Work out where your search engine rankings might have fallen off and how to push them back up using this simple 10-step guide.
Has your website dropped down the Google search rankings, apparently out of the blue?
Are your most visited pages suddenly no longer getting the clicks-through they used to?
This realization can be scary, as your site’s drop in rankings seems like the slippery slope to a collapse in users and customer base. It’s easy to think there’s no way back.
No need to panic, though.
Finding the reason for your sudden rankings drop is simpler than you imagine. And the likelihood is you can put things right with an even simpler fix for one aspect of your site.
Whatever the drop in rankings might have cost you momentarily, it doesn’t have to be a long-term issue for your business. Identifying the problem and fixing it right away can return your website to its rightful place in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Here, we’ve compiled a troubleshooting guide with the 10 most common causes of a rankings drop, along with a simple solution to each.
1. Is it Google?
Surveys show that a third of all rankings drops are due to updates and changes to the algorithms of search engines. If this is the case, the change in rankings that you’re seeing has nothing to do with your website.
Check the SERP on which you’ve noticed the drop to see whether other web pages have been similarly affected. If they have, you can be almost certain that search engine updates have caused it.
You can verify this diagnosis by checking the search engine provider’s news channels and social media. For example, Google releases information about updates to their search engine on the YouTube channel Google Search News, as well as on Twitter.
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Soon after this type of update has caused your rankings to drop, they will be returned to their previous state.
You don’t have to do anything. You can just breathe a sigh of relief, sit back, and wait for your website’s rankings to shoot back up to their normal levels.
2. Site status and restrictions
If it’s not a search engine update that’s led to a temporary change in your site’s rankings, you’ll have to do a little digging around the site.
First of all, check that the website itself is loading. The most obvious reason of all that rankings and traffic could drop is that the site has crashed. Once you identify that as the problem, you’ll just have to get it back up and running again for rankings to be normalized.
More specifically, it could be that certain pages on your website which have previously been more highly ranked are not loading. They may be returning a bad status code following changes you have made to your site. It may be just that their URL addresses need updating.
You can check the status code for one of your web pages with an HTTP status checker. A page URL working properly should read ‘200’ (OK). Page URLs not working will read ‘404’ (page not found) or ‘410’ (page permanently removed).
In addition to web page addresses, you can also check the Robots.txt file in the directory of your web server. This file determines how much access bots have to your site, which has a major impact on how searchable—and therefore how rankable—its pages are.
You can verify exactly what restrictions this file is imposing on search engine bots using Google’s free testing tool.
If the permissions in this file are too restrictive, you can either change the permission settings manually or upload another version of the file that allows bots more access.
3. Check your website’s performance
In the case that your website has gone down, causing your rankings to plummet, the problem may be with your web host or because of an expired domain.
More typically, though, crashes are an indicator of a website’s general performance. The site’s server could be prone to overload during traffic surges because of the amount of content and pop-ups it contains.
Large amounts of content also badly affect page loading speeds—one of the biggest factors in search engine rankings today.
Users will usually abandon pages that take longer than five seconds to load—particularly when trying to access them via a mobile device—this is commonly referred to as a “bounce”. Pages with a high bounce rate will drop and drop down the rankings. They are less likely to be accessed, and often put off users from even trying again.
It’s essential, then, that your pages are up to speed.
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Google’s PageSpeed Insights lets you test how fast your pages load.
If either server overload or page loading speeds are a problem for your website, you need to look at migrating it to a public or hybrid cloud server if you haven’t already.
These types of servers allow for the concentration of greater processing and storage resources than small-scale private servers. They can comfortably handle pages with large file sizes that private servers struggle to load, as well as processing high volumes of site traffic.
Hybrid cloud architecture is the type of cloud solution that suits many businesses today. It combines the resources of third-party public cloud providers with the ability of a private cloud server exclusive to a single organization to store sensitive data securely.
To stop broader technical issues with your website hitting your rankings, cloud migration is a must.
4.Use the tools at your disposal
When there isn’t a clear problem with your website behind the drop in your rankings, you need to harness all of the analytical tools available to you to diagnose what’s wrong.
We have already covered some of the basic technical tools that Google offers, but there are many more which allow you to analyze your search rankings and site traffic in detail.
Google Analytics, for example, can help you verify whether the rankings drop that you’ve noticed elsewhere really is accurate. Sometimes the other tool you have used can be faulty.
Developers recommend that you apply a date range of 16 months to your site’s main Google Search Console report chart. This method lets you view the drop in its wider context, so that patterns can emerge.
Going even further, Google Trends can show you whether your drop is part of a wider trend in search queries.
As well as Google, there are dozens of excellent online marketing tools that can help you get to the bottom of your rankings drop.
Some will audit your site for search engine optimization (SEO), others will provide more analytical insight, and others still will provide you with all the tools and tips you need to market your site’s content more efficiently.
5. Are your keywords and tags what they should be?
The right words—in the right places with the right steps taken to optimize them—are more important than ever when it comes to SEO.
69.7% of search queries now consist of four words or more, providing enormous scope for directing towards your site those queries that are looking for its content. However, emphasizing particular words which match popular search terms with the content of your site takes even more work.
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On the most basic level, you need to ensure that all of the tags and metadata on your site are optimized properly, so that bots can differentiate certain words from the rest.
For instance, page and blog titles should be demarcated clearly with an H1 tag in the relevant page’s HTML code. Sub-headings should be given an H2 tag to separate them from the rest of articles when bots search for them, and so on.
Even more important than tags, you need to ensure that you’re using the right keywords for your target users. Keywords are arguably the single most important factor in maintaining SEO, which makes them very important for your rankings.
For your site’s pages to rank well, keywords should suit the type of product, service, or content your website provides. For example, an online shoe shop should aim for retail and transitional keywords such as ‘size’, ‘order’, and ‘shipping’ but also ones which describe the different styles of shoes on offer.
Keyword density is also a vital factor to consider. Underuse them and your site won’t show in rankings for these words at all. Overuse them (when more than 25% of content on a page are keywords) and this will also hit your rankings.
Using keywords in the right places—page title, page URLs—also makes a huge difference. Not taking this step when creating new pages on your website can harm pre-existing pages too.
Lastly, you need to ensure the keywords you are tracking are the right ones—the most relevant to your site’s content which are generating the most traffic. You may be tracking some keywords that are no longer relevant to your site, and so they show ranking drops.
Meanwhile, other words on your site might be doing very well attracting visitors, but you aren’t tracking them. This means you aren’t optimizing them as keywords for the sake of your rankings.
6. Could it be the content?
As well as your use of tags and keywords, you also need to review the content of your website itself. It could be that the quantity and quality of this content is deterring search engines and users alike.
Firstly, statistics show that the optimum length for written content on a web page that ranks highly for search engines is over 2000 words.
Not only is longer-form content shared more widely on social media, it allows for the integration of more links and keywords, and is actually rewarded by one of Google’s search algorithms. Algorithms like this are less likely to favor shorter pages which are thin on content.
Poor quality content, on the other hand, will be one of the biggest turn-offs for potential repeat visitors to your website. It is important that you review existing content regularly to ensure it doesn’t stop people coming back, which will be a big drain on your rankings.
There are simple steps you can take to shore up the appeal of your content. You can fix broken links and keep the meta descriptions for your site that users see on SERPs up-to-date.
If a page’s content is unexpectedly failing to generate decent rankings, perform an A/B test to hone in on elements which might be the problem. It could be an over-the-top title, a lack of expertise in the writing, an inadequate blurb, or distracting advertising.
7. Is your site still user-friendly?
While the actual content on your website might be fine, it could be that its design elements are bringing your ranking down. Things like issues with your site map, an overdose of pop-ups, and formatting limitations could be keeping both search engine bots and affecting customer engagement.
Modern consumers expect a website to be kitted out specifically for their phone or tablet. If that’s not the case, they’re probably not going to come back.
Google has created a series of metrics called Core Web Vitals through which it quantifies user experience on websites. These metrics play a role in its ranking of your site. So if you’re not meeting its standards when it comes to, for example, mobile-friendliness or security, your site will be pushed down the rankings.
To avoid this issue, acquaint yourself thoroughly with the Core Web Vitals. This way you can make sure your website’s design includes a mode of formatting for mobile devices and take other simple measures.
You can also use IndexChekr to confirm all of the pages you are tracking are showing up in search engine listings. If they aren’t, this will explain why your rankings have fallen off.
If you have recently changed your sitemap, moved to a new web server, or done any other kind of site restructuring, you may have missed the step of setting up 301 and 308 Redirects. This means search engines can no longer find some or all of your site’s pages, and may even be penalizing you in the rankings for what they see as duplicated content.
8. Your backlink profile
It’s been reliably ascertained that backlinks are one of Google’s top three ranking factors.
But what are backlinks? They are essentially the links to your site on other websites, which play a big role in directing user traffic towards you.
If you don’t have much of a backlink profile to speak of, the chances are that even pages which were generating organic traffic—and therefore doing well in the rankings—for you before will start to go quiet. Backlinks are the way to elongate the life of pages on your website, whilst pushing them back up search engine rankings.
You can look into your backlink profile by having a backlink checker perform an audit for you.
Once you know the situation with backlinks feeding into your website, you can decide on target areas for improvement. You can look at particular areas of the site and its content that could generate more backlinks.
The best way to accelerate the process of generating more backlinks to your website is to join an affiliate marketing program.
What is an affiliate marketing program? It allows a business looking to attract online users to partner with a third-party affiliate. The affiliate directs users towards their partner business’ website, products, or services through links strategically-placed on their own website.
Joining up with an affiliate marketer is the only way to guarantee a significant boost to your backlink profile in the short-term. This boost will have a knock-on effect on your site’s search engine rankings—it could be the fastest way to see them bounce back.
9. Are your competitors getting ahead?
It could be that everything is going as well with your website as it always was. You analyze things from every angle, but you can’t find a problem with it that would lead to such a dramatic drop in rankings.
In that case, you should also look at the market you’re working in. Perhaps it’s not that you’re going backwards. Perhaps one or more of your competitors has suddenly got a run on you, which has pushed them up the rankings, and you down as a result.
You need to find out if anything has changed from their side. While you might not be able to see the internal workings of your competitors’ businesses, there is a lot of publicly-available data you can make the most of with the right tools.
One tool you can use is a backlink checker that audits your competitors’ backlinks—which are out there waiting to be checked. This will tell you whether they’re exploiting any aspects of site content or marketing programs, which you’re not, to generate backlinks.
You can also use the Google Display Network to find the customers who have visited rival websites, and use targeted advertising to attract them to yours instead.
This method is one example of audience segmentation, in which users are grouped according to a specific demographic. Identifying the particular demographics both you and your rival businesses are aiming at allows you to counteract your rankings hit with precision.
As limitless as the internet can seem, people still have a limited amount of time to browse it. Rankings are a zero-sum game when it comes down to it, so finding an edge on your competitors—or finding out their edge on you—can be essential to recover from a drop.
10. Keep on tracking
All of the possible diagnoses for your sudden rankings drop listed here can happen in an instant.
Although the fixes for them are mostly straightforward and often very quick, it would be better not to have the rankings drop at all.
To avoid suffering a sudden fall in search engine rankings, just keep tracking.
Stay on top of your content and your keywords, and look out for design issues and mistakes on your site. Keep analyzing the data you have with the tools you can access, and make sure you’re looking at the right data.
Consider investing in hybrid or public cloud architecture to guarantee improved website performance and scalability, and joining an affiliate marketing program to up your backlink game.
And don’t forget, keep an eye on the bigger picture—what might be changing in the market for your business, and what Google is up to.
As a rule of thumb, go over your whole SEO plan at least once every three months.
Ready to stop the drop?
As long as you’re prepared, you don’t need to fear rankings drops. They are a fact of life in the online marketplace. Now you know how to tackle them—and how to preempt them—you can rest easy knowing they won’t be a permanent feature of your online business.
Remember, no matter how well your site is doing now, that rankings drop could be just around the corner…
But with the right preventative measures, you might even be able to avoid it before it happens.
Grace Lau is the Director of Growth Content at Dialpad, an AI-powered cloud communication platform for better and easier team collaboration and customer engagement, supercharged with high definition phone calls and other solutions. She has over 10 years of experience in content writing and strategy. Currently, she is responsible for leading branded and editorial content strategies, partnering with SEO and Ops teams to build and nurture content. She has written for CEOBlogNation and Airdroid.