What Google’s ‘Phantom 2’ means for content

Google’s secretive ‘Phantom 2’ algorithm update has seen its rankings favour sites with high-quality content that encourages users to engage early in the awareness and consideration stages of their purchase journey.


Nothing creates more panic or sharpens digital marketers’ minds more than a Google algorithm update. No sooner had they got over the seismic implications of ‘Mobilegeddon’, when the search engine announced its rankings would favour mobile-optimised websites, than another shift was confirmed in Google’s approach to ranking content-driven sites.

With Google’s ‘Phantom 2’ algorithm update – so-called because its effects on search results became apparent before Google acknowledged its existence – the focus is now firmly on quality. ‘Content farms’ churning out how-to articles and sites bloating their pages with keywords will no longer perform as well.

“The update rewards brands that are producing genuinely engaging content,” says Jasper Martens, head of marketing and communications at business insurance provider Simply Business. “The length of time people stick around and whether they click to the next piece of content are both signals that Google takes into account rather than just using the right number of keywords or optimising the page title.”

Search engine optimisation platform Searchmetrics confirms this theory in its latest Google Rank Correlation and Ranking Factors study, which analysed 10,000 popular key words and 300,000 websites that appear in the top 30 search results. It finds that Google’s algorithm classes high-quality content as that which has a higher word count, more images or videos, and more comprehensive and relevant wording – not just key words but related words too. For example, if the search is for ‘iPhone 6’, proof terms such as ‘Apple’ and ‘mobile’ are important, along with other connected terms, like ‘rumours’ or ‘screen size’.

Simply Business has been producing content aimed at its small business insurance customers since 2008, with six of its 20-strong marketing team dedicated to its creation.

However, over the past couple of years the company has shifted its approach to focus on content “for people that are not yet ready to buy but are doing their research online”, and it produces brand awareness content even further up the sales funnel too.

“We don’t talk about insurance at [the awareness stage]. Instead, we concentrate on things that matter to our audience to help them grow and run their business better,” says Martens. “If it is done in the right way, people that land on that content will stick. They might also view additional content, come back to your site directly a week later or sign up for an email newsletter.”

Simply Business recently surveyed 2,000 customers about how they achieve a work-life balance, for example, which it has published online.

“It has nothing to do with insurance but it is a topic that matters to small businesses, so as one of the biggest SME communities in the UK it’s a great opportunity for us to speak to our customers,” explains Martens.

Google’s director for agency performance Matt Bush agrees that brands should be moving content further up the funnel as people are asking much bigger questions of search such as “how, why, when and where instead of just what”.

Google phantom 2 effects graph

He describes Google as “a real human view of what people are thinking and doing anywhere in the world at any given time”, meaning marketers should be much smarter about how they use the channel.

Bush says: “From a brand perspective, people tend to use search right at the end of the funnel when they want someone to make a purchase. It’s last-click attribution onto an ecommerce site, which is fine and works phenomenally well, but if that’s all you are doing, you’re ignoring all that emotion and questioning.”

Instead, he advises brands to start moving the idea of search much higher up the decision-making process, so that whenever someone asks a question that is relevant to their business they can surface related content.

He says there has been a shift from product and brand searches to purpose searches, so brands should be taking advantage. While there are lots of searches for ‘running shoes’ at the moment, for example, the number of people searching for ‘marathon running’ and looking for tips and advice is far higher.

“Brands understand this and they know there is loads of information out there that they could be giving runners at that point but they do not really bother,” he claims.

“Instead, they rely on someone to buy their running shoe without really giving them the help and advice they need to understand how to make the right decision.”

Although it may not lead to an immediate purchase, he believes the next time that person is looking to buy running shoes they will think more highly of the brand that offered them advice and would be likely to return to them for help if they need it again in the future.

“The purpose of the running shoe is to run marathons, so rather than just focusing on the product think about what content you can give people that actually helps them in their quest to run a marathon”

Matt Bush, Google

Ultimately, people buy a brand to use it so businesses should be creating content around their purpose that can be delivered at the point when people are interested.

“Otherwise for some big purchases you have missed six months of a relationship and you will be trying to flog your wares too late because the consumer has already made up their mind,” he warns.

He singles out car marque Fiat in the US as linking content and search particularly well when promoting its compact model in the market.

“Fiat started buying loads of search terms such as ‘small car’, ‘city car’, ‘compact car’ and ‘economical car’, all the things Americans had started to search for, and then put relevant [branded] content in front of them when they were making those searches. It saw sales go up by around 130% over a six-month period,” he claims.

Although many content producers feared the latest Google update would negatively affect traffic – and reports suggest some saw an 87% drop at the time of the change in May (see Winners and losers, above), Martens from Simply Business says traffic to its ‘knowledge and community’ section has gone up from 40,000 unique visits last year to 94,000 today.

“It’s partly to do with the fact we promote some of our content through social channels, but the main factor is that our content just ranks better so we have more people coming to our website.”

Justifying investment

Measuring the value of content further up the funnel is often an issue for marketers looking to justify investment, but Martens argues that there are clear indicators that it is worthwhile.

“We can see that the number of people we are adding to our prospect list has increased. The number of people who visit our quote form is up too. It used to be 1.5% to 2% of readers and now it is 6% to 7% for some content, and that, of course, translates into additional revenue,” he says.

At electrical manufacturer Philips, content also plays a pivotal role, but Marco Muijsert, global search lead for Philips Personal Health, says he “does not believe in following and chasing all the Google algorithm updates”. The brand therefore made the decision to rethink how it creates content a few years ago, taking search and social into account to make it as relevant as possible.

Phillips breaker

“When we looked at our content a couple of years ago it was really product-focused. We have moved to earlier in the funnel, so it is now more about awareness and experience. It’s the type of content that is shareable and people can engage with,” he says.

The business, which works with digital agency Bazaarvoice, has 47 local sites that all share a common content database but are driven by the separate business groups and then further localised and tweaked by teams on the ground to make it is as relevant as possible for the consumer.

“We want to focus on the long-term view and that means building more organic growth versus getting a short-term win that could harm us [further down the line],” he adds.

As a result of the shift in strategy, Muijsert says Philips was unaffected by Google’s latest update because it was prepared.

Google’s Bush does not believe content strategies need to be changed dramatically but he suggests that some tweaks should be made.

Brands can take advantage of particular patterns or changes in search behaviour by looking at Google Trends, which documents the most popular search terms in real time.

However, Tony McPartlan, digital marketing manager at training provider Euromoney Learning Solutions, says one of the biggest challenges he faces is finding the time and resource to keep on top of changing patterns in order to take advantage.

“Monitoring trending industry topics, creating high-quality content around them and building relationships with influencers are all time-consuming,” he says.

He believes the change to search behaviour has given the business the opportunity to re-evaluate its content, though, and it has been working with digital agency Jellyfish to develop and implement its new strategy.

“We were already focused on producing high-quality, targeted content [but] we’re redoubling our [attention] on improving trust signals around our content such as dwell time and social interactions by ensuring that all our posts are offering unique insights into the whole training and HR industry, rather than being blinkered by an entirely sales-driven approach,” adds McPartlan.