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How brands can prevent Google Phantom from becoming a brand menace

After weeks of speculation, Google has confirmed that it is making changes to its algorithm. The latest update is geared towards rewarding 'quality content', but how is it measuring what is, at best, a loosely defined metric? Stuart Long, SEO lead at Stickyeyes, looks at the data.

Google has been ticking lots off its to-do list in the last few days. Not only have we seen the addition of Twitter results and buy-it now buttons on mobile search (to add to the mobile friendly update back in April), it has also rebranded Webmaster Tools to Search Console – a move which it believes will widen its appeal to “everyone who cares about search”.

On top of all this, webmasters have been reporting ranking fluctuations within Google SERPS over the last few weeks. Google had, until now, remained unusually tight-lipped about what, if anything, was changing.

Speculation had been rife that Google was rolling out updates to Panda and Penguin since early May. This update, which appeared to be focused around content signals, was initially dubbed by some in the industry as Google’s second 'phantom update', mainly because Google initially denied that anything was going on.

Google has since confirmed to Search Engine Land that it has been making changes to its ranking algorithm and, while not aimed at any particular website class or niche, the update has been taking a more in-depth look at the signals used to assess overall content quality, effectively 'The Quality Update'.

We have previously written about Google’s emphasis on quality content, and how the search engine is forcing brands to reassess their business model’. However, we are seeing strong evidence from our Roadmap SEO analysis tool that there is a distinct correlation between a number of different website quality signals and how well a website performs in Google’s SERPs.

The data behind your content

Roadmap tracks the performance of the top 100 ranking websites for over 1,500 high volume, commercial keywords and more than 200 known and potential ranking signals. This analysis extends to thousands of keywords in some of the most competitive digital markets, including personal finance, retail, travel, insurance online gambling and legal services.

What we are seeing from Roadmap data is that, across all industries, there is a strong correlation between the length of time that a site manages to keep a user’s attention, and its search ranking.

From the above chart, which demonstrates the correlation between ranking position and average time spent on site (in seconds), portrays a distinct positive correlation between sites that can retain users and high Google rankings.

Conversely, we see negative correlations for ranking factors that can be interpreted as an indicator of poor quality content, such as bounce rate.

Site speed also matters

The experience that websites provide to users also appears to have a strong bearing on Google ranking performance.

Of course, Google has made no secret that certain experiential elements, such as mobile friendliness, are important ranking considerations and we can see from Roadmap that site speed also appears to be a prominent factor.

The above chart demonstrates a strong correlation between search rankings and faster page load speeds (measured in seconds) – a clear factor in the overall user experience.

But what does this latest update mean for brands?

Unsurprisingly Google is continuing to focus on how it assesses the quality of websites and webpages in its index, but the search engine remains tight-lipped on what factors it uses to measure 'quality content' – a term that is widely open to interpretation.

However, what the data from Roadmap demonstrates is that there are correlations between how Google views a site’s worthiness to rank and key user behaviour signals, such as the time that a user remains on a site and how quickly a user exits a site. Of course, these factors should not be viewed in isolation, but they at least provide a snapshot into how Google is assessing what constitutes 'quality content' and what doesn’t.

It leaves brands with a clear task of developing a website that is the best possible within that particular niche, and one that provides the best possible user experience.

To do this brands need to be focused on providing a digital experience that encourages and enables users to engage with, consume and easily take the desired action on the content they’re providing. Whether the overall aim is to deliver information, raise brand awareness, generate a lead or drive a direct purchase action, this needs to be presented in a way that engages users, provides a seamless user experience across all devices and can be crawled by Google.

If you don’t start now, you won’t see your organic visibility or traffic grow and you’ll soon find your brand being overtaken by competitors that have responded to Google’s emphasis on quality content.

Stuart Long, SEO lead at digital marketing agency Stickyeyes

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