Return of the Phantom: Google’s Phantom II Update

June 10th, 2015 | Analysis 27 comments

In the beginning of May 2015, webmasters far and wide witnessed severe traffic fluctuations, with some sites losing over 50% of their traffic! Clearly, Google had changed something, but what? Because of the initial uncertainty, it was called the “Phantom Update” (II). In this post, I’ll provide you with Searchmetrics data to shed more light on the return of the Phantom.

Google Phantom Update - Searchmetrics

It didn’t take long for members of the industry to start putting together their own research and explanations. Digital marketing veteran, Glenn Gabe, conducted extensive research on the update, naming it the “Phantom Update II”, based on a similar development he had seen in May 2013 (exactly 2 years ago).

Co-founder of HubPages, Paul Edmondson, wrote about how his website allegedly* lost 22% of traffic because of this update. Eventually, Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land received an official confirmation from Google about the update in mid-May, proving once and for all that we weren’t just imagining ghosts!

This is huge. To help you understand Phantom II and its potential power, we’ve scanned our database to present you the winners and losers of this update, and an analysis of Phantom II’s main changes. (Plus: *In this article, I’ll show you how much they REALLY lost.)

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Phantom vs. Quality Update vs. Reverse Panda

The update was first named “Phantom II”, then “Quality Update,” and then most recently, “Reverse Panda.” To avoid confusion, I will be using the name “Phantom II” because the update has unique features that make it more than just “Reverse Panda,” and because “Panda” was also a “Quality Update.”

Before I dive into the winners and losers, let’s first take a step back and look at the facts we have about Phantom II so far.

  1. This update is a quality filter that has been integrated into the core ranking algorithm.
    It changes “[…] how it processes quality signals.” It is not an update that has to be refreshed manually, so webmasters can expect to see changes at any time.
    .
  2. Phantom II operates on a page level.
    This means, it will only affect low quality pages that have low rankings, not the entire domain. However, changes to these underperforming pages will indirectly impact the domain as a whole.
    .
  3. Many sites that have been affected by Phantom II were also affected by Panda.
    This made a lot of people believe that this update was just a Panda refresh or that Panda had finally been integrated into the core algorithm, which has been one of Google’s long-term goals. The theory was further supported by the fact that Panda hadn’t been refreshed since October 2014. However, this is clearly not the situation since Google just announced that Panda will be refreshed within the next few weeks.
    .
  4. The update strongly impacted “how to” sites and pages.
    This has less to do with the content on the sites, and more to do with how the sites function (a lot of user-generated content) and earn money (a lot of ads). I’ll dive into more detail later in this piece.
    .
  5. The update rolled out over several weeks.
    Some sites saw decreases over three to four weeks, while others lost rankings overnight. The way that sites are losing traffic seems to be connected to the severity of their websites’ problems.
    .
  6. Many big brands were impacted negatively. It seems as if the brand bonus and brand authority are no longer enough to outrank other pages with higher quality/better content. That’s not to say there weren’t big brand winners though.
    .
  7. As with all Google updates, it’s difficult to draw a definite causal relationship between one website’s success and another’s failure.
    In this case the impact seems to be two-fold; not only were some websites severely punished, deserving websites were also rewarded. This allows us to identify clear winners and losers, which has not always been the case with other Google updates.

According to our data, the initial implementation of Phantom II was clearly somewhere between April 26th and May 3rd. Based on information from other sources, as well as the fact that Google tends to roll out updates over the weekend, I’d say that Phantom II was released on the night of May 2nd.

 

So what triggers the update?

The answer becomes clear when we look at the negative qualifiers. Analyzing our data and looking at the winners/losers of this update gave us useful insights into why sites were being affected by Phantom II:

 

1. Ads above the fold and popups

Rottentomatoes.com popups

(Example: popups on rottentomatoes.com)

Too many ads above the fold and annoying popups definitely have a negative impact.

Google supposedly measures how distracting these ads get by using user signals, such as bounce rate, time on site, and pages per visit.

 

If all that people see on your page are ads, Google might not like it very much. It seems that this factor is weighed more heavily than before.

(All you can see above the fold are ads.)

(All you can see above the fold are ads.)

There is a hierarchy of annoyance in terms of ads.

At the top are popups, and then all other ads, including banners, fall below that. Google might also take into account the ratio of legitimate content to ads on a page.

 

 

2. Self-starting videos

Self-starting videos have a similar impact as popups: they disturb the user experience. They definitely belong in the ad category, but I wanted to list them separately because their importance seems to have grown in the quality evaluation of a page.

Google knows the pain of having to click through all your tabs to find out where that mysterious music is coming from; Google also knows the pain of being disturbed by an auto-loading video when all you want to do is quietly read the content on a page.

That is why Google might punish self-starting videos in the future.

 

3. Duplicate content

Duplicate content is a definite no-no with Phantom II, especially when dealing with UGC (user generated content), which is often found on “how to” platforms. It can be difficult to identify how much of the content was copied from other sources and how much of it was original.

On HubPages for example, users can create their own “Hub” on a subdomain and write all kinds of content (mostly tutorials and explanations). But it is difficult, if not impossible, for HubPages to curate for original content on all of these hubs.
David Beckham Duplicate Content on HubPages
As you can see in this example, some parts of this Hub were copied from other sources (Pinterest, Facebook, and so on), which is a clear case of duplicate content.

Sometimes duplicate content is a harder issue to penalize since it can be difficult to determine who copied from whom. When we look at the ranking loss hubpages.com experienced after Phantom II, we see that this particular page sticks out with a loss of 92 positions!

(Ranking losses of hubpages.com after Phantom II. These are not the only rankings the site has lost.)

(Ranking losses of hubpages.com after Phantom II. These are not the only rankings the site has lost.)

Rottentomatoes.com is also a victim of duplicate content since movie descriptions on the site are often copied by masses of other high-authority sites.

Another company in the duplicate content battle is LinkedIn. Their issue lies within their own domain where businesses create multiple pages in the company directory.

(LinkedIn fights the problem of the same company having multiple pages on their domain.)

(LinkedIn fights the problem of the same company having multiple pages on their domain.)

 

4. Poor content

This page’s content is too thin to be ranking for “24 hour fitness”. The brand bonus is not enough anymore to rank high

This page’s content is too thin

Besides duplicate and thin content, poor content is another factor that can trigger Phantom II. Poor content can be copy that’s hard to read or does not really explain the topic.

Sometimes, a more detailed analysis (e.g. WDF * IDF) is necessary to identify off-topic pieces. This also is strongly linked to semantic content. Imagine writing about “tires” and not mentioning the word “car” once – how informative can that article really be?

 

5. Design

Design has a big influence on user experience. Content isn’t everything; looks play an important role, too! In my research, I’ve seen a small amount of sites with strong content but weak design that have lost more than 30% in rankings.

(Spammy looking websites cannot survive nowadays. Even though the site provides extensive content, its design cannot keep up.)

 

6. 404 Status Codes – Errors

404 pages with self-starting videos might be a problem, if there are too many of them.

(Too many 404 pages)

.
404 and soft 404 errors are a problem, too.

They usually translate into a bad user experience, because they consist of either pages with no content or pages that no longer host the content someone is searching for.

An excessive amount of 404 errors is an indicator of a poorly maintained website.

 

7. Problems with Comments

Too many comments can also be a target of Phantom II. A deluge of comments can dilute the main content since we’re not yet sure if Google can distinguish comments from the main content and weigh them accordingly.

It is difficult to provide a clear threshold, but I’ve seen pages being punished for having over 60% of the content consist of comments, even though the main content consisted of more than 1,000 words. It seems that no matter how long and good your main content is, you might still be at risk for being targeted by Phantom.

Now let’s get to the meat and potatoes!

 

Winners and Losers of the Phantom II Update

Here are the most important winners and losers of Phantom II:

.

Phantom II Losers Phantom II Winners
Domain Loss Domain Gain
Weheartit.com -87% Outlettable.com 579%
Upworthy.com -72% Religionfacts.com 224%
Ehow.com -56% Imgur.com 166%
Searchenginewatch.com -42% Vudu.com 141%
Isitdownrightnow.com -39% Alexa.com 130%
Wisegeek.com -37% Livestream.com 129%
Examiner.com -37% Quora.com 125%
Hubpages.com -33% Genius.com 124%
Movieweb.com -27% Couponcabin.com 119%
Rottentomatoes.com -27% Dealsplus.com 119%
Offers.com -26% Stereogum.com 119%
Foursquare.com -22% Thesaurus.com 117%
Answers.com -21% Groupon.com 116%
Pinterest.com -15% Qz.com 114%
Linkedin.com -15% Epicurious.com 112%
Merriam-Webster.com -13% Arstechnica.com 110%
Wikihow.com -11% Amazon.com 105%
Yelp.com -10% Webmd.com 102%

.

Don’t forget that these are relative values. If we sort the list after absolute values, Amazon is the clear winner, followed by alexa.com, thesaurus.com and genius.com! We already know that HubPages lost rankings/traffic. They stated a loss of 22%, but if you look at the development over three weeks, they really lost 33%!

(SEO Visibility of hubpages.com)

(SEO Visibility of hubpages.com)

 

What to do if Phantom II has impacted you negatively?

1. Indexation
If you are at risk of having too much thin content, try creating longer and more unique content, or try using filters and thresholds to noindex pages that maybe have less than a certain number of words.

2. Comments
Limit comments on negatively affected pages and use either a pagination or drop-out solution for the remaining pages. You need to iterate on the right amount here.

3. Ads
Decrease the amount of banner ads, popups, and self-starting videos above the fold. I know companies have to make money, but if no one visits the site or page to click on the ads, then all the content you created and the money that sponsors spent will have been for naught. It’s important to find a balance point.

4. 404
Check the Google Search Console for 404 and soft 404 errors, and make sure to get rid of them. The problem is mostly with internal links to pages that are no longer available or to pages with no results or content.

5. User Signals
Analyze your user signals on a page level and pin-point where people bounce. You need to figure out which pages people are happy with and which ones they’re not. This will give you insights into content quality and relevance, which you can then use to fix existing pages and create new pages.

Need assistance or interested in some more information? We are happy to help:

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What are your thoughts about Phantom II. Have you been hit? Let me know in the comments!

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Kevin Indig has been an SEO Consultant for the Searchmetrics Pro Services team. He helps enterprise companies implement critical SEO Strategies.
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Comments (11)

Comments (27)

  1. 2015/06/10

    Oh wait a moment…. I think I know a website that has advertisements above the fold and keep popping up and Seriously damage my user experience… now… how is it called…

    Youtube.com

  2. 2015/06/10

    Youtube actually lost 6% SEO Visibility from the update…

  3. 2015/06/11

    Saw any correlation to the Pirate Update?
    some domains had a boost back then and are losers now, or vica versa (or sometimes even double winner or double loser)
    e.g. http://suite.searchmetrics.com/de/research?url=weheartit.com

    As far as I see it DC and structure (noindex, parameters, 404, crawling ressources and this stuff) is pretty important. But it doesnt look like a continuous update where rankings should come back as soon as Google realise you fixed the problem.

  4. 2015/06/11

    Hey Julian, haven’t seen correlations with the Pirate update, I guess since it mainly targets right violations. When it comes to DC and structure for the Phantom II, I absolutely agree with you: these are influencing factors. However I still believe you might see a faster recovery from Phantom II than for example from Panda. I guess we just haven’t seen many domains recover because most are not aware of what hit them and what happened. I’m excited to see how and if the landscape changes over the next few weeks :-).

  5. 2015/06/11

    The official Pirate Update was about DMCA… but the same week something else happend and it seems nobody is aware off…
    take a look at your data, you will see a lot of domains with changes, but without relationship to DMCA content

  6. 2015/06/11

    Do you have a suspicion what could have happened?

  7. 2015/07/06

    Sorry missed the answer.

    First, there was a Penguin Update as well.
    But, I think they messed up with some duplicate content filter which they now repaired with the Phantom update.

  8. 2015/07/09

    Wait a sec.. you mentioned poor design….!!! What if the company is just a start-up and doesn’t have much money to design the page in a fancy manner, and suddenly one night phantom II strikes the site…. What can one do to prevent it..??

  9. 2015/09/18

    Now i get the picture. Friends in my adsense publisher community are getting confused for several days because their blogs getting a strange stats in adsense earning. Some get the boost others get smacked

  10. 2016/01/07

    Now I can understand why one of sites got penalized by this update in the past.

  11. 2016/05/11

    Everything is very open with a clear description of the challenges.

    It was truly informative. Your site is very useful.
    Many thanks for sharing!

Trackbacks (16)

Comments (27)

  1. 2015/06/12

    […] Return of the Phantom: Google’s Phantom II Update | Searchmetrics […]

  2. 2015/06/12

    […] Searchmetrics Dissects Google’s “Phantom II” Update – Back in early May, many webmasters and site owners began to notice severe fluctuations in their rankings. For a while, Google denied any update had taken place until, later in the month, they confirmed there had been an update in how their algorithms assess quality across individual pages (but they didn’t give us a ton of details beyond that). Thankfully, the folks at Searchmetrics have been studying the aftermath of the algorithm update and have found patterns in the pages that have fallen in value, such as pages with duplicate content, self-starting videos, ads above the fold, and more. It’s a great look at what not to do with a website, and should really be studied by anyone wanting to avoid penalties from this recent update. Check it out! […]

  3. 2015/06/15

    […] the Searchmetrics blog post on the Phantom II update where Kevin shares data about the winners and losers of this […]

  4. 2015/06/15

    […] new update, which many refer to as “Quality Update”, takes a very different approach from the previous most noteworthy Panda and Penguin updates. It […]

  5. 2015/06/29

    […] e, più recentemente, “Reverse Panda”, è stato studiato da SearchMetrics (Phantom II, l’algoritmo che punta alla qualità), partendo dai siti che hanno subito, a patire dal 5 maggio, le maggiori fluttuazioni sulla SERP, […]

  6. 2015/06/30

    […] For more on that, check SearchMetrics’ outline of the winners and losers. […]

  7. 2015/07/06

    […] websites with multiple pages with the same text, apart from a few keywords, while its so-called “Phantom” update seemed to impact sites with too many pop-up ads or duplicated content. Whenever Google rolls out broad updates though, there’s often collateral damage to sites […]

  8. 2015/07/06

    […] websites with multiple pages with the same text, apart from a few keywords, while its so-called "Phantom" update seemed to impact sites with too many pop-up ads or duplicated content. Whenever Google rolls out broad updates though, there's often collateral damage to sites that […]

  9. 2015/07/07

    […] websites with multiple pages with the same text, apart from a few keywords, while its so-called “Phantom” update seemed to impact sites with too many pop-up ads or duplicated content. Whenever Google rolls out broad updates though, there’s often collateral damage to sites […]

  10. 2015/07/14

    […] la actualización de Google Phantom a principios de mayo, la calidad y el cese del abuso en el contenido complementario serán aspectos […]

  11. 2015/07/31

    […] EN – http://blog.searchmetrics.com/us/2015/06/10/return-of-the-phantom/  […]

  12. 2015/11/25

    […] MOZ para tan solo hacer públicas 1o al año. En la última actualización que se hizo pública fue Phantom, habla que su principal objetivo es: favorecer a las páginas con contenido de calidad, penalizando […]

  13. 2015/12/10

    […] seguito del Phantom Update di maggio, si può fare qualche riflessione e analisi, dovuta al fatto che i ranking in queste […]

  14. 2015/12/24

    […] SearchMetrics […]

  15. 2016/02/26

    […] design and usability too that might just place you above your competitor. Read more on the latest Google Phantom II update here and contact freelance content writers at Rock Paper Copy to see how they can help your website rank […]

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