Adapting to Quality based Algorithm Updates

If there’s one thing that Google does well, it’s adapting.  Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm to make sure it’s sending users to the most relevant content that meets the intent of a given keyword search or voice query.  And the search engine doesn’t want to make it too easy for us to optimise or influence the search rankings to our advantage – in fact, Google tweaks its algorithm hundreds of times per year – sometimes small, and sometimes major.  Some of the major updates have sent seismic shifts through the search landscape in recent years with the advent of Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird, Pigeon, Mobilegeddon just to name a few.

Many of these algorithm tweaks are based on the way Google interprets the links pointing to your website, or the depth of the content that your site contains, or how friendly the website is to a user on a mobile device.  The great thing about these updates – if you’ve done your SEO well, made your unique content accessible to users, and not tried to game the system by building questionable links, then you’ve probably fared pretty well.


Introducing Google Phantom

However, there is a new breed of algorithm update which focuses entirely on quality user experience which cannot obviously be impacted through traditional SEO methods – Google Phantom (named as the update has never officially been confirmed or denied by Google) has been here since May 2013 and we’re seeing a new iteration evolve roughly every 6 months up until February last month.  The algorithm is complex, integrated and can cause serious issues to the visibility of your website if you neglect to adapt to it.  The list below highlights five central elements of the Phantom algorithm as far as we know.  So let’s dig a little deeper, what does Phantom target?

  1. User Experience – One major aspect of Phantom is all about rewarding sites which offer a good user experience, and punishing those which offer a bad experience.  There is considerable literature within the SEO community which highlights affected websites having poor, unorganised content, broken user interfaces, or a difficult to navigate website.  If your website has even basic issues in the areas of UX and your bounce rate is unnaturally high, it may be time to take action.
  2. Aggressive Advertising – Websites with aggressive advertising practices taking over the main content of a page have also been a core target.  You can imagine the frustration of users who encounter websites from the search results and are bombarded with annoying advertisements which do not add to the quality of the experience.  If your website has been excessive in the past with regards to advertising, this should be reviewed.
  3. Technical Issues – Basic technical issues such as how content is rendered and whether Google can see what your user sees has also been a major problem for affected websites.  It’s always important to use the tools you have available and check with Google’s ‘Fetch and Render’ widget to make sure your content displays to Google, what it does to users.  If you’ve worked with an expert SEO agency in the past, it’s unlikely that you’ll have these issues, but nevertheless, you should double check rendering issues often to make sure your website has the core foundations in place.
  4. The Dreaded Pop-Up – Popups are a common annoyance across many websites and have often been associated with Phantom.  Aggressive use of pop-ups to sign up for newsletters, mailing lists and all other requests can really put off users on your website.  As this exacerbates with time, the signals created by users bouncing off could be viewed as a quality problem.  Google has also explained that the search engine crawlers may interpret the pop-up as your page’s primary content which would mean you’d lose considerable SEO value.  If you are making use of pop-ups, you should review their use and make sure they are providing value.
  5. Lackluster Content – If your website is ranking well for competitive keywords but the content doesn’t match up to user expectations then you could have a serious problem.  Pogo-sticking occurs when users jump back and forth between the website and the Google search results very quickly looking for more relevant content.  If your website dwell time is low, Google will pick up on this and will likely penalise your position.  The best way to combat pogo sticking is to make sure your content is fit for purpose.  Think of the intention of users who reach your page, what are they trying to achieve?  If you can crack that by providing more relevant and engaging content, you will be much ahead of the curve.


Surviving Phantom

We know that Phantom is here to stay.  As the algorithm is so complex and focussed on quality user experience, the number one thing you should do right now is objectively measure the quality of your website.  Play with it, test it, search for things and check that it’s performing the way it should.  Is there an annoyance factor?  Does the content appear correctly on all devices?  These are basic things you should be checking to ensure that the website is providing positive user experience.

As the update is not necessarily impacted by traditional SEO techniques, it is also advisable to look at the user experience of your website.  Have a CRO or UX specialist audit the site and provide tips for improving the user journey – this could go a very long way in ensuring your website is future proofed from new iterations of Phantom.

Finally, meeting user demands based on the intent of search queries is what Google does best.  Ensure you focus website resources on providing a great user experience with highly engaging and unique content.  This can only be achieved with a robust SEO strategy with the user at the heart of it – not the search engine.

Guy Jarvie

Guy Jarvie is National Head of Experience at iProspect Australia and is in charge of developing the product to ensure our clients and teams stay ahead of the curve when it comes to SEO, content, amplification and CRO. With close to 10 years’ experience in digital marketing, Guy has a keen interest in modern user journeys and audience strategy – particularly how we can incorporate these insights into client plans.