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Phantom Update III: What Google’s updated Quality Guidelines could mean for page rankings

Everyday countless webpages are evaluated by Google quality raters (with the goal of improving the overall quality of search results). On 12 November 2015 Google updated its comprehensive guidelines (Quality Rater Guidelines), according to which webpage and content quality is evaluated. Not long after this we began to notice significant movement in our ranking and visibility data. Could we perhaps be witnessing the emergence of Phantom Update III? It certainly appears that search results have been adjusted in line with the guidelines. So let’s have a closer look at the data.
Google Quality Update / Phantom III

Updated guidelines: User intent is centrally important to quality

The Quality Rater Guidelines are important because they give us an insight into how Google defines low and high quality pages. As we know, in early summer we witnessed the effects of Phantom Update II, where some sites suffered significant losses in visibility. However, certain factors which perhaps would have led to losses post Phantom II seem to have been redefined. This means that some sites that lost out heavily have now seen a recovery in traffic. At the core of assessing the quality of a page is user intent and how well user expectation is fulfilled by the results. Let’s take a look at some examples affected by this update.

Assessing the quality of a webpage and its content

1. Low quality content

Content that does not provide the user with an adequate amount of information, or that does not correspond strongly enough to the search query/user intent could be classed as low quality. It seems that category pages in particular are affected by this. A category page is a hub page that gathers information from numerous subpages; products with links at the top and content below. The Quality Guidelines clearly state that supporting content has to correspond to the central user intention.



In the above example, the games category page offers effectively no information about the games the user is expected to click on. This clearly does not match the user intention and this is confirmed by the significant drop in visibility. Under the Quality Guidelines, this category page would be classified as low quality.



This recipe site typically features very long and often unrelated intro texts to the recipe. It seems that the fact that this content does not match the user intent, i.e. to read/ acquire a recipe, is reflected in the recent loss in traffic.

An example of this is the cheesecake recipe featured on this domain. Here the intro text is long and not related to the recipe. Pages where the supporting content clearly matches the user intention seem to have benefitted from this update. The content of this cheesecake recipe at is much more relevant to the user intention and the visibility of this page has correspondingly increased.


Probably the best example for a recipe website loved by Google is After an already impressive rise in SEO Visibility over the last few months, the Phantom 3 Update has given thekitchn another ranking boost.


This success is for the most part owed to their long-form content approach. They regularly update and expand their recipes, which leads to very holistic content pieces that perform well for thousands(!) of keywords. It is important to notice that this content is not simply long. It is comprehensive and fulfills the user’s information needs.


2. Duplicate content

While the Phantom Update II punished pages that exhibited duplicate or very similar content, the new guidelines say that for specific topics duplicate content is no longer a problem. Google offers the example of song lyrics: the text always remains the same, but this content is not duplicated. Users can compare the accuracy and quality of presentation of the results they find.

The same logic seems to apply for dictionaries. After the Phantom Update Merriam Webster witnessed a 13% loss in visibility, among the biggest losers. Following this update, however, Merriam Webster is the single biggest winner in Google US search results, gaining 398,016 points in SEO Visibilty. This increase almost recovers the loss in visibility due to the Phantom Update.

Example: Merriam Webster


This trend could be observed across other dictionaries as well:


If you want to see if you were affected by this update check your site’s SEO visibility for free here

So even if content is very similar, the quality can still greatly differ, depending on how well this content matches and fulfills user intent. This refined definition of duplicate content could mean that other branches experience similar gains. We will keep a close eye on this over the coming weeks.

3. Brand keywords

Another area negatively affected by this update seems to be “foreign” brand keywords. Based on the quality guidelines, the cause for this could be user intent: If a user is searching for a particular brand, their intent is very clear. Landing on affiliate pages featuring brand keywords of the search query could mean that the user intent/ expectation is not satisfactorily met.



In the example above, users are first directed to affiliate pages when they click on product pages. This may not offer an optimal user experience.


According to our data, the updated Quality Guidelines from Google do seem to be affecting rankings. Sites that adhere to these guidelines seem to be safer from ranking losses. Perhaps the data from the quality raters has been fed into RankBrain, Google’s recently announced machine learning module, as training data. But as this update appears to be global an update to the algorithm is also a possibility.

Google has not officially confirmed that an update has been carried out, but our data suggest that the algorithm has been adjusted to bring its results in line with its new quality guidelines. Over the next few weeks we will keep a watchful eye on rankings and visibility data and see how this continues to develop.

As always we would love to hear your comments and opinions below.

Marcus Tober

Marcus Tober

My name is Marcus Tober and I’m the founder of Searchmetrics. Because we really love to analyze all kinds of online data, we can give you more insights than any other company in SEO, SEM and Social Media. It’s not a job, it’s passion.

45 thoughts on “Phantom Update III: What Google’s updated Quality Guidelines could mean for page rankings

  • Good information… Thanks for sharing.

  • I see how important is the content and user engagement on the website. This information has a great contribution to the web masters as it gives a glimpse about the update. Will stay tuned for more updates.

  • Hello to every one, the contents existing at this web
    page are truly amazing for people knowledge,
    well, keep up the good work fellows.

  • Sawgrass Digital Marketing 2016/02/04 at 1:44 am

    It was very interesting watching this one kick in. Definitely shook some stuff up.

  • search engines,google 2016/02/06 at 7:15 pm

    I am regular reader, how are you everybody? This post posted at this web site is in fact fastidious.

  • This article should have its own pedestal.

  • Assuntos de Homem 2016/03/04 at 11:44 pm

    Tom Wells,

    In this update: “Phantom Update III”
    It is true to say that duplicate content from other sites, will not be penalized if using on my site?


  • Well explained! This post helped me a lot and I’ll keep it in my loop.

  • Hey Assuntos, generally we advise against duplicate content. In the post we wanted to show that in certain cases this penalization has been relaxed, i.e. on dictionary sites for example. When it comes to creating content for your site, you should definitely avoid duplicate content.

  • Your article give me the light to write better article. I found it is very difficult to get good ranking without enough content. Long form content is my choice as you explained.

  • Thank you for good post.

  • Thanks for the awesome article! Very well explained!

  • Nanko is 100% correct. The first site, while having a longer introductory section, has vastly superior design and content than the second—unquestionably. If google has started ranking sites without regard for actual content and user experience and instead is focused on brevity, that is terrible news not just for internet content, but for every user who is looking for that quality content.

    This appears to be one step forward two steps back.

  • thanks for the information! love this blog

  • What date did you see the changes happening? Seems to have been approximately 18th/19th November in the UK, running for a week or so. Definitely an “update” in the traditional sense, I think!

  • Thanks for the great post. Looking forward to using the software.

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