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If you’re an SEO, in the weeks after the unconfirmed Phantom V wave, you might be calling RankBrain a shitty robot. But what’s really going on? During the later parts of February 2017, we’ve been watching the visibility – via Searchmetrics – drop pretty significantly for a number of sites. This isn’t necessarily abnormal, aside from the dense presence of high authority pages on the most recent losers list. Most recently this has included everyone from Facebook, to Reddit, to YouTube and even Forbes.

Wait, YouTube Losing its Google Ranking?

Yeah, and not only did YouTube get dinged, it topped the list of losers… On desktop and mobile! The desktop and mobile lists have been noticeably different lately, confirming that Google is looking at the two through very different lenses. This is true even though the mobile first index is still in the distance. As of Feb 21, YouTube has been exhibiting a number of issues and outages which may or may not be contributing to the problem. Additionally, some users are seeing the material interface updates on the web property, which could also play a part.

More interesting is the apparent connection between this weeks’ losers, which fall more or less into the social/sharing/video/forum space. Along with Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube, we have Tumblr, LinkedIn, Quora, Vimeo, Spotify, various Adult sites, and more. Last week we saw a strong presence from news organizations, though most have more-or-less recovered. It doesn’t seem out of the question for Phantom to be a vertical-specific update. If this is the case, will we see a new group shaken up next week?

Another interesting thing to consider is the URLs that are – or aren’t – ranking for these sites. Mobile users saw www.youtube.com drop completely out of the SERPs:

youtube-losers

However, m.youtube.com appears to have seamlessly stepped in as a replacement:

youtube-winners

Similar swaps appear throughout the URL breakdown for YouTube, yet the net impact on traffic is still negative, and there is no similar correlation in the desktop rankings.

Twitter’s mobile performance was mixed:

twitter-losers

twitter-winners

What is RankBrain Thinking, Er, Algorithm-ing?

Perhaps RankBrain is simply predicting the future… Some are predicting tougher antitrust enforcement regarding Google’s search results, although this probably isn’t a proactive anti-monopoly move by the AI. The real question is, would we know even if it was?

This may instead be evidence of a larger shift in how Google is approaching indexing and ranking altogether. It shouldn’t be news to anyone in the SEO space that the days of simple “tricks” for ranking are long gone. RankBrain seems to be adding more nuance and more complexity to the world of search. This is, of course, great news for users, but what are companies and their SEOs to do?!

It Makes Dollars & Sense, Actually

Shortly after the onslaught of Phantom V, a few astute observers pointed out that in many cases traffic remained relatively unaffected despite a considerable loss in visibility. This aligns with Google’s overall drive towards better understanding queries from an intent perspective, and could be evidence that the algorithm is simply doing a better job connecting searches with the answers they want.

SEO visibility is important, no doubt, but it acts more as an indicator than anything else. Let’s dive a little deeper into what that traffic really means:

YouTube’s estimated traffic value actually increased around 21% to $40 Million, again according to Searchmetrics, during the same time period as the overwhelming SEO visibility drop. This is a recurring theme: LinkedIn traffic value rose about 4% to $7 Million on a visibility drop of 3%, and for Google it was a 6% lift to $264 Million despite a 5% drop.

youtube-overview

There were exceptions, of course, like Twitter (-18% value, -2% visibility,) but, for many sites, the bottom line impact may have been minimal.

Is Phantom a Menace?

At first glance, the Phantom V – or quality update, or Panda, or whichever you believe – appears to be causing massive waves in the world of online marketing, but it may not be the dark, looming figure we’re expecting. The underlying goals haven’t changed, and giving users unique, valuable pages is still the top priority. Perhaps the system is just getting better at refining queries, and our job is creating equally refined web pages.

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