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Why Would Optimizing Existing Content Cause Rankings To Drop?

How could seemingly minor content optimizations cause us to lose 20-30 positions in search rankings? Tamar Asks An SEO.

Why Would Optimizing Existing Content Cause Rankings To Drop?

If only good intentions drove results in SEO.

Sadly, that’s not the case, as Tamar from Israel discovered recently. She submitted the following to Ask An SEO:

“Help! I just started working at a start-up. The blogs are a horrible mess for many reasons, but there are about 20 blogs out of the 140 that are converting a few people to try our software.

I wanted to do the minimum to optimize them, so I corrected all of the H-titles, made sure each post had a meta description, and checked that any images had an alt tag.

In less than a day, ALL of these blogs lost their position for the main keywords they were ranking for, according to Google Search Console. What gives?!

I can’t find an explanation for this anywhere! Almost all of them dropped by at least 20-30 in position for a keyword… going from #9, for example, to #55 for a top query. Please help.”

Although Tamar did submit the domain, we have no insight into which 20 of the 140 blogs indexed we’re discussing here.

Further, we have no context as to which keywords she was ranking on and lost positioning for.

Were this my client, those would be the first things I would want to have a look at.

So let’s talk about what we do know.

Fluctuations in rankings are normal as Google assesses the new/updated content, so I wouldn’t panic so soon after the change.

If the issue persisted, we’d want to start investigating potential causes.

Tamar, the chances your rankings dropped due to adding alt text or meta descriptions are slim to nil.

Meta descriptions are not a ranking factor.

And alt text, while an important accessibility aid, is only a ranking factor for Image Search.

Going back in and optimizing by adding alt text could only help.

So we’re left with “correcting” the HTML heading tags.

We’re going to assume this isn’t a technical SEO issue as the rankings drop would be wider spread than just the 20 posts that had content updates if that were the case.

We’re also going to assume this isn’t a case of a competitor or two stepping up their game and bumping you out as these are fairly sizable changes.

I have a couple of main suspects.

Are You Keyword Stuffing?

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines are clear on this:

“Keyword stuffing” refers to the practice of loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results. Often these keywords appear in a list or group, or out of context (not as natural prose).

Filling pages with keywords or numbers results in a negative user experience, and can harm your site’s ranking.

Focus on creating useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and in context.

If in “correcting” your subheadings you added an unnatural volume of keywords, Google may have demoted those pages.

Did You Make A Mess Of Relevance?

Depending on the keyword terms you tried to optimize for, it’s possible you could have negatively impacted Google’s perception of the content’s relevance to the terms it was already ranking on.

For example, you might assume that because a page was ranking well and driving qualified traffic for [JIRA project management] that you could piggyback off its success and tap into [agile project management], as well.

This would be a mistake.

Perhaps user behavior and its semantic understanding of the topic leads Google’s algorithms to believe that:

  • People searching for [JIRA project management] are looking for a tool.
  • People searching for [agile project management] are looking to learn about a process.

In trying to optimize existing content for a keyword with conflicting search intent and topical relevance, you may have muddied the waters.

Making the piece less focused could impact Google’s perception of it as the best answer for the queries you want to rank on.

Other Content Quality Factors Impacting Your Ability To Rank

I believe one of the two actions above was likely responsible for the rankings drop you experienced across those 20 blog posts.

However, in taking a look at the site, there are several content quality issues that could be holding you back.

Put these on your list of priorities and see whether you can get those money pages performing better in search:

Update your outdated content.

I see blog posts with 2020 in the title and URL as the newest content in some categories.

It gives Google and prospective customers the impression that you aren’t actively creating and maintaining the information you’re putting out into the world.

Create an internal linking strategy.

I see zero internal links in the 10 blog posts I spot-checked.

Internal linking not only helps Google understand your site hierarchy, but it also passes PageRank and helps visitors stay engaged and move around your site.

Improve writing quality.

There are grammatical errors and issues with sentence structure, word usage, and other writing mechanics throughout that make the content difficult to read.

Hire an editor and make good use of tools such as Grammarly and Hemingway to improve the quality of your writing.

Test Any Further Optimizations Before Proceeding

If nothing else, this experience should serve as a good reminder of the importance of testing any changes to existing webpages before a wider rollout.

Document the changes you intend to make and test them out.

See what happens. Measure the results.

Remember, too, that the same optimizations may produce entirely different results on another page.

That’s just part of the fun of SEO!

A good next step would be to conduct a content audit to see where your greatest opportunities are right now.

Then, prioritize your findings. You do not need to do it all at once – in fact, that can have unintended consequences, as we saw here.

Updating and optimizing existing content is a great practice that can dramatically improve user experience and rankings.

But it’s a process. Don’t rush it.

Focus on your most potentially lucrative pages and optimizations first, and always be ready to roll it back if you’ve accidentally tanked your rankings.

More Resources:


Featured image: Shutterstock/ViDi Studio

Editor’s note: Ask an SEO is a weekly SEO advice column written by some of the industry’s top SEO experts, who have been hand-picked by Search Engine Journal. Got a question about SEO? Fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!

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Miranda Miller

Miranda-Miller.com

Writer, editor & marketing professional; digital nomad, feminist and mother bear. 15 years of experience planning & executing engaging digital ...

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