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Keeping Up With Google: Content Marketing and Google's Phantom Update

By Zachary Evans
Business.com / Marketing Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

How Google's recent Phantom Update affects your content marketing efforts.

Ever click on a result in the Google Search Results Page only to have some annoying video start playing or huge pop-up ad block your entire screen? Annoying, right?  

Well, the good news is that Google is aggressively tweaking its search algorithm to remove pages and websites that do the kinds of things that infuriate visitors.

The latest algorithmic update came at the end of 2015, and was dubbed Phantom III (because it wasn’t initially confirmed by Google) and followed two other Quality Updates designed to boost sites that provide favorable user experience.

This is good news for content marketers who have been doing things the right way, creating useful content that provides unique value to users. And it’s hopefully another nail in the coffin of websites that look for gimmicky shortcuts that don’t benefit the visitor.

Related Article: In a Content Marketing Rut? Tailor Your Content to Your Customers’ Interests

Quality Content vs. User Experience

Content marketing has become an essential facet of any online business today, one of the major trends affecting the marketing landscape for business in recent years.  

But as Google’s algorithm gets more sophisticated, it is no longer enough to simply create quality content, you have to take into consideration how the user experiences that content.

It’s been five years since Google’s initial rollout of the Panda algorithm, designed to punish sites with thin, duplicate or otherwise manipulative content.  

The boost that quality content sites received at this time made true content marketing more important than ever. Now the Phantom Update has taken the emphasis of usefulness a step further.

G-Squared Interactive’s Glenn Gabe has conducted extensive research on Panda and the subsequent Quality Updates, and he confirms that the major target appears to be sites that have significant barriers to user engagement:

“After analyzing many sites impacted by Google’s quality updates in 2015 (including the 11/19 update), I believe Phantom is basically looking out for users. I have yet to find one site negatively impacted by Phantom 2 or the 11/19 update that didn’t have some type of user engagement problem (and many had several problems).”

What this means is that user experience and audience engagement should no longer be considered a site design issue, and instead should be a regular consideration in a business’s content marketing strategy.

What NOT to Do

In the past, content has frequently been created with the business’s goals in mind more than the user, whether it be specifically advertorial, or as a means to drive site monetization through advertising.

This has led to many practices that Gabe identified as the biggest problems for sites negatively affected by Phantom, such as:

  • Ad deception, such as unlabeled ads, ads woven into content, large ads that pushed content below the fold, or ads cloaked as content, including affiliate links.
  • Annoying UX problems like infinite scrolling, pop-ups, and modal windows.
  • Pages with thin content that didn’t lead up to expectations.
  • Excessive pagination of content.
  • Anonymous content with no author or sources listed.

Now, however, content needs to become increasingly geared toward usefulness. In order to achieve this with your own content, your first step should be to fix any of these issues already existing on your site and move away from them going forward.

How can you identify whether these issues exist on your site? In many cases, it should be readily apparent. In other cases, you will need to study the data to see how users are responding to your content.  

Check Google Analytics to determine how users are engaging with your site. The bounce rate of a page can tell you whether users are are sticking around and consuming your content or leaving immediately.  

Related Article: How To Make Content Marketing Work in a Boring Industry

Can You Define Quality?

The foundation of content marketing and user experience is, of course, having truly high quality content. What determines the quality of a piece of content, though?

This is something that has kept content marketers and SEOs awake at night since the introduction of Panda.  But according to Gary Illyes of Google, most marketers are overthinking things.

“It’s so obvious,” Illyes told Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan at SMX Advanced in 2015.  “Something that satisfies users’ information need, that is quality. If you have quality content, users will link to it. On Facebook people will like, Google Plus will +1, Twitter will share, etc. I’m not sure why we are actually discussing this question.”

Illyes is right.  It’s not that difficult to comprehend.  If you can deliver the type of content that the viewer is looking for, in a way that is a helpful and not obtrusive in any way, then users are going to have a positive user experience.

This means that they are less likely to click away from your site, and more likely to visit more of your pages.

Related Article: If You Build It, They Won't Come: 11 Truths About Online Traffic

You may have a variety of goals for your content marketing campaigns, whether that is centered on raising brand awareness, or actually leading to conversions.

Regardless of your focus, however, improving the user experience of your content will help you achieve your goals. Ground your content marketing in utility and let trustworthiness and respect do the job of walking users down the marketing funnel, ultimately turning visitors to content into repeat customers.  

Be proud of the content your business creates and the value it brings to the users, not just the revenue that can be directly brought in because of it.

Content marketing done right is more important than ever, and Google’s consistent Quality Updates are a big reason for that.

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