How to recover a drop in your SEO rankings
With search engine algorithms constantly being tweaked, refined and updated, you can find yourself in the awful scenario of seeing your rankings drop suddenly, unexpectedly and quite catastrophically.
This can also happen after making changes to a site, regardless of whether they were made to improve its performance. Search engines can seem fickle and difficult to master - I know many SEOs who have worked on websites where they did everything according to Google’s own best practice, only to lose traffic.
The trick is to be patient, be curious and continuously strive to be adaptable and switch up your strategy.
Losing rankings is every business’ nightmare: typically followed by a loss of traffic, subsequently followed by a loss of leads or revenue, it can quite literally make or break some businesses.
So, what do you do if your rankings have dropped off a cliff?
1. Keep a clear head and assess the damage
It’s quite difficult to remain calm and clear headed when you notice that your rankings have dropped, but it’s pretty much essential.
Now, not panicking is definitely crucial in the early stages - sometimes you can see your rankings drop off a cliff only to see them back to normal the next day - this is why it’s essential not to overreact and make changes immediately.
Just stay steady, make a log of all changes in the last few months (SEO related or not - could be dev changes, could be design changes etc.) Make a note of them for reference after completing the following checks.
2. Make sure rankings really did drop
Just like any software, ranking software is fallible and can have bugs. You’re going to want to check the state of your organic traffic and organic visibility. Use other tools (such as Ahrefs, Semrush or Sistrix) to see if these are also reporting a loss of rankings.
Look in Google Analytics. A corresponding loss of traffic will indicate that yes, rankings have indeed dropped, and you’ll be able to see how much traffic is lost as a result. Keep a note of this.
I’d also recommend checking Google Search Console to see if your pages’ visibility and clicks have decreased, again make a note if they have, which pages etc.
A great place to check is also Twitter - if a piece of software is glitching, you can be sure that people will be angrily tweeting - so you’ll very quickly be able to see whether this is in fact a drop on your end or a general glitch in the software’s performance, so definitely keep an eye out for this.
So, if the ranking software’s page is full of Tweets from annoyed users, or if your traffic, visibility and rankings with other tools look to be unaffected, you’re more than likely not actually suffering from a drop in rankings but a glitch in software. Look again in a few hours or the next day to see if things have resolved themselves.
If they have not, or if there was indeed a loss of traffic and visibility, do the following.
3. Assess the damage
Make sure to look at:
What theme or “keyword cluster” the queries with dropped rankings belonged to
Where they used to rank (including featured snippets)
Where they rank now
What difference there is (a drop from position 3 to 7 and 3 to page 8 are pretty different)
What URL was ranking for that query
The type of content on that URL (blog, service page, video, infographic etc.)
Whether the page is indexable (sometimes a rogue no index tag can appear - if you see it, remove it)
With your previous log of changes to the site, see if any of these apply to the pages you’re currently looking at
You can either log all of this into a doc or a spreadsheet, it’s up to your personal preference. A table can be helpful as you can sort things, these headers are pretty helpful:
Organising things in such a way can help you to identify which areas of the website saw a ranking drop, so you know which areas to focus on.
4. Changes to look out for:
Development changes (I’d even go so far as to check with your webmaster whether Googlebot and other search engines have been blocked - it may seem like a long shot but I have seen this happen)
Navigation or internal link changes removing a page from the main menu, footer or losing lots of internal links can have very detrimental effects)
Technical SEO changes: noindex or xrobots tags being implemented, hreflang tags if applicable, http status codes (are the pages 404ing or sending server errors?), changes to canonical tags, crawl anomalies (find these in Google Search Console), schema markup errors, an increase in broken pages on the site, really poor page speed etc. A good look at your access log files could also help to reveal any potential issues (crawl budget being used up on redirects or a search engine you don’t want to target etc.)
Content changes, such as headers, titles, meta data, text content, imagery, videos etc. (check with Wayback Machine)
Content audit to check for any cannibalisation or duplicates: sometimes a good content prune is what you need, particularly with legacy sites. You may find that you have a bunch of pages trying to rank for the same term which can result in none of them ranking.
Chances are, if you find anything like this - notably technical SEO changes - the drop in rankings will be linked to this, so make sure to know why it happened, the impact it had and how to prevent it happening again in future.
Another note: make sure to log all changes to the website in Google Analytics as notes and get the rest of your team to do this too if applicable. Tracking all changes to the site helps to figure out where things went wrong and makes this kind of investigative process far easier).
What if it’s none of these?
5. SERPs update
If rankings have dropped on only one or two pages (notably really important pages that brought in a lot of traffic) and you can’t see that anything on your website has changed, it may well be that the SERP results for that particular query have.
Look for that particular term in Google and what perhaps used to be a list of service pages including yours, may now in fact be a bunch of comparison sites or informational blogs. If you had won the featured snippet spot, losing this could also cause a lot of lost traffic - so just keep an eye out to see if the format of the page has changed.
Whatever the new page that featured in the featured snippet is doing (or the page that is now outranking you) - be it video, a table, images or a really long post - make sure you rewrite your page and do better. It’s the only way you’ll win that spot back as that is what the search engines now deem as a valuable result for users.
6. Change in user intent
Quite similar to the above, the SERPs results may change based on the user intent of a given query. Where previously service pages were ranking, as it seemed clear to a search engine that for a given query people were looking for a particular paid service, user intent may have in fact shifted due to an abundance of service providers so they may now be looking for review sites or comparison charts etc.
This shift in behaviour inevitably leads search engines to switch around the pages that they’re leading people to so that they’re more useful and respond better to their needs.
If this is the case, take a look at the top 5 ranking sites, see what they’re doing and emulate it if you can.
It can also be that a particular search query actually doesn’t have any more search volume. Think of the Covid-19 pandemic - stands to reason that travel related queries would have dived off a cliff, so make sure to check in keyword research tools and Google Trends to see if these pages still have any traction or if you simply need more content for new queries on your site.
7. Disavowed or lost backlinks
Backlinks still remain one of the most powerful ranking factors in SEO. Use Ahrefs or SEMrush to check for any potentially lost backlinks to your pages. If you see any, try to retrieve them. If they’re broken, redirect them or build new ones as they clearly were making an impact on that page’s performance. Be aware that this software can be quite slow at picking up lost links or new ones, so make sure to check regularly.
Alternatively, you may have disavowed them as you deemed them to be spammy. If this is the case, whichever links were pointing to that page, remove them from your disavow file, they clearly weren’t as damaging as you thought despite all logic. After all, unless you have hundreds of thousands of awful links, it’s quite rare for a penalty to arise.
Rule out a manual action or penalty
This is typically where your mind goes when in panic mode: has my entire site been affected by a penalty? This is pretty rare, but to be sure and to rule it out, check that:
Your pages are still indexed using the site: search command (type site:www.yourwebsite.com into Google) and check how many pages are indexed. If your pages are still indexed, that’s great news. If they’re not, it’s either a penalty or a very severe SEO issue such as a statewide noindex directive in your robots.txt.
Check you’re still ranking for your brand name: if you’re not, this can be really bad news and may mean that your site has been removed from the index.
Check you’re still ranking for other non-branded queries: some penalties may not affect the brand name queries, but will affect generic terms that you used to rank for, so make sure to check that your pages are still ranking for your core terms.
Check Google Search Console: in the manual actions tab, check to see if there is anything flagged there.
8. Algorithm update
Don’t discount the impact of a potential algorithm update. While we’re warned a few times a year on major updates, the algorithm is in fact tweaked many, many times.
For instance, Search Engine Land reported that Google in fact made 3,200 changes to their algorithm in 2018 alone - so never assume that if you haven’t seen a drop after a major update that it’s not this.
Checking this can be a little tricky as Google is really quite elusive on the subject of its algorithm, but there are tools out there that can help. And as always, check Twitter and search engine optimisation forums and communities, they’ll always be debating this.
Tools you can use to check:
If there was, make sure you read up as much as you can about that particular update, what it was targeting or penalising and make sure to make the necessary, relevant amends to your website
9. Your website got hacked
I’ve personally never seen this, but I’m told that it does happen, so by all means check for this, as some people make a lot of money from hacking sites so you may not be immune to it.
If you have been hacked, malicious code and software is often placed on your site, making it unsafe for people to browse without making themselves vulnerable to online attacks - so Google understandably penalises and removes these sites from its index. This can be checked in Google Search Console in the Security Issues tab.
10. The competition is levelling up
Sometimes, it may have absolutely nothing to do with your site or a Google Update at all - it could simply be that your competitors have been working hard on their own websites and have simply outstriped you.
If that’s the case, do a comprehensive competitor analysis of these pages that are now outranking you in a spreadsheet for this given page: what meta data are they using, how many backlinks are pointing to their page vs yours, how much content is there, what format is it in, have they implemented schema, is their page speed better than yours etc? Whatever you’re missing, add it in.
11. None of this?
You’ve done all the research: nothing changed on your site, your competition has remained stagnant, the SERPs are the same, there’s no sign of an update etc. What’s going on? Well my friend, welcome to the world of SEO: sometimes things are just not straightforward and can remain a mystery. In this case, I’d take a look at the following.
Engagement on your website
If you get everything right on your page from an on or off page SEO and technical SEO perspective, that doesn’t actually necessarily mean that it’s the best page for the job for a user.
Think for instance of an eCommerce website, you may have done everything right on that page, but the product is out of stock. Or maybe you have an unbelievably complex buying process. Or maybe you’re an informational blog: while your content may be really good, users are bombarded with ads or pop ups on there, making it impossible to actually read the page.
In both of these cases, the user is most likely going to leave the site without actually completing the action you wanted them to - they’ll then go onto the next listing in the SERPs.
Google knows this.
So why would they continue to rank you above others if the user experience on your site is less than adequate? They have always, always, stipulated that their core purpose is to give the best user experience that they possibly can online. So if your site is not up to the task, you won’t rank for long.
So check your user metrics: bounce rates, dwell times, conversion rates etc. Check your site against Google’s quality guidelines and even set a list of tasks and ask people to complete them and evaluate how easy or difficult they find it with brutal honesty. Then use this feedback to make the necessary changes.
To conclude, there are many, many different factors that could lead to a loss of rankings on your site. The key is to keep your cool, and make a note of any and all potential factors that could have led to this and to make the associated changes. If none of these apply, check to see if the drop may have in fact been gradual.
Regardless, if all of the following checks don’t help you to find a cause, sometimes you just need to accept the mystery and rather than looking back, try to look forward and create a new strategy to get more valuable pages ranking.