As website owners, we're used to our traffic changing slightly from day to day.
But when you check your analytics and see it's fallen of a cliff...it's hard not to panic.
Especially when your keywords have also vanished from the front page and are now in a downward spiral (if you can find them at all!).
The good news is that sudden traffic drops can be temporary. There are also some issues we see time and time again that cause sites to plummet down the SERPs.
To help get your website back in Google's good graces, we've put together this 14-point checklist.
Check For Issues Inside Google Search Console
Make sure your website is connected to Google Search Console and check the "Manual Actions" section.
It's rare, but if you see something here it's certainly going to affect your traffic ranking.
Also, check out the "Coverage" section for issues that Google have identified while crawling your site.
These issues are not as serious as manual actions but they are things you could check and fix ASAP.
Google does email webmasters whenever these issues occur but it's easy for these emails to get lost / overlooked.
Check For Omitted Results Using A site:search
Google will omit your pages from their search if they think they're too similar to other content on your website.
For large sites, this means hundreds (even thousands) of your pages are not being shown.
To see if you have this warning, type "site:yourdomain.com" (or the TLD variant i.e site:yourdomain.co.uk) and go to the last page of search results.
If the warning below shows, it's a strong indication that you have duplicate / thin content issues.
Look For Thin Content Using Screaming Frog (or similar)
"Thin Content" is pretty self-explanatory. As a general rule of thumb, SEO tools will usually flag content under 300 words as "Thin".
We have seen quite a few websites just having images on pages, or category pages with absolutely zero content.
Their rankings have increased once these pages have been edited or removed.
To check if your website has thin content, you can use a free program like Screaming Frog (free for up to 500 URLs) to check for these pages.
It should noted that blank pages might not show up with a zero word count. This is because thing like the header, footer and sidebar are counted.
As a general rule-of-thumb it's worth investigating anything < 500 words.
Check Your Link Profile For Low Quality / Toxic Links
One of the biggest reasons we see for websites crashing down Google's rankings is have a number of low quality / toxic backlinks.
Sadly, a lot of the time the owners don't even know!
Sometimes, they have paid for SEO services that use "Blackhat" links, or a competitor has launched a negative SEO attack on their site.
And if you've outsourced your link building, it's vital to check they are not using outdated or automatic link building methods like the one below...
There are loads of red flags here...could it really be possible to get to the top of Google for $19?!
Unfortunately, some people still believe "Linkwheels" and thousands of backlinks work.
And even if they did work...it wouldn't be too long until Google penalizes your website into oblivion.
Ensure Your Website Is Secure & Loads Over https
Back in 2014, Google started rewarding sites that had a SSL certificate in place with a small (yet undetermined) rankings increase.
Their Chrome Browser now warns users that a website is "Not Secure" if it doesn't load over the https protocol.
This can also cause anti-virus software to warn users before visiting your page.
Even if you do have a SSL certificate in place, it might not be secure because you have mixed content issues. This is usally caused by images that were overloaded over the http protocol.
You can troubleshoot why your webpage is unsecure using whynopadlock.com or by inspecting the page in Google Chrome or in Firefox.
Is Your Website Mobile Friendly & Not Just
Google rolled out Mobile First-Indexing in 2018, and they now crawl this version (rather than desktop) to index and rank your website.
In many niches, more people are visiting websites with a mobile than any other device.
This makes it vital that your theme resizes content for both tablets and cell phones and all of your content is shown correctly.
However, it's common to see websites that are "Mobile Friendly" but their hamburger menu and other navigational links are not showing.
To check your website, try these two things:
1) Check your website with Google's Mobile Friendly Test.
2) Visit responsinator.com to see how your website looks on an iPhone and other devices.
Has Google Added Search Features & You're Not Optimized?
In some cases, websites don't have any issues but the search format has changed while they've remained stagnant.
Google continue to add (and sometimes take away!) features into the search results. Examples of these include knowledge cards, featured snippets, "People Also Ask" boxes , video carousels, and Google Guarantees.
If your competitors have these - and you don't - expect traffic to your website to fall.
Check If Your Site Is Fresh & Update Stale Content
In some niches, "freshness" (when the page was last updated) can be a big ranking factor.
For example, if you search "Summer fashion trends", the top results will be from this month and certainly this year.
With a keyword like "Best hangover cure", freshness is not so important and older results are also included.
Sometimes, Google will show you when the article was published in the search results. If it's not immediately apparent, you might be able to find it within the article itself.
We have seen quite a few pages get rankings boosts by simply updating and editing their content.
Another bonus is you can frequently find broken images and youtube links which could be affecting how long people stay on your website.
Check For Spam Or Malware Warnings
Some websites lose rankings (or get removed from Google's index entirely) because their site has become infected with spam or malware.
This often happens when hackers gain access to the back-end of your website and insert malicious script into your code.
This leaves many webmasters completely oblivious to the attack and a ruined reputation in the eyes of Google.
You can run a quick check using Google's Safe Browsing Report to see if your site is infected.
Made Any Recent Changes To Your Website?
Have you recently made changes to website affecting page titles or the internal navigation?
Or just swapped over to https, deleted or redirected some pages?
It's common to see rankings go down for a short time and then to recover to previous levels (or even above) after these kinds of changes.
You can choose to wait out the ranking fluctuations or double-check the changes haven't caused any crawling issues.
The best way to do this is to check for any changes to the pages that Google is indexing. You can do this in the Coverage report in Search Console.
You should look out for large swings in the pages that are indexed (particularly "Indexed, not submitted in sitemap") and check the excluded reports for what's not getting indexed.
Have You Fallen Behind In Quality Links & Mentions?
Google's algorithms has become very adept at recognizing the one good quality link from the dozens of mediocre ones. They've also focused on rewarding "Brand Mentions" a lot more, too.
A reason for your fall in rankings could just be that your competitors have gained more of these quality links and have leap-frogged you in the rankings.
Using Ahref's Link Intersect tool is a great way of finding out what links your competitors have recently acquired.
They also display a "Domain Rating" (DR) score to help you sort the wheat from the chaff.
You can also use Ahrefs to calculate your "link velocity" and compare it with your competitors.
This will give you an idea of how many links you need to gain per month to draw level, and eventually overtake them.
Are You Providing The Best Search Result?
Google's algorithm changes are usually based on one simple premise - they want to provide the best results for their users.
So how can we know if our piece of content matches "user intent"?
Well, say you have a piece of content called "How To Make Report Writing Easier". You've noticed it's dropped out of the top 10 for the keyword "Report Writing" and want to know why.
A good start is to look at Google's current top 10 and see how our piece compares.
With this keyword, it's clear that a "How To" piece of content is what Google has determined to be "The Best".
Changing your page title to reflect this and adding in content like "Step-by-step formatting" could get you back on the first page.
This obviously changes from keyword to keyword. But I also recommend checking the format of the content that is currently ranking to see if your piece fits.
Different types of content include "How Tos", listicles, editiorials, videos, image based content, product reviews, etc, etc.
You should also check the length of the content that is ranking. Unless you have a truly spectacular backlink profile, ranking a 500-word article #1 would be unrealistic if the top three results now have > 2,000 words.
Do You E-A-T Enough?
Nobody knows for sure what Google has changed in it's latest algorithm, but many suspect it's demoted sites with poor E-A-T metrics.
E-A-T refers to the Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness of your website.
Many websites in the health niche and YMYL (Your Money Or Your Life) space seem to have been affected by this.
The updated Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines (a 168-page PDF you can download here) mentions E.A.T over a hundred times.
Some things you can do to improve your E-A-T score include:
- Check you have detailed About us, FAQ, and Privacy Pages
- Check your author pages are filled out and highlight the expertise of the author
- Include citations and link to credible sources in your content
- Invest in Personal Branding
- Deleting pages which provide low E-A-T
Here's a snippet from the Google Search Quality Guidelines:
Check Your Internal Links Help & Don't Hinder Your Site
Many website owners purely focus on building external links to their website without checking how their internal links look.
Poor internal linking is bad for three main reasons:
1) Users can't navigate your website easily and find what they want
2) Google's crawlers can't find and index pages on your website.
3) "Link Equity" doesn't flow to the important pages on your site
We have seen how fixing internal links has provided a rankings boost, and it a lot of cases pretty quickly, too.
The SEO Tool Screaming Frog will help you analyze your internal links and see your site architecture as a whole.
It can also calculate an "Internal Page Rank" to show you which pages are linked to the most and which ones get no love at all.
Below you can see visualizations of 2 website's internal link structures that we have audited.
One is larger, but you can see how it's grown wildly out of control. Can you see where the home page is for each?
When dealing with traffic drops there are two important things to keep in mind:
1. Do not change too many things too quickly
2. Document everything you do
The temptation is to change everything that you can and hope the situation reverses itself. This can often make the situation worse.
It's much better to take a methodical approach.
Change only a few things and wait to see if they have a positive or a negative effect. Of course, you should journal these changes in case you need to reverse them in the future.
Also, while some changes can take effect relatively quickly (like optimizing page titles) you might have to wait until the next core algorithm update to see a significant improvement.
That's why it pays to be proactive and check your website's technical SEO won't cause you any problems in the future.
Has Your Website Recently Lost Rankings?
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