“Sean, I can’t find my site ranking any more in the Top 10 in Google for ‘florida luxury homes’. What happened to my search rankings suddenly? Why have my Google rankings fallen so dramatically!”
“Why has traffic to my site suddenly dropped? I can’t find my site anywhere on Google?! What’s happening?”
Ask anyone who’s worked in the field of SEO for more than a couple of years and it’s more likely than not that he / she would’ve got an email like this from a client. You could find yourself in the same boat at any time and you want to be best prepared for it!
The world of SEO is complex and always subject to change. Nowadays, it’s become a fine art and requires a balance of both technical and creative strategies.
Google updates its search algorithm multiple times in a year with possible incremental changes happening every day. As an example, way back in February 2012, they made 40 updates to their algorithm within a single month. So there is a lot of scope for change and as such, it stands to reason that there are always random fluctuations in the SERPs. It happens all the time: One day your rankings are sky-high. Few days later, you drop a dozen or so positions and your revenue starts decreasing.
There are a couple of things you’d want to do if you were to find yourself in such a situation. Identify what could’ve gone wrong and effectively communicate with your SEO client/boss how you’re going to handle the situation.
Before you get back to your client, you’d ideally want to analyze what went wrong and give them
a reason for the drop in Google rankings. Of course, this assumes that you already have some kind of rank tracking set up for their sites. If you don’t, there’s no way you can keep on top of things and you should start tracking and checking your rankings right away.
There could be a few reasons as to why your Google rankings have fallen. We need to first evaluate how bad is the situation before figuring out what to do next. Here, at Mondovo, we’ve developed something we call a Rank Drop Quadrant.This quadrant categorizes the situation based on a) how many keywords you’ve lost rankings for and b) what is the average position drop in rankings. The quadrant is illustrated below:
~THE RANK DROP QUADRANT~
The Rank Drop Quadrant is useful if you’re tracking at least 100 keywords for a site and there has been an overall negative trend in rankings for the site. To break down your ranking analysis, first identify the right quadrant:
Chill Zone – When you have just a few keywords that have fallen and the position drop is minor. The Chill zone typically requires no panic as this could be a normal day to day ranking fluctuation happening on a global scale.
Alert Zone – When you have many keywords that have fallen in rankings but the position drop is minimal. This situation is a bit more serious because it’s not only a few keywords that have fallen. You want to be “alert” and in investigative mode before the situation slips into any of the other two zones.
Worry Zone – When you have a few primary keywords that have fallen out of the index or dropped majorly. This is a worry zone because you are losing key traffic from potentially qualified visitors. Immediate analysis is required out here to quickly address the situation.
Disaster Zone – When you have a large number of keywords that have fallen and all have either completely fallen out of the index or dropped by 10+ positions on average. There’s something that’s gone seriously wrong out here. Immediate investigative analysis and recovery action will need to be taken.
Now that you’ve identified which of the above 4 quadrants you’ve fallen into, let’s deep dive further into analyzing what could be a relevant reason for the ranking drop.
Case A > CHILL ZONE: Few keywords have lost rankings and the drop in average position has been small
a. It’s the Google Swing
Search engines are constantly tweaking their algorithms and more so nowadays where Google has been known to experiment with ranking positions dynamically such that you might even find sites ranking up and down within the same day. It is also commonly called as the Google Dance.
>> How can you fix this?
You can’t and as long as the ranking drop is minor, it could just be a random fluctuation and at times you could see yourself back on top. As long as the dip is not something that has resulted in a consistent long-term dip in organic traffic, you shouldn’t worry too much about this. Carry on with SEO activities as usual and you should be back.
b. A new competitor has displaced you
There might be a situation where your Google search rankings would have fallen by a position or two and you see someone else who has taken your position.
>> How can you fix this?
Check for on-page changes the competing site has made recently. You could do so by checking the archive of their page in Archive.org and comparing it with their current live version. You could also run an on-page analysis comparison between the two versions to determine the differences. Apart from that, check for recent backlinks that the site may have acquired from other sources. These links/mentions could have helped. You could use Mondovo’s backlink analysis tool to identify them.
Case B > ALERT ZONE: Many keywords have suffered a drop in rankings BUT the average ranking position hasn’t fallen too badly
a. Have you lost a few links recently?
If you have lost Google rankings for many of keywords, there are chances that you could’ve lost some authority to your site. Do check if you happened to lose some key quality backlinks to your site.
b. A new competitor has displaced you
The reasons and strategies would be similar to those outlined for the same point under the Chill Zone section.
c. Did you make some structural changes on the site recently?
This happens more often than people think and is usually the last reason people will think for their dip in rankings but in most cases, can be the most strong possibility. You will want to run an audit of your entire site to correct any obvious issues, re-evaluate any content changes you may have made recently, ensure that you are optimizing your internal links and lastly, check that you’ve not messed up with the canonical tag.
d. Has your content become stale
If you learn that a lot of these keywords were for content pages that are article/information oriented and those resources have lost traction in recent times, there’s a chance that Google might favor some of the more recently written articles on the topic. It can be a sound tactic to keep updating old well-ranked articles from time to time and sometimes, maybe even consider hiding the date from your posts. Google does show the date in some search rankings snippets and imagine you have an article showing 2009 and others show 2015, a prospective searcher is more likely to click the 2015 article and also Google may note the dipping CTRs and push down your website rankings.
e. Website Speed
Google has prioritized user experience over other factors and so they decided to take site speed into account for determining ranking positions. Here is a detailed view on how load times can affect Google Rankings.
Case C > WORRY ZONE: A few of your primary keywords have dropped dramatically in their Google rankings
a. Lost links to the specific pages where Search Rankings have fallen
If you’ve lost rankings to specific pages of your site, then the first thing you’d want to check is if you lost any backlinks you had acquired to those pages. A loss in quality backlinks can mean a loss of a quality ranking signal, which can result in declined rankings.
b. Google Algorithmic update favoring other kinds of sites for this query
Google constantly tweaks its algorithm and may determine that for those kinds of specific terms, more “informational” pages are required, more “fresh” pages are required, more “diverse” results in the form of images/videos/news are required or more “transactional” pages are required. So your pages might have fallen out of favor for any of these reasons. You can identify this by observing the Top 10 sites that has dramatically changed for these terms and it’s not only your site that has been Penalized. If this is the case, you might want to re-evaluate your targeting strategy for these pages based on what is ranking or choose another set of search rankings term to target.
c. Duplicate / Similar content elsewhere on the site
Duplication of content across the site can be a reason for rankings drop, so you might want to check this out.
d. Broken links on the pages
Do a check of the internal links on the pages where you’ve lost rankings, are there any broken links that have slipped in by chance. Having dead links can be a negative signal to rank your site in Google search engine because of the resulting poor user experience, so you might want to check and correct this.
e. Stale content
This would be for the same reason as mentioned above under the Alert Zone.
Case D > DISASTER ZONE: A lot of keywords have lost their Google rankings and the fall has been steep for most keywords
a. Check for a Google Penalty
There are two types of penalties Google applies. First is the by-product of an existing algorithm update and second is a manual penalty issued by the Google Search Quality Team for violating their guidelines.
If it is a manual penalty, Google will notify you in your Webmaster Search Console. If you haven’t got any manual warning, you might want to check for the following:
1. Check your Web Analytics for a big sudden ranking drop.
If there has been a huge sudden drop in organic traffic then it’s likely you’ve suffered from some kind of algorithmic penalty update.
2. Check if your site is indexed Google Rankings.
In the Google search bar, type in ‘site:yourdomain.com’. If you see few or no pages, you may be looking at a penalty problem or indexing issue.
3. Check if there has been a recent algorithm update.
If any major update has taken place recently and if it correlates with your drop date, it is another sign of a penalty.
b. Check your robots.txt and your meta robots tags
Have you mistakenly prevented your site or its’ key pages from being indexed via a wrongly formatted robots.txt or an unintentional meta robots ‘noindex’ tag? It’s rare that this should be the cause but you never know and this is the easiest issue to fix [so you might want to pray this is the cause ;)]. Sometimes the simplest of mistakes can cause the biggest damage.
c. Did you change your content layout to include a lot more ads?
The Google Panda algorithm update devalued sites that hampered user reading experiences. If you changed your content structure to show more ads and the ads are positioned in a way that can affect user experience, they could have a negative impact on your SERP Positions. You want to ensure you don’t compromise on user experience for extra monetization opportunities.
d. Were you relying on a network of links?
Did you knowingly build a network of artificial links either through a network of private-owned blogs, directories, etc? Or was there any one mass link generation tactic you used? There’s a high chance that Google/Bing sniffed out and detected the links as “fake” and devalued those sites.
So that concludes the Quadrant and the various possibilities that lie under each Quadrant. We will be updating this post from time to time with newer possible reasons, as and when Google updates their algorithm. So do keep checking back. If you have a client who tells you, “why have my Google rankings suddenly dropped“, this is the article you want to refer.
Now hopefully you’ll be able to identify if your client’s site falls under any of the above quadrants and accordingly, come up with a relevant plan of action. After doing that, your next job is to communicate this piece of bad news in a way that they still have faith in you and your services.
This is the first post in a two-part blog series. Read on about how to deliver such bad news to your SEO clients and yet keep them happy.
As a final reminder, it’s always good to be two steps ahead and to get all your tracking in place before such an event arises. It’s highly recommend you track your search rankings as well as keep tabs on data from your Google Search Console, both of which can be done from within Mondovo at a few dollars a month.