Diagnosing Search Traffic Drops, Part 2

Last time, I discussed several search-based benchmarks to watch. In the unfortunate event that your traffic declines, you’ll be able to determine the factors that may be affecting traffic.

Today, more about some of those specific benchmark data, as well as some possible reasons behind their decline. Bear in mind it’s often hard to determine the exact reason traffic is dropping and harder to pin down precise way to fix it. Time is nearly always a factor. Therefore, improve as many site facets as possible. This significantly improves your chances for regaining traffic, even if you can’t clearly determine which specific change caused the improvement.

With that in mind, here are some ways to fix organic search problems when you can detect drops in specific measurements.

Significant Site Changes Made — With Dates

You can’t always say with complete accuracy a change in search traffic or rankings is tied directly to changes you made to a site page. But you can say with certainty the engines will never evaluate or act on changes they haven’t yet noticed. Webmaster forums and blogs overflow with threads about making a change one day, then disappearing from SERPs (define) the next. Few people bother to check the search engines’ cached pages before they jump to this conclusion.

While engines may hit your site each day, they rarely crawl the entire site each time they visit. It could be days or weeks between visits to the same page. If the cached version of your page reflects the changes you made, only then can you deduce the change may be responsible for a ranking or traffic drop.

If the engine has cached your changes, each site page potentially gives authority to and receives authority from other site pages. If a certain page’s performance declines, has the linking strategy to or from that page changed recently? Do as many of your site’s pages still point to that page now as they did before? Is the content still accurate and current? Do new pages encroach upon that page’s content with substantially similar material? Also, consider changes to page A might affect several pages up- or downstream more than they affect page A itself.

Sample Rankings for Large and Small Traffic Producers

When rankings decline, many factors could be responsible, either alone or working together. A change might have rendered the site less relevant for certain terms. A change to your competitor’s site made might have rendered that site more relevant. If you’ve dropped only a spot or two, you can likely regain some position by earning some new, high-quality links to the affected pages or by adding more current content to the page. In addition, make sure your pages all have unique, descriptive titles and meta descriptions, written both to describe the content and to make your page stand out from the competition’s.

It’s more serious if you’ve fallen by several pages, disappeared completely, or if multiple pages have lost position. If they’re indexed but not performing, it could be a loss in authority of the pages themselves or pages that link to them, a lack of unique content, a lack of trust in the sites you link to, algorithmic changes by the engines, over-optimization (a sudden influx of inbound links with identical anchor text, for example), and many other factors.

Review engine guidelines and scrutinize your site with a critical eye to determine whether you’re on the right side of best practices. Also look at the competition to see whether other sites in your vertical are affected. Major algorithmic changes often upset entire SERP apple carts, while ongoing optimization effort by you and other sites in your niche is reflected in more minor SERP changes.

Total Number of Referring Keywords from Search Engines

As a site matures, builds content, and accrues links, the number of unique search phrases that drive traffic should increase as well. If this number drops significantly, skim before and after reports to see if the downturn affects any keyword veins (e.g., phrases focused on a specific product or service you provide) or whether the change affected phrases across the board. If the decline is limited to a set of terms, check the rankings of the pages that typically pull in those terms.

If the traffic decline is represented across all terms but rankings seem intact, use a keyword research tool to see if overall demand in your segment dropped over time. Also, look objectively at SERPs to see whether yours is the most compelling choice from a user’s perspective.

Entry Pages

A drop in organic search-based entry pages typically means pages that used to bring traffic have dropped in ranking or left the index altogether. First, ensure the pages are still indexed. If so, check old referring keyword reports to ensure the pages rank for the terms they once did. If not, work on getting new, high-quality links deep into the affected site areas, and make sure content is still current and useful. Check meta descriptions to ensure they’re unique for each page and written to encourage a click when they appear in search results.

Next, I’ll hit the remaining organic search benchmarks, including drops in index counts, inbound link counts, and what to watch for in overall organic traffic.

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