Ranking drops can be caused by a number of reasons including algorithm updates, site changes or a dramatic change in backlinks. To diagnose what is causing yours, you’ll need to do some investigation using relevant tools and SEO know-how.

I’m sure we’ve all been there. The heart-stopping, palm sweat-inducing moment when your highly merited keyword rankings take an absolute tumble and the dread that organic traffic to your site has flatlined.

Ranking fluctuations are not out of the ordinary, and we should come to expect a little movement in our most hard-earned rankings now and then. However, sometimes this can be a lot more dramatic and the immediate cause for panic sets in.

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There are many different types of ranking drops and understanding why your keywords may have done this is a key weapon in your arsenal as an SEO. The more you understand the ‘whys’, the more likely you will not just be able to provide a solution but be able to prevent these rankings from suffering in the first place.

Our checklist below will help to address some of the more common reasons as to why you may see a rankings slide, beginning with an all-important question…

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Do you trust the data?

One of the first things to check when you see a ranking drop is to consider the source from where this information came. Although rank-tracking tools are ace and offer great insight, they are prone to erroneous data on occasion. You should bear this in mind before taking urgent action that may be unnecessary and harmful to performance in the long run.

Most tools, such as SEO Monitor, are quite transparent with the status of their tracking software and even have a live dashboard with updates on system performance, also showing any errors with rank processing. If your tool of choice is reporting back some strange looking data, it may be worth manually spot-checking some of these rankings yourself by performing searches in Google’s Incognito mode. If the results in a manual search here are wildly different to what is being reported by your rank-checking software, there is likely a processing error. Be sure to check back again the next day when things will likely to have gone back to normal.

You may also want to check out the official Twitter account of your tool for updates or search for tweets that may indicate other users are seeing similar problems.

Algorithm updates & penalties

Changes to Google’s algorithm happen regularly – some are minor tweaks that are usually not reported on, and drastic changes in performance are unlikely to be felt. However, broader changes to Google’s core algorithm – such as the recent E-A-T – and their resultant penalties are much more likely to get your attention.

Should you see a decline across your rankings, pinpoint exactly when you saw these drops and check to see if this aligns with an algorithm update. Official documentation from Google is rare, but there are plenty of SEO news sites and tools out there (we’re looking at you, Moz) that are a great help. It’s important to not only make a connection between the two timelines here but also to understand what was targeted during the update to see if this applies to your site and start setting about what action you can take to start reversing the decline.

Are you losing traffic?

If you see a decline in rankings, you should certainly verify if this is impacting on your organic traffic. Ranking drops can vary in their severity and the potential consequences on performance. A bunch of keywords dropping from page 4 to page 5, for example, is unlikely to make a dent in your traffic. But the impact of core search terms that are key to getting visits to your site suddenly dropping from a high position will certainly be evident.

Using Google Analytics, compare your organic traffic data before and after the period in which you’ve seen your ranking drops. Have you seen a sharp decline in traffic or is it looking quite stable? Understanding which of your keywords are important to your business and have the most impact on traffic should dictate the action and priority should you see declines.

Drill-down a bit further and compare traffic at page level (Behaviour > Site Content > Landing Pages). If your ranking drops are across a category, do the pages associated with these keywords also see a decline in traffic? Is the impact being felt across multiple pages or just a certain page? Worse still, have ALL your pages suffered?

Google analytics traffic results

Isolating which sections of your site have been hit and the impact on overall performance will be crucial in diagnosing what the issue is and give you an indication of the impact and the urgency in which action you should take.

Site changes

Changes made to your site, major or minor, can have a potential impact on your rankings. If you’ve seen a decline, try to marry this up with any recent changes that have been made. An example of factors to consider:

  • Has your site recently had a redesign or migration?
  • Has the URL structure on your site been altered?
  • Have there been changes made to the robots.txt file which would impact how your site is indexed?

Fluctuations in rankings are natural after major events, but a drastic and consistent downward trend would indicate that there are technical issues that require urgent attention.

Google Search Console has several reports that can help diagnose technical issues like these. Keep an eye on reports such as ‘Crawl Errors’ (Crawl > Crawl Errors) and Index Status (Google Index > Index Status) and look to see if there are peaks in the graphs post these changes to your site being made. Huge spikes here (particularly in the ‘Not Found’ tab in Crawl Errors) would indicate that Google is having trouble crawling and indexing your site correctly, and this will likely have an impact on site performance.

And don’t forget the basics! There are several on-page factors to consider when it comes to rankings. A well-optimised title tag, unique and relevant on-page copy and a logical category hierarchy/URL structure may all be regarded as just SEO best practice, and although it may be easy to overlook these factors when analysing keyword ranking performance, their importance should not be understated. If you see consistent ranking drops, an audit of your site with these factors in mind may yield some quick wins.

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Links

A huge, sudden increase in backlinks to your site can certainly do more harm than good. Through most link tracking tools, such as Ahrefs or Majestic, you can pinpoint where your links have come from and exactly when they were acquired. Check to see if the ranking drop coincides with a similar time to the increase in link activity and if so, be sure to investigate where they have come from. If these links look like spam to you, they most certainly will to Google!

Similarly, losing links to your site can be just a big of a factor in ranking drops as gaining them. A proportionate loss to your link profile over a short period, or even losing a handful of links from sites with high levels of authority can see a change in your rankings. As above, identify what links have been lost and when to see if the two timelines align.

Competitor activity

If none of the above really checks out, it might be that your competitors have begun to out-perform you for these search terms.

Using the rank tracking tool of your choice, identify which keywords have dropped and which competitors you lost these rankings to.  When analysing competitor domains, pay attention to their:

  • Content – how have they structured their on-page content relevant to these keywords? Is their navigation structure more logical than yours?
  • Links – how does their link profile stack up against yours? Do they have a higher number of backlinks from sites with high authority?

The above is by no means an exhaustive checklist but highlight some of the most common reasons as to why your rankings may drop. Although seeing a decline in your rankings may cause some panic, the importance of understanding why your rankings have dropped is key. Without this understanding, you’re prone to making the same mistakes time and time again and reversing the decline will be a significantly harder task.

These are just a handful of recommendations to get you started. If you’ve experienced ranking drops and want to have a chat, set us a challenge and we’ll impart more of our SEO wisdom.