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Should you Worry about Google’s new “Phantom” Update?

Google's Phantom Update
Have you been hearing about the Google Phantom update?

Concerned that it’s going to be like Panda or Penguin and wipe out all your hard work?

In May, 2015, webmasters began seeing some “phantom” changes in the way their pages ranked in search results. They started referring to this as Google’s phantom update.

Some are calling it Reverse Panda. I’m sticking with “phantom.”

Well, the good news is, if you’re producing quality content for a human audience, you probably have nothing to worry about.

According to an article in Entrepreneur:

“… if you’ve been consistently producing content with the best interests of your target users in mind, you’re still on the right track. There’s no need to make any drastic changes to your strategy. If you do happen to see a decline in your organic search traffic, however, there may be a need to address some of your on-page SEO.”

Who’s Affected?

Sites with thin content, and content that doesn’t provide a good UX (user experience).

That includes a few of my pet peeves, like self-starting audio and video. Ditto with an overabundance of advertising “above the fold,” and “annoying popups.” (Are there any popups that aren’t annoying?)

According to Search Engine Journal:

“… clickbait articles, sites with an abundance supplementary information, pages of stacked videos, and pages difficult to navigate have all lost visibility in recent weeks.”

What You Should Know about Phantom

  1. It affects sites at the Page level, so if you have a few pages that are below par, it won’t affect your entire site’s ranking
  2. It’s a core update that changes how Google interprets “quality” signals
  3. It impacted a lot of how-to sites. Not because they provide step-by-step advice, but because many produce low-quality, user-generated content, and include excessive ads
  4. This site, which is a how-to site, has actually seen better results
  5. Duplicate content is being penalized
  6. Poor content is being downgraded
  7. Poor design is being downgraded. Kevin Indig at Searchmetrics claims he’s seen downgrades of 30% for poor design
  8. 404 Errors are causing downgrades, because they lead to a poor UX
  9. Comments — there’s speculation that a high ratio of user-generated comments leads to a downgrade
  10. The Searchmetrics article above shows lists of sites that have been big winner and losers due to Phantom. Upworthy, according to them, dropped 72%. One site, (which I never heard of before) improved by over 500%! Other winners include Amazon and Quora.

    What Steps Should You Take?

    Review your content

    SEO best practices suggest a minimum of 300 words per article. Check to see that most of your content meets those guidelines. Depending on your audience, and your niche, you might want to set a higher minimum.

    An occasional shorter piece shouldn’t be a problem. For example, I have a few that are much shorter, but the text just serves as the introduction for a video. As long as those are in the minority, it shouldn’t be an issue.

    There’s more to good content than just word count. Are you exploring your subjects in reasonable depth? If you’re just skimming the surface, Phantom may ding that page.

    Keep in mind that content includes more than just words. Your content should be rich in images and multimedia content as well. Develop a strategy for enriching your written content with audio, video, images, slideshows, and infographics.

    Do some basic housekeeping

    1. Check your site for 404 (page not found) errors and fix them
    2. If you have autoplay set up for audio or video, stop it right now. Let your readers decide when they’re ready to consume your content.
    3. If you have ads on your site, think about reducing and/or rearranging them. Keep them below the fold, and make sure the space devoted to advertising is less than the space devoted to your content. There’s no rule about this, as Google doesn’t publish it’s algorithms, but use good sense.
    4. If you’re using popups, think long and hard about how they benefit you and weight that against the UX. Maybe just delaying the time before the “pop” will make a big difference.
    5. If you get a lot of comments on your site, consider rethinking your commenting system. Some sites (Copyblogger, for example), have moved discussion to social media and off their site completely.
    6. Check your design. If your site is older and hasn’t been updated in a while, this might be a good time to upgrade to a new, mobile responsive theme.

    Considering a design upgrade? I can help you select a new theme, and then switch your existing site over to it. Contact me…

    Original photo by Sean McGrath on flickr