Google Phamtom UpdateShortly after Google’s Mobilegeddon update last month that rewarded mobile friendly websites in smartphone searches, a small portion of domain owners began to report unexpected changes in their core Google rankings.  Some of them almost instantly experienced increased visibility site-wide while others witnessed the exact opposite.  Something had obviously changed behind the scenes- but what?


These speculations eventually became known as the “Google Phantom Update”.

And although actual proof of an update was virtually non-existent, one thing was for certain- it made the search optimization community extremely nervous.  Google remained completely silent on the matter and outright denied any changes; some would say too silent.  That has become standard operating procedure for the search engine giant, however, to prevent those who try to artificially manipulate SEO from gaining unfair advantages.

At first, it was believe to be a stealth form of a Penguin or Panda update, but dozens of Google executives quickly dispelled the notion.  Neither Panda nor Penguin had changed…all of their search animals are still in the barn and behaving normally.

Gary Illyes of the Google Webmaster Trends Team finally broke the silence earlier this week at a marketing expo in Sydney.  He claimed that the core algorithm had been updated to better identify quality websites, although he would not specify what those changes actually were.  Since Google uses over 200 distinct signals to determine website rank, it is very difficult to pinpoint this type of “across the board” update when you’re on the outside looking in.

So what actually changed in the Google Phantom update?

That is still speculative at this time since it requires study of the websites hit hardest in the latest algorithm change.  For example, Paul Edmondson, the founder of HubPages, reported seeing a 22% decrease in search traffic literally overnight.  Popular tutorial sites like WikiHow, and eHow also saw dramatic changes in their natural traffic patterns, making search experts believe that the latest algorithm update was designed to discredit informational websites.

Rest assured though, this is certainly not true…sort of.

Instead of focusing on a particular type of industry, the latest algorithm change is simply taking into consideration the content provided at the sub-domain level across a website.  It appears that the companies seeing the hardest hits are the ones with a wide range of content stemming from numerous sources, with many of the pages falling below what would be considered professional standards.

For example, HubPages has tens of thousands of contributors worldwide that discuss almost every imaginable topic.  And with any large organization that focuses on mass production of content, quality assurance often takes a backseat to quality.  Since HubPages obviously misinterpreted Google’s intentions when it harshly penalized their weaker content in other recent updates, it appears the search engine giant is now delivering site-wide penalties to make their requirements perfectly clear.  They do not appreciate spammy content- if you have it on your website, get rid of it quickly.

What can we learn from the Phantom Update?  That’s a good question…but also one that you should already know the answer to-

  • Clean up all of your site’s content
  • Either replace or delete under-performing pages
  • Give your visitors a great user experience
  • Focus on providing quality information
  • Do not be over-promotional in your content
  • Avoid generic content at all costs

If any of this seems to sound familiar, it’s because Google has been saying it for over two decades now.  Only this time around, it appears that they’re no longer playing- either clean up all the bad content or risk having the good stuff penalized too.

And just to be perfectly clear, this latest algorithm change was essentially announced by Matt Cutts over a year ago when he talked about low-quality content in general.  While the above video mainly focuses on guest blogging, he also stipulates numerous times that future penalties would relate to any form of spammy content.  He also mentions that those penalties would eventually have effects site-wide…which is exactly what we are now seeing begin to happen.

The intention here is pretty apparent.  If you have low quality content on your website that does not directly lead visitors to take action, then your entire domain is now subject to scrutiny.  It really is that simple, so I suggest that you take an extremely close look at your directories and make the appropriate changes as quickly as possible.