In an ever-evolving SEO landscape it’s easy to see why panic sets in if you see drops for those all-important traffic driving terms. But did you know that most ranking fluctuations we encounter are not actually caused by significant algorithmic shifts, but via easily identifiable and fixable “on site” issues?
These problems often go unnoticed to the untrained eye as they may be caused by other seemingly unconnected changes being applied having an inadvertent “knock on” effect on SEO performance.
So, what should you do if you encounter significant drops in rankings? First and foremost, before you go scouring the web for the latest speculation on Google updates, it’s usually a good idea to check your own house is in order first….
First: Identify Which Keyword(s) Have Dropped
Before we dive headfirst into the technical checks, it’s worth first identifying which specific rankings have dropped. Is it an individual phrase, a group of similar/related phrases, or are you seeing a downtrend in rankings for your whole site?
Scenario 1: A Single Phrase Has Dropped in Ranking
In the case of a single phrase losing rankings, it’s worth checking what type of sites now rank for that term. We sometimes see major changes in the makeup of page 1 by Google based on user intent. For example, page 1 rankings for the term “golf club” in days gone by were largely made up of sports retailers, but Google now ranks local clubs and courses as it “believes” this better fulfils that query.
- Such changes can be frustrating but are often short term “tests” by Google, so it’s worth monitoring rankings closely in the short term to see if the issue “fixes itself”.
- If the issue persists, the best solution is probably to re-evaluate your keyword strategy. In the example above, perhaps optimise the site for “golf clubs” (pleural) rather than “golf club” (singular) as the makeup of page 1 is very different – despite the apparent similarity of the two queries.
Scenario 2: A Connected Group of Phrases Have Dropped in Rankings
In this scenario, it’s possible this may have been caused by changes made to an individual page (for example a category page).
- Is the ranking page still live / Has the URL changed? – It may sound obvious, but your first port of call should be checking the ranking page is still live and not producing a 404. Also check if the URL of the page has recently changed. If it has, you may need to 301 redirect the old location to the new one.
- Has the meta <title> of the ranking page changed? – often overlooked as a rather basic SEO element, including relevant keywords in the title tag still holds a lot of weight, so if you have recently changed this (be it intentionally or otherwise) this can have an impact on rankings.
- Has the content on the ranking page changed? – Content remains king, and if the length, uniqueness, quality or relevance of your content has changed this can affect rankings. Whilst quality is essential, it’s still important to ensure content is optimised for the keywords you want to rank for (plus semantic variants) so it’s worth checking previous optimised content wasn’t removed, shortened or significantly altered.
- Has the page / page content been duplicated – Another easy to miss issue, it’s worth copying and pasting an exact line of your target ranking page’s content into Google and see what comes up (including checking the supplemental index). If it’s not the page you expect at the top of the SERPS or if you find pages of your site(s) using the same content, you may have an issue with duplication. Depending on your circumstances, this may be resolved via canonical tags, href=lang tags, rewriting content or redirecting the old/duplicate page to the new one.
- Has the page been “noindexed”? – It’s surprising how often pages are inadvertently hidden from Google, either via a “disallow:” command in the /robots.txt file, a “noindex” command in the meta robots of the individual page, or via the xrobots tag in the HTTP header. The golden rule is; if you want the page (and related phrases) to rank, Google needs to have access to index it – so always check this carefully.
Scenario 3: Rankings Have Dropped for All Phrases
This scenario is perhaps on the face of it the most frightening, but may be fixable via 1 or 2 technical changes.
- Has the site been redesigned / URLs changed? – As noted above, if the URLs change on your site (perhaps via a redesign or a switch from HTTP protocol to HTTPS) you’ll need to implement 301 redirects on a page for page basis from the old version of the page to the new to preserve rankings.
- Has the whole site been noindexed? – the ultimate *facepalm* moment…. check your robots.txt file doesn’t have a “disallow: /” command in place. If it does, you’re blocking crawler access to your whole site. Often a mistake found when moving from a test or staging environment to live. You should also crawl the whole site to ensure there isn’t a “site wide” noindex command in the meta robots of each page.
- Is the site down / Has it been down recently? – Site downtime will negatively affect rankings even after the site has gone back live again, with differing levels of severity based on the length of the downtime. Check the site is live and consider using alert tools such as Uptime Robot to alert you to any outages and fix ASAP. To help get your site re-indexed quickly, consider resubmitting it to Google via Search Console or resubmitting your XML sitemap.
Although by no means exhaustive, the above checks cover some of the most common issues we encounter that can cause large drops in Google rankings but are easily fixable via structured, technical health checks. If you do see a drop in rankings, the key is not to panic, but to follow the above processes to see if you can root out any quickly resolvable issues that fall within your direct control.
By Chris Shelbourn, Technical Operations Manager
- Google Rankings Dropped? 3 Possible Scenarios and How to Fix Them - June 5, 2017
- What’s in store for On-site SEO in 2014? - February 6, 2014