Sometimes the factors responsible for your search rankings and traffic dropping can be difficult to detect.
It could have been a change in the Google algorithm, a technical error, your server not handling bandwidth properly, or links that were sending traffic before suddenly no longer sending that traffic, to name just a few examples.
If you’re trying to diagnose a drop in rankings and/or traffic, you may already have read Loren Baker’s excellent post here on common issues that might affect your site (and if not, that’s a great place to start).
In this column, we expand on the subject and dig into some more reasons you could be having these issues.
On-Site Issues That Can Cause Rankings to Fall
1. You Haven’t Updated Your Site in a Long Time
While this heavily depends on your niche, regular updates to your site are critical for remaining competitive.
A competitor analysis will reveal what you may need to do to keep up on the other sites within your niche.
But, on the whole, if your site remains stagnant without any growth whatsoever (content, links, or any other online promotional activities), you will likely not reap the benefits of growth.
While it is true that taking the long way around and waiting years for any traffic could help, this is a very rare exception rather than a rule. If you don’t take action, how do you expect to achieve any real competitive benefit?
Your strategy could be as simple as blogging every day, and this is especially true if you have not put in any recent significant effort into your blog.
Or, it could be more complex, requiring a good deal of hard work in order to see improvement.
As a baseline, if you’re only blogging occasionally, it may not be enough fresh content to generate the links required to keep your site afloat in your niche.
By performing a competitor analysis, you can figure out exactly what your competitors are doing to reach the top of the SERPs.
2. You Haven’t Made Any Significant Changes to Your Content
This plays into the ongoing updates part of our discussion.
If you haven’t made any changes to your content, you could be shooting yourself in the foot for search engine rankings and traffic.
In competitive niches where you must keep your site updated regularly to compete on the first page, you could lose ground simply by the virtue of being irrelevant.
Irrelevance, in this case, means you haven’t updated your site or changed your content at all, making your site an irrelevant and out-of-date result.
3. You Updated Your Site With a New Design
If you update your site with a new design, doing so doesn’t necessarily mean that your traffic will tank.
This is especially true when you have considered redirects, and other issues that may plague your site’s crawlability and indexability.
If Google can’t crawl or index your site, guess what’s going to happen?
If you’re using WordPress and haven’t turned off “Discourage search engines from indexing this site” in Settings > Reading after an update, you will also experience issues with search engine rankings and traffic.
This is why it’s important to have your SEO professional be a part of any new site launch project.
There are things they can spot that a normal developer may not have their eye on.
While developers may mean well by choosing a headless CMS, if it interferes with basic crawling and indexing, there goes your search engine rankings and traffic.
It’s important to have an SEO pro who is well-versed in server-side issues, which can have a negative impact on your overall SERP performance.
4. You Removed Traffic-Driving Content
Say you embarked on a new content audit project.
One of the suggestions is to remove thin and duplicate content from your site.
But there’s a problem; the audit does not take into account whether or not these pages are actually receiving traffic, only the quality of the pages.
When this happens, you have a situation where your content audit is actually working against you, rather than working for you.
There is more than one perspective to the content issue, as this example illustrates.
On the one hand, while your site may have duplicate and thin content to tackle, if you don’t take care of the technical SEO side of things as well by considering which pages are or are not receiving traffic, it won’t matter how much content you combine into masterful pieces.
If the pieces you combined and removed had significant traffic and the new piece is not quite as relevant or great enough, you could potentially lose your traffic from those other pages.
5. Your Robots.txt File Can Cause Indexing Issues
This is one of the most common on-site technical errors I run into during an audit: the client has disallowed crawling for all pages and folders due to improperly configuring robots.txt.
This file can make or break your crawling and indexing if you are not careful and you don’t fully understand how to (or how to not) use it.
For example, the following line: “Disallow: /” at the top of your robots.txt file will cause search engines to stop crawling and indexing your entire site, leading to a traffic drop.
Off-Site Reasons Rankings May Drop
As it turns out, there are many off-site reasons that can factor into traffic and ranking drops.
This will require deeper digging and correlative analysis.
For example, if you lost a link from a particularly heavily-trafficked site, that can cause your traffic to drop. Let’s start there.
6. Links Removed from Sites
This happens more often than you may think.
If you have a drop in traffic, you may want to check and make sure that you haven’t lost a link or two that was sending you that traffic, before jumping to the conclusion that it must be a penalty.
Webmasters like to clean up their links.
Learning how to perform link profile audits and link removals is a good way to analyze these types of links.
7. A Site Linking to You Went Down
If a site linking to you went down permanently, you could be looking at a permanent loss in traffic from that site.
There’s really no way to prevent or protect against this happening.
You will just need to replace that site with another one, in terms of link acquisition.
Once you discover this, you will have to work on finding other sites to link to you to increase that traffic.
8. Sites Linking to You Are No Longer Receiving Traffic
If sites linking to you were penalized and removed from Google’s index, you will have lost traffic from those sites as a result.
Unfortunately, this is something you may not be able to pinpoint.
This is why ongoing link acquisition activities are critical to continue to see success when you hit speed bumps like this.
Changes on the Google SERPs Impacting Search Engine Rankings
9. Featured or Rich Snippet Changes
If you have a featured snippet, rich snippet, or another type of snippet that’s driving traffic, your traffic will tank overnight if the SERP changes and no longer displays that snippet.
Similarly, a competitor might put out a higher quality resource that knocks yours out of that coveted snippet.
If multiple SERPs have changed, you must analyze them and figure out if your traffic loss was due to the loss of these critical SERP elements.
10. Changes in Audience Search Behavior
Audience search behavior can change over time, resulting in less traffic to a page that was once ranking.
This can happen due to macro issues such as a global pandemic, or less nefarious things like trending products or services.
Consumers change their minds and behavior. It’s just the nature of the beast.
If you’re going to compete in SEO, you must be prepared for drops in traffic due to seasonal changes, as well.
Errors on the Server Side That Can Affect Search Engine Rankings
11. 4xx Client Errors, or 5xx Server Errors
Having many 4xx client errors or 5xx server errors can cause traffic to drop from potentially valuable pages.
Also, any pages that were live and ranking at the time can potentially lose ranking after being down.
Another issue would be having a lot of soft 404s. These are 200 OK pages that are masquerading as real content pages.
In actuality, they have very little to no text content on the page. This will need a more visual analysis in order to complete the repair.
This is why regular website maintenance is a must.
If you don’t perform a regular audit and find these errors, you could suffer traffic and ranking loss when these errors become too great.
Learn how some of the other types of errors can affect your site.
12. Server Was Down Too Much During Critical Timeframes
If you have issues with your server not being up enough to even serve your website, you could be in trouble.
The idea of search engine rankings and traffic is that your website is going to be up for a significant length of time.
Google doesn’t want to recommend you as the best answer if users have trouble accessing that answer.
13. Sections of Your Site Went Down During Critical Timeframes
This is almost just as critical as your server going down.
If popular sections of your site with significant traffic went down during critical timeframes, you could see a significant drop in traffic.
Implementing uptime tools like Uptime Robot can help you pinpoint where specific downtime occurred and how it affected your traffic overall.
Disavow File Issues
Yes, even your disavow file could cause issues with rankings and traffic. These types of issues can range from disavowing the wrong types of links to not disavowing all the bad ones.
This is why an ongoing review and audit of your link profile is crucial to making sure that your site doesn’t lose search engine rankings and traffic.
14. Negative SEO
If you get an influx of fairly spammy links, Google is pretty good at ignoring them.
However, there are still cases of negative SEO attacks in the wild, so if you notice that you are getting influxes of random spammy links, you may want to disavow them.
There are also situations where you may not want to disavow every influx of spammy links.
John Mueller goes into detail here regarding why a site might not want to disavow those links coming in because they have a deeper issue at play – the site was on an expired domain.
The issues that a disavow file can inflict on search engine rankings and traffic include but are not limited to, the following two issues.
15. You Disavowed Good Links
Your disavow file could be full of good links.
How would you know unless you did a deeper analysis?
If you disavow all of your good links, what do you think will happen?
You could end up back at square one depending on how bad the disavow is.
This is why it’s important to make sure that your analysis tools are as accurate as your own manual analysis.
16. You Accidentally Disavowed Google
It can happen.
You disavow a link or two that was a link back to Google Plus (which no longer exists).
During the formatting and shortening the URL to the domain, you accidentally include the normal Google domain in your disavow.
Guess what just happened? You disavowed Google.
I probably don’t need to explain what could happen next.
Errors in Google Analytics Data & Google Search Console
17. You Embedded Your Analytics Tags Incorrectly
Accurate reporting is a critical part of tracking your efforts correctly.
If you do not implement your Google Analytics or GTM tags right, you could be introducing errors into your reporting, affecting your traffic numbers.
While your rankings may be fine, your traffic could be skewed downward.
One example where this could happen is if you did not include the correct Google Tag Manager account when you were setting up your reporting.
This can be disastrous. In addition, it can show decreased traffic when in fact your traffic has not decreased at all, leading to unnecessary panic – and pain – on your part.
The other side of the coin can also occur: you can also introduce over-reporting if you include more than one GTM tag by mistake.
Think you have increased rankings and traffic? If you have accidentally included more than one GTM tag in any way, you could be over-reporting, rather than increasing your SERP performance.
If you are sure you haven’t made any changes to your reporting side of things, you should be fine. But, it’s always a good idea to double-check that you haven’t accidentally included more than one GTM tag.
18. There can also be errors in Google Analytics data and how it’s processed.
One example: a rogue bot visiting your site, while not an error of Google Analytics itself, is still something being reported that can skew your Google Analytics data.
While not indicative of a drop, GA processing issues can show a drop that may not actually be a drop.
Being plugged into the SEO community online can help you identify these types of issues, especially if GA glitches and bugs occur on a wide scale.
This can also happen when you have a redesign.
If your developer did not implement Google Analytics correctly, or they did not re-install Google Analytics at all, you could see an overnight drop in your search traffic.
These types of mistakes can also result in under-reporting, leading to a loss in traffic.
Unless there’s a correlation with a search engine rankings drop as well, you probably just have a traffic drop in this case.
Bonus Issue: Errors in Google Search Console
Bugs and errors in reporting can also happen in Google Search Console.
While rare, this can “show” drops in search engine rankings and traffic.
Again, this is where being connected with the SEO community online can be valuable.
Glitches and bugs occurring in Google’s tools are not often reported in the tool itself, and these are usually reported by the community when they become widespread.
This is why early ruling out common issues affecting reporting is necessary and particularly critical if you ever inherit a site.
It could be that the initial reason a site owner approached you is not the real reason the site is actually having trouble at all.
Quick, Efficient Diagnosis Is Key to Solving Search Engine Ranking & Traffic Drops
If you’re faced with a traffic or search engine rankings drop, it’s important to stay calm. Panicking won’t help anything and can actually make things worse.
Take a deep breath and analyze what could be going wrong.
Sometimes, the answer could be a much simpler solution than resolving a complex penalty.
Through a quick, efficient diagnosis, it’s possible to repair or at least combat any search rankings drop.