We’ve all been there. We log into Google Analytics and notice that our traffic has recently suffered a pretty severe drop. Looking into it further, it becomes clear that the decrease is mainly the result of a downturn in organic traffic from search engines.
You can’t imagine what you did to suddenly offend the Google God, but the result is undeniable: decreased traffic to your website. It’s a frustrating sensation that we’ve all had to cope with, and it comes with real business consequences. Decreased web traffic can cause a loss of brand awareness, leads, and potential sales.
There is not always a clear answer as to what causes a loss in organic traffic. And Google has built a $1 trillion business by keeping the secrets of its algorithm under wraps. But luckily, they do offer some public hints and guidance about what criteria factors into building sites and pages that are ranked well. Those public statements along with our years of experience in SEO – like when we helped a boutique law firm improve their SEO and Google rankings – give us ample insight into some easy things that you can do to figure out why you lost traffic in the first place.
In this post, we examine some of the common changes, updates, and errors that can result in lost Google rankings and organic traffic declines. These tips are not all-encompassing, but they do offer a solid starting place for determining where things may have gone wrong.
Have there been any recent changes to your website?
It may seem obvious, but sometimes the explanation for traffic loss is hiding in plain sight. Have you recently made any decently substantial changes to your website? These changes could include rewriting or reworking existing content, deleting old content that you found that you thought were no longer relevant, or changing your overall site structure.
For example, if you recently updated a significant portion of content on your site, the density of targeted keywords may have gone down as you rewrote sections and inadvertently removed common, but important, phrases. You may have been making these updates to simply wordsmith your writing and improve the flow of your content, but the result could be unintentionally detrimental. Google may be seeing fewer important keywords, changes to valuable headers, a decrease in depth or amount of text, or other factors that could reduce your ranking for terms that page was previously winning.
Additionally, if you were to change the structure of your site by doing things like reordering your navigation, editing your sitemap, changing links from your homepage or interior pages, eliminating sidebar navigation, or other structural reworking, Google may now value pages on your site differently due to changes in the overall sitemap hierarchy and internal links. These changes can have an outsized impact on your site as Google’s understanding of the importance of your pages is often based on how high they are in your own sitemap structure. If internal links have changed, this can have a similar effect. While Google ranks individual pages, it also looks at the totality of a website when assessing the ranking for that specific page.
So, when you’re rewriting content or re-organizing the navigation or links on your site, it’s important to be aware of the accidental consequences that can occur. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t embark on these tasks (they can also bring benefits!) but it’s a helpful exercise to retrace recent steps and changes if you’re noticing a traffic decline.
Check to see if there was a Google Core update
Throughout the year, Google issues updates to its core algorithm and ranking strategy. Some of these updates are more significant than others, but luckily they’re pretty easy to track by monitoring the news online. Google will typically confirm or announce an update and a legion of SEO firms and watchers will report on it when it occurs. The reports usually aren’t too detailed because Google doesn’t divulge much themselves, but they’re helpful to look at to get an idea of what ranking changes are to come. By doing a quick search online, you can also find a bevy of other resources that are helpful for tracking down details about core updates.
Even without specific information about what the core update aimed to address, it is still helpful to check and see if there were any Google Core updates around the time of your drop in traffic. If your decline lines up with a core update, you can be pretty sure that the change is closely related to something that Google adjusted or devalued.
The good news is that sometimes the updates are fairly easy to address. In some situations, doing something as simple as adding SSL to secure your pages can make all the difference.
However, sometimes Google’s updates are more substantial and potentially signal a complete reevaluation of your content or your industry’s content. These cases can be much harder to deal with. If your decline roughly aligns with an update, check out overview resources from firms like SEOMoz or SEMRush and get an idea of what was included in the Google core update and why it happened.
Check performance and site speed
While site speed and performance may be related to a recent Google update, they’re essential to consider because at this point, they’re really thought of as a core part of ranking. Since websites are always publishing new content, utilizing new features, and adding in scripts or plug-ins, it can be easy for them to become bloated and slow before you know it.
For these reasons, it’s helpful to periodically run your site through a speed test like Google’s own Google Page Speed Insights. Especially if you’ve recently noticed a dip in organic traffic, checking your site’s speed can offer immediate insight that may reveal potential areas for improvement.
If your site is suddenly scoring sub-optimally, which I would typically consider below an 85 in Page Speed Insights, you should work to rectify that right away. Doing so will appease Google and give your visitors a better experience – a win-win! Google wants to send people to sites that perform well, provide relevant information, and encourage users to keep using Google. Speed plays into each of those goals.
Use advanced tools to look for lost backlinks and other errors
There are countless SEO tools that can run audits on your site, scour the web for lost backlinks, and check for other site health quality issues. Due to subscription costs and other factors, these options may not be available to everyone, but they’re frequently used by SEO and web design firms that you may choose to partner with.
Some of our favorite tools include SEMRush, Moz, and Screaming Frog. Any time we start working with a new client on SEO or a bigger web strategy, our first step is to run the site through an audit on these tools to see if there are any obvious errors that should be fixed.
For a site that has recently experienced a dip in traffic, the backlinks tool can be particularly helpful. Why? If your site has lost valuable links, Google may perceive it to be less authoritative than it once was. For example, if a third-party news organization or another reputable site had previously linked to you, your website would receive a boost. If that page was then removed, your site would lose strength and traffic. Google largely understands the authority of a site by evaluating the other sites that link to it, so lost or outdated links can cause the receiving page to lose ranking quickly.
Even if you’re not a professional web design firm or don’t have a relationship with one, many SEO tools offer monthly subscriptions that can be well worth the price. In a short amount of time, you could use most programs to gather data and do a quick audit on what could’ve gone wrong. The tool will more than pay for itself if it helps you to earn back some of your traffic, leads, and potential sales.
We know just how frustrating a loss in Google traffic can be, especially when you may not have changed anything at all. At the very least, we hope that this post gives you a helpful starting point for finding answers and resolving problems. Happy hunting, and please reach out to us if you’re looking for some expert advice!