“Phantom V” Google Update? I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts!


In this video, I discuss the "Phantom V" update and reveal RocketMill's initial findings following the update.

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Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to another technical SEO presentation from the RocketMill team. I’ll kick off with a conundrum, a new look conundrum at the same nine-letter word all scrambled up: “dim SEO tip.”. “Dim SEO tip”. Your clue this month: if you follow a dim SEO tip, your website won’t be this. Ben thinks he’s got it but maybe you can have a go as well and, of course, play along wherever you’re watching. “Dim SEO tip”. If you follow a dim SEO tip, your website won’t be this.

The time of speaking, it is Friday the 10th of March 2017, and overnight the industry has been abuzz with rumours of a Google algorithm update. Previously, Google updates have had really cool code names like Penguin and Panda, and you might think a new update, maybe this is Maverick. Maybe they’ve gone down the Top Gun route. No, no word of a lie. This is known as Google Fred. This is absolutely true. I’m just going to let this run because it’s comedy gold. Boom. There we go. And Barney likes that. That was comedy gold. Sadly, the algorithm update, probably not quite so much fun if you’ve been affected.

We’re obviously looking into it to see what it affects, but the update does seem to be targeting the quality of your inbound links, so if you’ve been doing any black-hat or poor-quality link building, you seem to be a victim of this latest round of updates. That comes hot on the heels of much further fluctuation during February 2017. Accordingly, this month’s presentation is called: “Phantom V” Google Update: I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts!

In early February 2017, there was a lot of fluctuation in search results and speculation that this was the latest version of a Google algorithm update called Phantom, so Phantom Five, in the wake of Phantom One to Four. The Technical SEO team was asked: “Has there been a Google algorithm update, and if so, what impact did the Phantom Five update have?” It’s now March. It’s a few weeks on since we first learned about it and I want to clarify our stance on the recent turbulence in results and to tell you what you should do if you’ve been affected.

Let’s start by having a look at the fluctuation. This is a graph from the guys at Accuranker showing their Google Grump metric from January to February 2017 and you can see that patch at the end where it’s suddenly furious. You can see just how much fluctuation there was in rankings at a peak time. We did our own analysis. Google haven’t confirmed the update. They wouldn’t, but we can see from our aggregated rankings across our clients, a huge amount of rankings change and we can be very confident of a significant algorithmic event. Rhys Jackson, our Head of Data and Insight, built this graph using Google Analytics data from across our portfolio, and you can see the sizeable increase in organic traffic to our clients’ sites since February 2017.

Now, to conduct this “Rhys-search,” he exported a list of all our Google Analytics accounts, all of our properties and views, he extracted the organic sessions, filtered out the low-traffic accounts, so we took out any test views, staging sites, etc., and ran the numbers and found on average, our clients had seen a 2% increase in traffic since the rankings algorithm changed and moreover, a typical fluctuation of between plus/minus 15%, so certainly indicative of an algorithm update.

Before I get onto that and the nitty-gritty of this latest update, I want to recap another piece of industry news from the last month. At a glance, it might not seem related in any way to the Phantom Five update, but do just bear with me. I want to talk about the closure of DMOZ.

Short for, which was a previous URL of this site that went under, DMOZ was one of the most popular web directories. It launched in 1998 under the moniker Gnuhoo as a rival to the Yahoo directory.

Here’s something you might not know. The HTML tag meta “robots” is used to control how robots interact with a page. You probably recognise “noindex”. That’s a way of instructing them not to index a page, “nofollow,” not to follow any of the links thereupon, but you might not know these two: “noodp” and “noydr.” These as specified stand for “no open directory project,” a previous name of DMOZ, and “no Yahoo directory.” Once upon a time, these told search engines not to use descriptions from these sites as your snippets in search results, so not to overwrite your meta description, not to overwrite the snippet of text from the page. I just thought it was kind of cool, but I would. As you can see, DMOZ’s tagline was “organise the web.” As you can also see, as of March 14th 2017, it will no longer be online. Caches to caches, DOS to DOS.

At its peak, DMOZ had 92,000 editors who collated 3.8 million websites, which sounds like a lot but that’s just 0.0000003% of the 130 trillion or so pages which have been indexed by Google. Quite simply, DMOZ is a victim of a web so vast, not even a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters could ever hope to organise it. Joking aside, machines are simply better at this stuff than we are. SEO’s regularly talk about the two steps to appearing in search results. You get crawled, which is when a search engine spider visits your site and goes from link to link, and then you get indexed when your URLs are added to a search engine’s list of everything on the web. To stay ahead of algorithm updates, like Phantom Five, we need to remember that third step, which is to be understood.

Search engines aren’t just dumb terminals running a programme. They are interpreters between brands and consumers, and sites on DMOZ, they’re not getting grouped into categories, but a modern search engine can organise your search results based on the query, the location, the device type …in time, it will be on your emotions. Every search is completely unique, and when you look at the search trends for 2017, Google isn’t a search engine anymore. It’s an answer engine. Just think about it. If they can answer your questions around the house via Google Home, in your pocket, on the go, via Google Assistant, and in traditional search results via featured snippets, which appear in about a quarter of SERPs now and “people also ask,” which appears in about 15% of search results. Incidentally, “people also ask” is now infinite. This is an example of an FAQ, effectively, within search results, where you ask one question and it will answer everything related to that question. This is a great tweet from Britney Muller from Moz. It’s kind of a black hole of SEO, if you will.

In order for that to be possible, Google needs to surface pages which answer all questions around a topic with absolute authority, and this brings me back to the Phantom Five Google algorithm update. What did it do? We’ve obviously been monitoring the update for the past few weeks, and we can report the following macro-level findings. The biggest winners and losers have been larger commercial brands, for whom organic traffic depends on ranking for short, head-term keywords. Rhys’ analysis found many of our international clients were in the top and bottom 10% of the most affected accounts. This is a new insight. We haven’t seen much discussion of international SEO as a metric on the web around discussion of Phantom Five, so consider it an exclusive RocketMill insight if you will.

Moreover, they’ve usually been affected by previous Phantom updates, so it wasn’t a case of they were hit. It was a case of the same screws were being turned by Google in successive Phantom updates, so they might have gone down for one, up for the next, down for the next, and so on.

Moreover, the sites which have been affected by Phantom Five have gained or lost traffic over two to three weeks, not overnight as you might expect from an algorithm update.

Moreover, they’ve lost traffic to sub-folders, to sub-directories, or to individual pages, so it’s not a site-wide impact. What should you do if you’re a victim of the Phantom? I did check. I think Marc, you’re probably the only person in the room who is going to get this joke. To be fair, I spoke to you yesterday about the fact that you would probably be one of the few people to get it. That wasn’t like an old joke…

Does anyone else get it? No. Proved my point. This is the Phantom Flan Flinger from Tiswas, which was a very popular children’s show of the 1970’s.

So what should you do if you are a victim of the proverbial Phantom Flan Flinger?

The tricks to recovery. Firstly, ensure you’re delivering a great user experience. This is usually led by good design, but it can be as simple as making sure that your pages are easy to read, that the internal links are nice and easy to find, and that you don’t have modal pop-ups or interstitials or advertising creating a poor user experience, particularly on mobile.

Secondly, while including keywords in your content is still absolutely SEO best practice, make sure you’re not including them in every single sub-heading. Use natural language and, wherever possible and wherever sensible, use questions so that you can encourage results like we saw for that infinite “people also ask” box a few slides ago.

Finally, make sure each page is focused on a topic, a theme, a subject, a category, and not just a single search term, because ultimately, the Phantom Five Google algorithm update is not a site-wide penalty. It is a penalty for pages which, although they might have been optimised, don’t actually answer the question in hand.

We found one of our largest clients lost 6% of their visibility, according to search metrics, following Phantom Five, but actually when we dug into their analytics, we found that they gained about 14% in non-brand traffic during a spell when seasonality is in decline. That goes to show that they were being demoted for search terms where, frankly, they didn’t deserve to rank anyway. They ranked because of their domain authority. They hadn’t ranked because they had a great page on that topic. Accordingly, the traffic which they lost wasn’t that valuable to them, whereas they now rank much better in terms where maybe they haven’t stuffed the page with keywords where their competitors might have appeared in the past, but actually, they’ve got great content so they’ve got an influx of really good traffic as a result of Phantom Five.

Just remember, if you’re a search marketer and you want to stay ahead of the next algorithm update, Google’s machine learning is getting better and better at understanding your content, so focus on users and not SEO, because ultimately, the future of search depends on it.

Thank you very much everyone.