Has Your Site Been Struck By The Phantom? Google Has No Official Statement

Has your site been hit by Google's Phantom Update

Has Your Site Been Struck By The Phantom? Google Has No Official Statement

If you didn’t see Google’s recent algorithm update coming, you’re not alone.  The “Phantom Update” wasn’t an announced change paying homage to a Star Wars prequel.  However, finding any advance indication of its impending strike is just as elusive, so don’t bother checking your spam folder- you didn’t miss the notice.


April 29th, on the heels of the April 21st Mobilegeddon algorithm, Google quietly made changes to their algorithm that massively affected thousands of web pages. Glenn Gabe, of G-Squared Interactive, dubbed this, “Phantom Update 2.” The two is because it follows after a similarly stealthy update that occurred in May of 2013. Google has made no formal announcement, but they have said the changes were not part of a Panda, Penguin, or some other monochromatic creature’s effects. However, they were no less potent.


Who was Affected?


Paul Edmondson, CEO and Co-Founder of HubPages, wrote an insightful piece on the impact this change had on HubPages sites. In this piece, he provides analytical insight as to the effects of the algorithm update. He says 22% of Google search traffic disappeared across the spectrum of their sites. Interestingly, not all HubPages sites took a hit. For example, the numbers show about.com, ehow.com, answers.com, and wikihow.com all lost significant amounts of traffic. However, wikia.com, epicurious.com, wonderhowto.com, instructables.com, and quora.com all gained traffic. Perhaps the most insightful kernel is Edmondson’s statement, “…in my very small sample list, it does seem like sites that have had Panda issues tended to do poorly with this update.” This suggests, contrary to Edmondson’s characterization as a, “very blunt site-wide whack”, there was indeed a method to the algorithm madness.


Glenn Gabe indicated his data analysis of one particular affected site, “found over twelve million tag pages on the site that were indexed by Google.” (We’ll take his word on the counting.) This is only one of many similarly ill-constructed sites of which we are aware.


No Evidence to Indicate this was Part of Mobilegeddon


As data continues to pour in and we subject it to rigorous scrutiny, one particular item is particularly interesting: this is clearly not part of the mobile algorithm update enacted last month. This deduction is drawn from the fact that many of the sites impacted were mobile-friendly. In fact, we have yet to see or read any data to show a significant difference in traffic impact to desktop sites vs. mobile friendly sites.


Google Speaks


While Google has made no official announcement, their Webmaster Trends Analyst, Gary Illyes, recently made some comments that seemed to shed some light on the changes. While speaking at SMX Sydney this week, he told the audience that user experience will never be more important than the content on a website’s pages. He said mobile is most certainly a ranking signal, but content will always take precedent over user experience.


Later, responding to the Twitter comments about this being somehow profound or noteworthy, Gary tweeted:

Glenn Gabe Phantom Update Tweet


The Quality Factor


Gary Illyes’ words about quality content have become nearly palpable as data experts pore over the carnage of negatively impacted sites. Anyone who has ever clicked on sites found through a web search has likely clicked on a link titled so irresistibly that you cannot help but click. These Clickbait headlines are sure to steal your time as they draw you in to their Verbal Vortex headlines. However, once you arrive, you find the article and page to be quite anemic. You quickly find yourself surrounded by a myriad of other links and Pay-Per-Click, all while attempting to deftly parry the onslaught of Pop-ups. This is not quality and The Phantom has decimated the ranking of such sites with brutal efficiency. For those of us advocating quality over quantity, we heartily applaud.


Google Updates are Business as Usual – And Here to Stay


In actuality, Google annually makes approximately 500 changes to their algorithms. Take a look here at this 8 month period from 2012, in which 332 updates were made. Do the math, and you’ll see that based upon the volume reported, Google was on target to make 498 changes that year alone. Clearly, their relentless pursuit of what they perceive to be the ultimate search experience is not something they approach passively.


Where Do We Go From Here?


Alright, we all know your site would never engage in any of the afore-mentioned tawdry behaviors, right? You are simply asking because you have a friend whose site has been impacted. We never thought otherwise.


So, what does this all mean for you? (Ahem, your friend?) How can a site’s missteps be corrected and continue the search rankings climb without fear of The Phantom’s next strike?


  • Audit your site and take an objective look at the content quality (We recommend using a quality SEO firm for truly objective analysis)
  • Clean up content determined to be weak and poor in quality
  • Get rid of poor/excessive linking and navigate your way out of the tag quagmire
  • Put controls in place to ensure the ongoing quality of your site’s content


Again, the evidence is clear that Google is placing ever-increasing importance on the quality of a site’s content. Panda and Penguin are extremely significant rascals and should not be let out of your sight. However, the quality of a site’s content reigns supreme in Google’s algorithms and should be part of the core focus of any serious, quality SEO game plan. For those of us with a penchant for instant gratification, doing content well has the added bonus potential to reap immediate benefits without waiting for an algorithm to propel your site upward to Search Engine Glory.


Join the Conversation


Have you noticed a shift in your rankings since April 29th? How about an increase or decrease in traffic? If so, let us know in the comments below. As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the performance and content of your site.



Colby Richards

Colby is the Managing Partner of Brown Box Branding's Seattle branch. The twenty-five years he’s spent managing client projects have provided him with an eye for detail and an appreciation for branding. Colby’s high-energy approach to projects built his proven track record of positive results.

  • avatar
    John Sepanik
    Posted at 13:48h, 06 July

    Hi Colby,

    Good article and follow up to Glenn Gabe’s piece. Personally, I’m stumped as I also took a major hit at the end of April and as I try to determine why…I keep reading about how really bad sites were affected.
    Obviously, I am biased but I’ve spent a lot of time creating a quality site with good solid content. and I just cannot make the connection between what I have and what this update is penalizing. I would welcome any input you could add. Thanks again!

    • avatar
      Colby Richards
      Posted at 16:13h, 06 July


      Thank you for the compliment!

      I took some time to check out your site and believe I have a pretty good idea as to the root cause of your hit. I don’t suspect it was the Phantom. I will send you an email.

      Thanks again, John.

  • avatar
    Atul Sharma
    Posted at 08:25h, 17 May

    Great piece of write up. Google is doing the right thing as people are obsessed with link building tactics as opposed to creating quality content. It doesn”t take much effort to submit a site to a bunch of PDF and RSS submission sites , but it takes something to produce a content which is unique, relevent and useful. Sadly, people are willing to take the easy route. and suffer a whack from Google.

    • avatar
      Posted at 12:14h, 18 May

      Thank you, Atul! I couldn’t agree more. This is a positive update that helps ensure quality rises to the top of search results.