Imagine checking the ranking report and your website’s positions have suddenly taken a nosedive. Years of hard work gone in a day. What would you do?
Well, the first thing to do is not to panic — a sudden drop in rankings is not an unusual thing and has been experienced by most websites. The second thing to do is go through a checklist of potential reasons, see if any of them have been triggered, and fix discovered issues. Depending on the cause, your website will either bounce back within days or climb back over a course of several months.
To keep you prepared, here are the top reasons for a sudden ranking drop, complete with symptoms, recovery tips, and prevention methods.
1. Inaccurate data
Before you start making changes to your website, it’s worth checking whether your rankings have actually dropped. More often than not, an unexpected shift in traffic/rankings is a false alarm caused by a change in the way the data is reported. Either there was a reset in your tools, or someone on your team has messed with the settings, or you yourself have accidentally excluded a time span, a device, or a page type. So the first step is to make sure that your reporting is in order.
The second step is to check whether the drop is outside the range of normal traffic fluctuations. It is common for traffic to ebb and flow, to change from day to day, month to month, and deteriorate over time. Make sure to include at least a year or two of historic data and check for a pattern of similar drops in the past.
And finally, see if the drop actually sticks. Above is Google Search Console data for one of our pages and you can see that there was some turmoil recently, but the page has recovered on its own. No idea what caused the shifts, probably Google playing with the algorithm. In such cases, it’s important to keep a cool head and see if the situation resolves itself.
2. Manual actions
Manual actions are imposed by human reviewers at Google when they determine that pages on your site are not compliant with Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. There are several causes of penalties.
If your rankings have dropped over 10 positions for a number of keywords, manual penalties are the prime suspect. Log in to Google Search Console and go to the Security & Manual Actions > Manual Actions. If the site has received a manual penalty, there will be a note stating that the action was manual, naming the cause, and specifying affected pages.
For on-page issues, you’ll probably have to revert some of the recent website adjustments. For off-page issues, you’ll probably have to review your backlink profile for unnatural links. If you have no idea what caused the penalty, check for these common issues:
Comment spam can measurably impact your rankings. Go through the pages of your site that allow user-generated content (product reviews, blog post comments, forums) and check for spammy comments. These would usually include links, unlinked product/company mentions, or will simply look like they don’t belong. Remove the comments, ban the accounts, and consider implementing additional measures to prevent user-generated spam in the future.
Unnatural outgoing links
The most common problem here is the paid links that are a part of a link exchange scheme. Remove such links from your website or close them from indexing using nofollow tags.
Link exchange schemes are unlikely to happen without you knowing, at least as long as you manage your site yourself. In case you accept content contributions, make sure each of them is reviewed, and that included links are natural and preferably nofollowed.
Unnatural incoming links
Your website may be hurt by backlinks coming from spammy sources. It could happen either as a result of you buying low-quality backlinks or as a result of your competitors attacking your website.
If you find any malicious links, simply add them to the disavow file, download the file when done reviewing, and submit it to Google’s Disavow Links Tool. Once submitted, go back to Search Console and request a review of your penalty.
No website is immune to attacks by hackers and, unfortunately, most of these attacks may go unnoticed by website owners. Consult Google’s guide on how to know if you were hacked and what you can do to recover from various types of attacks.
3. Algorithm update
Google tweaks its search algorithm several thousand times per year. It’s rare for Google to announce algorithm updates, even the major ones, so most of them will be rolled out quietly. The absolute majority of these changes are too small to notice, but a few of them could be big enough to wreak havoc on the rankings.
In case of a big update, it will usually take a few days for SEOs to register unusual ranking shifts, by which time they will start comparing notes with other SEOs and ask Google representatives to make a comment. Google will normally confirm the update and this information will immediately make it into SEO news platforms, like Search Engine Land and Search Engine Roundtable. Keep in mind that the update may also be niche-related and affect a small number of sites. In which case, the news might not get covered right away.
If the update is covered in the news, you will find the information on what the update was about and what you need to fix to recover. Otherwise, try asking the SEO community on Reddit — the folk there are always helpful and quick to respond.
4. Competitor activity
It is possible that nothing is wrong with your website, it’s just that your competitors got better. While rarely a cause of a dramatic drop in rankings, competitor activity is worth investigating if you have dropped a few positions across the board.
If the competitor has outranked you across a large number of keywords, then they have probably implemented some site-wide enhancements.
If you have seen shifts across a few keywords, then the cause is probably on-page optimization. The competitor is likely updating their pages one by one, improving content, optimizing keywords, headers, and HTML tags. In this case, visit the pages in question, see how they compare to your own pages, and borrow optimization ideas.
Tip! Tracking your main competitors is almost as important as tracking your own site. As you track rankings and run both on-page and off-page audits, make sure to also audit competitor sites to see and understand their progress and the tactics they use. If they are steadily growing, it means they’re doing something right — which means you’ve got to adapt your own strategies accordingly, even if they haven’t outranked you yet.
5. Lost backlinks
Just as acquiring new, low-quality links can impact your performance in SERPs, so can losing the high-quality backlinks you already have.
If you’re looking to reclaim lost backlinks, the logical thing to do is to get in touch with the webmaster. How you do this depends on the nature of the backlinks. Do you have a relationship with the site owner? If so, a quick call may be all it takes to get the link back. If you aren’t familiar with the webmaster, then email, Twitter, or LinkedIn are your best bet.
Tip! The possibility of losing your backlinks is yet another reason to monitor your link profile regularly. After all, if you discover a link was lost right after it was removed (and not four months later), the webmaster is far more likely to remember that they removed the link and understand your concern.
6. Site changes
Making essential changes to your site — such as redesigning it, changing your CMS, or moving to HTTPS — is all but guaranteed to mess with your rankings. A small oversight may have serious consequences for your SEO performance, and result in a measurable drop.
If you have recently implemented site changes, open Google Search Console, and go to Index > Coverage. A sharp increase in either errors or warnings that corresponds to the dates of site changes should confirm your suspicion.
As luck would have it, Google logs and describes all discovered crawling and indexing issues right there in the Coverage tab, so it’s fairly easy to identify and fix the problem.
7. User behavior changes
Google representatives often say that behavioral metrics are too noisy to influence rankings, but a number of search patents and multiple real-life experiments say otherwise. So, while we understand that this might be controversial, there is a chance that some of your ranking drops may be explained by a drop in your click-through rates.
To check if this is so, open Google Search Console, go to Performance > Search results, and see if there are any changes to your click-through rates. You can view your CTR for the entire website or add filters to view CTRs either by page or by query.
If you see a drop in the CTR, it is either because your competitors have improved their snippets and stolen a share of your clicks, or because the intent of the query has shifted and your snippet doesn’t look as relevant as it used to.
Whatever the case, go to the SERP in question and see how your snippet measures up to the snippets of your competitors. Depending on what you find, you might have to optimize your title and meta description, or use schema markup to enhance your snippet with rich elements.
8. SEM traffic cannibalization
SEM traffic comes from paid advertisement while SEO traffic comes from organic search, and sometimes one can get in the way of the other. Your ads are given priority in SERP and have no problem stealing a sizable share of traffic from your own organic results.
Compare the list of keywords in your PPC campaigns with those that bring you organic traffic. If you spot any duplicate keywords, don’t hesitate to pause the PPC campaigns that they come from. Because why pay for the traffic that you can get for free.
9. SERP changes
Recently, Google has been increasingly enhancing its search results with knowledge panels, rich snippets, Q&A sections, video clips, products page, job ads, and a ton of other stuff. While those things are of benefit to the user, they do take away from organic search results.
Let me know if I have missed any of the causes for a sudden drop in rankings. I’m curious to hear if you’ve ever experienced a dramatic drop yourself and what has been your course of action. Meanwhile, bookmark this list for a rainy day, and let’s hope you never have to actually use it. Cheers!