Google “Phantom” Update Rolling Out Targeting Informational, ‘How-To’ Content

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NBC reports that an undisclosed, “phantom” algorithm update is rolling out in Google search right now which is primarily impacting publishers of “how-to” style content.

HubPages, a collection of more than 870,000 miniblogs containing informational content about wide varieties of topics, saw its Google search traffic drop 22 percent from one week to another on May 3.

Websites like eHow, WikiHow, and Answers.com are other sites that have seen significant drops in traffic over the past couple of weeks.

Glenn Gabe, of New Jersey-based G-Squared Interactive, is the one to coin the phrase “Phantom” update because this update came without warning, and Google has yet to acknowledge its existence.

Through analyzing the data, Gabe has determined that this udpdate is not related to Panda or Penguin. However, similar types of “thin” content targeted by Panda are also being targeted by this update.

Gabe points out that clickbait articles, sites with an abundance supplementary information, pages of stacked videos, and pages difficult to navigate have all lost visibility in recent weeks.

This update is said to be “ruthless” in its approach — apparently having no problem punishing entire domains for a few instances of thin content.

“When you have a domain-level algorithm update or ranking change, it can impact the whole site… Pages that should be drawing well could also be pulled down in the results.”

Google has not formally commented on this update, although at SMX Sydney this week Gary Illyes, from Google’s Webmaster Trends team, alluded to there being a recent change that’s part of a core algorithm update.

With Google’s Knowledge Graph being notorious for detracting traffic from sites for “how to” searches, coupled with this “Phantom” update, being a content publisher is more challenging than ever. Even Gabe, who analyzes search data for a living, admits to not being able to predict what business will look like tomorrow, next week, next month, etc.

Have you noticed a significant change in your traffic since the beginning of May? If so, what types of content do you believe was targeted? Details are scarce at this point, so any information we can get is valued.

Editor Note: This post originally stated the Penguin and Panda updates were page-specific, and didn’t affect websites at a domain level. This was incorrect and the sentence has been fixed.

Matt Southern
Matt Southern is the lead news writer at Search Engine Journal. His passion for helping people in all aspects of online marketing flows through in... Read Full Bio
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  • Paul Clough

    We have a couple of large fashion ecommerce sites which look to have been hit as well. Sitewide

  • Can’t wait to see of anyone reports any huge losses in traffic.

    • didn’t get significant drop in traffic. but huge drop in adsense CTR from last 3 weeks.

      • Akhtar

        Tanvir you have great blog with very well written articles… especially great read Lindsay Lohan story.

        Also now I din’t see any phantom update effect on my site but I notice that increase in traffic from last week 🙂

  • Amy Fanter

    I am grateful for someone going on the record to share what we have been experiencing.
    I am particularly grateful for this sentence … “Update is said to be more “ruthless” in its approach — apparently having no problem punishing entire domains for a few instances of thin content”. Hammered because of 1-2 pages. But grateful that I now know what we need to correct.

    • Ray Smith

      What is the best practice in this regard to follow, if we are publishing our article on hubpages, tumblr, etc., is the update will ruthless to our main sites aswell which have been linked with article website and have backlinks through them.

  • i noticed a big drop in traffic since the beginning of May. The strange thing is that unlike other retailers we write a ton on unique content. The only thing is that we have a lot of old blog posts that have thin content. I mean from years ago. Could this be effecting us?

    • Jeff, did you ever figure out why why you experienced a big drop in traffic since May? I have one little website. I only sell a few things. Dropped the affiliate links, reciprocal links, and I keep changing content (but there is only a few ways I can describe my products). I have a mobile ready site, and that checked out ok. I am totally stumped. I have lost a lot of traffic and sales, and I don’t know why.

  • Ozzie

    Mozcast shows that there was indeed some disturbance in the force on May 3rd and May 11th.

  • So how this algorithm impact to our site with how to article ? I just see that some large sites have significant drop in traffic, but don’t know how 🙂

  • I saw one of my How To website getting hit and I did not know the reason for it. Now I can relate this thing.

  • seth

    We noticed a huge drop in rankings over the last two weeks. Went from 8 and 11 on our focus keyword to 18 and 22 in a week. Couldn’t figure it out. We thought it was somehow related to mobilegeddon. We just became mobile friendly but this article is shedding light now. Are blog posts with lists like “5 steps to…” being dinged too?

  • I’m seeing a traffic drop from last two weeks. Not sure if it is due this Phantom Update …

  • Can’t see a drastic change of traffic on my how-to publications. It could only be targeting the bad ones 😉

  • I had a how to blog ,the traffic decreased slightly for last 2 weeks , I was confused now this post explained it…
    anyway 2 get out from it?

  • Thanks Matt for enlightening us with this update !

  • You say panda is a page-specific filter, but all info about panda so far indicates it IS a site wide filter. Indeed it targets specific page, but evetually the effect is site wide.

  • manu

    it’ll be interesting to know if this update impact on all languages or only english at the moment

  • I have noticed that some of my articles which giving traditionally “How-to” tips went to 2nd page of Google.
    However, not seeing a big traffic drop.

    • I read an article somewhere about how Google handles “how to” sites. It wasn’t good. I can’t remember where I saw it, but it had to do with showing current and relevant content first, and not showing the rest at all.

  • Disgusting updates! I think some people from Google itself want to kill their search engine by launching all these stupid and unwanted updates! But fortunately, the traffic from past 2 weeks has increased along with Adsense ctr fro my health niches! God knows what these guys are up to! 😂

  • Just in time to make room for more of the knowledge graph results.

  • Besnikus

    Last three weeks im getting more traffic!

  • vini

    Thats a great news. If google push down these type of “how to” sites, people try to start use other search engines like bing, yahoo etc., so google never move in such a way. Some keyword position may be changed and i think it is due to the mobile search view optimisation issues of some major websites.. thats all. nothing serious. Anyway we can wait upto the end of May. 20th May 2014 was a black day to me.

  • Thanks, Matt. There is only one thing i can’t understand – what’s wrong with how-to content? What’s the purpose of this update (if it really exists)?

  • Ria

    Though I haven’t seen any changes for the majority of the websites that I work on, this update worked wonders for the websites that it did affect! Huge spikes in search impressions and traffic following this phantom update. Thank you, Google!

  • Hi Matt. Thanks for covering this. I think I should clarify a few things that aren’t represented accurately. I’m the person that heavily analyzed Phantom and was interviewed by CNBC.

    First, and this is really important to understand, both Panda and Penguin are domain-level demotions. They aren’t page specific like the mobile-friendly algorithm. That wasn’t stated in the CNBC article so I’m not sure where that came from. But again, it’s important to know that both Panda and Penguin can drag down your entire domain.

    Second, the CNBC article (the original article that was syndicated to other NBC properties), does not state that a site can be hit “based on a few instances of thin content”. That’s not correct. The original article says, “based on a certain percentage of thin content”. http://www.cnbc.com/id/102669423

    Every site I analyzed that was hit hard had significant content quality problems. There weren’t just a few spammy pages. I analyzed one site with over 12 million lower-quality tag pages indexed. That’s not a few. 🙂

    Anyway, let me know if you have any questions about this. My blog post covers a lot of my findings, but I might publish additional details soon. Thanks again.

    • Hey Glenn, thanks for the followup and clarification. I’m sure our readers would love any additional info, so please feel free to send it our way if you find anything else. 🙂

    • R.Rogerson

      Nice to see someone step up and reduce the noise from the signal 😀

      So, chances of it currently being an actual update/independent algo, testing an algo before net-wide release, or existing filter tweak?

    • Great clarification, thank you Glenn. These updates do make a difference!

  • Akhil K A

    Oh! That’s weird! Looks like google is now more considering the content length and the page size!

  • But still no official announcement by google for phantom update.!!
    I just want to ask, mostly it will effect on what type of websites???
    It will effect to small business website or not???

  • Well, i didn’t see any traffic drop down even traffic starts in continuous way. Traffic is constant and from different countries too. I din’t see any phantom update effect on my site.

  • Vincent Brossas

    “How To” websites see a drop of trafic while YouTube see an increase in “How To” video searches ? (https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/features/i-want-to-do-micro-moments.html)
    I guess this algorithm change is just about to exchange How To websites by How To YouTube videos links in the Google’s search results…

  • I haven’t noticed anything as of yet, but then again all of my informational style sites have well thought out architecture and focus on user experience.

  • We run a built for adsense site in Germany where people can find downloads for documents and we have suffered as well a drop of more than 20 percent in traffic since the beginning of May. I first thought this would be a result of the European summer time, making people spending more time outside and not in front of a computer, but indeed it might be the latest Google update. Got to say respect to Google, since with their ambition to root out thin content they directly affect their adwords business by making built for adsense sites less visible.

  • R. Rogerson

    May not necessarily be an “update” or independent algorithm.
    If someone at G twists a few dials … you can get some pretty hefty results.

    Sites like eHow and others of their ilk are always a good signal point to watch for content quality.
    There’s tons of thin, spun, badly rewritten or generally low-value content on such sites.
    If those sites get hit, you know there is some sort of “quality” push happening … or at least, G are testing before publicly releasing (can you think of a site better than eHow to test on?).

    The question here isn’t what sites, but what pages.
    If they could give out some samples of pages that have dropped in ranking/traffic, it would be fairly easy to pinpoint the fault line/cause.

  • This will be a tremendous loss for all giant websites like hubpages, wiki how, answers etc by losing 22 % of the traffic from the search results. For the most part, Google is not transparent about the updates. But it use to tell Engineers improving the search quality.

  • lynda

    Is Google giving preference to its Blogger websites?

  • Is the Phantom’s effect more on content sharing sites?

  • “…is the one to coin the phrase “Phantom” update because this update came without warning, and Google has yet to acknowledge its existence.”

    Since Google has consistently and also recently affirmed the existence of it’s infamous “over 200 algorithms” it is safe to say that almost all of their updates come without warning and Google has yet to acknowledge their existence other than in a class of unknowns.

    Let’s not forget that Google, like many businesses, is in the money business. You can call this update ruthless or you can call it just another business day. I think it helps a lot to look at Google as a business first and everything else it does falls in line logically and succinctly. There is no point in getting mad. They’re doing what is best for their business. There still an enormous amount of opportunity to profit from visibility in Google but adaptability is a requirement for working in an environment that’s controlled completely by someone else.

  • Fortunately for now I din’t see any phantom update effect on my sites 🙂

  • Wow, this is kind of scary. I understand the desire to target the click-bait articles but some of the blogs I read that were affected have such high quality content!

  • Flow

    We saw a significant spike in traffic on Sunday, before mothers day, to all of our Web properties. The week that followed was a new trend of steady organic traffic. On mothers day, we saw another significant spike in traffic with retained for two days and then slowly receded back to the new trend mentioned before. It has remained there ever since.

    While organic search traffic has been slowly improving, over the last eighteen months we have put a lot of resources and time into creating high-quality, in depth content about our products. Nothing under 1500 words, some even reaching 4,000 words, all well written and throughly researched.

    Guys, this is what Google wants from us. They’ve been saying it for years. Adapt or die.

  • So informative news. But it makes me fear. What should we do for this new “phantom algorithm”. Is there anyway to check the thin contents? If anybody answer me, it will be a great pleasure for me.

  • I spotted this update on 4th. I thought on 5th May that this update was targeting on two kind of sites:
    1) well-organized, with good content
    2) having problems with poor-quality links – even those I imported DT files
    After a couple of days some of of sites from second group went up

  • I have this little theory that this Phantom update is part of the Doorway pages update or its refresh, which Google started rolling at the end of April.
    Glenn Gabe has this wonderful research article on the matter where he explains something rather different from what I have in mind. Nevertheless, the emphasis on tag pages and pages filled with ads from that I make my own conclusion that this might be related with Doorway pages.

    Glenn Gabe extensive research on the subject:
    http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/phantom2-google-update-april-may-2015/

  • I have a small blog, but I’ve been working hard at growing it. As of May 4, my traffic started dropping like a rock. I went from 400+ visitors daily to less than 100. Some days FAR less than a hundred.

    I don’t *think* I have any thin content anymore. I’ve weeded that out ruthlessly, deleting 2/3 of what I originally had. I guess I need to go look at everything a little more ruthlessly. Sigh.

  • Chris

    Gee, another drop in Google good content listings, who could have guessed this?

    Google should spend more time going after fake online businesses on Google+ and Maps that claim they have a brick and mortar address. These are the sites that park Edward Snowden on the White House lawn. And these are the sites that steal business from the real businesses by reselling their referrals. Yet, Google is still playing all sorts of games trying to hide destructive “phantom” roll-outs that keep the HUGE sites floating EVEN higher and good content disappearing and not listing. It is very funny they roll this aggressive update out and try to hide it’s effects under the Mobile filter release which DID NOTHING to ANY search results. I guess they think the average person is REALLY stupid?

    The constant downward quality in search results the last four years keeps me using the more stable Bing. The search results I get on Google now are so INSANELY bad that even the dumbest users are now noticing spotty results and content missing. Seems they are beating their once good name to death, trying to get a few billion more out of ads no matter what the cost.

    My prediction for Google Search are: 1. Cutts WON’T be coming back after this algorithm “monkey business” that probably drove him away. We will probably read about it in five years when his book comes out on the idiots that killed Google Search. 2. Many more smart people will be jumping the SPAM/Search Google ship this year, since it is VERY clear now that the Adsense team calls the shot$. 3. The door is now WIDE open for somebody to step up and pick-up were Google Search has stopped. 4. Google stock will continue to fall, since they have just about topped out on ad revenue.

  • Another Google update. Great. I think Google decided to keep people rolling with their different types of updates. The websites like wiki, how, Hubpages seeing a drop in the ranking than what is left now. I am still thinking what is the right way to write content. Every time you try new thing and another day Google roll outs the new update saying this not what we want. I also notice that because too many continues to update the search engine results are becoming outdated. Many posts rank high on the search engine are out dated. Go and search for different types of keywords and read the content showed up in the top spot. The website you visit may rank only because of the domain authority of the website. If you read the content you will notice many of the pointers mentioned in the content were outdated. The post itself published on a few years before. I still don’t know why Google loves old post. As a user i prefer to read new content. Not the jibber jabber I already read a few years back. Let see what is store in the new Google update.

  • Now google is might concentrating to drop traffic from all web-portals like eHow, WikiHow, and Answers.com

  • Fortunately i didnt see any drop in traffic, everything is normal till today, dont know what happens tomorrow.

  • OMG! When Google will stop rolling these Algo’s i am tired of them, By The way i didn’t seen any traffic dropped from my side.

  • My website basically has mostly how to articles and i haven’t noticed any traffic variation in the last 2 months. How much is considered thin?

  • LJ

    Phantom, because it hasn’t been announced beforehand by Google. So, just like every other G algorithm except the mobile friendly one…

  • I saw a drop in traffic on my blog as well. I wonder how I can recover it?

  • I have a few sites where I focus on “How-to” content but I am not seeing any significant difference in traffic. I think that I dodged a bullet with Google’s Phantom update.

  • Many thanks for the informative article about Google updates. İ will be updating my sites agains this one.

    Best,

    Jane..

  • Can anyone explain what is it meant by How To thin content?
    I also think that this just due to doorway page update only. For one of my blog I have no-indexed all tags which reduces more than 60% indexed pages from Google.
    But, after 1 month I can see my traffic has improved & adsense CTR has also become better.

  • This news is welcome because we’re tired of going to these how-to sites only to find complete garbage there based upon outdated link building tactics that have been out of style for at least six or seven years now.

  • I have noticed some movement on a few site but this is the first I have heard of this update thanks for the heads up

    • I Saw my website is drops traffic significantly on three weeks later. But this week, my site have a signs growth. Besides, bounce rate significantly reduced, too!

  • Last week i have seen many changes of some website traffics.. I find on that website the reason of behind it quality..

  • Oh man, thanks for the post. Very important for me to know, I’ve got a new client who has a meditation tips site…scary. Will keep an eye on how this changes over time. Thanks again Matt!

  • I did see some shuffling in Google Webmaster Tools (now Search Console), impressions around 1st May dropped but strangely the clicks remained the same hence improving CTR.

  • I’ve actually seen a large spike in traffic on my site since May 7th and it has maintained every day since. Perhaps there is a correlation with this update?

  • Peggy

    I’m wondering if anyone has considered this being targeted to pop ups, such as “click here for 5 ladeedah” so you opt in for a PDFs file of some kind. Just thinking because those are usually how tos also.

  • I’ve seen traffic levels improve considerably over the last month. This probably needs balancing with the fact the the site I manage only just launched in March and has built in tech SEO elements that the previous site didn’t have. Nevertheless, top content has tripled in traffic levels so I’m not complaining!

  • My rankings have been all over the place for the last 2 weeks. I check and I am not even in the top 10 pages then check 1 hour later and PR1…Do you think this has something to do with the changes?

    Marc

  • Interesting move from Google, isn’t it? My take is that adding buy buttons will let many marketers re-think their marketing strategies – taking a hard look at AdWords again. Clever Google, clever.

  • Hi,

    I cannot believe this Google update is focused on How to pages and content, it does not make sense to penalize everyone who gives tips and tricks to other users. It has to be something more behind the scene, so if you have decent content and have been affected by this update, sooner or later you shall recover.

    • On one side I agree with you and another I disagree. How many how-to sites do you have to visit to find the information that you are after? I would much rather prefer results being rendered that have supporting text to back up answers and provide alternative solutions. In my views, many of the how-to sites are not very helpful in providing accurate and detailed information.

  • I see traffic increase on my 2 abandoned websites. I really don’t understand what is google want. Unfortunately my best website got manual spam action and dont know how to get out from there.

  • This seems to be the case since before the beginning of May. It seems more and more difficult to find “How to” related web pages on Google for several months now. This seems to go against everything that a search engine is supposed to stand for. I think maybe Google maybe taking a “profits first” approach to their business as opposed to “user value” like they used to. Probably factored into Firefoxs’ decision to drop them as the default search engine.

  • Navid Tayebi

    Thanks Matt to share data about blog traffic and algorithm. I think through this update Google made a reality check on content. Blogs that have thousands of pages on same pattern are under threat. Can we assume drop in traffic is a penalty like panda?

    • For some maybe, but overall it’s hard to tell for sure. It depends on your site specifically.

      • Thanks, Yes its very difficult to tell about exact recipe behind any update but if there is a pattern for a long time, then I think it is suspicious for Google.

  • Google.com should be Google.gov.
    Making up rules and regulations nobody can keep up with, or even understand.
    I have a small website, and have drastically lost sales since May.

  • Thanks for a great article Matt.
    I find since I’ve started a questions and answers section in our local newspaper linked to our website we getting much better rankings in our area.

  • I think it’s about the user intention.

  • Wonderful write up Matt. I have also seen slight drop in my traffic. Good to know what can be the reasons. Keep up the good work and helping us 🙂