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Assessing Google's Phantom algorithm update

Google releases hundreds of algorithm updates every year, usually without causing noticeable ripples. However, Google’s ‘Phantom 2’ update, released unannounced in May, gained widespread attention when its implementation hit the rankings of thousands of sites.

Initial speculation from the likes of HubPages, a ‘how-to’ style site which lost 22% of its search engine traffic overnight, suggested that Google’s latest update was more than an expansion of quality filters like Panda, and could even be interpreted as an attack on 'how-to' and informational sites. Subsequent independent analyses and statements from Google have, however, shown that the update is further-reaching than that.

Defining quality

As usual, Google is playing its cards close to its chest when it comes to disclosing the purpose and mechanics behind Phantom 2, obliquely stating that it assesses "quality signals" – though it's unclear what exactly those signals are, and how they may have evolved since the Panda update.

According to a Searchmetrics study covering 10,000 keywords and 300,000 sites featuring in top 30 search results, content with a higher word count, comprehensive and relevant wording, and a greater quantity of images and videos appears to be classed as 'high quality' in the new post-Phantom ecosystem.

Others suggest that the algorithm rewards sites for improving user experience, punishes 'clickbait' and aggressive advertising tactics, and factors dwell time into rankings.

Understanding how to improve

So, how can businesses adapt to (or capitalise on) the Phantom 2 update? In a recent webmaster hangout video, Google’s John Mueller suggested improving quality site-wide ‘over the long term’.

For webmasters, this means ensuring a site is user-friendly and technically sound, with optimised metadata, structure and navigation, plus page design that encourages visitors to stay and engage. For marketers, it means tackling any 'thin' content to ensure it is detailed, rich, accurate and well-presented – and then moving this content further up the purchasing funnel.

Moving content up the funnel

As Google’s director for agency performance Matt Bush points out, people are increasingly asking "how, why, when and where instead of just what" – a phenomenon that Google's own Knowledge Graph is designed to address.

Branded content should seek to answer those deeper questions, and build an engaged audience long before someone wants to make a purchase. Bush uses running shoes as an example: "The purpose of the running shoe is to run marathons, so rather than just focusing on the product think about what content you can give people that actually helps them in their quest to run a marathon".

In this context, to rise to the challenge posed by Phantom 2, it appears that brands need to be thinking beyond basic 'what' questions and instead focus on serving up expert, in-depth, relevant content that answers consumers' deeper queries – and ensure this content is surfaced and promoted for maximum engagement, early in the customer journey.