Traffic fluctuations are a normal part of having an online presence. Most businesses will see traffic dip over a weekend or holiday or on any given day or week without a particularly good explanation. However, a sudden or steady decline in traffic should never be ignored as it is typically a symptom of one or more issues with the company’s web presence. This post describes 10 common explanations for a dip in organic traffic.
1. Analytics Tracking Code Change
If you’ve recently updated your website or switched analytics tracking platforms, there may be an issue with the analytics tracking code. Double check to see if the code is placed on every single web page and there are no typos in the code. Check the guidelines for the platform you are using to see if the tracking code needs to be placed in a specific place on the page. For example, it’s best practice to place the Google Analytics tracking code right before the closing <head/> tag.
If you have multiple tracking codes placed on a site, such as a CRM and Google Analytics, be sure that both codes are firing correctly. In order to have two Google Analytics codes record a pageview, one of the tracking codes must be altered slightly. If one of these situations applies to you, have your developer test and debug all tracking codes on the site.
2. Website Migration/Redesign
A website migration or major redesign can create a host of SEO issues from minor and temporary to major keyword ranking and traffic losses. Some common causes of a traffic drop after a major site overhaul include:
- Temporary Loss of Authority: Many sites will see a temporary drop in keyword rankings and organic traffic immediately after a site revamp as Google registers the 301 redirects.
- Missing 301 Redirects: Without a redirect, the old URL won’t pass authority to the new page, and the page won’t rank as well.
- Redirects to the wrong page: Older versions of a web page should be redirected to a page with similar content and keyword targets. Otherwise, Google may start to rank the wrong page for a specific keyword term.
- Missing On-Page Optimizations: Title tags, H1 tags, and internal links (all important signals for Google) are frequently forgotten in site migrations and can result in drops in keyword rankings.
- Content Changes: Updating content can have both a positive and negative effect on a page’s ability to rank in Google. Factors the Google algorithm considers include content length, relevance, the inclusion of keywords, and semantic search (inclusion of related topics that a searcher would be interested in).
- Old rel=Canonical Tags: These tags signal which version of a page should be given authority. If these aren’t updated, you may be passing authority to a page that doesn’t exist.
- Duplicate Content: Frequently a symptom of missing redirects, Google may choose not to rank a specific page because it isn’t clear which version of the content you want to be displayed.
- Missing/Incorrect Sitemap: Submitting a complete and updated sitemap to Google Search Console can help Google to index a new site faster
3. Unhappy Google Bots
In order for a website to be included in the Google index, it must be easily accessible and crawlable. You also have to ensure that you’re sending the correct signals to the bots. Common issues that fall under this category include:
- Robots.txt: The robots.txt file tells the Google bots not to crawl a specific set of URLs. Double check that no important pages have been accidentally included here.
- Crawl Errors: Check to see if there has been an increase in server, DNS, or 404 errors. If a website or specific page is down for a significant amount of time, it will be removed from the Google index.
- No-Index Tag: As the name suggests, this HTML snippet tells Google not to index a specific page.
- 302 Redirects: Unlike a 301 redirect, 302 redirects do not pass authority. These can often sneak into a lengthy redirect chain.
- rel=canonical: As mentioned above, if this tag is incorrect it will confuse the Google bots.
Removed URLs: Google Search Console has a “Remove URLs” functionality. Ensure no URLs have been accidentally removed from the index.
- Orphan Pages: Bots crawl websites via links, so pages with no internal links won’t be crawled or indexed.
- Site Speed: If your site is slow, the Google bots won’t stick around, and you’re likely losing traffic due to a poor user experience.
- Search Console Issues: Setting up International Country Targeting incorrectly or an incorrect preference for URL parameters.
4. Google Penalty/WebSpam
Google will penalize websites that it believes are not relevant, useful or safe. A manual penalty is issued by an actual Google employee, and can be given to any site or portion of a site that doesn’t follow Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. You will receive notice of this in Google Search Console including why you received the penalty. Once you’ve taken steps to clean up the issues, you can request a review to have the penalty removed.
Google also incorporates factors into its algorithms to prevent spammy websites from ranking. The Google Panda update focuses on content quality. The Google Penguin update focuses on poor link building practices.
If Google detects a spam or security issue on your website, it will give you a warning in the “Security Issues” section of Google Search Console. If this issue becomes widespread, it can lead to a manual penalty.
5. Seasonal Trends
Many businesses will see a drop in traffic due to a decrease in search volume or following a time of heightened interest in a business or product. For example, some businesses see a steep decline during the month of December. These kinds of seasonality changes can be accounted for by comparing year-over-year traffic or by looking at Google Trends.
6. Loss of Keyword Rankings
A loss of keyword rankings if often a symptom of many of the other issues laid out in this post. However, an isolated drop in keyword rankings (not a de-index) could indicate several things:
- Increasing SERP competition: If another or multiple businesses are actively optimizing for the same keyword targets, you can lose rankings as they develop better content or a more authoritative backlink profile. In-depth competitive research can tell you what to improve to win these rankings back.
- Link Disavowal: Disavowing links is one way to avoid a Google penalty, but a large disavowal may include high-quality links that were helping a page to rank.
- Content Changes: Page-specific changes, such as removing text, changing the subject matter, or updating the title tag can impact keyword rankings.
7. Adding/Removing a Subdomain
Marketers love to debate whether a blog should be placed on a subdomain or subdirectory. However, there are numerous case studies, and we’ve seen with our own clients that moving content (such as a blog) from the main domain of a site to a subdomain can cause a significant loss of traffic. How Google actually sees subdomains is somewhat murky, but for the most part, a subdomain will not share the same authority as the domain, making it less likely to rank and get organic traffic.
Removing a subdomain can also result in a traffic drop. If the subdomain has built up a substantial backlink profile that then passes authority to the main domain via internal links, removing that content could impact the main domain. Failing to redirect content on the subdomain to the main domain would also likely result in a loss of keyword rankings and traffic.
8. HTTP to HTTPS transition
Many companies are choosing to switch from HTTP to HTTPS thanks to Google’s indication that it will boost keyword rankings. However, if this transition isn’t handled carefully it can actually result in a traffic drop. On top of all of the best practices for a site migration- 301 redirects, updating canonical tags, updating internal links- be sure to submit a second property to Google Search Console with an updated sitemap.
9. Using External Publishers
Publishing or republishing content to a 3rd party site isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, if the 3rd party has significantly more authority than your website, the 3rd-party content may end up ranking instead of your content. Publishing all content on your website first, using canonical tags, and linking from the 3rd party back to your site are all good practices to prevent this issue.
A major rebranding requires significant planning and attention to detail to not impact organic traffic. In addition to everything listed above under website migration/redesign, consider the following:
- Mobile Users: In the effort to get a functional desktop version of a site up, businesses may overlook creating a mobile-friendly version of the site. If you’ve typically gotten a lot of mobile traffic, this can have a negative impact on organic traffic.
- Loss of Key Product/Branded Terms: Some businesses have built up significant search traffic for certain products or the brand-name itself. Changing the name of a brand or its core products could result in losing those keyword rankings and traffic.
- Transitional Language: Placing the old brand name and keywords within title tags and web content (ie. formerly XYZ) will help Google and the user better understand the brand's transition
- Local Listings: If you rely on local SEO, be sure to update all of your local directory listings and profiles since Google relies heavily on a consistent name, address, and phone number.
As these explanation show, a drop in organic traffic is far from a mystical problem. By knowing where to look, you can recover a traffic loss and in the process will likely discover opportunities to attract more traffic than you were before.