— What to look for when trying to determine the cause of an unexpected search traffic drop.
For any business with an online presence, website traffic is important; the more visitors you have, the more opportunities you have to make your brand known, make relationships and ultimately sell your service or product. This is why a sudden drop in search engine traffic is a terrifying prospect, as it ultimately means business losses and lower revenue.
Whether it’s a technical issue, a recent website change, a Google algorithm update or poor optimization, there are many possible reasons why traffic to your website has been declining.
Here’s what to look for when trying to determine the cause of an unexpected search traffic drop.
1. The Tracking Code
One of the most overlooked causes of traffic drops (assuming someone is relying on something like Google Analytics) is a change or issue with the site’s tracking code. Analytics plug-ins or website code changes can often cause issues with tracking code and thus cause discrepancies in analytics reporting. Always double check the tracking code before spending time troubleshooting elsewhere.
2. Recent Website Changes
Besides possibly detecting the obvious hosting hiccup, check for recent changes. Design changes often impact load times, which is not seen well by search engines. Additionally, use Google Analytics to see if all traffic sources are decreasing or only a specific one. Last but not least, make sure to check the SERPs (search engine results pages), and if you aren’t already, start monitoring SERPs regularly.
3. Trends Over Time
When analyzing traffic on client applications (web/native), assess trends over time for total traffic and the associated segments. Understanding seasonal trends/business cycles by traffic medium, channel and campaign is critical to understanding if the drop is normal. Once a baseline is established, assess if there are non-normal changes, and isolate the issue with cause and effect analysis.
4. Panda Or Penguin Update
Over the past few years, Google has made several calculated updates to its algorithm (referred to as Panda and Penguin) in an attempt to improve the overall quality of search results. Panda examines content quality and penalizes sites with low-quality content, while Penguin analyzes link quality and penalizes sites with unnatural links. One or both of these updates may explain a decrease in traffic.
5. Domain, DNS Or NS Structure
The first thing I would do is check to see if Google had released any updates to its algorithm. If there were no major Google updates then I would start by going down a technical checklist to see if any changes to the domain, DNS (Domain Name Server) or NS (Name Server) structure have been made that could have caused this.
6. The Low Hanging Fruit: Simple Technical Issues
Use the simple publicly available tools to find technical problems: Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test, Alexa, Moz, YSlow, and more. Fix the simple things first: 404 errors, long page load times, missing/incorrect on-page SEO (search engine optimization) elements, etc. Move onto more philosophical issues: performance optimization, A/B testing, user experience (UX), heat-mapping, etc.
7. Information Architecture
Is the client’s website structured well? How effective is their internal link strategy? Are they creating droves of orphaned pages simply for the sake of blogging? Were there recent design changes that significantly increased bounce rates and the number of people pogo sticking back to the search results?
8. Global Traffic
While there are many reasons – from server issues to traffic sources and even something as simple as broken tracking – I would suggest checking geographic distribution of the traffic. Today, most apps and websites have global traffic. For content owners that have traffic from emerging markets, government level blocking or censorship can cause gradual to sudden dips, depending on how sophisticated they are in detecting IPs.
9. Source Of Traffic
If your organic traffic suddenly declines, there are some SEO issues that you’re dealing with. Either your website was updated and search engines aren’t indexing you the same way as before, or a search engine changed the way they index your website. If your paid traffic dropped, but your spending has remained the same, your ads are no longer as effective as they were before.
10. Google Search Console
Google Search Console is essentially like looking under the hood of a car. You pop the hood if the car doesn’t start, just like you take a look at Google Search Console when there are negative or positive spikes in traffic trends. Within Search Console, you can detect any malicious problems (such as whether your site has been hacked), HTML issues or trends that are impacting website traffic.
11. Server Overload
Web servers can easily become overloaded and should be one of the first things that are looked into when a website goes down. It’s very common that the website may not be able to keep up with demand from people visiting the site; therefore, it’s vital to optimize your website and be ready for high traffic spikes to avoid downtime.
12. Meta Information
Meta information is where Google pulls keyword information from your website in order to rank you. First, check to see if someone has accidentally removed their meta information (it happens a lot). If the meta set-up is intact, view Google Analytics to see if the drop came from organic, paid, or social. If it’s from paid, check your AdWords campaign. If it’s from organic, check your robots.txt, sitemap.xml, SSL, etc.