Sudden Drop in Organic Traffic? How to Work Out What’s Happened and Why
○ Updated on 13th February 2024
○ Authors: Kayleigh Stubbs & Michael Chidzey. Designer: Dan Mynard
○ Experience & Research Based
We write for people who are trying to grow their businesses online. Sometimes, this means helping them overcome tough situations like a sudden drop in organic traffic. If this sounds like you, this post should help you explore why and what to do. If not, bookmark this page in case you need it one day. Hopefully, this won’t happen to your site.
If you’re seeing a sudden drop in organic traffic, hopefully, it’s just a tracking issue or a recent change on your website that can be easily rectified. But it’s totally understandable to panic, so we’ve compiled this blog post providing a checklist to identify the possible causes behind why your organic traffic is decreasing and the steps you should take to tackle them.
Has your organic traffic actually dropped?
Before doing anything, the first thing to do is to determine if your organic traffic has actually dropped. It’s essential to distinguish between normal fluctuations and potential issues that require attention.
You’ve probably spotted the drop in a routine organic traffic check, using one of your analytics tools. However, Google Search Console (GSC) is always our first place to look for any concerns regarding organic traffic.
It’s a free tool by Google. If you don’t already have it set up, no worries; once you verify your website, it’ll give you 16 months of data straight away. The other benefit is that GSC query and rankings data is based on Google’s SERPs (search engine result pages), not your website, so you can compare what you see in your analytics tools with GSC. You can find and fix technical errors, submit sitemaps, analyse backlinks, and get insights on specific URLs, all the pages in Google’s index and how Google actually sees your website.
Opening the other tools you use for analytics, rank tracking, website crawling, and general SEO analysis will be helpful too. We typically use Google Analytics (analytics), Advanced Web Ranking (rank tracking), Screaming Frog and Sitebulb (website crawling), and Ahrefs (general SEO analysis).
Let’s review some of the possible issues you could be experiencing below.
A tracking code error
One possible reason for the decline could be a tracking error, where data is inaccurately measured due to issues with the tracking code on your website.
Cross-reference data with Google Search Console, which retrieves data directly from Google’s search results and not your website. Comparing the insights from Google Search Console with your Google analytics account can provide a more accurate understanding of organic traffic patterns. This helps differentiate between tracking issues and a genuine organic traffic drop.
To resolve tracking errors, double-check the implementation of the tracking code to ensure it hasn’t been accidentally removed, which can easily happen – especially if multiple people are involved in making changes to the website. Real-time reports in your analytics platforms will help you test whether your tracking is working again and search engines can crawl your website correctly.
A data collection update
By confirming whether it’s a data collection error or an actual decline in organic traffic, you can take appropriate steps to address the issue.
A drop in keyword rankings
If you use a tool to track your website traffic and rankings, compare results now to before the drop and see if any position changes for keywords and pages may have led to a decline in organic search results. Even a few position changes in rankings for high-volume terms can significantly increase or decrease organic traffic.
A rank tracker is an SEO tool used to monitor the rankings of a website on search engines. You can set up observation tracking for specific keywords from different locations worldwide. It’s vital to ensure your rank tracker is up-to-date and accurately pulling rankings, as outdated or faulty data can give a false impression of a drop in organic traffic.
Another consideration is whether it’s just a single page (or a few pages) or if the drop is on all your pages. You can identify this by checking rankings in the landing pages section of your rank tracker or the GSC Index Status report to see if fewer pages are being indexed. You can hone in on the lost traffic and determine what happened if it’s just a few pages. Perhaps there has been an accidental URL removal or block? Or maybe something technical on the page needs improving. Investigate potential causes such as technical changes, design modifications, or content updates within specific folders or sections of your site and fix them.
If the issue is sitewide, it could be any number of reasons. From stagnant content to the emergence of new competitors, loss of backlinks, website redesign without SEO oversight, changes in site architecture, domain migration, Google algorithm updates, and technical issues. Some investigation is necessary to identify the root cause and be able to implement a fix.
Did you see a sudden drop in organic traffic, or is it gradual?
Distinguishing between a gradual decline in traffic and a sudden drop will help you to decide on the next steps. If your website has been gradually dropping in organic traffic over any period of time, there may not be a single explanation to identify. It could simply be that pages are not ranking well, and the site needs some work. In this case, focusing on content quality and onsite user experience should be your first port of call. Doing this effectively includes a search competitor analysis to dissect their pages to work out why they rank above you so you can outperform them.
However, if the decline is sudden and you haven’t identified the cause onsite from the above, we need to explore some external factors.
External factors impacting organic traffic
Could it be seasonal or demand changes?
Your products or services may experience significant variations in traffic levels depending on the season or demand. It’s essential to consider this when looking at year-on-year metrics, as you may notice fluctuations in traffic during peak shopping or holiday seasons. Weather, holidays, sale seasons (like Black Friday), and even significant economic changes can impact your website and users’ engagement. To determine if seasonality is a contributing factor, compare organic traffic year over year in Google Analytics, analyse monthly search volume from the Keyword Planner, and compare search impressions in Google Search Console. If you notice similar fluctuations in previous years and changes in search volume, it’s likely due to seasonality.
It’s also worth looking into reduced consumer demand for your products or services. You can utilise tools like Google Trends (or Glimpse) to analyse the search volume over time for your target keywords. If there is a drop in traffic, but rankings remain stable, it indicates a potential decline in demand. However, further investigation into possible SEO causes is warranted if rankings and traffic decline.
If you have found that seasonal or demand changes throughout the year are typical for your business, you need to work on accommodating this into your forecasting, reporting and strategy moving forward.
Was there a change in search intent or unexpected events?
A significant drop in organic traffic can occur when search intent shifts or unexpected events happen. As reviewed above, user interests are constantly changing, which can affect trends and demand. Just like a company selling umbrellas likely has considerable peaks in traffic when there is a lot of wet weather forecasted, they are likely to see a decline in traffic during the Summer months.
However, not all events can be predicted. This year, we noticed a significant increase in searches and a shift in search results across major cities in the United States for the high-volume term ‘flowers.’ This change occurred after Miley Cyrus released her song Flowers causing related YouTube videos and web pages to replace flower delivery services in the top search results. This unforeseen event affected organic rankings and consequently influenced site traffic. It’s essential to monitor rankings and the search results to understand what is happening.
Was there a referral traffic drop on Google Analytics?
Although referral traffic is a separate channel from Google organic traffic, a sudden traffic drop could signify lost links. If other sites had natural links pointing to your site, known as inbound links, any SEO professional will tell you that these are a nod to your authority and legitimacy for the same content quality and expertise.
For example, the site owner of a digital marketing blog links to a relevant piece of content on your site. This passes ‘link juice’ from one to the other, or authority, and can increase traffic. Search engine crawlers follow this link structure to understand relevancy and authority. Most traffic via links will have little to no effect on organic visibility for landing pages. However, if referrals are significant enough, it becomes one of those indirect ranking factors. The ones based on relevancy and authority.
This goes for direct traffic, too. If enough people bookmarked or referenced a particular page on your site and this was then removed, website traffic could decline. Suppose you do remove a page that regularly receives high levels of traffic (probably not the best move for your marketing strategy). In that case, it’s essential to put the proper redirects in place to avoid lost traffic to your site.
Perhaps a Google update affected you
Google algorithm updates happen periodically and can sometimes be big enough to significantly impact your rankings and, subsequently, your traffic. Core updates should be the first thing you check when you see substantial dips in your data, as you cannot control this. If this is the case, what you can do is read what the core update was for and align your site with Google and other search engines expectations — usually trust and authority. Work on improving your content and pulling any irrelevant or thin content. If you work hard enough on your strategy and improve what you’re publishing, you should see a nice increase at the next core update.
Could paid media be the culprit?
Paid ad campaigns can play a role in organic traffic fluctuations. This likely affects individual pages rather than a sitewide decline, although that could happen. Take a look and see if any competitors have recently launched a paid campaign. The position of paid ads at the top of SERPs could be pulling traffic away from your organic listing onto their site instead of yours.
If your company is the one that launched a new campaign, you would expect to see an increase in paid traffic to offset the decline in organic. Ensure your teams work together to gain desired results and not pull efforts away from one another.
What about a manual penalty?
Although this isn’t as common nowadays, it’s a quick thing to check. Look in Google Search Console for any notifications about a Google penalty or any manual actions that may be suppressing your rankings and hurting your organic traffic.
How to fix a drop in organic traffic
By this point, you’ve probably got an idea of the diagnosis. Remember to use your analytics databases, rank-tracking tools, and Google Search Console data to help interpret a traffic or rankings drop. The next step is fixing the problem.
If your rankings have decreased, improve your content
Begin with a competitor analysis to see how those ranking above you do it. If a competitor who used to rank below you has improved their position and pushed your rankings down, it’s essential to examine their content to understand why Google analytics perceives it as a better match for users.
It could be that your content is simply outdated or no longer relevant. How-to posts from five years ago or top tool listicles of tools that are no longer available will slowly see a decline in traffic as users are attracted to more relevant and up-to-date information. In this instance, learn to repurpose your content. If your content is still relevant, update any dates in the titles and refresh it; it will be recrawled as recently updated. If you have a list of old tools, provide your readers a fresh list and publish it on the same URL. Repurposing content on the same URL means it will be crawled as updated content; it also holds the trust and rankings from previous periods (even if it’s declined), so you can pull it back up again. Doing this regular practice is excellent for consistent organic rankings and traffic.
A crucial element of any content marketing strategy also includes internal links. Search engine spiders crawl your site through your link architecture so using competitive keywords and relevant content on the same topic will help to improve traffic. Be careful to avoid duplicate content here; each page should have its own focus keyword, even if there is overlap in the topic.
If a site update is the culprit, locate and rectify the issue
Website changes can cause drops in traffic. If you don’t know the issue immediately, try using the Wayback Machine from archive.org to compare screenshots of the site before and after the traffic drop. It’s essential to check for intentional changes, such as updates to the robots.txt file, implementation of robots meta tags, or changes to canonical URLs. Mistakes or unauthorised modifications, including website hacking, should also be considered. GSC can provide insights into differences and issues with the site, such as index coverage and mobile loading errors.
Other factors to consider are changes in URL structure, content, design, navigation, internal links, unnatural links, canonical tags, use of relevant keywords, meta descriptions, and duplicate content affecting crawling, indexing, or serving of pages. Assess the impact of URL structure, navigation, and internal linking changes by comparing traffic data from Google Analytics or third-party tools.
After resolving the identified issues, ensure proper SEO education within the organisation and minimise unnecessary changes to your site.
Check under the bonnet by crawling your website
A technical SEO crawl is a good practice for your site health anyway, but it could prove invaluable if you’re struggling to find the source of your organic traffic drop. You can crawl your site with tools like Screaming Frog or Sitebulb to see how search engines view your site and site’s content.
A crawl will highlight page errors, missing or duplicate metadata, broken links, page speed issues, nofollow links, server code issues, incorrect redirects, and robots.txt issues. If there are technical SEO issues, implement a fix for these as soon as possible. It’s essential to ensure your pages are crawlable and indexable by search engines.
Still no idea?
Feel free to reach out to us, and we’ll take a look.