Usually when we tell you about Google’s latest update to their mysterious search algorithm, the mystery has at least been packaged up with a friendly animal name (think Panda and Penguin). Not so much with the latest updates. These were huge, unannounced, and unnamed. There were two back-to-back updates in May and June. Web experts have referred to these as Phantom II and the Newsworthy update (aka Colossus) — definitely not friendly animal names! Why the II? A major unannounced update back in 2013 was dubbed Phantom; Phantom II has a similar shroud of secrecy about it, but it appears to have wreaked even more havoc upon the search landscape.
Just to give you an idea of how big of an update the June update was, the search watchdogs at Moz take the “temperature” of search engine results pages daily, looking at how much change has occurred in rankings. It’s actually normally fairly high, but when Newsworthy hit, the stratospheric rise in virtual mercury broke the thermometer. The Panda update made the temperature rise to 93º, but Newsworthy was over 101!
Google has since acknowledged that updates did occur, but this is an important change from what we’ve seen in the past. Instead of announcing their updates prior to rollout, Google now lets webmasters know about them only after the damage has been wrought. These updates appear to have rolled out in two more or less back-to-back updates, with one in May and an even bigger one in June.
Phantom II likely began in early May, and appears to have been focused on site quality. Panda was also a quality-focused update, but it’s important to bear in mind that quality can mean different things. Examples that have been pointed out as problematic include a lack of original content, low-quality affiliate content (for example, those ubiquitous “1 weird trick” ads), an overload of ad content (ads that appear “above the fold” on the first screen of the site, pop-ups), videos that autoplay, and automatically generated content (for example, articles “scraped” from elsewhere on the web). An interesting point to note is that one thing this these “low quality” characteristics have in common is that they make for a poor user experience (UX). Phantom II is steering searchers away from sites that Google’s assessment of “quality signals” imply that users will find frustrating or unhelpful.
Now that the, um, Phantom is out of the bag, Google has stated that it is a page-level algorithm. In other words, it should penalize individual pages with thin content, but not take down an entire domain. That said, those who experienced major changes after Phantom II tended to feel that their entire sites were being punished, not just the offending pages. These sites experienced rapid traffic loss, a drop off in conversions, and no longer appeared on Google SERPs even for previously high-ranking, traffic-generating keywords.
The second update — rolling out in mid-June and dubbed Newsworthy or more menacingly, Colossus — seems to have benefitted media websites with fresh or newsworthy content. According to Searchmetrics, the biggest winners were news websites and magazines such as Time.com, The Wall Street Journal, and Techcrunch.com. This trend seems to be a continuation Google’s Quality Deserves Freshness (QDF) criterion, which has been a major component of its algorithm since 2007. QDF gives preference to sites that promote trending or newsworthy topics in their search results.
Those were the winners, so what kinds of sites were especially hard hit? Well, ostensibly websites that have an extensive amount of “low quality” content experienced the largest drops. One somewhat surprising example: Sites built around curated content, like WeHeartIt (87% drop), UpWorthy (72% drop), and even Pinterest (15% drop) were hit hard. Particularly in the case of Pinterest, these are sites that have a more than decent UX and that many users love. However, the majority of the pages on each site are simply items (images, videos, articles, etc.) that users have found on other websites and added to these sites’ pages. In Google terms, that’s low quality. The other major site category that lost the most traffic was user-driven Q&A sites: Yahoo! Answers, eHow, WikiHow, and About.com all experienced substantial drops. It’s not just these big sites that took a hit, too: These examples may be a concern for any site that contains a large amount of user-generated content. Search engines used to eagerly lap up content like this, but not anymore.
One point that’s especially notable for local businesses: At least one search expert found that local businesses with “thin listings” (for example, just a thumbnail picture or logo with a name) dropped, but those with “thick listings” were rewarded. Listings that included information like contact information, reviews, images, business hours, and more experienced an impact that was less Phantom and more Casper the Friendly Ghost.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If Phantom II is haunting your site, there’s no single, fast strategy that will help bring back your rankings. (Sorry, Ghostbusters — if anything, it’s fast fixes like doorway pages and linkfarming that Google keeps adapting to and punishing.) A long-term strategy that looks at both keeping up a robust flow of quality content and maintaining an excellent user experience is your best bet. It won’t be fast, but it will help your site in the long-term and is likely to be rewarded. One interesting quirk of Phantom II that many search watchers noted is that sites that were hit by Panda, but did not take action to make significant changes, received strong punishment from Phantom II.
Here’s a list of common problems that Phantom II — and other Google algorithm updates — penalize, and what you can do to fix them.
Low Quality Content
The Problem: Content that does not have value for site visitors. This can mean content that is sparse, that is duplicated from other sites (or even within your own site), or that simply isn’t useful. Affiliate networks offer website owners the chance to make money from clicks on ads, but they also tend to bombard users with the same ads and sponsored stories over and over again (“You won’t believe what happens next!”). This can be both distracting and annoying, as these can clutter your site with irrelevant junk, links, and images.
The Fix: Affiliate network ads might make you a little money, but between search engine penalties (which means potential customers don’t find your site) and bugging users (which means potential customers who do find your site leave), there’s a good chance you’re losing more money than these ads are bringing in. Focus instead on a long-term strategy of building quality content. Regular blogging is key, and distributing your blog content across multiple channels (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) is a way to help you leverage it even further. Strong content shows off your knowledge and expertise not only to the search engines, but more importantly, to future clients.
Poor User Experience (UX)
The Problem: UX includes every aspect of your site, from how quickly pages load to the designs of the pages themselves. Navigation, error messages, and even the colors you use contribute to the UX. Sites that are difficult to navigate, that return 404 “page not found” messages, or that drop users at dead ends are frustrating for users. When it comes to sites with a poor UX, these algorithm updates are acting like vigilantes taking revenge on behalf of site users.
The Fix: Give your site regular checkups, to ensure that there are no broken links and that everything (from forms to click-to-call to videos) is working. Another good idea is to have your most brutally honest friend go through your site as if he or she were a potential customer or client. Areas where they trip up can help you identify problems with your UX. It’s a good idea to regularly check out the mobile version of your site as well.
Lack of User Engagement
The Problem: This is really tied to the first two problems. Visitors don’t tend to linger on sites with low-quality content, because they can’t find what they’re looking for. Similarly, a poor UX just creates confusion and frustration, increasing your bounce rate. If your site isn’t “sticky,” you’re more likely to be punished by algorithm updates.
The Fix: Think of solving this problem not in terms of what will appeal to search engines, but what will appeal to your target visitor. When you’ve got a website that your customers love, search engines are more likely to love it too. If you’re having trouble thinking about how to arrange your navigation or what kind of content to create, think like a customer. What problem is a visitor to your site trying to solve? What does that person need? Your site, via its text, images, tools, and so on, needs to provide that solution. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean giving your site one major overhaul. Instead, keep producing quality content. Over time, this activity will grow not only your site, but your audience.
Relying on User-Generated Content
The Problem: In theory, user-generated content should be great — it’s people helping people! In reality, it’s often anything but. Between spammers, bots, and real people who just aren’t that bright, comments sections and user forums can create cesspools within your otherwise lovely website.
The Fix: Use a spam filter for site comments and moderate any forums, regularly checking to make sure that user-generated content is on-topic and isn’t full of links to “Genuine Louis Vuitton Rolex Nike” and that sort of garbage. Clearly post guidelines for user comments and content, so that if you do remove content that was posted by a real person, you have a clear answer as to why that content was taken down. The best web forums are the ones that have the best moderators.
If you’ve noticed that your search rankings have taken a hit — whether from Panda, Phantom, or any of Google’s many algorithm tweaks — it may be time to consider a search audit. Higher Power SEO can review your site with an eye toward the areas that are the most problematic for these updates, including content quality, user engagement, and navigation. Call us today at 760-881-4736 to find out more about how we can help.