On November 20, 2015, Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land reported on the Internet chatter that discussed a Google update that began about the 19th. Mostly depending upon how their own rankings were impacted by the update, SEOs and website owners expressed either positive or negative feedback about the changes.
Some early feedback attributed ranking gains to improvements that either made sites more mobile friendly or improved content; however, just as many posters complained about better rankings for competitors’ sites with low-quality backlink profiles. The forum and social media chatter alerted Mr. Schwartz to possible updates, but he didn’t only rely upon these opinions for confirmation of an update. He also published charts from Algaroo, and other SERP trackers to demonstrate a recent increase in rank volatility. This suggested that something changed, but nobody from Google had explained or even confirmed any updates.
What Was the November 19 Phantom Update?
Was the update real, a change to Penguin or Panda, or a difference in Google’s core algorithm? John Mueller, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, had already sent out a response to a question on Twitter on the 19th. He Tweeted that he had nothing significant to report and any changes noticed were likely to simply be one of hundreds of minor updates that the search engine giant makes each year. By the 20th, Mr. Mueller clarified his response by indicating that there had been an update to Google’s core algorithm.
By the beginning of December, search engine bloggers had named this update Phantom 3. To explain the name, Schwartz mentioned that two surprise updates in 2015 had been called Phantom 1 and 2. Later, according to a second Search Engine Land post on the update, Google confirmed that Phantom 2 had occurred in May, and they called it a quality update. Schwartz concluded that Phantom 3 was probably another update for quality, but he had no confirmation of that from Google.
Provocative Updates to Mobile Navigational Searches
Obviously, Google had rolled out an update. The exact nature of the update was still unknown. While evidence and some confirmation pointed to one of many core updates that the search engine company rolls out each year, Google never published any specifics. If this was all there was to it, interest might have faded. However, it only became more complex when navigational searches on mobile devices became an issue.
A navigational search is when a user searches for a website or page without directly typing in the URL. A relevant example of this might be typing “Tripadvisor hotels” in the search box instead of just navigating directly to TripAdvisor.com. It makes sense that some search users might rely upon these navigational searches more on mobile devices because it’s more difficult to type an entire page addresses on small devices. Also, mobile bookmarks may not be as accessible as they are on laptops and desktops.
It’s worth noting that a search engine company would benefit from navigational searches. They get a chance to display some advertising for these searches, and they can’t do that when Internet users simply access websites directly.
Google’s OneBox Topped Navigational Searches for Local Search Competitors
One would expect to have a high- authority website returned to the top of the page as the result of a navigational search. Google has constantly stated that they strive to focus on user intent, and it seems fairly intuitive to surmise that has to be the user’s intent. However, Mark Bergman reported on RE/Code that isn’t what was happening after the November 19th update.
In fact, the CEO of TripAdvisor complained about the update on Twitter on November 22. He gave an example that searches for “Tripadvisor HIlton” only returned the site’s search entry so far down in the results that it couldn’t be seen. Many navigational searches for Yelp pages produced similar results. Executives from these companies weren’t only provoked because their own company websites had moved down in the search results. Google had replaced the links for these authority sites with the large display for their own OneBox listings. Besides Yelp and TripAdvisor, FourSquare and ZocDoc also lost rankings to Google’s own entries.
For some background on this issue, both TripAdvisor and Yelp are participating in an EU lawsuit against Google for behaving in a way that they say stifles competition. The complaint alleges that the search engine company promotes its own products and does not provide unbiased search results when it runs counter to their own interests.
Re/Code mentioned that the FTC published documents from Google’s own internal communications about the Google algorithm’s use of co-occurrence signals. These signals would display the search engine’s own products when the regular algorithm would normally display a competitor’s websites. The concern about this update is that it appears to be a fairly blatant example of those co-occurrence signals in actual production use. Using a OneBox listing is far different than simply inserting a couple of obvious ads over the organic search results.
A spokeswoman from Google quickly reported the issue as a simple bug and promised a prompt fix. Jeremy Stoppelman, the CEO of Yelp, discounted the explanation and called it a behavior pattern and not a glitch. Kaufer of TripAdvisor echoed those sentiments. Regardless of the discussion, Google did roll out a “fix” the next day, and mobile, local searches returned to normal. Re/Code published an update that their own test searches confirmed that Google had remediated the problem.
Was the Mobile Search Update a Bug, a Test, or a Message?
Was it a bug? CEOs from impacted companies still contend that it wasn’t a mistake. At the same time, Google maintains that it was. People who really believe in conspiracy theories might contend that it was not a simple glitch or a greedy manipulation in search results for some holiday shopping traffic. Instead, it might have been the search engine company’s way of letting their competitors, the public, and maybe even the government see what they could do if they really wanted to manipulate search results.
Phantom 3 Appears to be a Quality Update
Later in December, SEMRush published the results of their traffic analysis for general website searches for the November 19th update. They concluded that the update was both real and significant. Forty percent of the sites they tracked gained or lost traffic by at least 10 percent. They concluded that it was, indeed, a quality update and that sites that suffered losses had issues with duplicate or low-quality content.
Website owners of any sites that lost positions should analyze their own pages for content issues. A BrightEdge Site Audit can help uncover problems and protect sites from possible traffic losses from future quality and algo updates.