How to minimise the risk of Google Phantom

Google’s recent ‘phantom’ update put content quality factors under the spotlight once more. With content now at the heart of search engine ranking algorithms, it is increasingly important for brands to understand exactly what constitutes “quality” content.

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Back in late April and early May, reports of ranking fluctuations within Google search engine results pages began to surface. Initially, Google remained tight-lipped about the changes, and webmasters speculated about a new iteration of Panda and Penguin was upon us.

The update appeared to be focused around content signals and was initially dubbed by some in the industry as Google’s second “Phantom update”, mainly because Google’s initial response was akin to “move along people, nothing to see here”.

But Google later confirmed to Search Engine Land that it has been making changes to its ranking algorithm and, whilst not aimed at any particular website class or niche, the update has been taking a more in-depth look at the signals used to assess overall content quality.

The role of content

We have seen the role that content plays in search engine rankings through our exclusive Roadmap tool. Roadmap tracks the performance of the top 100 ranking websites for more than 1,500 keywords and then assesses that performance against more than 200 known and potential ranking signals.

What Roadmap demonstrates is a significant correlation between high search engine rankings and factors that could be interpreted as “quality content” signals, including time on site and low bounce rates.

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The above chart demonstrates the correlation between ranking position and the average time spent on site (in seconds), and portrays a distinctive positive correlation between sites that can retain users and high Google rankings. The sites that rank towards the top of a given SERP, in general, retain the attention of their users for longer.

Conversely, we see negative correlations for ranking factors that can be interpreted as an indicator of poor quality content. In this example, we see that a lower bounce rate appears to be rewarded with stronger rankings.

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That data should provide you with the necessary evidence to invest in your digital content strategy. Whilst content as a ranking factor is not a new concept, Phantom put an even greater emphasis on the quality of the content.

Which brands got hit by Phantom, and why?

To understand the nature of this update, and to get an insight into how Google is assessing the quality of content, it is useful to take a look at exactly who appears to have been hit by the Phantom update.

Amongst the biggest losers from the update was HubPages, a site that hosts more than 870,000 informational miniblogs, reported that its Google search traffic had fallen by 22% in the week prior to 3rd May. Similar sites, such as eHow, WikiHow and, have also seen drops in search traffic in recent weeks.

Despite this update being unlinked to any other Google algorithm update, the results do have hallmarks of previous Panda updates, which specifically targeted sites with ‘thin’ content. This could include content that lacks depth, is poorly researched or content that uses ‘clickbait’ techniques to illicit views.

It appears then, like with previous updates, ‘how to’ publishers are particularly vulnerable to these updates. These sites, which tend to publish content covering a broad range of topics without being particularly authoritative on any particular one, are finding themselves being hit for that lack of authority.

This gives us some strong clues into how Google is defining “quality” content.

Defining “quality” content

We all have our own opinions on what constitutes quality content, not just in digital but in any form of content media, and we all care about quality content to varying degrees. These views influence what media we consume, what newspapers we buy and which influencers we follow.

One of the biggest challenges for marketers is in appraising determining just how your content is being judged not only by Google, but by your audience as a whole.

There are a plenty of both tangible and intangible measurements for successful content, but this doesn’t necessarily confirm that content is useful, relevant or ‘quality’. You could, for instance, use social shares as a measurement of quality content but, in doing so, it’s likely that you’ll reach the conclusion that your content plan needs to change to incorporate more listicles with pictures of cats. Providing content that your audiences will engage with is undoubtedly a starting point but, and I hate to break this to you, human beings aren’t always the best judges of quality.

What a cursory look at the losers from Phantom suggests is that deep, well-researched content that engages an audience with authority is the standard that publishers and brands need to attain.

Of course, this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to any brand currently engaged in a content marketing campaign, but it could result in brands changing their approach to some forms of content. For example, we may see a move towards longer forms of content, rather than shorter, simpler and easier to deploy pieces of content. Longer-term, we may well see brands question the value of clickbait headlines and ‘listicles’ as a way of engaging audiences in a meaningful way.

These longer, more considered pieces of content that add real authority to a brand’s messaging do require a more substantial investment in production, but they have the potential to carry significantly more power and authority, which is what Google is ultimately looking for.

Identifying the gaps

In developing a content marketing strategy that establishes your brand as an authority, it is important to understand where your brand is currently serving its strongest content, and where it is potentially lacking in its coverage of a particular topic or issue. It is important for any brand to speak with the necessary gravitas across all its core service offerings.

Stickyeyes has developed a tool known as Stickyeyes Content Optimisation Tool (SCOT), which is deployed across SEO accounts to provide an accurate and efficient assessment of a sites content coverage. The software scores the ranking potential of any page on a particular website and, most crucially, highlights areas where there are gaps on a domain for a particular keyword group and the opportunity that this particular keyword has for the brand.

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Using this data, we can identify areas to optimise and expand existing content and areas in which we need to create new content.

In this example of a financial services brand, we can see strength in keyword search terms relating to savings and life insurance, and weakness in the areas of travel money and pet insurance.

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This provides a clear direction in the development of a functional content strategy. SCOT has identified some notable gaps in certain keyword markets, allowing a marketing team to prioritise their content strategy. It is now down to the brand to determine whether they wish to prioritise the areas of weakness, or whether they need to optimise and strengthen content in the better performing keyword groups.

What we can conclude.

‘How to’ sites and sites which cover a broad range of topics have had a particularly hard time from Google in recent updates, and it is a clear signal of intent from the search engine.

Google wants to ensure that its users are presented with content that is useful, addresses the issues that its users are facing and answers the questions that they are asking. Short articles, hidden behind overly optimised and click-bait headlines, that provide little in the way of reputable insight or information, simply aren’t going to suffice.

We can get hung up on the value and relevance of individual quality signals, but our Roadmap tool has demonstrated clear correlations between content-related signals, such as time on site and bounce rate, and organic search rankings. This provides us with a clear piece of insight; that engaging, detailed pieces of content that either retain a user’s attention for longer periods of time, or that encourage users to access further information on site, are effective at supporting strong rankings.

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