Close icon
Talk strategy with an expert
Get expert advice on the right strategy for your business!
SEO Training

How to Diagnose and Repair a Rankings Drop in 10 Simple Steps

By | April 6, 2022

Is this familiar?

You check to see how your website’s pages are ranking…

…and all of a sudden you see a drop in their positions.

There are lots of reasons why this could happen. Regardless of the reason: rankings drops cost you money.

The key is not to panic. Rankings fluctuate all the time. How do you recover?

We’re about to tell you. Come to think of it, you might want to bookmark this page.

It’s time to start implementing website changes to correct the sudden SEO rankings drop.

Here’s a checklist of common reasons you can verify for diagnosing why your rankings might have dropped and FIX them. 

My Google Ranking Dropped, What Should I Do?

Website ranking SEO drops might be concerning to look at, but truthfully they are a natural part of SEO and can be fixed by analyzing their reason.

Remember not to panic. You can get your site’s mojo back.

You just need to be methodical in how you diagnose your site to see what may be going on and take steps to fix it.

It could possibly hurt your content marketing efforts.

In fact, it might be Google’s ranking algorithm acting up instead of an outright SEO ranking drop, and before taking any desperate measures, you should check the next day if your webpage’s SEO rankings are still low. 

If they are, then it might be time to fine-tune your website to determine if its suffering from any possible SEO issues. 

First things first: metrics and recent changes to your website. One of the telltale signs of your SEO rankings drops could be a recent change to your site’s data or a sudden change in a crucial metric.

Here are some examples:

Keywords

It could be that one of your principal keywords suddenly declined in popularity, and using it instead of others of higher ranking will hurt your SEO. You can try searching a few of the niche keywords in your site using a rank tracker tool to identify ranking changes

Page Speed

People usually don’t want to wait to consume your site’s content. You can also check the website loading speed on mobile by using the Google PageSpeed Insights Tool. The tool will provide you with a report you can use to troubleshoot your website’s page speed.  When pages take longer to load for your visitors, the bounce rates will increase.

Internal links

Changes to the linking structure of your site can impact your page SEO

Meta description

The meta description won’t impact your search rankings directly, but it can influence the click-through rate or CTR.

Robots.txt file

Another often forgotten step for troubleshooting SEO rankings drops is checking your robots.txt file. Verify that everything is crawling properly.

External factors

Don’t forget that an external factor, such as a national day or holiday weekend, might have affected your rankings temporarily.

If there are no major changes in metrics and trouble seems to be pointing somewhere else, then it’s time to take another step to find the root cause of your SEO drop.

Step #1: Make Sure Your Site is Working

What? Yes: I know it sounds crazy, but literally, go to your website and take a look to see if anything is messed up.

One time a friend panicked about his rankings dropping when it seemed like nothing had changed…Turns out, he was going on a 5-day DDoS attack that caused his site not to load.

Before you do anything else, check to see if:

  • Your hosting expired
  • Your domain name expired
  • Your web host messed up and is not displaying your site (this happens all the time!)

Step #2: Confirm That Your Search Traffic is Actually Dropping

Sometimes tools aren’t 100% accurate, so it’s important to double-check and confirm traffic loss.

Check your website analytics using Google Analytics or another analytics tool to verify that your organic search traffic is indeed dropping. It’s normal for the chart to go up and down:

But if you see a big downward drop that doesn’t come back up, something’s wrong.

Google Analytics shows you traffic. If you haven’t already, connect Google Analytics to Google Search Console to see your site rankings

Verify all possible tools that provide you information on your rankings data and any other SEO tools you employ for your ranking. If there’s something iffy going on with a single tool, it might be an issue of the tool and not your site.

In general, Google’s information will be the most accurate. You can also use other tools to confirm the drop or add a 2nd layer of confidence. For example, you can use the HOTH’s rank tracker, the HOTH’s website traffic tool, or SEMrush Position Tracking.

Note: We feature SEMrush & Ahrefs in this post because they’re the tools we use along with Google’s Analytics and Search Console to diagnose and repair rankings drops. These tools provide all the information you need in one place. You can also use The HOTH’s free tools, or other paid tools such as Majestic or Moz Link Explorer to perform this work effectively.

When you look at any of these tools, make sure that you’re looking at the correct country. If your site is targeted to capture UK-based traffic, make sure you are looking at U.K. rankings (not U.S.).

Step #3: Check Google Search Console for Errors or Warnings

How is Google crawling your website? Are there any errors or penalties?

Google will notify you of crawl errors automatically when the bots crawl your site.

It’s possible that your site has been flagged for manual action by Google’s human reviewers. 

Any of these issues could cause a Google penalty. Most websites don’t receive a manual penalty, but just to be sure, you should double-check possible causes to cross that off the SEO ranking drops list.

Google manual action penalties are imposed by Google if your website isn’t meeting its quality guidelines. 

If your website has a manual action against it, you’ll find a count of all the manual actions against it at the top of the site report. If not, then you’ll see a green checkmark and the according message.

The information will be pretty straightforward. So check for errors and take care of them when they arise.

Step #4: Review Recent Changes

Maybe you’re thinking: “I didn’t change anything.”

However, there are things that often change in a site’s backend that could be affecting things.

Do any of these possible changes ring a bell?:

  • New plugins
  • Updates on existing plugins
  • New site theme
  • New web pages added
  • Major URL structure changes (Moving your blog?)

There might even be something de-indexing your site without your knowledge. Check to make sure this box isn’t checked in your WordPress backend:

search engine visibility wordpress

Or maybe you or someone else worked on your site and added a noindex tag. This code will similarly disallow search engines from crawling the page it’s on. You should also check if your canonical URLs have changed. It could be that when using a 301 redirect, your XML sitemaps, your tags could have been updated.

This is what a noindex tag looks like in a site’s HTML code.:

html noindex tag

Remove it from any pages that you want to rank.

A change in your title tag could possibly impact your rankings. Check out any possible title changes to check this off the possible drop causes list.

Headings transmit relevancy to search engines, so changes towards headings on your website could impact rankings.

Keeping track of all content changes is time-consuming and tedious, but its something you should systematically perform to ensure your SEO doesn’t plummet overnight. 

Step #5: Check for Recent Google Updates

Things shift up or down in SEO. They may then go back without you doing anything.

This is the nature of SEO. Google releases multiple updates each year. So change really is inevitable.

You can look to see when your rankings dropped and use this information to check if there was a Google update around that time. If so, there’s a strong possibility that it’s the reason for fluctuations.

Ranking drops caused by Google algorithm updates take time to fully manifest, and never happen overnight. 

The same thing happens with Google updates such as Penguin, which causes drops after some time has passed. The Penguin update crawls backlinks on websites and assigns each of the backlinks a score, possibly assigning some sites with a Google Penalty.

There are some tools you can use to check for SERP fluctuations including SEMrush’s Sensor, Rank Ranger’s Rank Risk Index, and SerpMetrics’ Flux chart:

fluctuations in results

If you confirm that it was a Google algorithm change that caused your rankings to drop, try and improve your site according to what that update may have been targeting.

For example, Google’s Medic update targeted a lot of sites in niches like health and finance that are held to higher standards in Google’s guidelines. Those sites had to readjust in order to better follow those guidelines.

There’s also a possibility that Google has modified its search engine result pages (SERP) by adding elements that push down your snippet. If you look up a currency conversion rate, for example, you’ll reach a snippet of the conversion calculation before you reach sites that use these keywords as part of their SEO

To avoid this, look up keywords or possible queries that could be responsible for affecting your SEO ranking drops and modify your keywords accordingly.

Step #6: Identify Exactly What Dropped (and When)

Once you’ve run through the above steps to rule them out, you can start to do some closer diagnoses to see what dropped. Was it:

  • A certain page: Is it just one key page that dropped?
  • Certain pages: Was it multiple pages?
  • The whole site: Did all of your pages take a hit?
  • Certain keywords: What keywords, in particular, are you targeting, which ones have started to drop, and when did they start dropping?

Check for this information using your analytics, Rank Tracker, or SEMrush.

You can use this data to do research and identify a possible cause:

  • Were there any noted Google Updates around this time?
  • Did you stop doing any work that you had been doing consistently around this time?
  • Have you received any notifications in Google Search Console?
  • Is your business seasonal? For example, a Christmas website will have more traffic in Nov/Dec rather than May.

Knowing this can help you zero in on what might be impacting your rankings.

Step #7: Check to See if You’re Being Outranked

Sometimes your site didn’t “drop,” rather, it was just outperformed by another site.

Take a look at what your competitors are doing differently than you and modify your content to improve it. It’s important that you keep an eye on the competition to better understand which of their changes is causing them to overtake your ranking in search results. Normally, this affects a few pages instead of your whole website. 

Instead of worrying that you lost page rank, your strategy here should be to outperform your outperformers.

To see whether this is the case, check:

  • How many quality links and backlinks does the competition have? Your aim is to beat them.
  • How much content does the competition have? More content usually translates into better rankings.
  • How many pages does the competition have? As with more content, a competitor with more high-quality pages than you might get better rankings.
  • Is the user experience of the competition better?

You can get this information by plugging your URL and your competitors’ URLs into Ahrefs Domain Comparison:

Once you’ve run through the above possibilities, you can check these specific factors to see if there’s something going on with your backlink profile or onpage optimization that needs to be fixed.

Step #8: Check Your Backlink Profile

Link building is one of the main tasks of an SEO webmaster, and it could be that one of the links pointing to your website had an impact. Here are the things to look for:

Check for Lost Backlinks

A lost backlink from an authority site that helped pump you up can result in a rankings drop.

You can use a tool like The HOTH’s Backlink Checker, SEMrush, Majestic, et al to check your link profile.

If using SEMrush, go to “Lost Backlinks” and check for any specific days with an important link or an abnormal number of links lost.

Double-check where those links came from to see what may be affecting it. If those lost links were helping, see if you can re-establish them by reaching out to the publishers of the pages they were on.

Check for spammy or unnatural backlinks

When you check your site’s backlinks, you want to be alert for certain types of links that can hurt your rankings.

You can check for this in SEMrush by searching your website and going to “Backlinks.”

Here are some things to watch for when evaluating your backlinks:

Sitewide links

These are not necessarily spammy if they are natural and relevant. A sitewide link found in a header, sidebar, or footer on another site can be completely natural. For example, a relevant blogroll link would be a natural sitewide link.

Anchor text for sitewide links pointing to you should be branded terms rather than keywords, and your site should be very relevant to the site linking to yours. On the other hand, too many sitewide links with keywords rather than branded anchor text from sites that aren’t relevant to yours can have a negative impact.

Languages

Links from China or any non-Roman character site. 3 to 5 of these links are ok for a large backlink profile, however, if your local pizza shop has 1,000 Chinese backlinks, that’s bad.

Any sites that are similar to bookmark sites or are not “in-content” links.

If backlinks look unnatural to you, they may look unnatural in Google’s eyes. Remember to disavow any links that you receive a manual action/notification for in Google Search Console.

To improve the health of your backlink profile, focus on building more natural/in-content links and creating additional content that gets linked to.

Check IP (location) of backlinks

Backlinks are the most important ranking factor in SEO, but too many backlinks coming from a single IP are unnatural in certain cases.

We sometimes see websites with links from PBN (private blog network) sites pointing to them. Those sites have the same IP because they’re built on the same host, and thus are unnatural.

A lot of sites have the same IPs naturally, however. For instance, there are a lot of blogs hosted on blogspot.com pointing to us, and those are certainly natural.

So in order to determine whether the multiple backlinks coming from a single IP are natural or not:

  • Took for any unnatural ratios of IPs vs. domains
  • Try to determine the sites where the IPs are coming from
  • If it looks like a number of lower quality sites or a sidebar link from a single low-quality site with a lot of pages, you may want to disavow that link (and observe whether it creates a positive change over time)

You can check for this in Ahrefs by searching your site and going to “Referring IPs:”

referring ip ahrefs

You can also search for the location of the IP using an IP Location Checker.

Disavow those links to solve the problem.

Check referring domains ratio

The ratio of backlinks vs. domains should be relatively proportional. You’ll usually get more backlinks than referring domains since some domains will refer to you more than once.

However, 1,000 backlinks coming from 2 Referring Domains do not look natural. These are most likely sitewide links that you should check for relevance. In that case, you should identify which sites have the most links from them to yours.

Here’s what the backlinks vs referring domains display looks like in Ahrefs:

ahrefs backlinks referring domains

Once you’ve identified the site with too many backlinks coming from it, disavow those links.

Check for duplicate content

Duplicate content is understood by Google as a block of content that recurrently appears across or within domains. It could be that your content is being duplicated accidentally by your website, or that some blocks of content are too repetitive within your web pages

You can also take a look at our Shopify SEO guide to better understand how duplicate content might accidentally happen. 

You should use Copyscape Plagiarism Checker to verify if someone is copying your content, intentionally or not. Scraped content could possibly lead to Google de-ranking your site and instead ranking the scraping site, as unfair as it sounds. Enter the URL of your page in Copyscape and it will provide you will all existing duplicates if any. 

Should you find someone scraping your content, then report them with Google’s copyright infringement report.

Check your anchor text ratio

Ahrefs makes this easy to check for webmasters by entering the site and going to “Anchors:”

optimize anchors

Exact match keywords should not be over 10% of referring domains or pages. Keep anchor text branded, benign (non-keywords), and naked.

Check this post for more on anchor text ratios.

Step #9: Check Onpage Factors

The content on your site’s pages can affect your rankings. Check for these on-page factors to avoid getting penalized.

Check for thin content on your site

Too many pages on your site with thin content can hurt your SEO.

To check, use The HOTH’s Word Counter Tool and make a sheet listing the word count of every page on your site.

For any pages less than 500 words, decide whether that page has enough benefit to your site already (for example: by having gained backlinks, or by being an important product or sales page).

Try to hit at least 1000 words by adding content to those shorter pages, or delete them from your site if they don’t benefit it.

E-commerce sites with many product pages that don’t have much description on them may appear as having too much “thin content.”

For example, Amazon.com solves this problem by including lots of content on a product page beyond its bullets and description with customer reviews and images.

In addition to fixing any thin content by adding to or deleting it, try to post new content to your site regularly that is a good length (1,000+ words).

Check for Thin Content on Your Site

Too many pages on your site with thin content can hurt your SEO.

To check, use The HOTH’s Word Count tool and make a sheet listing the word count of every page on your site.

For any pages less than 500 words, decide whether that page has enough benefit to your site already (for example: by having gained backlinks, or by being an important product or sales page).

Try to hit at least 1000 words by adding content to those shorter pages, or delete them from your site if they don’t benefit it.

E-commerce sites with many product pages that don’t have much description on them may appear as having too much “thin content.”

For example, Amazon.com solves this problem by including lots of content on a product page beyond its bullets and description with customer reviews and images.

In addition to fixing any thin content by adding to or deleting it, try to post new content to your site regularly that is a good length (1,000+ words).

Check keyword usage on your site

When it comes to pages on your site that you’re trying to rank for a specific keyword, check for over-optimization and under-optimization in case it’s a factor.

Over-optimization can be identified when your keyword density is greater than or equal to 25%. Use The HOTH’s Keyword Density tool by entering your URL and the keyword to check its density.

Under-optimization is the opposite: If the keyword you want to rank for can’t be found in the text of that page you won’t rank for it.

To solve over-optimization, focus on topical relevance and make sure keywords are occurring naturally in the content. You’ll also want to be sure to include LSI or secondary keywords to help indicate the page’s topic to Google.

You can use Keyword Magic Tool to find secondary terms to include:

ahrefs secondary keywords

SEMrush isn’t the only method for this. You can also use the methods in this post to find LSI keywords: here.

Finally, you can use this quick checklist to check for other on-page factors: here.

Step #10: Check-In on Your SEO Activities

Maybe your rankings didn’t drop. They just aren’t growing and are staying stagnant.

In that case, you likely need to up your SEO game. SEO you aren’t doing isn’t a reason for dropping, but it could be a reason you aren’t growing.

Here are some things that could contribute to stagnant or dropping rankings:

Not doing consistent SEO work every month (such as once every 3 months). SEO needs to be done consistently over time if you want to see great results.

Adding JUST content or JUST links to your website. You need both content and links added to your site together consistently.

The competition level of the keywords you want to rank for might outweigh the work being done. Check to make sure the SEO you’re putting in matches the difficulty level of those keywords.

You can check the Keyword Difficulty (KD) of keywords in Ahrefs. It runs on a scale of 0-100:

  • Low Competition = KD 0 – 30
  • Medium = KD 30 – 70
  • High = KD 70+

keyword difficulty

Note: Time is a factor in SEO. It can take 3 months of consistent work (or more) to see rankings start to increase. But once you put that work in and rankings start going up, they’re easier to maintain.

The bottom line here is: The SEO work you do needs to be consistent and proportional to the competition of the keywords you’re targeting. Make sure you are aware of the difficulty level to avoid having mismatched expectations.

Conclusion

Now you have a full checklist to run through when your rankings are stagnant or dropping. It could also be a chance that your competitors made changes to their website, improving their SEO above yours. It could also be a Google algorithm update.

And protip: don’t put all of your SEO eggs in one digital marketing basket!  Use social media such as LinkedIn and Pinterest to advertise your website.

We help sites get their rankings back every single day here at The HOTH. If you’re still having trouble, schedule a consultation with us so that we can help your site stay on Page 1 of Google.


Kenny is an Account Manager at the HOTH and has been in the SEO industry for over 10 years. He has been working for The HOTH since February 2021. To book some time to chat with Kenny, click here.

Join the HOTH insiders

Get underground SEO strategies, tools, and discounts straight to your inbox!

Discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Start Growing Your Traffic Today Sign Up Free