You’re probably careful. You’re probably experienced. You’re probably doing almost everything correctly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exempt you from the problem every SEO faces at least occasionally in their career: inexplicably dropped organic search rankings. There wasn’t any major Google update that you know about, nor was there any major change to your strategy, so when your organic traffic suddenly drops off and your rankings fall across the board, it’s normal for a bit of panic to set in.
Before you get too concerned, take a moment to read over these seven reasons why your rankings might have suddenly plummeted (and explanations on what to do next):
New sites get a lot of love from Google. And a lot of hate. It’s complicated. When your site launches, Google will have never heard of it, and it won’t have your site indexed, which means you can’t show up in any search results. When Google first indexes your site, it might give you an artificial ranking boost (since Google’s algorithm naturally favors new sites temporarily), leading you to believe you’ve earned those ranks all on your own. After that introductory period, your rankings will probably drop again as Google tries to make better sense of who you are and how authoritative you are. To put it concisely, volatility is expected and normal for new sites.
Even if you rigidly adhere to best practices when link building, it’s possible that a bad link got into your backlink profile. You might have built a link hastily, or on a site that isn’t quite relevant enough for your brand, or someone else entirely might have built it, putting the incident entirely outside of your control. In any case, if Google sees an irrelevant, unhelpful, or low-authority link pointing back to your site, that could be all it takes to throw your rankings for a loop. You can check out your backlink profile using Open Site Explorer or a similar tool, and remove any suspicious links with a simple request to the webmaster hosting it.
Conversely, if you had an especially powerful link pointing back to your site that suddenly disappeared, the authority it passed will disappear with it. For example, let’s say you earned a link on a major authority with a .edu domain. That webmaster decided to turn the link into a nofollow link, or decided to remove it entirely. It’s to be expected that your domain authority, and thus your rankings, would then drop, especially if you’re new to the game.
This isn’t a common cause of sudden drops in traffic, since a decline in content quality usually happens over time, but it is possible that your latest ranking report was influenced by a gradual change in your content approach. Google favors long-form, highly detailed, original content with heavily researched elements and understandable wording. If your posts are getting less detailed, more rushed, or otherwise less useful for your readers, it could trigger a signal to Google that you aren’t as authoritative as you used to be. If you’re concerned, run a content audit to evaluate the strength of your latest material, and refresh your approach for modern best practices in content marketing.
Your robots.txt file is an instruction file in the back end of your site that lets search crawlers know various things about your site. For example, you can tell crawlers to ignore certain pages, or certain versions of pages. If you’ve accidentally updated the robots.txt file to tell Google not to index mass portions of your site (it happens more often than you think), you’ll obviously lose significant ground in the SERPs. Read up on best practices for your robots.txt file, and double check yours—just to be safe.
Let’s face it. You aren’t the only company in your industry currently jockeying for a top spot in Google’s search results. If a new competitor emerges in the field with a great new site and tons of interesting, original content, you could easily get swept off your position. Older competitors, too, might launch new strategies and new initiatives that make them more attracting to Google’s ranking algorithm. If this is the case, you’ll have to step up your efforts to match theirs, or find a new niche or new angle to allow you a better competitive edge.
Google doesn’t rely on massive, game-changing updates the way it used to, but it rarely stays still for long. Panda and Penguin data refreshes occur more or less monthly, meaning it’s entirely possible that your site has been re-reviewed to be slightly higher or slightly lower in quality than it was just last month. Micro-updates, such as the ones spearheaded by the new machine learning algorithm RankBrain, are also common. Ultimately, these are minor, almost inconsequential variables, and you won’t be able to do much about them. All you can do is read up on best practices, say informed about the latest Google changes, and continue to improve your strategy.
The search marketing world is volatile, so don’t be surprised if this isn’t the last time your rankings suddenly fluctuate. Dozens of tightly interrelated factors might be interfering with your otherwise great strategy, or new trends and technologies might be making it impossible for you to maintain the same position you once held. Don’t see this as a point of frustration or as a reflection on bad strategic planning; instead, accept the fluctuation for what it is, learn from any mistakes you might have made, and continue charging forward.