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Website Traffic Down? Here's How You Investigate It To Determine the Cause

February 17, 2021
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray

Are you worried that your website is losing traffic? 

Don’t freak out! There are countless reasons that this could be happening...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” basically boils down to the following steps: 

Validate if your issue is, in fact, a traffic problem. 

Understand your data:

  1. Where is the drop coming from?
  2. What is the magnitude & time frame of the problem?
  3. What (or where) on your site is it making an impact?

Identify the underlying causes & paths to resolution.

Determine if it’s worth fixing. 

Outline a game plan to resolve it (as needed.)

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!

How to Determine if Website Traffic is Actually Down

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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 utilize 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 fully 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: 

  • An improperly implemented GDPR compliance banner resulted in a client losing fully 95% of user data for EU countries. 
  • A website update or migration resulted in accidentally dropping the UA tracking code across the entire site OR on specific pages (as implemented directly on the website.)
  • A website migration resulted in an unpublished GTM container that previously deployed the GA tracking code.
  • An improperly implemented GA event tagged almost all users as “returning visitors” for a client who concentrated reporting on new visitors, rendering the new visitor report inaccurately low. 

These are the biggest indicators that your traffic issue may be a tracking issue: 

  • Traffic is down relatively consistently from all (or several) marketing channels - not just a specific channel (like organic search traffic.)
  • Conflicting data - if Google Search Console, or the Facebook Ad platform, reports flat traffic or traffic increases, while your analytics tool (likely Google Analytics) reports that traffic is down, for the same marketing channel. 
  • These tools track traffic very differently, so gaps in what they report are very common. However, large and growing deltas may be a sign that something is up. 

Is your traffic issue really a tracking issue? Consider yourself lucky! The sooner the better and once you fix it, you can go back to investing in your business. Get help auditing your GA and GTM account to ensure tracking is actually working properly. 

How to Analyze & Dig Into Your Web Traffic Data

The next critical box to check: are the declining traffic levels normal or expected behavior? Check for the obvious contenders: 

  • Seasonal changes
  • Intentionally retired products, services, subdomains, etc. 

If the drop is unexpected, the following step is to understand the magnitude and time-frame for the traffic loss you are experiencing.

  • Magnitude: Slight Drop vs Sudden Drop
  • Time Frame: Significant vs Gradual

In general, a sudden or significant change likely points to something “breaking” or “stopping” (e.g. you noindexed your site, broke tracking, or paused your advertising campaigns), or, in the case of an SEO traffic drop, an algorithm update. 

Slow and steady drops are more frequently associated with website quality issues, growing competitors, wrong 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. 

How you should start digging in: 

  • Across different digital marketing channels, including PPC, the obvious social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), email, referral & direct traffic.
  • Across mobile, tablet, and desktop devices.
  • Across different sections or landing pages of your website.
  • Across different countries, cities, or other geographical boundaries.

IF THE TRAFFIC ISSUE IS SEO RELATED, HERE ARE SOME ADDITIONAL PATHS TO DIG INVESTIGATE:

Keyword Rankings

  • For both your site’s Keyword Footprint (e.g. all the terms you rank for) and the keywords you track directly and care most about.

Web vs News vs Image vs Video Traffic

  • E.g. if your site moved to an external CDN, you will lose “image traffic” from Google, since that traffic isn’t going to your domain anymore. 

Competitors

  • Whether they be direct or indirect. Examples: 
  • Google started ranking review sites like Clutch for service search terms instead of business service pages (indirect online competitor, in that you are competing to rank on the same terms.)
  • High search rankings are a moving target. If your competitor(s) are investing in content or link building and you aren’t, you could fall behind as they move ahead.

Actual Search Result Pages

  • Search engines experiment with different offerings all the time. “Featured Snippets”, “People Also Ask” sections, and new ads & ad types may push down your free search listing.

Rapid (or Slow!) Changes in Search Behavior 

  • Hello, Coronavirus.

Technical SEO Issues

  • For example, you could be suffering from a crawling/access issue or an indexing issue. Another issue could be your pagespeed, the bond in between UX and SEO are even stronger now, especially with the recent Core Web Vitals algorithm update.

SEO Website Quality Issues

What is Causing Your SEO Traffic Loss?

At this point, we know something is actually wrong, and we should know more about where it’s happening & 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. 

issues-that-cause-website-traffic-drops

External Causes of SEO Traffic Drops

External causes of traffic drops aren’t the result of your actions… but may way 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.

Algorithm Updates

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’s 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 more data about what the updates were about from Marie Hayne’s Algo Update list

A Google Penalty

Have you been telling yourself it’s “okay” while secretly violating Google’s Webmaster 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. 

SERP Changes

Check if there’s anything peculiar happening on the SERPs (search engine result pages) for key queries you are losing traffic for. 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 SEO organic - even when your keyword’s ranking is static. 

Keyword Ranking Fluctuations

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 Webmasters’ tweet on it.

Evolving Search Intent

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 of the user intent changing for the queries. Deciding which keywords to target for improving SEO organic traffic can be difficult, but it’s critical to get right.

The Competitive Landscape

If your rankings have dropped and favor other sites, look into those sites. 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!)

World Events & Impactful News

From small to big, 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 identify changes in intent, search for the term in question to see what's ranking well (that may not have been there previously.)

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.

Internal Causes of SEO Traffic Drops

make-sure-your-site-is-mobile-friendly

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.

Mobile Website Disparities

Being accessible on all devices (specifically smartphones), whenever and wherever your users are, helps you to get more SEO traffic. 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.

Website Quality Issues

A regular content audit can do wonders for a website. When your website traffic is down, check whether the problem is caused by the removal of good content - or 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.

Accidental Content Changes

Did you recently edit page copy on a page that seeing a drop? What about removing a link to that page? Content and internal links can very much impact search rankings. 

Technical SEO Problems - Existing or Newly “Broken”

Technical SEO is the foundation of a quality, sustainable traffic to large websites (to clarify, technical SEO is less critical and complex for small websites.) If there is a problem regarding the correct implementation of the following (especially to the extent that something “broke” that was previously working), your traffic might 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 

Crawl Errors

Google Search Console (GSC) and Screaming Frog are the to-go tools for identifying crawl errors. The URL’s under “Coverage Report” are not indexed by Google to serve the users. Make sure your fruitful content is not having an indexation issue and fix these GSC errors quickly.

Migrations & Redirects

One of the worst-case scenarios we see as SEO’s 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, your traffic might be suffering as a consequence. (Don’t forget to redirect www, non-www, http, and https URLs!)

Canonicals

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.

Robots.txt, Robots Meta & Other Directives

When implemented incorrectly robots.txt & 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

Plugins

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, fix a new one, or forgo the use of that functionality entirely.

Keep in mind that these factors can and do overlap; for example, a Core Quality Update (algo 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 bigger issues. 

For this reason, it’s best to investigate all the possible items that could be wrong - if only to rule them out. 

Determining if a Traffic Drop Matters to Your Business

This is pretty much 100% a contextual question. Where are you seeing the drops, 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 goal, eCommerce, or event traffic setup, it may well be easy to quantify the business impact (or lack thereof) of this change. 

But the important part is just to ask yourself the question before you put time and effort into the fix. 

Resolving Traffic Drop Issues

traffic-down-solutions

This item is also quite contextual to the what/where/when/why that you defined in the investigation process, but on a high level: 

  • If you have a tracking issue, fix it. Work with a team you trust (if needed) to get it back to where you need it to be.
  • If you have a website quality issue, you can work to improve your site’s E-A-T, remove the lowest quality pages, and identify other opportunities for improvement.
  • If you suffered a manual penalty, you’ll have to work to resolve the issue, then work to get your website reconsidered to get it reindexed.
  • If something was “broken” from a technical perspective, work with your development team to resolve that issue then re-submit the broken pages to GSC as needed. 
  • If a competitor is doing good work and outpacing you, consider investing more in your own marketing efforts. 
  • If it's more a case of "death by 1000 cuts" you may want to consider putting together a comprehensive SEO Strategy 
  • Etc. Etc.

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!

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