Are you worried that your website is losing traffic? Or maybe it’s a client’s website that’s losing traffic and you’re concerned they might start questioning their SEO investment.
Whatever the case may be, don’t panic! Traffic declines happen to the best of us, regardless of how proactive or quality-driven our efforts may seem. The good news is, in some cases, you can reverse those traffic losses just as quickly. There are countless reasons why site traffic can drop off—and not all of them are terrible (honestly!)
Your data investigation process should be thoughtful, methodical, and consider all of the many critical data points, in order to best help you craft a successful recovery plan.
The “investigation process” boils down to the following steps:
For the purposes of this article, we’ll mainly focus on the first 3 steps: you know, the parts giving you a panic attack right now. So take a deep breath, and dig in. You’ve got this!
First things first: determine whether this drop in traffic has to do with a real marketing/SEO problem, or simply a tracking issue.
Measuring website traffic can be tricky with lots of platforms and tools to perform this task, plus tons of metrics to review & understand, which makes it even harder. Whether you have implemented Google Analytics tracking code directly on your website, or utilized Google Tag Manager for tracking purposes, there are some key areas you can check to see if your traffic decline is down due to a tracking issue.
This may seem like a silly step to you, but it’s the core problem in an estimated 15-20% of the cases we see.
Here are some of the most common real-life reasons we’ve seen tracking broken on client sites:
Is your traffic issue really a tracking issue? Consider yourself lucky! The sooner you can diagnose and fix it, the better. Then you can go back to investing in your business.
Need guidance further diagnosing faulty tracking? Get help auditing your GA and GTM account to ensure it’s actually working properly.
The next critical box to check: are the declining traffic levels normal or expected behavior? Check for the obvious contenders:
If the traffic drop is unexpected, determine the following:
In general, a sudden or significant change likely points to something “breaking,” for example, perhaps you broke analytics tracking or paused your advertising campaigns. In the case of an SEO traffic drop, it could be external (e.g. an algorithm update,) or internal (e.g. canonical tags reference non-existent pages, or you noindexed your website.)
Slow and steady drops are more frequently associated with website quality issues, increasing competition, incorrect audience/brand alignment, and other similar marketing optimization issues.
Then you’ll want to dig into the obvious ways to “break down” your data, to determine if the issue is specific to a device, platform, section of your site, etc.
There are a few good places where you should begin the investigation process. Start by digging in:
Review rankings for your site’s keyword footprint (e.g. all the terms you rank for) and the keywords you track directly and care most about.
E.g. If you're doing a lot of content marketing, you might have a high-ranking blog or two that’s driving a bulk of your traffic. If that’s the case, sudden losses in traffic can sometimes be attributed to content and/or competitive pressures associated with such content.
If your site moved to an external CDN, for example, you will naturally lose “image traffic” from Google… since that traffic is going to a new domain now. Evaluate all possible variables that might impact traffic shifts based on the various forms of organic traffic.
Whether they’re direct or indirect, competitive influences can be a common culprit behind your traffic losses. Examples include:
Search engines experiment with different offerings all the time. “Featured Snippets”, “People Also Ask” sections, and new ads & ad types may push down your organic search visibility. Similarly, you may find opportunities to better position your content to show up in these valuable search results.
Or, perhaps search interest fluctuates seasonally or sporadically. For instance, a blog about cross-country skiing will likely peak in wintertime thereby causing perceived traffic losses come spring.
For example, you could be suffering from a crawling/access issue or an indexing issue. Other common technical issues include deindexed pages and/or whole sites (due to robots.txt, robots meta, or canonical issues), JS accessibility issues, crawler traps, and index bloat.
Google’s algorithm has become increasingly sophisticated, so even quality issues surrounding poor user experience, high bounce rates, and low time on site can send mixed signals about your site’s quality, and ultimately, its ability to deliver value to users.
At this point, we know something is wrong, and we should know more about where it’s happening and the impact. So what’s next?
Understanding the WHY behind the traffic pattern change.
NOTE that this process assumes your business actually cares about the traffic loss, and it’s worth the work to recover it. This isn’t always a given—for example, you might lose traffic after retiring a service offering, for terms relating to that service.
Below we’ve broken out the major possible reasons we frequently see when doing SEO traffic investigations, organized by Internal & External factors.
External causes of site traffic drops aren’t the result of your actions… but may be the result of your inaction. Resolving these issues isn’t as simple as “fixing” the problem, so be prepared for a longer timeline to resolve them.
If you are going “by the book”, you should (could?) be fine. However, sometimes even the best brands get their share of traffic drops from Google algorithm updates and its constant efforts toward improvement. After all, quality is a moving finish line.
New Google Core Updates—and algorithm changes on previous ones—are all over SEO news, so they can (sometimes) be easy to understand why your traffic got hit by a Google update. Tools like Panguin can help you visualize this by overlaying your traffic updates with confirmed and suspected algo updates.
Get insights & theories on updates and changes with Marie Hayne’s Algo Update list.
Have you been telling yourself it’s “okay” while secretly violating Google’s Quality Guidelines? Start by checking if there is a notification under your GSC account in the Search Traffic > Manual Actions section. If so, you have a long way to go, and Google’s documentation on manual penalty might be handy.
Check if there’s anything peculiar happening on the SERPs (search engine result pages) for key queries in which you are losing traffic. Maybe there’s a feature you haven’t seen before (on mobile, desktop, or both.) Google is constantly testing new features to improve the search experience for users, and that could affect your organic visibility—even when your keyword’s ranking is static.
If you had a drop in your rankings, gather the queries that saw the drop (via GSC) and see if there is a technical problem related to the pages these queries land on. Sometimes these are A/B tests Google is running, sometimes it’s a bug on Google’s side, and sometimes these changes are competition or algorithm-driven. If you are curious, check Google's tweet on it:
Search intent is one of the most important aspects to keep in mind when creating pages and deciding which keywords to target. If your pages have been performing well, but a slight and gradual drop is happening, this could be because user intent is changing for target queries. Deciding which keywords to target for improving SEO organic traffic can be difficult, but it’s critical to get them right.
If your rankings have dropped in favor of other competing content, look into those sites to see what they’re doing differently. What’s changed? What are they doing better than you? How many new backlinks have they built? How are they better aligned with the user’s search intent? (And try to be objective!)
From small to significant, these kinds of events can have an outsized impact on how many people search for something, as well as what they mean by what they search. To determine changes in search volume, utilize tools like Google Trends to evaluate shifting popularity in certain themes and interests.
To identify changes in intent, search for the term in question to see what's ranking well (that may not have been there previously.) Observe both the content that’s ranking as well as any glaring SERP changes that may be contributing to your sudden loss of traffic.
For example, top rankings for popular figures will change when something happens to that figure. One day that person’s basic bio might rank, the next an exposé on whatever it is they did wrong or right.
Sometimes traffic drops happen because something is “wrong” with your website. Let’s take a look at the common internal factors of SEO traffic drops.
Ensuring your site is accessible on all devices (read as: smartphones!), whenever and wherever your users are, helps you grow and sustain SEO traffic while driving more mobile conversions. If there is an issue regarding the mobile version of your website, you may want to fix it swiftly, since Google’s moved to Mobile-First Indexing.
A regular content audit can do wonders for a website. When your website traffic is down, determine if high-quality content removal is a concern - or if there’s simply too much “meh” or low-quality content. If it’s something you can fix, just do it. Here is an article on evaluating and improving content for existing pages that can help. If your competitors are outranking you with great content, then pivot to go beyond their success. Examine what they are doing, and think through how you can implement something dramatically better.
Did you recently edit the web copy of a page that is now seeing a drop? Did you remove a link to that page? Making changes to content and internal linking can sometimes result in unexpectedly large traffic swings.
Technical SEO is the foundation of quality, sustainable traffic to large websites (in other words, technical SEO is typically less critical for small websites.) If there is a problem regarding the correct implementation of the following (especially to the extent that something new “broke” that was previously working), your traffic may be suffering.
Utilizing website monitoring software, or automated crawling software (e.g. Moz, Ahrefs, or SemRush) can help you identify issues before they become traffic issues. Additionally, good QA processes—and double-checking critical user flows—can help.
Google Search Console (GSC) and Screaming Frog are the to-go tools for identifying crawl errors. In addition to monitoring 404 errors and other HTTP status errors, make sure your content is not having any indexation issues, and fix these GSC errors quickly.
Often the worst-case scenarios we see as SEOs are the cases of botched site migrations. The SEO migration process can be complex/high-risk, requiring close attention & QA. Redirects in particular are a common issue with migration projects. If there is a problem with your redirects, you may be losing website traffic as a consequence. (Don’t forget to redirect www, non-www, http, and https URLs!)
Canonical tags tell search engines which pages are original sources of content, and therefore what pages are worthy of indexing. If you accidentally point your canonical tags to the wrong URLs…. bad things happen. For example, if you rely on canonicals for filter views not to be indexed, then you should take a look at the best practices for faceted navigation for e-commerce websites.
When implemented incorrectly robots.txt and meta robots tags can also cause traffic losses on your website, since you are stopping search engines from accessing important content. Learn more about common issues for crawling & indexing websites.
If you utilize a web platform (say, WordPress or Shopify) and leverage plugins, extensions, or apps to add additional functionality to your site, there's always the possibility that the plugin itself is broken and causing site issues. If this is the case for you, you'll either need to wait until the plugin developer fixes it, find an alternative tool, or forgo the use of that functionality entirely.
Keep in mind that these factors can and do overlap; for example, a Core Quality Update (aka: an algorithm update from Google) could change your website’s quality score from “good enough” to “not so much,” resulting in dramatic-looking losses. Technical SEO issues that might not be deal-killers in themselves (e.g. XML sitemaps with lots of broken pages) can compound into larger issues.
For this reason, it’s best to investigate all the possible items that could be wrong—if only to rule them out.
This is pretty much 100% a contextual question. Where are you seeing decreases, and for what keywords? Did that traffic provide you with brand awareness with your core audience, or did it bring you meaningless spammy bots?
If you have GA goals, or eCommerce/event tracking set up, it may well be easy to quantify the business impact (or lack thereof) of this change.
The critical part, however, is simply to ask yourself the question.
Don’t pour time and effort into fixing non-issues!
This item is also quite contextual to the what/where/when/why that you defined in the investigation process, but on a high level:
Big picture, the most critical step in the process is identifying the actual, real problem(s.) Without understanding that, you can’t possibly fix it!
We hope this breakdown helps you understand a good approach for identifying and resolving website traffic issues.
If you need help with your investigation—or the plan to fix it—reach out!