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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

  • In the pages that I manage in Spain, some changes are noticeable, but do not seem to be affecting all sites equally. Is it possible that this change has begun in the US and has not been replicated in the rest of the world?

  • I believe that we will See a lot more Updates that are forcing webmasters and agencies to stick very close with the Google guidelines and I surely believe that after having a majority we will See other forms of advertising besides adwords … Why not offering paid special highlighting to the braves who stick with the guidelines?

  • Awsome article. Google changes this time seemed very strong to me. I’ve seen many serps changes and I think this will impact SEO for many professionals. I will stay updated and follow your blog posts, thanks for providing such useful information! Eugenio

  • Andy Drinkwater 2015/12/03 at 10:34 am

    Loved the article guys.

    I went through the raters guidelines myself and the points on low quality hub pages is something that so many companies get wrong. If you search for something, you expect to find it – not be presented with just further options.

    Make the content great and visitors (and Google) will love you for it.

  • 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!

  • Wow, I love this article. Sometimes it is a bit hard to see what Google is doing when it comes to ranking signals. You have a fan for life here!

  • I have at least one client that recuperated greatly after Phantom III. His rank for his main Keyword had been dropping in last few years, but sharply after Phantom II in mid July, but then rose sharply between Nov 11 and 29th with Phantom III (large commercial site in US selling thousands of parts). We hadn’t made any significant changes that would have affected the drop or the rise in rank so it appears it was the changes to Phantom III. Does anyone have a date for Phantom I ?

  • An excellent article, thanks for writing.

  • I don’t think it was so much a rankings update as a SERPS display change.

    A lot knowledge graph treatments showing up in our niche were there were none before, and the loss of a few answer boxes for our site.

    Our rankings stayed the same, but traffic dropped.

  • I am interested in the example about Cheseecake recipes. The first one, said to be low quality because of the intro, really has like 3 paragraphs of “long and boring intro” but it does reveal more information about why they believe this is the best cheesecake recipe – and the recipe itself has good design (listings, heading, images, etc) and seems to be way more helpful / easier to follow than the second example – which has poor design layout with parts of the content above AD. Do you really consider it to be the worse option of the two?

  • Jacek Rużyczka 2015/12/07 at 2:00 pm

    The examples in this article are mostly really poor sites (allkeyshop) or poorly made ones (simplyrecipes) which got an earful from Google with its Phantom 3 update. Nevertheless, quite a big handful of serious and well-made portals went into trouble, too. I observed substantial (25% and even more) declines in the search engine visibility of classifieds portals, especially local ones which are only well-known in the region they cover, despite the fact they offer lots of exclusive content.

  • how to recover from this update’s disaters.

  • Hi Marcus,
    I think that Phantom III, which is (how could it be 😉 ), not officially confirmed by Google, is kind a like Panda related. I mean, lower ranking for websites with low quality, thin content duplicate content is similar to Panda Updates.

    I’ve got two case studies (from Poland) which can, to a certain extent, confirm my suspicions. Removing of technical SEO and content issues, caused in increase in the search results. Interestingly, after 2-3 months of implementation – during 19th/20th of November 2015,

    Generally, the changes are so significant and noticeable, that Google’s story about real-time updates, seem to be mock 😉 In summary, we need to do our job and monitor our websites on a regular basis.


  • As mentioned in the article, it seems rankings are starting to refelct Google’s quality guidlines. Reading and following these would be an excellent start to see if your site meets the standards.

  • The quality guidelines state that each page needs to accurately match user intention. If you click on a link to a recipe, most user would expect to be directly taken to a recipe. In the first, poorer example, the intro text is long and unnecessary. This is also reflected and supported by our visibility data.

  • Thanks very much for your feedback.

  • Thanks very much for your feedback. These topics can be difficult to process, but we also try to help visualize the drops in visibility – thanks to our Suite we are able to do this. Hope you enjoy the articles to come!

  • Hi Andy, we believe around the 22nd. Thanks for your comment.

  • An excellent article, thanks for writing.

  • معلومات طبية 2015/12/11 at 12:29 pm

    Find many sites in the latest update declined arranged and strength so I’m influenced by my website and update fell arrangement

  • h my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thank you Nevertheless I’m experiencing matter with ur rss.
    Don’t know why Unable to donate to it. Is there anyone finding identical rss issue?

    Anyone who knows please answer.Thanks

  • Will be interesting to see what they will be doing regarding links: – quality – quantity – anchor text – etc.

  • Web Designing Coimbatore 2015/12/31 at 5:23 am

    Great article. Google improve their algorithm to new level phantom 3. Content is king in future. In near future Google not backlinks.

  • Hi
    Seems you don’t check emails any more.
    I have sent some questions about Searchmetrics Suite software weeks ago and still waiting for the answer
    Do you accept users from Iran?
    I want to use your software for my clients at

  • I noticed quite a lot of changes in SERP for Switzerland as well. This is satisfying as usually we had to wait quite a while for Google updates to take effect here as well.

    Category pages have been hit hard, as have homepages that tried too hard to rank for a single keyword. Google now promotes specific product or service pages, it appears.

    More than ever it looks like it will definitely pay off to do quality work.

  • Hi seodaramal,

    Apologies if your emails have not yet been answered. I would kindly ask to fill out the contact form again on the website. I’m sure someone will get back to you asap with an answer. If you still receive no answer then please contact our sales team under the telephone number listed on the website.

  • Phantom 3 is released, I don’t know about it, and one of the best thing of phantom 3 quality of content, thanks for shared and I really enjoyed to reading this article that how to improvements of it and getting bunches of information from it. Thumb’s up.. 🙂

  • Not sure I agree with the recipe example, as previously they said they wanted high quality content as in ‘would you trust this author’ well the first recipe example is better, its more informative and seems more authoritative whereas the second is some random cheesecake recipe from a large chain.

    What I don’t garner by all these updates, is what is the end goal, surely they have enough data or what not, to just say hey this is the best way to have a website, why don’t they make that transparent, if all they care about is the user? Why not say ok we don’t want the main keyword repeated more than 10 times per page, or hey put an image on that page, etc.

  • Hi Drew, sometimes it can be subjective or a matter of taste. But specifically to the recipe example, and talking about user intention, having a paragraph of content not really relating to the recipe is not ideal. As to transparency, have you checked out the link to the Quality Guidelines in the article? All the best

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