Phantom Update – has Google struck again?

May 19, 2015

Author: Sascha Lienesch

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The past few days have seen a marked increase in reports of significant fluctuations in Google search results, leading many to suspect the implementation of a new update.
Many domains have experienced unusually large climbs up the rankings whilst others have suffered inexplicable losses in visibility. We have received numerous reports from our customers who have also double-checked the effects of the Panda and Penguin updates, to no avail. We have not been able to identify anything in Google Webmaster Tools either.

Industry experts meanwhile have been speaking of a Phantom Update, the name given to a suspected update for which Google has provided no prior warning, nor any explanation since. A similar update was suspected to have taken place almost exactly two years ago, which Google was also unable or unwilling to confirm. Barry Schwarz from Search Engine Land confronted Google directly and asked whether there had been an update, to which Google responded officially that no update, neither Panda nor Penguin, had been implemented. Indeed, Google was adamant that no update had taken place at all, a claim that SEOs, then as now, are ill-inclined to accept.

Martin Mißfeldt, a well-known German SEO, reports in a detailed blog entry that his websites have suffered losses in visibility of over 30%. Indeed, his site is also showing a decrease in our visibility index (OVI) in the XOVI Suite. Our analysis shows that the site has experienced almost continual growth since Martin took it over. Whilst all websites are susceptible to small fluctuations and sometimes even more drastic changes, anyone who has followed Martin’s work via his blog will know that he is not one to engage in unnatural or unusual link building. The loss in visibility can therefore not be explained by poor SEO; there must be another cause.


Jonas Weber, an independent SEO and former member of Google’s Search Quality Team in Dublin, was recently present at the SMX Sydney in Australia. Also present in his capacity as a speaker was Gary Ilyes from the Google Webmaster Trends Team. Among the comments from Illyes noted by Weber was this information regarding ranking changes in the previous week:
“We have made a few small changes to the core algorithm, things which are secret and which we do not communicate. But it has nothing to do with the mobile update.”
So Google is in fact making changes to the algorithm. More specific information was not provided.

Winners and losers

Here at XOVI, we’ve analysed a number of domains. First, a few losers in terms of visibility. Interestingly, larger brands often seem to have suffered most, sometimes experiencing drastic falls in visibility and OVI value.


The German price comparison website suffered an approximately 10% drop in OVI compared to the previous week. It is interesting to note that the rankings haven’t completely collapsed, they have only decreased. For us, a total loss of ranking keywords is registered at 1.44%, which is not particularly worrying. But as OVI is also measured based on ranking, visibility sinks accordingly whenever the position in SERPs (search engine results pages) worsens. Therefore, compared to the previous week, the domain depreciated by 5% on the top 10 rankings. The update which never took place, the Google Phantom Update, has struck here too. The loss of 12% against the previous week will doubtless also be felt in terms of traffic. Of course, this will also depend on which particular keywords have suffered and whether much traffic came to the domain via those keywords anyway.


Nevertheless, we also observed increases in visibility for some domains – and quite substantial increases at that! For instance, two well-known online flower shops in Germany, and experienced almost simultaneous boosts in rankings. As the chart below clearly shows, both domains had registered relatively stagnant OVI trends over recent months. Small fluctuations were visible, as would be expected, and was also slightly ahead. Yet both domains experienced simultaneous ranking increases on 3 May 2015. Such a parallel development is particularly curious.


One other significant beneficiary of the Phantom Update was the general home-page of popular German banking chain Sparkasse at This does not refer to any particular Sparkasse branch, but rather to the overall Sparkasse finance portal. XOVI’s analysis reveals a loss in rankings in week leading up to 3 May, a recuperation of lost ground by 10 May, before a noticeable increase by 18 May. The current position is better than ever before.



It is clear that Google has made changes to its algorithm. Numerous SEOs have reported significant ranking fluctuations in their projects and in those of their clients. Google explicitly denies the implementation of an official update but does acknowledge that adjustments have been made in the past.

We recommend …

Don’t panic and don’t abandon current strategies even if you have suffered a loss of rankings. Wait a few weeks and see how the SERPs develop.

The SEO industry as a whole will work to get to the bottom of the ominous Google Phantom Update and specialists will do their best to determine a pattern behind the changes. Their findings will be made available to all via their blogs, in forums and on social media in due course. A general loss of visibility is not desirable but it is important to keep a close eye on the most important keywords in your business. We recommend using XOVI’s Monitoring Tool (see our blog article on keyword monitoring) to analyse the most important, traffic generating keywords for your domain and observe rankings day to day.

A direct comparison with competitors who also rank using these keywords may also help you draw conclusions as to what aspects of a webpage can or ought to be changed in order to once again achieve top rankings in Google. However, since we can’t rule out a Google test, we recommend waiting to see how things develop. The use of the term Phantom Update by the industry remains appropriate.


Martin Mißfeldt has analysed his pages more closely in the hope of identifying a pattern in the update. You can also follow lively debate on his blog.


In the Google Webmaster Hangout on 19.05.2015, Google’s John Müller confirmed the Phantom Update and explained that it was a regular algorithm update that takes place from time to time. The difference being that, this time, more pages had been affected. Müller justified the update by saying that Google has re-evaluated the quality of websites and is keen to display those of the highest quality. What the new quality criteria are however remains unclear

Author: Sascha Lienesch