You come into work one day and follow your daily routine. As an SEO marketer, the top of your to-do list each day is checking on organic traffic. Let’s say you come in on a Monday and haven’t checked on traffic over the weekend. You pull open analytics and see that the site has experienced a 30% drop in organic traffic. You panic. What went wrong?
Drops in organic traffic happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes drops are unexpected, and sometimes you know there’s a possibility something will get messed up because of a change you’re making.
Either way, I’ve listed some of the more common and unique reasons for drops in organic traffic I’ve come across working on multiple sites at 97th Floor.
Every issue has a solution and it’s valuable for any SEO marketer to know and understand where traffic issues come from and how to fix them. In my opinion, the first thing you need to check is Search Console.
Search Console Penalty
This is probably the worst possible reason for a drop in organic traffic. This means that Google has reviewed your site and found attempts to manipulate Google’s algorithm to improve rankings in some way. A penalty can be difficult to reverse because it requires figuring out what Google wants you to change about your site, then spend the time fixing it and submitting a reconsideration request to Google.
A Search Console penalty can come from manipulative backlinks, too many low quality or irrelevant links, purchased links, deceptive on-page tactics, pages with over-optimized keywords, low value or duplicate content, ad heavy pages, over optimized anchor text links, outbound spam links, or a hacked website.
You can check for a penalty by logging into your Google Search Console for your website and clicking on the Manual Actions section under the Search Traffic tab on the left side of the dashboard.
If your website looks like the image above, then you’re golden. A penalty can be a site-wide match penalty or a partial match penalty. The difference is that one penalty affects your entire site and a partial match penalty only affects specific pages that are causing the penalty.
If there is no Search Console penalty, then the next possible avenue is checking for an algorithm update. The SEO world is filled with resources that track the activity of Google SERP’s and algorithms.
If something has changed, you’ll be able to see it on SEO forums or on websites such as Search Engine Roundtable, Search Engine Journal, or Search Engine Land, just to name a few. The writer of Search Engine Roundtable, Barry Schwartz is often at the forefront of reporting on Google algorithm changes. Barry can be found on Twitter talking to Gary Illyes about traffic fluctuations whenever changes may be happening.
Another possibility for drops in traffic is a broken tracking pixel. If you’re tracking in GA, then you’ll want to verify if the UA tracking pixel functions across your website. Most of the time, this won’t be an issue unless you’re going through a site change or have someone working on the back-end of your website accidentally remove the pixel from key pages.
Check Your Channels
This isn’t the first place many people look, but you should check your other traffic channels to see if they’ve experienced any fluctuations as well. Google Analytics isn’t perfect and I have seen multiple times where traffic gets funneled into other channels for different reasons.
Groupon did a test on their website to verify if there were any issues in their organic traffic reporting. They de-indexed their entire site for 6 hours for the sake of understanding where their traffic was coming from. In those 6 hours, they tracked that organic traffic had nearly dropped to zero on all of their subfolder pages. However, they noticed that direct traffic had also dropped nearly 60% for that same time period.
Their findings were that not all browsers properly report on referrer data when visiting a website. This caused traffic to be funneled into direct.
There are multiple reasons to update your website. You either want to create a whole new design, you’re going through a rebrand, or you’re migrating your site to secure. When undergoing a site change, keep a close eye on analytics for any discrepancies in your reporting. Many site-wide changes cause a few analytics issues that I’ve listed below.
When changing a URL structure in any way, it’s important to have your redirects in place. Still, there can be issues even if the redirects are perfect. One example I can think of doesn’t have to do with a drop in organic traffic, but rather an increase in organic traffic.
I had a client switch their site to secure and in the next few hours, they were doubling their organic traffic. Now we expected to see eventual increases, but at this pace, something was obviously wrong. We noticed that their PPC traffic had dropped at the same time. What happened, was the ads were going to the non-secure version of the page and then redirecting to the secure pages. During that redirect from the PPC campaigns, the referrer traffic was attributed to Google, but not Google PPC, so our organic traffic spiked. We had to relaunch all of the ads with final URL’s switched to the secure site to fix this issue. The screenshot below is of our organic traffic after the referrer data issue.
Another example of missing organic traffic came with a mobile site. I had an eCommerce client who was creating a mobile version of their site on subfolders. The platform that they hosted their pages on wouldn’t allow for a mobile-responsive website, which is why we had to go through subfolders.
When all of the pages were in place and launched, the client had created redirects for mobile users who hit the desktop pages to redirect them to the mobile subfolder pages. Right after this change, we saw a 47% decrease in mobile organic traffic across our site. You can see this in the screenshot below.
I first checked the rel=canonical tags and rel=alternate tags on the desktop and mobile versions of the page. The tags were implemented correctly, so it wasn’t the issue.
Next, I checked other channels in analytics and found that mobile direct traffic had increased by 388%, so now I knew where my traffic was going. The issue came from the redirect.
At this point it became a waiting game. Over the next few weeks, all of our mobile pages were properly indexed and traffic was right back to where we started.
The final issue I came across that caused a decrease in organic traffic was missing backlinks. Another client of ours was undergoing a change from a non-secure to a secure URL structure.
After the change was put in place with proper redirects implemented, traffic looked fine. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later when one of our focus pages experienced decreases in keyword rankings. I went through the same steps above, checking Search Console, looking at algorithm updates, and checking other channels in analytics for an explanation but none provided the information I needed.
My next step was to run the site through Ahrefs. What I found was several backlinks went to a 404 page that should’ve been directed to our page. These backlinks varied from capitalized letters to misspellings. When the client implemented redirects from non-secure to secure, our other redirects in place for that page had somehow been removed. After fixing those redirects, we redirected the backlinks to our focus page once again and our rankings shot back up.
Don’t Waste Time
I went to a Hubspot conference where I listened to Matt Barby, Director of Acquisition at Hubspot, give a great presentation on what work is like as an SEO marketer. I’m paraphrasing, but he said that your time working on SEO can be broken down into 80% researching what went wrong and 20% on implementation. We know what it takes to create great content, but when it comes down to ranking, I find myself spending most of my time researching what can make our page rank higher. When it comes to deducing what might be wrong with your organic traffic, don’t waste your time by looking in the wrong places. Keep this checklist and it may help you quickly find your problem and make you look good to the boss.