May was a rough month for webmasters, SEO professionals, and business owners. There were two significant algorithm updates that impacted many sites across the web.
The first, which I analyzed heavily and called Phantom, was released on May 8. I'll cover Phantom more below, but for now it's important to understand that it targeted content and not links.
Then we had the much-anticipated Penguin 2.0 rollout on May 22. With Penguin 2.0, we learned that the new algorithm update went deeper than its 1.0 predecessor. And as you can guess, many websites were hit by Penguin based on risky link profiles filled with unnatural links.
Phanteguin - A Powerful One-Two Punch from Google
I do a lot of work with companies hit by algorithm updates. And when you speak with someone who's been hit by Panda, Penguin, or Phantom, you can hear the anger, frustration, and fear in their voices. Many don't know exactly what happened, they don't know what to do, and they are losing business with every hour that passes. It's an ugly situation.
But it can get worse.
There is a situation that's more serious than just getting hit by one algorithm update. It's when you get by two algorithm updates. I witnessed this last year with Pandeguin, which I saw first-hand while helping companies hit by both Panda and Penguin.
Well, now we have a new one-two punch from Google, and I'm calling it Phanteguin. I'm currently helping three companies deal with a Phantom hit and a Penguin hit, and the two updates were separated by a mere two weeks.
In this post, I'll go deeper with each algorithm update, explain how to identify the drop in rankings and traffic from each, and then provide some guidance on what you can do now to start the recovery process.
Google Penguin and Phantom: Digging Deeper
Both algorithm updates had their own characteristics and targeted their own set of factors. Penguin is still extremely acute, and hammers unnatural links. The big difference with Penguin 2.0 versus 1.0 was that it went deeper, taking any page on your site into account. In the past, Penguin only analyzed your homepage links (as Google's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts explained).
I've now analyzed 26 websites hit by Penguin 2.0 (and over 200 when you combine Penguin 1.0 and 2.0), and the pattern is still the same. Penguin crushes websites with unnatural links using exact match anchor text from low-quality sites.
You can read my blog post covering Penguin 2.0 insights, but the types of unnatural links remained consistent with 1.0, including spammy directories, comment spam, public and private link networks, blogrolls on splogs, etc. I can spot Penguin food from a mile away now.
Phantom, on the other hand, was extremely content-focused. It resembled Panda more than Penguin.
Phantom was released on May 8 and the first calls I received started coming in just one day later on May 9. Below is a screenshot of a Google organic traffic drop from Phantom. Note, I've seen a drop in Google organic traffic for websites hit by Phantom ranging from 25-45 percent.
After writing a post covering the Phantom update, which was initially based on analyzing four sites hit by our spooky friend, the floodgates opened. I had companies from all over the world contacting me about getting hit on May 8th.
It was amazing to see, and incredible for confirming that there was indeed a significant algorithm update. Also, Pete Meyers from Moz ended up posting Phantom in the official Google Algorithm Change History. He also noticed the impact of Phantom on May 8.
The more sites I analyzed that were hit by Phantom, the more you could see the pattern. Let's just say that Phantom liked to haunt content, and not links.
There were a number of content issues on the sites hit by Phantom, ranging from thin content, affiliate content, scraped content, low-quality content, etc. There were also signs of heavy cross-linking from company-owned domains using exact match anchor text. I've seen that problem with sites hit by Panda too.
Panda Greased the Skids for Phantom
One common thread I saw across sites hit by Phantom was that almost every website had been previously hit by Panda. Clearly, these sites had struggled with content quality issues in the past, and Phantom seemed to come in and kick them while they were down.
How to Identify Phanteguin
Let's say you noticed a drop in rankings and traffic in May, but have no idea where to begin. That's the situation many business owners are in when they call me about their websites.
There are times when it's easy to connect the dots and then there are times you need to dig a little deeper to find the true culprit. Using both Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics (or any analytics package) can help you identify the specific drops in traffic, along with the specific dates of the drop. The dates are important so you can line up traffic drops with algorithm updates like Phantom and Penguin.
Starting in Google Webmaster Tools, you can head to the Search Queries report, which will display your impressions and clicks over the past 90 days. The default view will be the past 30 days, so you will need to set the timeframe accordingly to see any impact from Phantom or Penguin.
At this point, you might already see the drop on May 8 or May 22. Or worse, you might see a drop on both dates, also known as Phanteguin.
You can also isolate types of search traffic, including web only, image search, mobile only, video, etc. Selecting those filters could also help you identify specific drops. The default filter is web-only, which is a smart place to start.
Key Takeaway: Phantom arrived on May 8 and Penguin 2.0 arrived on May 22. Make sure you know the exact dates that your rankings and traffic began to drop. That will help you understand which algorithm update impacted your site, and will help you determine the right recovery plan.
A Phantom Lesson Using Location Filters
It's important to fully understand which algorithm update hit your site, since you don't want to address the wrong issues on your website. Remember, Penguin targets links, while Phantom and Panda target content. That's why you should spend time thoroughly analyzing your site's reporting before you map out a plan of attack.
For example, reviewing the analytics reporting for one of my clients showed a drop on May 9 from Phantom, but their search queries reporting in webmaster tools did not match up. That's until I started analyzing specific countries in webmaster tools and found the issue.
When I analyzed the search queries reporting for the United States only, you could clearly see the drop on May 9. And you couldn't see that drop as clearly when taking all countries into account.
And once you identify the drop, you can compare the time period after the drop to the time period before the drop. You can do this in Google Webmaster tools for the last 30 days only. And of course, you could export your webmaster tools data to complete heavier analysis in Excel.
Important Note: This is where a several new clients have head-smack moments. They aren't exporting their Google Webmaster Tools data regularly. So if a company reaches out to me too late, I might not be able to analyze the most important data from webmaster tools (during the algo hit).
Key takeaway: Export your webmaster tools data on a regular basis (once per month would be smart).
Google Analytics (or any Analytics Package)
Now that you've analyzed Webmaster Tools data, it's time to jump to your analytics reporting. And for Google Analytics users, advanced segments will become your best friend.
You should start by isolating your Google organic search traffic and then view the trending graph. Phantom-wise, you'll want to identify the drop in traffic from certain keywords and landing pages, which can help you identify possible content issues and pages to analyze further.
If the drop isn't as clear as you thought, you might need to use advanced segments to isolate certain types of Google organic traffic. For example, you can set up advanced segments for branded versus non-branded traffic, country-specific traffic, or segment specific categories of keywords.
Advanced segments let you slice and dice your traffic and can really help you gain a solid view of traffic drops over time. For example, once I isolated non-branded search traffic for one of my clients, we could clearly see the drops on specific dates. It ends up that branded traffic, which is still strong, was skewing the reporting. Advanced segments helped us hone in on the specific problem.
Once you identify the drops in traffic, you can compare the time period after getting hit to the time period before getting hit to hone in on the keywords and content that dropped significantly (for Phantom). If you were a detective, these would be your hot leads. Follow and investigate further.
Analyzing Phanteguin – No Easy Task
If you've been hit by both Phantom and Penguin, then you'll need to analyze your site on two fronts. Phantom must be analyzed through a content quality filter, while Penguin is all about unnatural links.
In my opinion, Penguin is much more acute, and the recovery plan is more straightforward. Phantom is more like Panda, and it can take more time to rectify content issues hurting the website at hand.
If you have the resources to tackle both at the same time, then do so. But if you don't, I recommend tackling Penguin first.
You need to heavily analyze your inbound links, flag unnatural links, organize them, and start the removal process. The size of the project completely depends on your own link profile. Some sites contain a few thousand links to analyze, while others contain hundreds of thousands of links (or more).
Don't get overwhelmed. Start with bite-size pieces of a link profile and keep moving.
Delay will only hurt your recovery efforts. You need to act quickly, document everything you can, and clean up your inbound links. And don't forget to check your link removals by using Screaming Frog or Deep Crawl. Both can save you significant amounts of time.
From a Phantom standpoint, the analysis is similar to a Panda audit. Unfortunately, as described earlier, there could be a number of factors that led to the Phantom hit.
Webmasters need to objectively review all of their content and identify the risks. Then it's important to come up with a strong plan for refining or gutting site content.
Side Note: I'm extremely aggressive with Panda and Phantom changes. I'd rather have a client recover from Panda or Phantom and then build upon a strong foundation versus getting caught in the gray area. You can read my latest post about the new and improved Panda for more information about the Panda gray area, and the new 10 day rollout. In my opinion, the new rollout could be disastrous for webmasters.
What to Do if You've Been Hit by Phanteguin
If you've been hit by Phanteguin, here are some things you can do to can get moving in the right direction, and soon.
- Identify which algorithm update(s) hit your site. Know if you've been hit by one, or by two updates. This is critically important as each algo update targets different factors.
- For Penguin, heavily analyze your link profile and flag spammy links. Then remove those links the best you can. Add the links you can't remove to your disavow file.
- For Phantom, heavily analyze your content, and begin analyzing the pages that dropped significantly after the Phantom update. Be objective, be aggressive, and don't be afraid to make hard decisions regarding your content. Get out of the Phantom gray area.
- If you don't feel comfortable analyzing your links and content, have a technical SEO audit conducted. Laser-focused audits targeting a specific algorithm update can do wonders for clarity. There's a cost involved, but it pales in comparison to being caught in the Penguin or Phantom filter for a long time.
- Once you've taken action, you'll need to wait for another algorithm update (Penguin, Phantom, or Panda). Note, I've seen websites recover from Penguin during a Panda update, so my guess is that Phantom could recover during other updates too. Panda is now rolled out once per month over 10 days, and the next Penguin update is TBD (but hopefully we'll see refreshes soon).
- Learn AdWords and Bing Ads. No, I'm not joking. It's a harsh reality, but paid search can provide air cover as you try to recover from Phanteguin. Analyze the value from the keywords you lost and set up campaigns targeting those keywords in AdWords and Bing Ads. Then adjust your spend, based on your level of recovery. I have set up and managed a number of paid search campaigns for Panda, Penguin, and now Phantom victims. It's a smart approach.
Summary – Start The Phanteguin Recovery Process Now
Getting hit by one algorithm update can be painful, but getting hit by two can be catastrophic. As I mentioned earlier in the post, it's critically important that you understand which algorithm update hit your site, and if you were hit by multiple updates.
Both Phantom and Penguin target different factors, so you don't want to spend time and money fixing an area of your site that doesn't need to be fixed. Unfortunately, that happens too often.
And don't get caught in the gray area of algorithm updates (by not fixing enough of the problem). The gray area is a lonely place filled with the sound of spinning wheels. And that sound can drive you mad. Good luck.