Google rankings aren’t the only (or even the most valuable) SEO metric that marketers should be monitoring, but they are important—and highly visible.
Virtually everyone who has run a website for more than a year has experienced a dramatic and sudden decrease in traffic, which is usually accompanied by a drop in search ranking. When Google drives 80% or more of your traffic, it’s very important to maintain your position. When you drop suddenly and precipitously, you have to wonder what went wrong. Did your site go down? Did you get hit by a negative SEO bomb? Did a change in your metadata trip spam filters? There are a ton of reasons, so here are the ten most common and what you can do to fix the problem.
Rankings can fall for various reasons. Sometimes it’s due to a mistake that could have been prevented. It might have less to do with what you’re doing than what your competition is doing. In other cases, a drop in rankings is the natural and temporary result of an intentional action on your part. Here are 10 reasons you might experience a drop in rankings and what you can do in each case.
1. An Unnatural Links Manual Action
This is perhaps the most likely reason for anyone to be visiting this article now, on the heels of Penguin 4 and its permanent inclusion into the search algorithm.
There are essentially two forms of link penalty. One is the manual action and one is algorithmic. If you think your penalty has something to do with your backlinks, you can check which one it is very easily. Just log into your Google Search Console (Webmaster Tools) account and check the manual actions menu on the side. If you have something listed there, it’s a manual action, rather than an algorithmic penalty. If there’s no entry, skip to the next section.
So how do you fix a manual action for links? You need to use a tool of some sort to pull your backlink list. Google Analytics, Majestic SEO, Moz, Cognitive SEO; there are dozens of options out there, free and paid, for you to pick through.
Pull your links and audit them to find any that are irrelevant or spammy. Once you have that list, start approaching webmasters and ask for links to be removed. Sometimes they will be happy to do so; others they won’t answer. For those that aren’t removed, add them to a list and disavow them.
2. An Algorithmic Penguin Penalty
Penguin is an algorithm that Google uses to penalize sites with poor quality backlinks, which can be organically acquired rather than the result of unnatural link building. It’s harder to diagnose, because it’s not really a penalty, it’s just an adjustment of where your ranking sites, according to changing criteria on the part of Google, or new information they discover. “Recovering” from an algorithmic penalty is not actually recovering, it’s taking steps to improve your SEO and seeing the benefits of doing so. Penguin 4 is the most recent iteration of the algorithm, and with it, Google confirmed that it is being merged with the core Google algorithm, like Panda before it. This means there will be no future Penguin updates, as such; merely algorithmic updates in general. For more on those, skip to number 10.To diagnose a Penguin penalty, see if your drop in rankings corresponds to a known Penguin update date. If so, all you have to do to fix it is the same link audit and removal/disavow process outlined in the previous step. They are, after all, more or less the same penalty.
3. A Critical Mass of On Page Errors
On-page issues are a very broad category of errors that can crop up on a website over time. A sudden explosion of those errors can indicate something broken on your site, while a slow, gradual increase can simply reach critical mass and knock your site down a tier or three without any major change involved. In either case, you can simply go back to the Google Search Console and look at the errors found on your site.
Unfortunately, because of the broad nature of “on page errors”, it’s difficult to diagnose the specific cause of this loss of ranking. What sort of errors count?
Essentially anything that could hamper the loading of the page or the user experience can be counted as an on page error, so fix as much as you can.
4. Temporary Site Downtime
If you have poor quality hosting, or if your web host doesn’t have the right kind of redundancies or resources, your server can stop responding to queries. If you have extremely poor hosting, your site can drop when you exceed a certain level of bandwidth.
Google understands that, sometimes, outages happen. There’s a certain level of downtime that is almost impossible to avoid. Only massive sites like Amazon or Google themselves can hope to avoid it, and even they fail.
If Google attempts to crawl your site and finds it down, they’ll make a note of it and leave. Later, possibly hours or possibly days later, they will come back and attempt to crawl your site again. If your site is down again, they assume that you have been down the whole time, and will temporarily remove you from the search results until you can get your act together and get your site back up.
Sometimes outages are invisible if you’re not checking your site constantly, so it might be worth investing in a downdetector plugin of some sort. With it, you’ll receive a notification when your site is down, and you can act to bring it up immediately.
5.Malicious Site Detected
One sure-fire way to be removed from the rankings and to have your traffic drop to nothing overnight is to have your site compromised. Google might throw a “malicious site detected” error or they might have a “this site may be compromised” warning, or some other similar issue. All of them are caused by the hallmarks of a hacked site.
Scripts that attempt to steal information via a keylogger or something of the sort.
Often, when your site is hacked, you know about it. Alarms and monitors on your web hosting trigger and warn you. Excessive login attempts show up as email warnings. Your entire page is removed and replaced with a spam site or propaganda site.
Other times, the hacker is more subtle. They leave your site as-is, but add more pages to it they can use for their own purposes. These can be spotted by looking at changelogs or files in your hosting.
The process of recovering from a hack is lengthy and involved, so I’m just going to link to a post about it here.
6.Incorrect Robots.txt File
Several years ago I made a mistake in the robots.txt file of a blog I owned and managed. In effect, I told the search engines to ignore my website and not let anyone find it. Whoops. My traffic dried up almost entirely. The good news is that once I noticed the problem and fixed my mistake, the rankings came back within a few days, a few weeks in some cases. Make sure you employ best practices for your robots.txt file and don’t make typos.
Search engine rankings are a zero sum game. For any given keyword if one website’s ranking improves, at least one other website’s ranking must go down. This is part of why SEO services are ongoing, rather than provided just once. Your website is never fully optimized, because your competitors are constantly improving their websites. It’s an eternal game of king of the mountain, and the only way to stay on top is continual effort.
8. Losing Good Links
A drop in rankings might be due to losing high-quality links. Perhaps those websites or web pages disappeared, or the link to your website was removed. Whatever the cause, the solution is to continually be building high-quality links. And when I say “building,” I mean attracting, because the best links come naturally. How do you attract high-quality links? By creating amazing content, or merely helpful content, that people find interesting enough to share.
9. The Google “Dance”
It’s normal for rankings to fluctuate. Not just from one day to the next, but from one computer to another, one location to another, and based on a host of other variables. Google is constantly testing every variable it can detect by changing search results. This is part of why it’s counter productive to focus too heavily on specific rankings. Your SEO firm may give you a ranking report, but if you check the rankings on your own computer they may be different, simply because the report was run from a different computer. Or because the rankings have changed since yesterday. Generally rankings that aren’t subject to other forces on this list won’t vary too much, but the Google dance might be the only logical explanation for small drops in rankings.
10. Google Update
Thousands of PhDs are employed at Google working to improve their search algorithm. The algorithm is updated hundreds of times each year, with some of those updates being large and disruptive, while most are minor in impact. The larger updates usually receive some sort of animal-themed names such as Penguin, Panda, or Hummingbird. The point is, when Google makes an update, it changes rankings negatively for the websites that aren’t in compliance. To avoid death by Google update, follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines as best practices, and engage only in white hat SEO tactics. This is the path to rankings that will generate traffic now as well as three years from now.
These aren’t the only reasons your rankings might drop, but they are some of the reasons I see most commonly impacting rankings and traffic. Have you experienced a drop in rankings due to reasons other than those listed above? Tell us about it in the comments.