Common Causes for Google Traffic Drops
One a weekly basis, I talk to digital publishers that have seen a major drop in either traffic or revenue (commonly both). They’re trying to decipher why they’ve experienced the sudden shift. In many cases, the seemingly unprecedented change leads publishers to assume that the problem is related to Google traffic drops (search mainly) and that the corresponding drop in revenue is directly tied to this change.
What I’ve come to learn from hundreds and hundreds of these cases over the years is that every problem is relatively unique; however, there are usually some pretty easy ways to zero in on the exact issue causing the drop in traffic and revenue.
The secret to quickly solving these problems is approaching them like a puzzle. You cannot start with an immediate, blind assumption. You have to start with the data first and work backward. In this article, I’ll help you start with the most common ways you can start this analysis.
Separating Google traffic drops and revenue losses
First, even though I’m sure this will be really hard to understand, you have to separate the two issues here that are likely inexorably tied. Your drop in traffic and loss in digital revenue on your website most be looked at as two separate problems.
While one is almost certainly affecting the other, by separating these problems, you can actually solve the underlying issue faster and potentially recover to greater levels than where you were prior to the downturn.
If you want to diagnose a drop in revenue — try this guide
The reason for this is that these things may be connected but may not be correlated in the way you think. For example, you may have a major drop in traffic but only a small drop in revenue. You may be able to decipher (using the methods below) that all the traffic was coming from a particular backlink on a low-quality site that is no longer operational. The reason the traffic may have dropped is obvious, but the reason for only a little revenue dropping is because the quality of the traffic may have been very poor.
Separating these problems and understanding each’s relationship in the equation will give you a much clearer vision of how you will want to approach solving the problem.
Audit your own site using this detailed guide… SEO Audit Your Website On Your Own
Did my Google traffic drop?
This isn’t the right question to start with but it is by far the most common question I get from publishers when they see a downturn in traffic and revenue. The most common belief publishers have is that they have been struck by a “Google algorithm update” and have experienced a loss in Google traffic; along with a corresponding drop in revenue from those lost pageviews.
I can tell you that in all my years of experience, that scenario is actually one of the rarest. In fact, in the past 9 months, I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of publishers and almost none of them had dramatic drops in revenue or traffic that we could definitively say were directly related to a shift in the way Google Search operates (if you want to make sure you’re playing nice with Google, try this blog).
Historically, Google search algorithm changes have been a risk for publishers, but now, quality publishers that largely adhere to Google Webmaster guidelines have little to fear.
Google made over 1,500 changes to Google search in 2016, gone are the days of them rolling out massive updates that cause sites to plummet down the rankings. Shifts are much more subtle now and nuanced in their implementation.
That being said, the first thing we have to do with this question is check the premise. Is your drop in traffic really from Google traffic or is it something else? Here’s how to check…
If you don’t already use segments in Google Analytics, now is the time to start. I’ll walk you through a case that I recently helped a publisher with.
A case study to learn from
A publisher contacted me and said that they had just noticed that their Sunday traffic was down almost 70% from the Sunday before and was also down considerably from the day before. They believed (wrongly so) that they had fallen victim to a Google algorithm update.
The first thing I did was analyze their traffic in segments. I wanted to see where the drop was coming from. Was it organic, paid, referral, social, or direct traffic? Was it from a particular country or device? Did it affect some pages more than others? That is the order I always start in…
- Check traffic sources
- Check geo’s
- Check devices
- Check landing pages
That little checklist will usually help you identify the macro source for the downturn in traffic. Usually one of these things sticks on our like a sore thumb if the loss in traffic is dramatic. Sometimes it could be multiple things that stick out together (which we will discuss further in my example here)…
You can access and create segments by clicking at the top of the page when you are on Audience > Overview in Google Analytics. Paid, organic, referral and direct traffic are already created for you out of the box.
You can also easily create one for social traffic by clicking on New Segment (see above). Then, name the segment, select traffic sources on the left. You’ll want to go down to source, make sure the field is set to contains, and then start typing the first letter of all social networks you get traffic from into the open bar. Select as many as you like, and make sure to get all variations (i.e. m.facebook.com and fb.com).
Now, back to our example!
After checking traffic sources, it was obvious, this site’s traffic drop was in fact due to a loss in Google traffic. This — at first — seemed to confirm their worst fears; however, it is important to get all the data before jumping to conclusions.
Geo and device type information appeared pretty innocuous. There was less traffic but both of these pieces of data were commensurate — percentage wise — to previous data points. It wasn’t until we got to #4 on my checklist that we had even more clarity to the situation.
There it was, staring us right in the face. The homepage of this website had gotten no organic traffic at all on the day before they had contacted me. So what happened?
First, let’s go through my brain as I’m taking in all this information. Remember, this is a puzzle and we have to be like detectives if we want to solve this puzzle with any degree of certainty. So what do we know about this problem now with the data that we have…
- The downturn was sudden, suggesting some kind of event
- The traffic that was affected was organic traffic — mainly a Google traffic drop
- No geo’s or device types were affected more than others
- The homepage was the only page affected
- The homepage didn’t just have a decrease in traffic, it had absolutely zero traffic from Google on the day of the downturn
The immediate takeaway in this analysis was that Google search suddenly stopped sending all search traffic to this site’s homepage. Why? It must have been de-indexed. If this was a manual action by Google for a violation, the whole site would be down, not just one page. If the homepage was being penalized by Google and pushed down the rankings for some reason, it is fair to assume they would still be getting a little traffic (not 0 visitors), right?
This left only one conclusion…
This site must have accidentally de-indexed their own homepage. Why would they do this? Well, obviously they did not mean to do this, but how could it have been possible?
When I approached the publisher about my conclusion, their response was that this was impossible. They had not intentionally done this and had not made any changes to their knowledge that could cause this. So, I asked them to think through every change or update they had done to the site the day prior to the downturn. Leave no stone unturned.
Most of what they delivered was pretty unassuming. They published a blog and updated some meta titles. But, there was one other thing. They added a new plugin inside of their WordPress CMS.
Once I examined the new plugin, I noticed it had several settings on it. One of them was the ability to enable no-follow designation on a specific page of the website. Sure enough, this plugin was active on the homepage and the setting for no-follow was checked. This means Google will not index this page!
They removed the plugin and their site was re-indexed by Google and saw normal traffic return within days.
Auditing our own potential website mistakes
Remember earlier when I said that Google algorithm updates were the rarest cases I see — in terms of drops in Google traffic? Well, do you want to know what the most common reason for web traffic drops I see is? It’s webmaster or publisher error.
Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve broken hundreds of sites. That’s why I’m so good at diagnosing and fixing them now!
There’s no reason to feel like an idiot when one these kinds of things happen. Just be humble and work backward until you solve the problem. If you are going to actively try to improve a site, you are going to mess it up from time to time. If you just leave it set, you’ll eventually fall behind. This is all part of the process.
The secret is putting data first. You cannot jump to conclusions or scour the internet for the latest news on the Google search algorithm and assume this is the reason for your loss in traffic.
Breaking down your Google traffic
Following the 4 principles of traffic evaluation above, you should be able to bullet point out all the things you know; like I did in my summary at the end of our case study above. If you can do this, you can start generating a hypothesis as to why traffic may be falling. In most cases, you can test these right away (i.e. checking a plugin).
Another quick example: Another case I got recently, was a publisher who saw a small reduction in traffic gradually over time. We ultimately figured out it was referral traffic from e-mails. He remembered he had recently switched e-mail services for his newsletter. We discovered his new e-mail service was sending far more messages to spam and that was the reason for the drop. He switched his e-mail services back and the traffic leveled out again.
Get help below
Still having problems? This isn’t what I do anymore, but I’m happy to provide my expert insights in the comments section. Leave your issues below and I’ll chime in with my thoughts and advice. Hopefully, we can all learn from the experiences and get some nice case studies going below.
Or read one of these good blogs on increasing your Google traffic.
Great post Tyler. You may not have been around and working in the industry in February of 2011.
Tens of thousands of websites fell victim to the historic Google Panda algorithm update. AsktheBuilder.com was one. You may want to go up and edit or amend this line of yours:
“I can tell you that in all my years of experience, that scenario is actually one of the rarest.”
Go to http://www.semrush.com and look up askthebuilder.com for yourself. Set the parameters for 2009 to the present.
For further data about the carnage of Panda, just search about it on Google.
Hey Tim, I totally understand your point. I was 100% with boots on the ground then and you are correct.
In the article, I mention that historically this has not been the case. Google’s changes have shuttered businesses (much in the way Facebook is doing now). But now, it is very rare for good sites to be crushed by any kind of an algo update. Algo updates are not what they once were. I find that far more publishers use it as a blanket to blame issues on. In almost every I case see now (as per the article), publishers actually have another underlying issue when they think it is just the whim of Google.
Glad to see AskTheBuilder making a great comeback since those days.
In GA my site traffic drop showing. What is the exact reason? 33 crawl errors found in webmaster but those are old website URLs. I was tried to remove those URLs but not showing in CMS. What should I do?
It could be a lot of different things. I would need much more information.Try reviewing the information above to break it down in Analytics. If you post some further details, I can probably lend my expertise a little better.
Thank you for a reply. What kind of details you need? I will share with you.
Check out the post above. See the different ways you should be slicing up analytics data, then tell me what you’re seeing and I can provide some potential areas of effect
For many years I monitored daily my webpage OPORTUNIDADES.BIZ because geo stats are very important to us. (www.oportunidadescomercialespr.com) Most of our traffic is organic. We receive our principal visitors from Puerto Rico and USA (Florida always was the state #1 with more visitors). Suddenly, since January 4, 2018, Florida data drop drastical and took Texas 5th place and Texas took the first place without any changes or special promotion. That pattern persisted during the past 3 days.
Never happened that before. I appreciate a lot your opinion. Can you please help trying to identify what is going on? Thank You!!
My website traffic is suddenly declined from 2018 january first. Why like this, I have checked many scenarios. I can’t find the problem still. My website is travel related one. and this is the peak season. last year i got high traffic. i didn’t do anything spammy still
Hey… nice write up… It’s awesome
Recently, my site was ranking for 20 high volume keywords on top 10. But in December and 2019 January, I lost almost all my rankings from the first page to 3rd or 4th page.
I am curious to know: –
how much it will take to recover. Or would I even get my ranking back?
By the way thanks for this article… I hope you would help me
Most of Google changes now are part of their core. There is no “recovery” unless they have notified you that you have been directly penalized. Otherwise, your content simply doesn’t rank as well as other content for those keywords. Maybe evaluate what might make the other content ranking ahead of your better, or try to understand any changes you made to your site around the time you saw a drop. In most instance, most SEO issues are self-inflicted.
Hello, As per your video, i have gone through all that steps. Here is my concern/issue
1 – Organic traffic compare :
Feb to Jan 2019 – 90% Down
2 – Device
Desktop traffic down – 90%
US traffic down – 90%
4 – Pages
Homepage traffic down to 90%
Can you please let me know what to do next?
Was there an exact date it dropped or did it happen slowly. What changes or “improvements” to your site did you make during this time?
Great explanation Tyler.
Some of my sites have fallen in Florida 2
I’m trying to make the reverse path by looking at several of my sites and noticed a very strong trend. It may be pure coincidence.
Those sites that have a few published text, 1 or less per month, all these sites have fallen.
Those who have 1 or more texts published per week stand. They even increased traffic.
Another trend, less obvious, that I noticed were the AMP sites.
I use AMP in some, in others not.
AMP sites also fell. This does not make much sense to me since Google itself encourages the use of AMP.
There are billions of sites across the web affected by this. I see a lot of rumors and theories. Personally, I hate to see this. I think this is why the SEO industry has a bad reputation. No one is thinking about objective info. Lots of guessing.
I have looked at several large data sets on this so far and haven’t seen anything compelling regarding what was affected. Most likely, it was something regarding how they weight backlinks from various sites and how they measure visitor intent differently for different queries – meaning Google has shifted which rankings factors matter most for different types of searches.
This truly makes it something that publishers can’t do anything about other than continues to:
– improve internal link structure
– market their content externally
– augment old content to improve it for visitors landing on those pages
– create new content that fits the queries of searchers
Thanks for a very helpful and actionable article. I’ve used segments in the past, but I can’t say I’ve done it so methodically for diagnosing traffic fluctuations. I appreciate you outlining your process. It’ll be helpful in future audits for me.
i am upset because my organic traffic left and my organic keyword count going up. i redirect my website but few time traffic stable,but going down now.
Sir what i do? Please tell me.
Very hard to give any advice based on what you just shared. Keywords gong up but traffic going down doesn’t typically make sense. Where are you getting that data? Redirecting without a clear objective can be a bad combination as well. I’d need a lot more info to provide any advice.
I have done what you said above for my sub-domain (—-).
1. Organic traffic dropped 44.62% after 19 February.
2. Most of my readers are from Singapore and Malaysia – down 53% and 47%
3. Landing pages down 46% with a major drop in one of the pages at 64%.
I went into my search console and saw 2.18K out of 4.28k URLs were excluded as “page with redirect”. Some are old posts from my old domain, and some are new posts I posted in March.
In recent months, I migrated from hostgator to Siteground and added SSL and so http became https.
I have no idea what happen – could it be google algorithm that might have affected the dip? Thank you!
It does not sound like it at all. Sounds like the issue is redirects that may or may not have been done correctly.
Not sure if redirects is your arena, but how do I check if the redirects are done correctly? And what plugin or tool would you suggest I to do the redirection? Thanks!
Many people do redirects at the host/server-level, some do use WordPress tools. If you’re not sure where it has happened, it is good to find out because you will need to know this to make changes to existing redirects. However, you can use ScreamingFrog as a free crawler to tell you about all 301 and 302 redirects on your site. Then, you can usually go to your host to do redirects. This is what I recommend; however, there is a WordPress plugin simply called “redirection” that will work fine as well.
I have 2 sites similar with similar traffic in the same server.
When i enable the AMP te organic traffic drops in the one and goes up to the other.
Isnt it strange?