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Why Have My Rankings Dropped? An SEO Troubleshooting Guide

Emma North

by Emma North on 23rd January 2014

Diagnosing A Drop In Search Engine RankingsAlthough gaining search engine rankings for search terms relevant to your industry is no longer the only metric for measuring the success of SEO, the value of strong positions in these searches cannot be ignored for the vast majority of websites. More importantly, sudden drops in these positions that lead to reflective decreases in traffic to your website can have serious negative effects on the bottom line.

In this guide I have explored some of the most common reasons I have experienced for a sudden and dramatic loss of rankings and drops in organic traffic. While this list is far from conclusive, it should act as a strong starting point for the process of diagnosing the cause of lost rankings and provide insight into ways to turn the situation around.

Foreword: although rankings issues may occur with any number of search engines, for the purposes of this guide I have used Google as an example. This is because it is far and away the most popular search engine in the UK and is likely to be the primary search engine referring traffic to any UK website. That said, the issues and diagnosis process is going to be very much the same regardless of what search engine/s you are experiencing rankings fluctuations with so this guide should provide value to all.

Lost rankings or deindexed pages? Know the what before the why

Before you can hope to diagnose rankings drops, you have to be sure of exactly what has happened; specifically, have your rankings dropped or has one or more of your website’s pages been removed from the search engine index altogether?

To understand what sort of problem you’re dealing with, start by checking the index status of your site in Google Webmaster Tools. Navigate to the “Index Status” section of the tool, beneath the “Google Index” heading on the left and you will see a screen similar to the one below:

Google Webmaster Tools Index Status

It is generally normal for fluctuations in the total number of indexed pages as you see here when pages are added to and removed from your site. The number also decreases naturally as older pages become less relevant and are removed from the search engine’s index. However this is a great place to see any obvious or dramatic drops in the number of pages of your site Google is indexing. For example, the following graph shows a vastly contrasting pattern to the one above:

Google Webmaster Tools Index Status with Drop

If you have recently removed a large number of pages from your site, a graph like this may come as no surprise and is not an indication of a problem. However, if this is unexpected it may suggest that Google has decided for some reason or another than all of those pages no longer deserve to appear in its search results.

If these pages were some of your important landing pages, this would lead to reduced organic search traffic and no page for Google to rank in its search results for the terms the page related to. Deindexed pages are a strong indication that there is something wrong with some areas of your site, such as unnatural backlinks or duplicate content – more on that later.

You can check the index status of a particular page by searching for the URL in Google using the “site:” search prefix:

Google Page Index Search

Any pages in Google’s index which include the URL you search for will now be displayed, which may be just one page. However, if your search yields no results and you have used the right URL of a live page, your page is not indexed in Google and will not show in search results.

If you find that one or more of your key pages have been deindexed, they may have been removed as the result of an algorithmic penalty. In this instance, pay close attention to the quality of your site’s inbound links and content to ensure that you have not in any way breached Google’s best practice guidelines.

If your entire site has been deindexed (ie; a site search for your top-level domain name returns no results), it is more likely that your site has suffered from a manual penalty. This is usually indicated by a warning message in Webmaster Tools. For more information on recovering from a manual penalty, please see the below video. You might also gain some useful advice from this case study of a manual penalty recovery.

Transcript

If your pages are still largely indexed but you have seen notable drops in keyword rankings, it is likely that you need to better optimise your site for users and search engines to climb back above your competitors. If this is the case, there are a lot of factors you may need to consider to improve the quality of your site and the value it offers to users, which is ultimately what search engines want sites to do.

The following areas are some of the most important factors to consider when trying to improve rankings and reverse sudden or dramatic drops in keyword rankings.

Unnatural or spammy backlinks

One of the most common causes of significant ranking drops, penalties and deindexing is Google’s discovery of unnatural, spammy links. If the search engine feels that a number of links pointing back to your site were created as an attempt to manipulate PageRank.

Some examples of unnatural, spammy link building tactics include:

  • Reciprocal linking
  • Interlinking between controlled domains
  • Paid links
  • Site-wide links (such as footer or blog-roll links)
  • Links from low-quality or generic directories
  • Links from low-quality or irrelevant sites
  • Overuse of keyword-rich anchor text
  • Any unnatural link schemes used as an attempt to manipulate rankings or PageRank

Following any serious drop in rankings, organic traffic or number of indexed pages, a thorough backlink analysis should be one of your first tasks.

For more information on conducting backlink analysis and on what to look out for, please download our free Backlink Analysis whitepaper.

Duplicate content – internally or externally

Search engines want to return the best, most informative and relevant pages in their search results to ensure that users have the best experience and find what they are looking for. As such, pages with the same or similar textual content on more than one page or more than one site are not likely to rank highly in the search results.

Copyscape is a great and cheap tool for checking pages of your site for duplicate content. For around $0.05 per page, you can see other pages on the web that are using parts of the content on your site and see how much of a risk each instance is for your site.

If your content is used elsewhere, whether you had it first or not, you should strongly consider re-writing it to make it unique and useful to users.

Low quality or quantity of content

Just as damagingly, having low quality content that provides little value to users or having very little textual content on your page is a quick way to watch your site slide down the search engine results pages.

It is generally considered that each page of a website should have at least 250-300 words of unique, quality content. If you do not feel that there is enough to say on a subject to write this much for the page then you should really be considering whether the page should exist at all – it is generally better to have one more detailed page with 300 words than to have two similar pages on similar topics with 150 words each.

Technical issues including broken links and blocked pages

One important and often overlooked cause of many ranking and deindexing issues is that pages may simply be inaccessible to search engines. Even if a page loads fine for you and your visitors, if the search engine robots cannot access and crawl the page they aren’t going to have any information to index it.

Some examples of technical issues that could cause this include:

  • Crawlers, pages or directories incorrectly blocked in robots.txt
  • Noindex, nofollow tags in your page/s source code
  • Pages removed or URL’s changed without being redirected

Running through some technical checks like these could highlight obvious problems that are holding your site back. The below video has more information on carrying out a technical site audit.

Transcript

Negative SEO attacks

Negative SEO is where spammy and harmful techniques are used against a competing site. This could be creating hundreds or thousands of spammy backlinks to try and harm the link profile of another site or even scraping content from a site and posting it on numerous other spammy sites to make the content appear to be duplicated.

While negative SEO is actually much rarer than many people believe, it does happen and can have a significant impact on your organic search engine performance.

Carry out checks for negative SEO tactics, as detailed in this post. Google is becoming increasingly intelligent and is often able to identify links or scraping that is the result of negative content, but it is still important that you check for the signs of negative SEO if you have seen notable drops in rankings.

Increased online competition or revised search engine algorithm

Sometimes rankings drops are not the result of anything you’ve done at all, but instead the indirect result of other websites improving their own site optimisation and climbing above you in the rankings. This can also happen when Google adjusts its search engine algorithms as it may then begin to value other sites above yours.

Ultimately, if Google is valuing other sites above yours, you need to work on improving any aspects of your site which may be holding you back. Concentrate on serving your users with relevant, useful and interesting content and make sure that your site is quick and easy to navigate. You should carry out a comprehensive SEO audit to find any flaws or weaknesses that may be holding your site back and work to iron them out as quickly as possible. For a more detailed guide on carrying out an SEO Health Check, please see this guide.

Still stuck?

If you are confident that your issues were not caused by any of issues detailed above, please feel free to share your problems in the comments below or contact Koozai for information on our SEO Site Audit service. Similarly, if you have any other tips for troubleshooting loss of rankings, please feel free to share them below.

Image Source

Virus And Hacking Concept via BigStock

Emma North

Emma North

Emma has more than 5 years’ digital marketing experience and has worked on dozens of websites in a wide range of industries. She has a passion for both SEO and PPC and is driven by the need to develop her digital skills and knowledge. She is always exploring innovative solutions for new problems encountered in the ever-changing digital world.

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19 Comments

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  • Academic Ads 17th March 2014

    Some great advice for those looking to get their rankings back after a penalty. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply to this comment

  • James 28th March 2014

    Hi Emma,

    The list and explanation you gave on spammy and unnatural links is well appreciated.

    This is a comprehensive detailed guidelines on how to recover your lost rankings.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 28th March 2014

      No problem James, glad you found it useful. It’s intended as a starting point for diagnosing dramatic drops so hopefully it can come in handy for you!

      Reply to this comment

  • Lucas Klein 3rd April 2014

    I recently made changes to a page (did not touch the page title) and then fetched/indexed it using google web tools.
    After i resubmitted it, the page rank dropped (about 6-10 spots) and the page title display reverted to the original title I used!

    Keep in mind I didn’t touch the page title or description this time around. Is this a penalty? This is a page I created about 1 week ago, and I altered the title about 5 days ago. Then made some other changes today and fetched/indexed it for probably the third time.
    I’m guessing the re-appearance of the original title consequently caused the ranking drop (it was a shorter title).

    Is it normal for a page title to revert to an old one?

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 3rd April 2014

      Hi Lucas,

      No, this wouldn’t be the result of any sort of manual penalty.

      When you say that the page title reverted back, do you mean the title displayed in Google search results or the title on your webpage or in the browser?

      Google wouldn’t revert any of your page content or roll back to something you changed previously so it is likely Google just hasn’t recrawled your page yet to identify the changes.

      Reply to this comment

  • Lucas Klein 3rd April 2014

    Thanks for the feedback Emma.

    I’m talking about the title displayed in the search results.

    The 2nd title I had used had been appearing in the results regularly for the past week… so it’s odd that they started using the 1st title again when I submitted a change, especially a change that didn’t alter the title in any way.

    Perhaps they’re merely displaying “name of the article – nameofmywebsite.com” because my 1st title was simply those 2 elements (from what i can remember). I guess it could be coincidence.

    Regardless, after searching today, the title is back to what it should be :)

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 4th April 2014

      Good to hear. Google does do strange things sometimes with its search results but I’m glad it straightened itself out. Indexing and crawling isn’t instant, it can take days or a week so it’s usually worth waiting to see if things get sorted.

      Reply to this comment

  • Joey 26th May 2014

    Hi Emma

    Thank you so much for this article. It is refreshing to read an article that explains things in ‘simple English’ rather than technical terms. I would like to ask for your feedback.. im going through the same. My ratings have dropped incredibly since last December and unfortunately they are just going from bad to worse. I was on page one for most of my keywords however now its page 10 or below so you can imagine it has effected my business in a drastic way.
    Im new to seo and was hoping perhaps you can advise me as soon as my website climbs to page 9 it falls down again to 10 12 or even 13 – worse each time. This happens within a day or at times within hours. I applied your index technique as stated above and all the pages are indexed properly. I do however have a feedback form that returns weird numbers and symbols. So I inquired and apparently people do this to disrupt the database. Could this all be competition? Thank you

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 27th May 2014

      Hi Joey, thanks for your feedback.

      When you say you have a feedback form that returns weird numbers and symbols, do you mean a contact form on your site which is no longer working as it used to? If you’re concerned about malware, be sure to check the “Security Issues” section in Webmaster Tools.

      Have you used a tool like Panguin to identify exactly when the drops in traffic/rankings occurred? Do you know whether they were gradual or sudden overnight drops?

      Reply to this comment

  • Joey 28th May 2014

    Hiya Emma, we have both – a contact form and a feedback form and they are both in working condition. A contact form for people to get in touch and a feedback form which is a space on our website for people to let us know the products they are looking for. It is through our feedback form we get weird numbers and symbols. These are not generated by the form because it is only recently that the form has started to return these numbers. It didnt used to. I have checked the security issues however it doesnt help much. Our website guy has also checked out the code but he hasn’t found any weird script. I have never heard of Panguin, not quite sure of what it is. I only look at the ratings in Google. The drops are sudden. So we can be on page 9 one day and straight to page 11, 13 the next and then back to page 10.
    I will google panguin and will look into it, perhaps it will help me to figure things out. I have contacted people before regarding this but didnt hear from them. so thank you so much. Just the fact you got back to me, means a lot. I appreciate your words, advice and help.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 28th May 2014

      No problem Joey, hope I can help.

      Regarding Panguin, here is the link to the tool:

      http://www.barracuda-digital.co.uk/panguin-tool/

      You just need to authorise Google Analytics and it will show you any notable drops in organic traffic in line with Google updates.

      Regarding the feedback form, it’s a difficult one without more specific information but it would be a job for a web developer to test and identify any issues with the form functionality. Otherwise it could just be robots completing the form, in which case you may want to look at server logs and look to block IPs delivering spammy forms.

      Reply to this comment

  • Joey 28th May 2014

    Thank you. I will check it out and implement :)

    Reply to this comment

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  • Amberr 25th August 2014

    Recently, my website suffered a drop of rankings just for a single keyword. I don’t know how it happened while the ranking for rest of the keywords for the same page are improving. Any help is greatly appreciated.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 26th August 2014

      Hi Amberr,

      This could be caused by any number of reasons and without specific analysis it would be impossible to diagnose.

      Something to check would be keyword-specific linking anchor text, as the Penguin algorithm could cause rankings for specific terms to drop if it discovered an unnatural balance or possible abuse of keyword-specific anchor text.

      I would take a look at your backlink profile in detail, including your referring link anchor text. Similarly, check your site content for over-use of keywords (keyword stuffing) which might be deemed unnatural.

      If you’d like us to look into the issue specifically please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

      Reply to this comment

  • Lujo 1st September 2014

    Hi Emma, I am a SEO analyst now working for a new company. I am here to do the SEO job for their business website. The website got some ranking in mid 2013 and now the ranking lost very much. I found more than 4000 links in webmaster tools, about 95% of them are from low quality website. Is this is the problem ? Is disavowing is enough to get back the ranking ? What’s your opinion ?

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 1st September 2014

      Hi Lujo,

      If you suspect that unnatural links could be causing ranking issues (as sounds likely) you would need to carry out a comprehensive backlink analysis and get unnatural links removed.

      You can use the disavow tool also but if you’re seeing ranking issues you should try to get unnatural links removed wherever possible.

      Reply to this comment

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