at your Analytics and ask yourself these questions:
- was your site heavily affected during the Panda update?
- have you since improved your content?
- are your content informative, practical, and shareable?
- are there any elements that don’t add value to your website (such as inappropriate comments, random videos, etc.)?
- how easy is it to navigate your site? Do you link naturally to relevant pages?
- how long do visitors stay on a page? What factors affect their dwell time?
- How many backlinks did you gain in the past 12 months? Are they of high quality?
We cannot stress the importance of great content again and again. Everything within your site should be there to inform, help, and address the concerns of your site visitors. Be as comprehensive as you can: even if you need to write a 2,000-word article about it. Offer something new to online users. Give them a new idea, or inspire them into taking action. People love to learn; so why not share your knowledge to thousands of online readers?
Remember to complement your content with other forms of media, like original images. Embed slideshows and/or videos. Want to add more value into your work? Include downloadable content such as Ebooks. This is a great method for developing your subscription base as well. Filter comments to block out spam. Encourage a healthy discussion by asking questions.
Last but not least, check your keywords. Although they are no longer the focus of modern SEO, they would still play a major role when it comes to queries. Don’t rely on single or long-tail keywords. Opt for more natural terms, similar to what users are likely to type in when looking for something. In fact, Google’s recent site quality score patent offers some insights on how to take advantage of smart queries.
Is This The End?
We don’t think so. A bigger change is looming over the horizon; whatever this ‘phantom update’ is, is only the beginning. As search engine optimization experts, we advise against putting all your eggs in one basket (i.e. look for other reliable sources of organic traffic). Who knows what the future of search holds for us? But as long as you keep your content, links, and social signals in check, your site should do fine.
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