Google’s ‘Quality Update’: What Content Marketers Need to Know

While the much-ballyhooed “Mobilegeddon” update had content marketers running wild in the streets, Google’s latest update has a much more sinister flavor. It happened so quietly that it’s been dubbed the “Phantom Update.”

How ghostly was it? At least enough for Google to initially fail to acknowledge its existence. Search engine wonks began sounding the alarms as early as May 5 when certain sites’ rankings began to drop dramatically, but two weeks passed before Google officially confirmed the update to Search Engine Land.

But analysts are now pulling a Scooby Doo on the Phantom, unmasking the digital ghost to reveal an update with some pretty clear outcomes. Here’s what content marketers need to know about the recently exposed Phantom Update.

So what is the update?

Search Engine Land’s renaming of the update, to the much less exciting “Quality Update,” says it all. Or, at least, it says as much can be said. “How Google assesses quality is sometimes a thing of mystery,” writes Thomas Smale for Entrepreneur, “but we do know that it wants to provide users with the best information possible.”

In other words, this update is all about rewarding sites that focused on improving the user experience and pushing quality content (and punishing those that have not).

That’s good news for content marketers who have been following the wise advice of industry analysts and focused on producing quality content. Search Metrics reports that sites like,, and were big winners, while,,, and all took significant hits.

Has my site been affected?

At this point, it’s difficult to say. If your search ranking plummeted in May, well, there’s a pretty good chance the Phantom Update took its toll. If it did, you’re probably wondering: How is my content not quality? It’s a legitimate question, and for some, what defines quality is up for debate.

Co-founder of HubPages Paul Edmondson is among those in disagreement with Google’s assessment after the user-generated topical information site’s traffic tumbled.

“It’s pretty brutal,” Edmonson writes on his company’s blog. “I feel tremendously bad for Hubbers and the team at HubPages that have worked extremely hard over the last several years to improve the site.”

Observers have noted the update’s disproportionate impact on “how-to” sites, but Search Metric points out the change “has less to do with the content on the sites, and more to do with how the sites function (a lot of user-generated content) and earn money (a lot of ads).”

Ultimately, the low-quality culprits likely include redundant content, thin content, self-starting videos, banner ads, and 404 errors. If you said “Oops” more than once while reading that list, your site might be affected.

How to adjust

Filter user-generated content: Quora is proof that Phantom/Quality/Reverse Panda isn’t about punishing so-called how to content. The Q&A site’s ranking jumped with the recent update.

“This is likely due to Quora’s high content quality standards,” says Roy Hinkis of SimilarWeb. “Responding to a question with blatant self-promotion or even answering too generally and your answer can be flagged as spam.”

So if user-generated content is part of your strategy, improving your moderation strategy should be in your plans.

Get rid of annoying ad formats: When you’ve got awesome traffic and advertisers are clamoring to hand you cash, it’s mighty tempting to shove in ads anywhere you can. But here’s the thing: Not only do excessive and disruptive ads (pop-ups, “above-the-fold ads,” and so on) annoy visitors, they apparently really annoy Google. And where’s your traffic going to come without either of them?

And for the love of all that is holy, take down those auto-play videos. Like other disruptive ad formats, they’re bad for the user experience, and they’re bad for your Google rank.

Trash the thin content: According to Google, thin content can include automatically generated articles; doorway pages that exist only to connect visitors to a new page; thin affiliates (ads from which the host site makes money on sales, but for which the product adds no value to the site); or thin syndication, which includes content pulled in from article banks or RSS.

Forget Google rankings for a second here. Do any of those things make for great content? Not really. So now is as good a time as any to get rid of them. To know what stuff to get rid of, follow the words of the friendly Google employee in the explainer video: “Ask yourself, ‘What is the value?'”

Clean up your page: A gratuitous amount of comments, lots of 404 errors, and other clutter all dampen the user experience. And guess what? Google doesn’t like that either. Again, this is something that should be a priority anyway, whether Google punishes it or not.

Though the change had a large impact on many sites, the quality-first principles upon which the update was apparently based on have been around for a long time. That’s why Search Engine Land‘s Barry Schwartz says there’s not much more for sites to do than what they should have been doing in the first place. “Keep focusing on building out a better web site, aimed at your users and overall quality,” he writes.

Still, it’s a little unclear why Google felt the need to employ all the smoke and mirrors. Perhaps Google wanted to catch sites still landing top search rankings with poor quality content. Shady? Definitely. But Google has been prioritizing quality content since its 2011 Panda update. If you got caught by the Phantom Update, you likely had it coming.

Image by Ray Woo

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