If you’re a website owner or content marketer, you’ve likely experienced this a few times before: your site traffic suddenly drops, and you’re at a loss to explain it.
There could be many culprits behind this, with a new Google algorithm change likely first in your mind.
Whenever your organic traffic drops, you go through the usual reactions. There’s panic, confusion, and a sense of uncertainty about how to make things go in the right direction again.
One thing’s for sure, though: it’s best to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible to prevent more ranking, conversion, and sales losses.
In times of crisis, it’s enormously useful to have a contingency plan. That’s where this checklist comes in. Here’s a look at the first six things you should check for when you notice a drop in your organic traffic.
1. Google Search Console
Checking your Google Search Console account tops this list for one, simple reason: it tells you so much of what’s going on with your site’s organic traffic and beyond. That's why Search Console should be your automatic starting point to discover what happened to your website traffic.
To that end…
Look Under the (Google Search Console) Hood
Google Search Console lets you optimize the visibility of your site and check its indexing status. It's ground zero for a lot of crucial information about the ins and outs of how your website is functioning.
Here are just some of the things you'll be able to find by checking Search Console:
- Messages from Google (about manual actions, for example)
- The list of internal and external pages that link to your site
- Site errors
- The crawl rate and when Googlebot accesses your site
- The keyword searches that help your site appear in the SERPs
This data should allow you to do some basic diagnostics. When did the drop start? Did it coincide with any other changes to your site? Did you lose rankings for some of your top keywords? Is there an indexing issue?
Try this analogy: The first thing you should check if there’s a blackout in your house is the fuse box. Similarly, the first thing you should check if there’s a traffic drop on your site is Search Console.
2. The Tracking Code
Sometimes, the reason for a drop in site traffic is a case of unreliable data. One of the most common areas where this can happen is your site’s tracking code. Because changes to your website code or even analytics plug-ins can create problems for the tracking code, issues in analytics reporting can arise.
So, to save yourself the trouble of looking in more complicated areas, double-check your site’s tracking code before anything else.
Do yourself a favor by ensuring that your tracking code is installed properly in the first place. Go to the tracking code section—find it at Admin → Tracking Info → Tracking Code—and look for the status at the top of the page. This lets you know that the code is working as intended and that data is being reliably read by Google Analytics.
If you notice that something is not right, or you need to make sure that the tracking code is installed properly, head over to Google's Analytics Help page for troubleshooting tips or contact your site manager/developer.
3. Google Algorithm Changes
The thing about SEO in 2018 is that Google changes its algorithms more than once a day! Reports say that the company changes its algorithms up to 600 times a year. While the majority of those updates consist of smaller changes, among them is the occasional, major update like Hummingbird or Panda that can really wreak havoc with your traffic and search rankings.
That's why it's necessary to always stay abreast of developments in the SEO world, so that you can see these algorithm updates coming or you can determine what to do once they’ve been released. The WordStream blog is a great resource for SEO updates, but we also recommend Search Engine Land and Search Engine Roundtable for news on updates. Glenn Gabe of G-Squared Interactive is also a great resource for analyzing the causes and impact of algorithm updates.
Scour these resources to determine the nature of the algorithm change. Look for information such as:
- What exactly Google is penalizing
- Why Google has made those changes
- What to do about these penalties and how to stay on Google’s good side
Once you have all of this information, it’s your job to take the steps necessary to ensure your site’s not running afoul of Google’s new algorithm and prevent future problems.
4. Link Losses
One of the reasons for a traffic drop can also be due to your site losing links. You may be seeing a direct loss of that referral traffic, but there could also be indirect effects. When your site loses inbound links, it tells Google that your site isn't as authoritative anymore, which leads to lower search rankings that in turn lead to traffic drops (because fewer people are finding your site if it's not ranked as highly and more).
If you suspect a loss of links, you can double check to see if your suspicion is correct. Use a tool like Majestic or Ahrefs, two of the biggest link counters on the web, to determine if you lost any links.
When you use these tools, you can find out any of the following relevant information:
- A potential site-wide link decline
- A possible link decline to a specific page or group of pages
- A potential link decline to a specific page on your site that in turn links to another page on your site that suffered a reduction in traffic
- A possible link decline in the external pages that provide inbound links to your site or specific page in question
Based on what you find, you have two main options to pursue.
First off, you can contact the sites that removed your back links. Even if you don't have a long-standing relationship with the site owner, he or she may be sympathetic to your situation if you just shoot them an email, explain your traffic decline, and ask for the inbound links to be restored.
The other strategy you can pursue is to step up your link-building efforts again. This includes things like:
- Writing guest posts on sites with a high domain authority
- Stepping up your influencer-marketing campaigns to earn backlinks from influential bloggers or social media figures in your industry
- Increasing your social marketing to earn more social shares, along with the ensuing backlinks that come from more people talking about your content on social
5. Site Redesign/Migration Issues
Sometimes sites are changed for business reasons, and SEO isn’t the top priority. If you recently went through a site redesign or migration, and subsequently saw a drop in traffic, you’ll need to check and see if you unintentionally broke or de-optimized something on your website in the process.
For example, page speed – having a fast site is increasingly important these days. Google has confirmed that page speed is a ranking factor on mobile (and remember that Google is thinking mobile-first). So it's no surprise that page speed is a crucial ranking factor; a slower site means lower rankings and traffic.
Insert image: mobile-page-speed-landing-page-load-adwords-keyword-quality-score1.png (already on server)
If you've recently done a redesign or migration that causes your site to load more slowly, especially on mobile devices, it can come back to haunt you. Even if it costs you more money to get those load times down, it's well worth it to your site traffic and rankings.
Site redesigns and migrations are a tricky beast that can introduce a whole slew of problems. Some of the other things that could always go wrong with a poorly handled site migration include:
- Service interruptions
- Failed redirect implementations
- Loss of content or metadata
- Broken links and images
- Loss of internal links
- Information architecture changes
These problems can be avoided with a lot of careful planning and QA, but if you’re experiencing the traffic loss now, it’s too late for that! Work with your developers to troubleshoot these issues and surface any mistakes you might have made in the process, so you can prioritize getting them fixed.
6. The Quality of Your Content
One of the things that can slow-bleed the traffic from your site is the quality (or lack thereof) of the content you publish on your site. Previous Google updates like Panda have already been released specifically to deal with the issue of low-quality content on websites. Long story short: Panda intended to stop sites with bad content from appearing in the search results.
Further, we’re all aware of the classic study that showed a correlation between longer content and higher rankings in the SERPs.
Clearly, Google punishes low-quality content and rewards high-quality content. That begs the question, what constitutes high quality content?
Turn your content into great content by:
- Deindexing, deleting, or improving “doorway pages” or dynamically generated pages that aren’t getting much organic traffic
- Striving to create longer content (towards 2000 words or more per article)
- Using high-quality images in your content
- Answering your prospects’ questions with in-depth educational content
- Minimizing ads and pop-ups that disrupt the user’s experience
- Designing easily navigable and/or legible user interfaces
Don’t Panic, and Go Through Your Checklist
If you've ever experienced an organic traffic decline, we sympathize with you. It can be scary because reduced traffic means reduced visibility, which means fewer conversions and less revenue. You can almost imagine everything you've worked so hard to optimize suddenly coming apart at the seams.
Although it may seem contrary to what's natural, the best thing you can do in such a situation is to take control and not panic. Instead, take a deep breath and calmly go through the different, possible causes on this checklist to get to the bottom of what's causing your traffic woes.
Chances are that it’s an easily identifiable issue that can be readily fixed because you strategically pursued a process-of-elimination checklist to solve your problem.