Website owners all know the feeling: opening up your analytics dashboard and seeing your search rankings have plummeted.
Upon seeing this, digital marketers tend to go through the typical emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression…you get the idea. Your first instinct might be to panic, since you’ve likely put tons of effort into website optimisation.
Stay calm! Even if you lose your position suddenly and drastically, there are many things you can do to mitigate the damage. If you keep a level head, you can take an organised and systematic approach to diagnose what went wrong and how you can fix it.
If you look at your ranking drop from a logical point of view, you can ensure your quandary is temporary and reversible.
We have compiled an informative step-by-step guide to troubleshoot the issues that might be causing your rankings dip.
Establish the Scope of Your Problem
The first thing you need to do when you notice a traffic drop is check each channel in your analytics. Check direct, referral, organic search and paid campaigns. If every channel is dropping, there might be a technical problem with your site.
However, if just your search traffic is suffering, that’s a clear sign you have an SEO problem.
The first thing to do is understand the extent of the issue. Is this loss in rankings related to individual keywords? Or is your entire site losing rankings? Your issues might be related to a group of keywords or pages within a specific category.
If you have an SEO audit tool, you can evaluate your keyword rankings. If every one of your keywords lost ranking at the same time, there’s likely an issue with your site. Or, your site has been hit with a site-wide penalty.
On the other hand, if only certain keywords have dropped, there might be a problem with your landing pages or keyword categories.
For instance, if you run a site that sells baking equipment, your drop in traffic could be because of a sitewide issue or because you lost rankings for your “Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls” keyword. Or, you could be losing rankings for everything in your “bowls” category.
Not everyone has this keyword tracking feature, though. In that event, you can use your Google Search Console to check your keywords’ rankings. In the search analytics report make sure you are looking at data from queries and check the box for position. Clicks won’t always tell you the whole story.
Checking positions for individual keywords can help you spot a sudden, drastic rankings drop of 10 or more positions. Can you spot any trends or patterns to that keyword that lost ranking?
Again, if every single keyword is seeing a huge drop in rankings, it’s likely your issue is site-wide.
Take a look at the position of your landing pages as well. Check for patterns behind what sort of pages are losing traffic and position. Maybe a certain type of content isn’t resonating with your audience. Perhaps a particular feature that you’ve introduced is hurting your SEO because it has Flash content or a widget that has outbound links.
Diagnosing the Problem
Now that you have properly evaluated your analytics data and established the extent of your rankings drop, it’s time to pinpoint exactly what caused your lost position.
Fair warning: the rest of the article is going to get technical. But, don’t worry, the ideas are not as complicated as they seem, and there are hundreds of resources out there to help you understand the more in-depth concepts.
Check Your Site Status and Robots.txt
If Google is unable to access your site, it can’t rank your site. So the first step is to make sure your site is up and running. Check your site from multiple devices (desktop, mobile and tablet) to ensure your site’s usability across platforms.
The Crawl Errors report in Google Search Console will alert you if there’s an issue on your internal pages.
A typical issue that hinders Google from crawling your site is a problem with your robots.txt file. If you are accidentally blocking crawlers from your entire site, it will look like this:
The issue happens more often than you’d think, especially with recent site migrations. The robots.txt tester will determine if your file is written correctly.
Once you’ve made sure you haven’t blocked your entire site, make sure you haven’t disallowed individual pages or folders. Going through your robots.txt file line by line would take forever, so you have a better option.
Use Google’s robots.txt tester to check individual URLs against your robots.txt file.
Run a Site Audit
Nine times out of ten, your site isn’t as optimized as you think, and you probably have some mistakes on your site. So when you see some page (or pages) having search problems, you need to run a site audit of your entire site or affected pages.
An audit with WooRank will look at more than 70 individual factors that could be impacting your SEO, so you don’t have to comb through every line of code and every piece of content to spot those minute issues.
Use an on-page SEO checklist to confirm you have implemented important factors like URL rewrites or canonical tags. Issues with these things will result in duplicate content or not getting crawled.
Once you’ve verified your pages are well-optimized for search engine traffic, you need to evaluate your content’s quality and relevance to keywords.
Here are the visitor metrics that will tell you if you need to rework your content:
- High Bounce Rate: Bounce rate is a great indicator of content quality and user experience. If a large percentage of your search traffic is leaving your site quickly or without any interaction, your content probably isn’t matching their intent.
- CTR: This indicates your page content or descriptions don’t match what users are trying to find. Back to our baking supplies example, people searching for “stainless steel mixing bowls” were actually trying to find information about what type of bowl is best to make a cake. Search behavior might have shifted to expect guidance rather than purchasing.
A recent site redesign or migration might be the culprit behind your lower rankings. You need to verify you’ve set up all of your redirects correctly. Both 301 (permanent) and 302 (temporary) redirects pass full link juice, so it’s critical that you redirect the old URL to the new URL.
Use an SEO crawler to crawl your site and find every single redirect. You can upload a list of all of the URLs from the pages you’ve moved. After the crawl is complete, you can search your results by status code and make sure each URL is returning the correct code.
If you are only checking a few pages, you can do that manually with a tool like Ayima’s Redirect Path browser plugin.
Last, but certainly not least, you should check your XML Sitemap. If the pages that are losing rankings have been deleted from your sitemap, Google might not be able to see them. This is especially true if you don’t have an internal linking strategy.
You can test your sitemap in Google Search Console.
Do a Link Audit
You’ve painstakingly crawled your site for on-page errors, and you haven’t found the culprit behind your rankings drop. What do you do next?
In that scenario, it’s time to check your links. Compile all of your backlinks with a tool like Majestic or Ahrefs. There are a few reasons why your link issues could result in a loss of SERP position.
Broken/lost links: When you look up your backlinks, you’ll see some of your links have been deleted. See if the link destination matches the pages that lost rankings. An important ranking factor, losing links will almost certainly impact your ranking.
If you have a paid account with Majestic, you can export this list of links as a CSV and then crawl the linked pages. Find the URLs that return 404 errors and fix those pages to reclaim link juice.
Low quality links: Google’s Penguin update was released to deal with this low-quality backlink issue. Link evaluating tools like Majestic can take a look at your links, so you can see if your link profile is hurting or helping your visibility.
While you are taking a good, hard look at your links during your audit, you should pay attention to patterns with anchor text, linking domain or the surrounding text. In general, negative SEO link building will use the same anchor text.
It will usually use the same text around the link, so be on alert for that as well.
Fixing the deleted links should — in theory — be as easy as contacting the linking site’s owner and asking them to restore your link. If those site owners ignore you, use the Disavow Tool to clean up your links.
Investigate Algorithm or Manual Penalties
Even if done completely unintentionally, you might still anger Google’s higher powers. They might think you have tried to manipulate search rankings by keyword stuffing or building spammy links. It could even be something as harmless as semantic markup that has been implemented incorrectly.
If the error is large enough, a Google employee can (and will) manually penalize your site. In that event, Google will inform you in your Google Search Console account. Just check your messages about manual penalties in the Manual Actions section under “Search Traffic.”
Even if you don’t receive a manual penalty, you can still run afoul of Google’s ranking algorithms. If you’ve already completed your link audit, use a plagiarism detector to see if your content is similar enough to other pages to be considered copied.
If everything else on this list has failed to figure out why your pages have lost search traffic, you need to check for new Google algorithm updates.=
First, check the main SEO sites and message boards. The major players in the SEO industry will usually cover signs of a major update. Poke around SEO Round Table, because they will typically post something like this rather quickly if they suspect an algorithm update.
Additionally, lots of chatter on the Webmaster World thread is a good indication that Google has made an alteration.
Searchmetrics will track your online visibility against known Google updates, so you can discover if an update has hurt your rankings.
It is essential that you find out the reason your rankings have dropped. A problem cannot be addressed until you know what caused it.
So, the next time (and there probably will be a next time) you are staring at the business end of a downward trending graph, take a deep breath. Approach the diagnosis in a methodical, organised way and you can reverse the damage straightaway.