Phantom 3 update targets poor user experience

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Recently, large fluctuations in organic visibility have been impacting sites’ traffic across multiple industries. With no announced updates from Google, SEOs have been hard at work finding the cause of these movements.

In May 2015, digital marketing veteran Glenn Gabe noticed that a large number of sites were seeing fluctuations, yet webmasters and digital marketers were given no official announcement from Google. Given that these changes were so mysterious, what with Google denying the assumptions that this was a Panda or Penguin update, Gabe gave the update the label of Phantom 2, after its namesake Phantom which was released in early 2013.

Due to the similar nature of areas targeted by this update and the fact we are yet to receive an announcement around this update, it has been labelled Phantom 3 by the SEO community. The update rolled out around the 19th of November and appears to have targeted sites with poor user experience.

Identifying the issue and what to expect

A look into Searchmetrics will reveal whether or not your site has been hit by the update. Firstly, look for significant changes in visibility around the 19th of November. Sites which have been hit have seen around a 10% increases or decrease in visibility and some are seeing fluctuations of up to 20%. It’s important to follow this up in Google Analytics with further analysis into how this has affected your site’s traffic and revenue – have particular categories or landing pages seen greater impact? And how has this impacted on conversions and revenue?

Like most updates, there will likely be tremors within visibility graphs and organic traffic as the update continues to roll out in the weeks following its release.

Site owners and webmasters should expect recovery to take some time. This is because firstly we may need to see another update to fully recover, and secondly the nature of the areas targeted means that implementing changes as a result of this update will require ample analysis and development time.

What and where does the update target? And how to reverse the effects?

As previously mentioned, the update targets poor user experience. Below is a list of common elements which were found to be underperforming across negatively impacted sites.

  • Annoying/clunky site navigation: If Google is struggling to crawl your site efficiently, it’s likely that users are having a hard time navigating it too. Time should be spent identifying any issues users may have with the navigation and then optimising this both for bots and users. Key areas to focus on are ensuring that important category/landing pages are easily accessible, that the navigation isn’t cluttered with links, and that there is a clear category structure.
  • Thin/low-quality content: This one’s a no-brainer. Ensure all content on the site is relevant to the user and to the search term they used to get there. In addition, analysis of any supplementary content on the blog will reveal if articles aren’t getting the point across, or perhaps they’re just irrelevant to the rest of the content on your site. In any of the cases here, re-writes or removal of copy could benefit your site.
  • Poor pagination: A number of sites hit have implemented infinite scroll across their content without any other options available to navigate through content, such as a ‘view all’ button. This can affect sites with particularly long articles or those with poorly implemented pagination across category pages. Ensure pagination is user-friendly across your site by implementing ‘view all’, ‘first page’ and ‘last page’ buttons. In addition, generally focus on making navigating content more intuitive.
  • Banners and ads: Sites which have made excessive use of adverts and banners throughout content have been negatively impacted after the release of Phantom 3. If adverts and banners are pushing important content down the page or taking up a large percentage of the content on the page, user experience is hampered. In addition, the content on these pages becomes less prominent and less relevant overall with the presence of numerous ads.

If your site has been affected, conduct a full user experience audit across the site, paying particular attention to the points mentioned above and any other areas where a user’s journey is hampered by site structure, content or layout.

Finally, expect more updates of this kind. We’ve seen at least four updates which target user experience and content throughout 2015, and there will be more to come. So take time to implement any recommendations off the back of these audits and safeguard your site against updates to come.

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