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Although 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Samantha Noble is well known within in the search industry, she even won the UK Search Personality 2016 at the UK Search Awards in November. This year, she continues to make an impact on the industry by judging not only one, but three, prestigious industry awards.