Did you notice a drop in traffic last month?


You’re not alone.

Google confirmed a change to its search algorithm, known as the Quality or Phantom update (due to Google initially denying its existence). The change caused a shake-up in search rankings that SEO expert Glenn Gabe deemed “ruthless”.

Just how ruthless was the Phantom Update?

For members of HubPages, a user-generated content publishing site, it was devastating. Hubpages founder Paul Edmondson found that 22 percent of Google search traffic disappeared after the update took place. He also found that 90 percent of author accounts saw a decrease in traffic, regardless of the popularity of articles they posted.

Not all websites lost traffic, however. Edmunson reported that about half of the informational sites he assessed actually gained traffic after the update. This update wasn’t nearly as impactful as the recent Mobilegeddon or Panda updates, but it caused enough concern that webmasters are rethinking their site’s content quality to avoid consequences like this:


Search Engine Watch just released a report that Google researchers are working toward a future where websites are ranked by the accuracy of their content, rather than the links they’ve earned. Whether your website gained traffic, lost a major ranking, or wasn’t affected at all by the Phantom update – this is a critical point in time to assess the quality of your site.

Content Quality Over Everything


Google has always emphasized quality, the Phantom update just rode in on the backs of Panda and Penguin to finally reinforce it. The emphasis on quality is a necessary evil – because if every search led to a page that looked like this, we’d all lose faith in Google.


How does Google judge content for quality?  

Despite the fact that not all sites were affected equally, there were common elements that caused sites to lose their rankings. Most of these have to do with content quality, which is determined by Google’s algorithm using a wide variety of factors (which you can actually see here – all 200 of them).

Google is constantly updating this list of ranking factors, not all of which are known, but the Phantom update gives us a better idea of what’s considered “quality content” and what isn’t.

Throughout the month of May, webmasters like Glenn Gabe measured the effects of the Phantom update on different sites. He published the findings on his blog and discovered that websites that were hit the hardest had problems with the following:

  • Tag Pages – Pages with numerous links to other content on the site that is unhelpful, thin, or irrelevant. For example, an entire page dedicated to gardening with dozens of links to articles about gardening that are unhelpful to the user.
  • Click-Bait Articles and Quality Issues – Pages with only a few thin paragraphs of unhelpful content that a user would immediately click away from. The main page is also surrounded by a ton of low quality supplementary content or ads. Another problem was “stacked video” pages with multiple videos that had little to no additional content to support them.
  • Poor Design Leads To Hard Navigation – Pages had poor design elements such as small text, too much content on each page, and too many links. This made it harder for the user to navigate the page, which reduces the quality of the user’s experience.
  • Comments (They Matter) – Gabe found that many pages that were hit had user comments that were either worthless or old. Comments help make up the content on the page, so in Google’s eyes – low quality comments = low quality content
  • Links to Bad Sites – For this specific update, there were mixed results as to the effect of inbound links from low quality sites. However, it has been proven that numerous links from “spammy” sites will knock your site down in Google’s search rankings.

How To Inspect Your Site For Problems With Quality

If your site hasn’t been ranking well or if the issues described above sound familiar, you may have a quality problem.

There is good news, however: you won’t need to hire an SEO expert to improve your page’s ranking. All it takes is a brief site analysis, updates to affected pages, and a good understanding of what Google considers quality content.

What does Google consider quality content?

Back in 2011 after the Panda update was implemented, Google gave some important clarifications as to what it considers a high-quality site. Generally, a site is considered high-quality if it fits within these five categories:

Useful and Informative

  • Site contains helpful information such as business description, hours of operation, contact information, etc.
  • Content is driven by the interests of potential readers, not what would rank well in search engines
  • Content includes a complete and comprehensive description of the topic

More Valuable and Useful Than Other Sites

  • Content provides original information, reporting, or research not taken from another source
  • Site offers more value than other sites – whether that is through originality, better user experience on the site, more graphics, etc.


  • Information that is presented is trustworthy and researched
  • Content is written by experts or those who know the topic well
  • The site is a well-known authority on the subject
  • Content describes both sides of the story – viewpoints are not just from one source

Designed With Quality In Mind

  • Each page is relevant, with no overlapping information or pages that exist just to build links
  • Content is unique – not replicated and posted on other sites
  • Site is free of spelling, stylistic and factual errors
  • Clear quality control, meaning all site content (including comments, page elements, and so on) is maintained in a way that promotes useful information
  • Ads are limited to improve the user’s experience


  • Content offers information that is interesting beyond the obvious details, with an insightful opinion or analysis that makes readers want to stay on the page
  • Readers want to bookmark, comment, and share the article with friends

What You Need To Do Now

The best way to assess your site would be to look at pages that ranked well prior to the Phantom update. Do they meet all of Google’s quality criteria listed above? Are there any problems like comment spam or spelling errors that could reduce the user’s satisfaction with that page? If so, do a site audit and correct these pages for quality issues.

With more than 2 million blog posts being published each day, there’s a lot of competition to get into Google’s top spots. That means if you want to reach your audience, you’ve got to be the best of the best. Don’t let this intimidate you – just keep quality in mind and note what’s worked in the past and what’s working for your competitors.

Feel free to bookmark this page and use it when you audit your site for content quality. If your site was affected by the Phantom update, we’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below and let us know how your site is doing!