You used to have great rankings for your website, it showed up everywhere in the search engines, and you were receiving lots of traffic that was generating emails, phone calls, leads, and sales. Then something happened, you’re not quite sure what, and the leads and sales dried up. You check your analytics reports and see a sudden and distinct loss in traffic. Now you’re alarmed. You check your rankings, and they’ve gone down or disappeared entirely. At this point you’re not just alarmed, you’re terrified. How could this have happened? More importantly, what can be done to fix the problem and get the leads and sales flowing again?
Rankings can fall for various reasons. Sometimes it’s due to a mistake that could have been prevented. It might have less to do with what you’re doing than what your competition is doing. In other cases a drop in rankings is the natural and temporary result of an intentional action on your part. Here are 10 reasons you might experience a drop in rankings and what you can do in each case.
1. You’re tracking the wrong rankings. In recent years there has been a shift toward “natural language” when it comes to searches, that is, people typing, or increasingly speaking, complete sentences into search engines, rather than just a few keywords. If you’re only tracking generic keywords, it might be that your keyword strategy is outdated. The people who are looking for you are using new keywords or phrases, and you need to update your keyword strategy.
2. The Google “dance”. It’s normal for rankings to fluctuate. Not just from one day to the next, but from one computer to another, one location to another, and based on a host of other variables. Google is constantly testing every variable it can detect by changing search results. This is part of why it’s counter productive to focus too heavily on specific rankings. Your SEO firm may give you a ranking report, but if you check the rankings on your own computer they may be different, simply because the report was run from a different computer. Or because the rankings have changed since yesterday. Generally rankings that aren’t subject to other forces on this list won’t vary too much, but the Google dance might be the only logical explanation for small drops in rankings.
3. New website. If you launch a new design for an existing website you can expect your rankings to drop, regardless of what you do to prepare for that launch, and regardless of how much better the new website is, in terms of SEO, than the old one. To minimize the drop in rankings make sure a proper 301 redirect plan is in place. I know of at least one company that went out of business because of that single mistake. Make sure the new website is well optimized prior to launching it. But be prepared for the rankings to drop, at least temporarily. Generally the rankings will recover within 1-2 months, if not quite a bit faster.
4. New website no longer. You launched a redesigned website to replace an old one and the rankings went down, then came back up quickly, even higher than they were before, and now they’ve gone back down slightly. Or you launched a brand new website, and after a few weeks your website shot to the top of the rankings, and then dropped back down–a lot. This is also a common occurrence. The key is to be patient, and invest in best practices SEO. Long term rankings require long term work.
5. Low quality links. Many companies made the mistake a few years ago of succumbing to an offer of thousands of links for a low price. Now, with various updates made by the search engines to stop what they see as “search engine spamming,” websites with large quantities of low quality links pointing to them are seeing their rankings drop or disappear entirely. Google says if your site is being harmed by links you don’t directly control, “You should…make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site.” As a matter of last resort, you can disavow those links.
6. Losing good links. A drop in rankings might be due to losing high quality links. Perhaps those websites or webpages disappeared, or the link to your website was removed. Whatever the cause, the solution is to continually be building high quality links. And when I say “building,” I mean attracting, because the best links come naturally. How do you attract high quality links? By creating amazing content, or merely helpful content, that people find interesting enough to share.
7. Bad hosting. Switch to a low quality hosting company, or a company whose data center isn’t in the ideal place to provide fast page loads for your site visitors, and you can end up with user behavior on your site that tells search engines they should rank other websites before yours. The solution is to make sure the majority of your website visitors have a fast, snappy experience on your website by hosting the site in close proximity to your visitors, where possible, and paying enough to have your website on a server that isn’t bogged down with 5,000 other websites.
8. Incorrect robots.txt file. Several years ago I made a mistake in the robots.txt file of a blog I owned and managed. In effect, I told the search engines to ignore my website and not let anyone find it. Whoops. My traffic dried up almost entirely. The good news is that once I noticed the problem and fixed my mistake, the rankings came back within a few days, a few weeks in some cases. Make sure you employ best practices for your robots.txt file, and don’t make typos.
9. Competitors. Search engine rankings are a zero sum game. For any given keyword if one website’s ranking improves, at least one other website’s ranking must go down. This is part of why SEO services are ongoing, rather than provided just once. Your website is never fully optimized, because your competitors are constantly improving their websites. It’s an eternal game of king of the mountain, and the only way to stay on top is continual effort.
10. Google update. Thousands of PhDs are employed at Google working to improve their search algorithm. The algorithm is updated hundreds of times each year, with some of those updates being large and disruptive, while most are minor in impact. The larger updates usually receive some sort of animal-themed name, such as Penguin, Panda, or Hummingbird. The point is, when Google makes an update, it changes rankings negatively for the websites that aren’t in compliance. To avoid death by Google update, follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines as best practices, and engage only in white hat SEO tactics. This is the path to rankings that will generate traffic now as well as three years from now.
These aren’t the only reasons your rankings might drop, but they are some of the reasons I see most commonly impacting rankings and traffic. Have you experienced a drop in rankings due to reasons other than those listed above? Tell us about it in the comments.