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Was Google's New “Phantom 3” Update Real?

Qi (Vincent) Zhao
Was Google's New “Phantom 3” Update Real?

Every day Google evaluates a huge amount of web pages to improve the overall quality of search results. While Google did not confirm such changes for Nov. 19, there's plenty of evidence to show there was a core ranking algorithm update.

Google Phantom 3: Allegedly Pushed on Nov. 19, 2015

Back in May, Google confirmed the Quality Update about two weeks after it was first noticed. Mr. Gabe called the update "Phantom 2," leaving us to assume it was a follow up of another unconfirmed update in 2013. Was this new Nov. unconfirmed "Quality Update" real? How is the Nov. update related to the previous update in May? Let's have a closer look at the data.

Here are some typical gains and drops from SEMrush screenshots.

Phantom 3 Gains and Losses

(click to enlarge)

In the above examples, the organic traffic could rise or drop by 50% overnight. Even the huge domain which has 30 million monthly traffic could be affected. Isn't that crazy?

How Many Domains Does Phantom 3 Influence?

Based on the SEMrush US database, 40% of domains experienced at least 10% traffic change in last month. To investigate the number of domains influenced by Phantom 3, I chose a completely randomized domain sample. There are 10,000 domains in the sample; domains with less than 1,000 monthly organic traffic are not chosen to reduce the effect of outliers. The result of the analysis is impressive: over 40% domains experienced at least 10% organic traffic change, 20% domains experienced at least 20% organic traffic change and 10% of sampled domains experienced over 30% organic traffic change.

Why Phantom 3?

Now we know that the Nov. 19 update was a huge update that impacted many sites across the web. Is there a relationship between Phantom 2 in May and this one?

Yes, they are highly correlated.

(click to enlarge)

The domains which experienced high organic changes on Nov. 19 also experienced apparent traffic change in Phantom 2. From the sample taken in the previous section, 60% of the domains which experienced over 10% traffic change in Nov. had over 10% traffic change in Phantom 2 as well. Also, the following correlation graph tells the connection between traffic change in November and the other months this year.


Quality Update: Webpage Content

The Phantom Update punished pages that exhibited duplicate or very similar content. Over 90% domains which witnessed a more than 10% loss have duplicate content issues or duplicate title tags; while only less than 30% domains which witnessed a gain in Phantom 3 have such issues.

SEMrush's Site Audit tool helps you monitor the issues and errors of your website. The following screenshots show you the huge differences between the gain side and the loss side.

SEMrush Site Audit tool can also tell you the URL of the pages which have issues or are broken.

SEMrush Site Audit Tool


According to our SEMrush database, the Phantom 3 update on November 19 does exist and affects a large group of sites. The high correlation between previous quality updates and Phantom 3 indicates the latest update is about quality. The domains with poor quality content and duplicate pages witnessed a significant drop in SERP positions and organic traffic in this update.

If your domains were influenced by Phantom 3, then you should perform a deep crawl analysis and audit of your website. Given the information from SEMrush's site analysis, you can carry out a powerful and efficient audit plan to recover from the impact from Google update.

Qi (Vincent) Zhao is a data scientist in SEMrush. He loves making beautiful things with data. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Qi (Vincent) Zhao is a data scientist at SEMrush. He loves making beautiful things with data. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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Michael Stricker
Great work, Qi! Knowing the correlation with Dupe Content and having the URLs for those pages puts site owners much closer to recovery. Timing of the resulting rebound in SERPs may be reliant on the next, "Phantom Update", or, if this is a flavor of Panda, then waiting for the next Panda refresh. Google claimed such updates would be merged with the primary algo, but many SEOs agree this has not occurred yet, at least, not entirely.
I like to use CopyScape to gain insight into how much content has been duplicated, where.
Qi (Vincent) Zhao
Michael Stricker
Thank you, Mike. We will keep a eye on changes in SERPs and the next Panda refresh and see how this develops.
mark rushworth
time to hammer siteliner to find 'similar' content then lol.
Qi (Vincent) Zhao
mark rushworth
Thanks for your comment. All information are based on a rigorous sample study.

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