Google has finally confirmed what many of us suspected… they have made a change to their core search ranking algorithm, and it is being dubbed as the Quality Update or the Quality Algo, and formerly referred to as the Phantom Update, or Phantom Update 2.
Changes were first noticed at the beginning of the month and Google said little other than the fact it wasn’t Panda or Penguin… which it technically wasn’t. However, it did have an impact similar to Panda due to the targeting of this algo change.
This quality update isn’t so much about punishing low-quality sites – although that is a side effect. It is rewarding quality content with higher rankings and then as a result of this, with more traffic. But as these sites with higher quality content are rising in the search results, it naturally means they are pushing other, less desirable content down further in the search results.
This is a change to their core ranking algorithm, which means unlike Penguin and Panda, it will be updated in real time, something many webmasters will like. And it is definitely one of those other non-Panda and non-Penguin signals that SEOs should focus on.
While this update has been dubbed the “quality update”, you could also view it as being a reverse Panda. While Panda negatively impacted thin and low-quality content, this quality update seems to positively impact great quality content instead.
Because of the way this update is affecting content, it is likely why many people suspected it was initially a Panda update. After all, for every good page that goes up in the search results, it means another page has to drop down. Since the types of sites that would be negatively impacted by Panda would also lose rankings with this new quality update, it isn’t surprising that many suspected it was Panda.
I’m also curious to know what kind of relationship this update has with Panda. It seems to me that they are going after similar things. Yet Google says that this was NOT Panda. Many of the sites that I saw that had increases with this update had previously been negatively or positively affected by Panda but some were not. I wonder if perhaps this is one of the reasons why we have not seen a Panda update in over 6 months now. Perhaps Panda will be replaced with a new, baked in Quality Algorithm?
Also, I work with a lot of companies impacted by Panda, and the problems I was coming across were extremely Panda-like. This is why many people were confused about what actually impacted them starting on 4/29. We haven’t had a Panda update or refresh in nearly seven months (the last was on 10/24/14), so many started thinking it was Panda.
Although Google says this isn’t Panda, it sure looks to have lots of overlap with what we typically see when Panda updates. As others have pointed out, sites that were impacted appear to have serious content quality issues.
Macnamara also questions why we are seeing this reverse Panda now, while those who were hit with Panda and/or Penguin are still waiting for those updates to happen.
I think it is interesting that we have all been waiting for both Panda and Penguin to update for months, yet instead of pushing out an update for those algorithmic features, Google instead chose to release this into the wild.
Going for the positive?
We have recently seen three significant algo changes have all been changes that are rewarding for good, rather than demoting for the not-so-good.
We have seen the mobile update, which gave a boost to mobile-friendly sites in the mobile search results. The HTTPS ranking signal, although it turned to be less of an impact than many SEOs had hoped, also gave a bit of a boost to HTTPS sites. And now the quality update is rewarding the quality content.
And it is nice to see quality content being rewarded per se… even if it is what those webmasters see when spammier content is penalized.
Page level, not site level
As with all of Google’s core algo changes they make, this is confirmed by Google to be on a page by page level. This is good news for those who need to improve their content, as they can focus on the most important pages first.
There was some speculation that it could be impacted on a site-wide level, primarily because Panda is on a site-level, but it is page level.
Page level also has another perk for many webmasters who were relatively unscathed with this update. It is a great opportunity to look through for individual pages that seemed to have been passed over for the boost, and improve the content to see those pages get more traffic. With real time updates, webmasters won’t have to wait too long in order to see the increased traffic, as long as they aren’t impacted by another of the signals for those particular pages.
According to Hubpages, they felt it was a site-wide impact. But can their 22% drop across all types of their pages being matched with similar gains in the various markets they target by their competitors? Quite possibly, especially since the 22% is in line with what others are widely seeing. And with any site as large as Hubpages, it can be harder to see the nuances of pages that went up versus went down, especially across a ton of verticals… and they did see changes across their verticals when it came to the percentage of traffic impacted.
Real time updates
Again, because this is a core algo change, the updates confirmed to be real time. So webmasters do not need to wait for the push of a button from Google in order to see changes with the quality update. Of course, it also relies on Googlebot crawling updated content and there is always the possibility pages that didn’t receive this quality update boost are also impacted by one of the many other signals in their search algo – in fact, one could argue that it is very likely there could also be something else in play for pages that did not seemingly get a boost, since poorer quality content pages tend to have more issues than just bad content.
For SEOs used to languishing while waiting for an update, like they do with both Panda and Penguin, this is a nice change.
Beyond strictly content?
Kristine Schachinger feels that it isn’t just content that is impacted, but also areas that impact content too.
This update was suggested to be Panda like or related to “how to” sites, but Google confirmed that this is a change in how quality signals are applied. If you look at the data people have collected such as Glenn Gabe of GSI, it seems to be an across the board change to the application of quality signals of not just content, but site structure, layout, even technical area. Time will tell and more research needs to happen to determine exactly how these signals have changed, but from what I’ve seen the effects on a site can be fairly dramatic either positively or negatively.
Affiliate linking and sites
There was initial speculation that this could be somehow targeting affiliates, particularly those with an over-abundance of affiliate links on a single page. But again, this seems to be a side effect of other sites being boosted. But just like any other type of site, there are affiliate sites with poor content and affiliate sites that are rocking the quality content, so naturally those with better content will perform better.
Winners & Losers
Also from Hubspot, they say who they see as winners and losers. And the losers are the types of sites you would imagine getting hit by Panda, and some have in the past.
Then when you look at the winners, again, they are more the types of sites you expect to flourish when a Panda hits, so it makes sense they are the ones who got a boost.
Here is Hubspot’s list of winners and losers:
Lost Traffic in Latest Update:
Gained Traffic in Latest Update
Here are some screenshots that show the changes in traffic.
The first two show winners Epicurious and Quora.
Personally, I have seen a huge increase in the amount of Quora content in the search results, so much so that I am starting to avoid those results because the “answers”, while sometimes providing useful information, tend to be difficult to read with long paragraphs.
Haynes saw positive and negative changes of between 10-25% of overall traffic for the sites she evaluated with the changes went live. She shared this screenshot which is typical with what she sees.
The movement I initially saw with the 4/29 update didn’t strike me as Panda-like, since many sites were moving 10-20% either up or down. But as I dug into more sites impacted by Phantom 2, I did analyze some traditional Panda-like drops and spikes. For example, massive drops or surges in Google organic traffic occurring overnight. You can see a screenshot of a serious hit and surge below.
If you are looking to improve your quality, Hubspot’s “winners” would be a good place to start, especially on pages you already see ranking well.
Google has also told us a lot of what makes great content. They recently added a section to their Search Console (just renamed from Google Webmaster Tools) on the things to consider to “Create valuable content“.
Watching the changes
Glenn also feels this is a fascinating update to watch.
Needless to say, this has been a fascinating Google update to analyze. Now we get to see how business owners respond to the impact, and then how Google responds to those changes. The next few months will be interesting for sure.
If you were impacted & recovery
Again, this update seems to reward for positive rather than specifically demoting the less-than-stellar content. This is good news for those who saw their rankings go down because it is much much easier to reverse and correct something that is updated in real time, as opposed to dealing with something impacted by Penguin or Panda which requires a button to be pressed for updating.
Glenn feels that seeing how sites recover from this change will be interesting.
Recovery-wise, since this latest update is part of Google’s core ranking algorithm, I’m extremely interested in knowing if sites can recover in real-time. For example, as changes are picked up, can the sites rebound quickly or will it take longer (like the way Panda or Penguin victims need to wait for a refresh or update)? User engagement is key with content quality problems, so my guess is that it will take some time for Google to first pick up the changes, and then assess “quality” based on user engagement. Time will tell.
Quality content bandwagon
Bottom line, Google has been talking for years about the need for great quality content. While they have been penalizing for poor quality, this is a nice change to see them reward for great quality instead. As is often the case, while great quality will see an uplift as poor quality is penalized, having a new algo signal that specifically targets and rewards those with great content is something that many webmasters and writers have been wanting for some time.
But for those still stuck waiting for Panda to update? Looks like you may be waiting a bit longer. But this new quality update might mean Panda will no longer be such a significant issue in the future, once those sites stuck in it are released.
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