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Google Phantom III: A New Mystery Algorithm Update Arrives

Rumors started circling towards the end of November that something was going on with Google’s search algorithms.  Rankings were being affected to an unusual degree, various websites experienced increases or drops in traffic, and whispers of a new algorithm update started to spread.  But there was no word from Google.  It’s now become clear that something has happened. But without any explanations or announcements from Google, it looks like this could be the arrival of Google Phantom III.

 

A Trilogy of Phantom Updates

The history of the Phantom Updates dates back to May 2013 when the first update arrived (see Search Engine Roundtable for an account of this).  When this update hit the search scene—where many websites saw a significant loss of traffic—it was not preceded or followed up by any confirmation from Google, and that’s what led to the name ‘Phantom.’ It was another two years before the second update arrived, as reported in CNBC. Phantom II, which appeared in May 2015, was another unexpected and secretive update that had a huge effect on many sites (including HubPages, where traffic fell 22 percent over the course of a week).  This was actually confirmed by Google a couple of weeks later as the Quality Update, but by then the name had stuck.  And now it looks like Phantom III has landed.

On November 19th, 2015, many webmasters began to notice something going on in the search results, as reported at SearchEngineLand. The suspicion right now is that this is Quality Update II, but we’ll have to wait to find out for sure.  By the way, you can find a complete history of algorithm updates at Moz, which is a useful resource for getting an overall picture of updates going back to 2002.

What We Know So Far

The trouble with Phantom updates is that Google doesn’t provide any solid information about what exactly they cover, so we are left to analyze reports from SEOs to work out what is going on.  Leading SEO sites gather info from various sources to build a picture of what the update means, and this helps us to work out which practices are being affected—and, crucially, what we need to be doing to avoid penalties.  What does seem to be clear, however, is that Phantom III relates to updates to Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines.

Google Updates Its Quality Rater Guidelines

Google has a set of Quality Rater Guidelines (download here as a PDF) that anyone can use to get a better idea about how Google evaluates web pages. The idea is that webmasters use these to ensure they stay in Google’s good books.  On November 12th, these guidelines were updated. Seeing as the Phantom III update occurred just days afterward, it would seem that they are related—and evidence seems to back this up.

The interesting thing is that some issues have been redefined, and many sites that lost out in Phantom II have now seen positive results following Phantom III.  Here are some of the main ways that the update is affecting websites.

Increased Focus on User Intent

Searchmetrics has covered the Phantom III Update in detail in a blog post, and one of the main factors that has been affected is the focus on user intent.  Google now seems to be placing increased importance on results that reflect the user’s intent at the moment of searching, focusing on whether the results really help the searcher by providing adequate information.

Quality Over Quantity

Quality over quantity when it comes to content should be fairly obvious, but there has been much confusion over this point in recent times.  This no doubt stems from the fact that Google has regularly made a point of how low-value short content is harder to rank—leading content creators to link high-quality content to lengthy content.  But high-quality content does not necessarily mean lots of content. Lengthy content can be great, but only when it provides genuine value. There is no point providing a whole 1,000-word article about some things when a few lines will do.

So, going back to user intent, for certain types of inquiries, keeping content short and to the point may be better.  The key takeaway from this is: High word count does not mean anything if it is lacking in substance. Content should provide enough information, but no more.  We’ve been saying this to our clients for a long time. But now there is even more evidence that this is the case, just in case you had any doubts.

Duplicate Content: An Important Change

One of the most significant changes seems to affect the area of duplicate content. As you already know, duplicate content is frowned upon for SEO purposes.

However…

… it now looks like there are situations where it will not be penalized.

For example, song lyrics. These never change, so they should not be considered a negative for a website that publishes them.  Another one is dictionary definitions.  The Searchmetrics blog linked to above reports that while Merriam Webster’s traffic dropped 13 percent following the Phantom II Update, it has now recovered following the new update.  The reason seems to be that the search algorithms have become more advanced. They can now see when someone might actually be searching for duplicate content—again, user intent is the key.  Does this mean you don’t have to worry about duplicate content? No. The rules on copied content are the same. Make sure you have a valid reason to use duplicate content, otherwise you could be in for a nasty shock.

Brand Names and Branded Keywords

Another area where Google’s focus on user intent is being reflected following the update is on pages that carry brand names.  When people search for a brand name, their intent is clear: They typically either want to find out more about the brand, or they are considering making a purchase.  As a result, affiliate pages that link to the products are being hit. These pages simply mention the brands and then redirect to other sites, whereas Google would prefer that users get to the sites they actually want to without having to bypass the affiliate pages.

The same is true for so-called Gateway Pages—pages that are just a means to route traffic onto other pages. This is often seen with category pages that link to various products but contain very little useful information about the products they link to. The user intent is to go straight to the content they need, rather than using a stepping-stone page.

What You Can Do

So what should you be doing now? My advice is to follow the details of the new Quality Guidelines, which seems to be directly related to Google Phantom III. This means:

  • don’t just think that long content means high-quality content. Make your content useful, informative, and as long as it needs to be.
  • update existing content that does not present the necessary information, or which includes too much unnecessary content.
  • update information that has gone out of date. For blog posts, create a new post, and link between it and the old post, or simply update the old content with more information.

In short, ensure you are providing the users with exactly what they need when they search for the products, services, and information you provide on your site.  If anything, the Phantom III Update demonstrates how advanced Google’s algorithms are becoming. And as we all know, they are only going to become more advanced over the coming months and years.

So take the opportunity now to go over your content, and pay special attention to user intent. Are you really providing the content that searchers are looking for? If not, it’s time to make some changes.