Phantom, Fred and SEO: a Quick Look at 2017's Google Algorithm Updates

With only three months in the books, 2017 has already been a turbulent year for SEOs. Google algorithm update after update has made the SEO community very uneasy about the future of SEO in a digital strategy. While we at Blue Compass are 100 percent sure that SEO will always have a place in digital, we can see why some SEOs are calling each Google Core Algorithm update a “game-changer.”

With so many Google algorithm updates happening, what has changed? Who’s Fred and why are we talking about “him”? And why are people talking about Phantoms?

Let’s dive into what these cryptic messages mean and how they can impact your SEO strategy. But first, a little history!

What Is a Google Algorithm Update?

Google's algorithms are complicated programs that crawl, index and rank content all across the web. These algorithms take into account hundreds of different data points (called signals); everything including keyword relevance to traffic. So, as user browsing preferences change or new content types emerge, Google works to alter and optimize their algorithm to show users the most relevant and useful search results possible. The basis for every Google algorithm update is to bring a better user experience to every user across the web.

What Is Updated by a Google Algorithm Update?

The short answer is: we never fully know the extent to which a Google algorithm is updated.

The much longer answer is: looking at organic traffic to individual pages, comparing data across industries and even listening to Google’s online channels gives an excellent indication as to the nature of the Google algorithm updates.

A Look at Past Google Algorithm Updates

In most Google algorithm updates, Google slightly tweaks the importance of certain ranking signals. This means that sometimes an update will increase the importance of unique content, internal linking, or external linking. In other updates, some signals are given boosts or demerits so significant that it can change how we develop websites and platform experiences. Here are a few examples:

The Mobilegeddon Update

Released in April 2015, the Mobilegeddon update increased the SEO weight of having a mobile-friendly website. This means that sites that have and maintain a mobile-friendly website are more likely to rank higher in search than those that do not.

This update came as no surprise because of the massive shift in mobile usage in the last decade. Google itself even says over 60 percent of searches on the platform come from mobile devices.

The SSL Update (Or the Secured Website Update)

In August of 2014, Google began giving a significant rankings boost to sites that offer a safe and secure browsing environment to its users in the form of a secure SSL certificate (also known as an HTTPS browsing environment).

Google's focus is user experience. Therefore, anything that can improve a user’s browsing experience as a whole will be rewarded by Google. Even now, close to 40 percent of all the websites on the web are now HTTPS secure.

The Panda Updates

Google Panda was released in February 2011 and was an algorithm update that aimed to take down thin or low-quality content across the web. These low-quality pages were meant only to produce traffic, not engagement, so Google cracked down.

The Panda Algorithm has since been rolled into the Core Algorithm signifying Google’s commitment to good, quality content across the web.

Most Google algorithm updates are named and given clear goals on the searches with which they are meant to interact. But what happens when a Google algorithm update isn’t named or announced? These are known as Phantom Updates.

What Google Algorithm Updates Have Occurred so Far in 2017?

2017 has been one of the most active years in recent memory with three major updates in two and a half months. While it’s nowhere near as busy as Google’s early years, these updates have been large, sweeping changes to how Google wants to operate in the digital sphere.

Let’s run through each of the three updates that have happened so far this year:

The Interstitial Penalty Algorithm Update

Launched on January 10th, the Intrusive Interstitial Penalty went live as a part of the Core Algorithm. The interstitial penalty update seeks to penalize websites that have interstitials that block more than 50 percent of the content with intrusive pop-ups or prompts.

Google wants to provide the best user experience (UX) possible, and it wants to reward others for providing that same quality of UX. So when a user is met with a large pop-up that blocks the content, Google seeks to discourage this practice.

Who Does This Update Affect Most?

This update will impact sites that have these intrusive pop-ups and interstitials more than any other site on the web. While the impact of this update has been minimal so far, we anticipate Google ratcheting up this penalty in the future if interstitials remain a mainstay on websites.

The Phantom Algorithm Update

From March 1st to March 6th, there was a lot of chatter and movement online indicating a new Google algorithm update. What we didn’t know was that this Phantom Algorithm update was an update to the Core Algorithm of Google’s Indexing and Ranking Algorithm. Confirmation from Google’s Gary Illyes confirms that every phantom update is a Core Algorithm update.

Who Does This Update Affect Most?

Due to the nature of this update, affecting foundational elements like the Indexing and Ranking Algorithm, this “Phantom” Algorithm update has opened the doors for Google to make some pretty large changes to the Core Algorithm.

The Fred Algorithm Update

The Fred Algorithm update was released on March 8th and sought to further enforce Google Webmaster Guidelines. The focus of this update is devaluing sites that provide ad-heavy, low-quality pages that have the full intention of generating revenue instead of providing value to its users.

Who Does This Update Affect Most?

The Fred Google Algorithm update was intended to hit pages whose sole purpose was generating revenue from ads. This focus away from quality content and towards monetization of pageviews is something that Google is trying to deter. You can rest assured that if you're generating quality content, you are most likely in the clear.

What’s Next for Google Algorithm Updates in 2017?

Google is making some big moves to improve usability and quality of content across the internet. We at Blue Compass anticipate a year full of Google algorithm updates that will change the way we operate and create content online. Check back here throughout the year for more information on new Google algorithm updates!

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