Imagine you wake up one morning, look at your ranking report, and see that your site's hard-earned rankings changed completely. It disappeared from Google's top 10, and top 100, not a trace left. I bet it's not the best feeling in the world.
This is not a scare tale, just do admit it’s likely to happen one day, and you’ve got to know how to handle such issues. We’ve listed these find-and-fix SEO tips for you to stay on the safe side. No panic, no messing things up — just be ready to recover from whatever caused the rankings drop like a superhero.
Here are the top 9 reasons for a sudden ranking drop, with a list of symptoms, recovery tips, and prevention methods for each. But before you start learning them...
Check your data accuracy
When dealing with SEO traffic drops and rankings change, the main thing you’ve got to check twice is your data accuracy. Make sure you are not barking up the wrong tree missing a piece of data for a certain time span, a device, or a page type. The good news is that those disappearances are quite easy to find and prevent in the future.
What is more, there's nothing abnormal in traffic swings. Just to calm yourself down, you can compare the stats by calculating an average SEO traffic fluctuation. For instance, you can plot your weekly SEO traffic for the past 12 months and calculate the average deviation. If the drop is still dramatic... you've come to the right page!
And finally, see if the drop actually sticks. Above is Google Search Console data for one of our pages and you can see that there was some turmoil recently, but the page has recovered on its own. No idea what caused the shifts, probably Google playing with the algorithm. In such cases, it's important to keep a cool head and see if the situation resolves itself.
Are your pages still indexed?
First of all, search for a site: domain name query to quickly check if your website is still indexed.
If your pages are still found in search results, that’s good news. If most of your pages suddenly dropped out of search engines’ indices, this could mean you have a manual penalty. It might mean as well some technical SEO issues, and we’ll address these in a few points below.
1. Manual search engine penalty
Manual actions are imposed by human reviewers at Google when they determine that pages on your site are not compliant with Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. There are various reasons for manual Google penalties, the most common are: your site has been hacked; the site contains user-generated spam, unnatural backlinks, thin content, and cloaking. You can find out more about each type of manual action and how to deal with it as explained by Google.
If you notice a big drop in rankings overnight (over 10 positions) for a substantial number of keywords, manual penalties are the first thing to check for. These are easy to find: log in to your Google Search Console account and go to the Security and Manual Actions > Manual Actions section. If the site has indeed received a manual penalty, there will be a notice in the account, stating explicitly that the action was manual and specifying the reason for it. Well, Google won't be too specific, but they'll give you a solid idea of where to look for the culprit. It also says whether the action affects the whole site or only certain pages/subdomains.
Identifying exactly what harmed your site is the first thing you have to do. In case of onpage issues, you'll guess easily what caused it, since you probably realized the dangers when you tried that grey-hat technique. Off-page issues may result from both algorithmic changes and wrong link-building tactics — or intentional tricks of someone else wishing to harm your stats. If you have no idea what caused the Google penalty, check below these most popular violations and SEO tips for each.
Off-page negative SEO:
Negative SEO is aimed at decreasing a competitor's site rankings in search engines' results. These activities typically include knowingly building spammy, unnatural links to the site, content scraping, and even hacking the site. Successful negative SEO attacks are rare, but when they do happen, they may cause a big ranking drop across a substantial number of keywords.
Unnatural incoming links
Your website may be hurt by backlinks coming from spammy sources. It could happen either as a result of you buying low-quality backlinks or as a result of your competitors attacking your website. Whatever the case, use SEO SpyGlass to generate your backlink profile and check for two things: a recent spike in the number of backlinks and a penalty risk for each of your backlink sources.
To see the links that contributed to a spike, switch to the Backlinks dashboard and sort the links by First Found Date in descending order. This will make the newest links appear at the top of the list so that you can investigate them quickly. Select the links and hit Update Penalty Risk to check how toxic the links are. Revise all links with a Penalty Risk over 50%.
Before you disavow backlinks that appear risky, it's best to examine each of them manually. If the negative SEO attack you identified was based on backlinks, first try contacting owners of the linking domains and ask them to take down the toxic backlinks. If it doesn’t help, your best bet is to disavow the spammy links with a special Google disavow tool.
In SEO Spyglass workspace, for each linking domain that you decide to disavow, right-click on it, and hit Disavow domains. Make sure to select the Entire Domain disavow mode. Last, when your list for the disavow file is finalized, go to Preferences > Disavow/Blacklist Backlinks, review the URLs you're about to disavow, and hit Export.
You will get all the links to disavow in a single file which you will next upload via Google's disavow tool.
Finally, after you disavowed backlinks that had caused the Google penalty, submit a reconsideration request to Google. You can do that by clicking Request a review in the Manual Actions sections in your Search Console account. It's a good idea to submit a comment with the request, where you can describe the steps you've taken to fix the issue. Google will review your request, and you should get the issue resolved in a week or two max.
Mind that keeping your backlink profile healthy is an ongoing effort, even after the SEO attack is over. Regular backlink audits are the best way to stay safe from a ranking drop. SEO SpyGlass is a great help to get updates for your link profile: it gives you progress graphs for both the number of backlinks in your profile and the number of referring domains. An unusual spike in either of those graphs is a reason enough to look into the links that your site suddenly gained.
Make sure to monitor other stats about your backlinks, such as anchor text distribution and its diversity. You'll find these stats further down the Summary module.
Scraped content is another common negative SEO technique, which includes copying a site's content to other websites. The scraping and copying are often automatic, and if Google finds the “stolen” version first, it may de-rank your site, and rank the scraper site instead. Use Copyscape Plagiarism Checker to see if someone is copying your content to other websites or if your writers copy content from other websites — both are equally bad for SEO. All you need to do is enter the URL of your page to find out if there are any duplicates of it online.
Alas, there are no disavow tools for scrapers. You might want to reach out to whoever is stealing your content, but you probably realize they are unlikely to reply. A more effective way of dealing with the issue — especially if the scraping is systematic — is to report the scraper using Google's copyright infringement report.
There are dozens of ways for intruders to compromise your site’s security. The use of http to exchange sensitive data with its visitors, passwords, files upload, all this can make your website vulnerable. Google wants to show only trusted content, that’s why it scans websites for malware. If they find out your site’s been hacked, they’ll inform you in your Google Search Console. Check out Google's comprehensive guide on how to recover from a site hacking attack.
On-page violations are something you can and have to control. They often come as wrong SEO moves, like leaving low-quality content, bad user experience, or tricky internal links.
Comment spam is a negative SEO technique that can measurably impact your rankings. Go through the pages of your site that allow user-generated content (product reviews, blog post comments, forums) and check for spammy comments. These would usually include links, unlinked product/company mentions, or will simply look like they don't belong. Remove the comments, ban the accounts, and consider implementing additional measures to prevent user-generated spam in the future.
Use WebSite Auditor to look for redirects that take users "somewhere other than where they expected to go". Go to Site Structure > Site Audit > Redirects and check for Pages with 302 redirects, Pages with 301 redirects, and Pages with meta refresh in your site audit. This will show you a full list of redirected pages along with the URLs they redirect to.
Remove all unnecessary redirects. Ideally, use only 301s, and only in cases when the redirect makes sense for users.
Unnatural outgoing links
In this case, you can probably guess which links have spoilt your rankings. The most common problem here is the paid links or links that are a part of a link exchange scheme. Remove such links from your website or close them from indexing using nofollow tags. For a thorough job, use WebSite Auditor and go to All Resources > External resources > HTML. This will show all of your outgoing links along with source URLs, destination URLs, and destination status codes. Review the list and fix the links that appear spammy.
Link exchange schemes are unlikely to happen without you knowing, at least as long as you manage your site yourself. In case you accept content contributions, make sure each of them is reviewed, and that included links are natural and preferably nofollowed.
2. Google algorithm update
An algorithm update can hit your site ranks in two ways. First, it may be a new algorithm (or a major update of an older algorithm) released by Google. Second, it may be one of the continuous refreshes of the known algos.
Now that Google's Penguin algorithm and Panda algorithm are part of the search engine's core algorithm (and thus likely refreshes more frequently than before), they are the major updates to look out for, regardless of your niche and business type. And the year 2019 was marked by the successive core Google algorithm updates and introduction of BERT. Another reason to focus on searcher intent, pick your important keywords, build quality links and content, and serve only great user experience.
If you suspect there may have been an algorithmic update rollout that affected your rankings, check the search engine news to see if there's any info about it, or if other webmasters are experiencing something similar. Google will normally confirm the update and this information will immediately make it into SEO news platforms, like Search Engine Land and Search Engine Roundtable. Keep in mind that the update may also be niche-related and affect a small number of sites. In which case, the news might not get covered right away.
If the update is covered in the news, you will find the information on what the update was about and what you need to fix to recover. Otherwise, try asking the SEO community on Reddit — the folk there are always helpful and quick to respond.
Tip! It's crucial to watch changes in the SERP for your niche keywords and look for any unusual ranking shifts. To do that, open Rank Tracker, go to Target Keywords > Rank Tracking > SERP Analysis, and click Record SERP data.
Once you do this, Rank Tracker will record the top 30 search results for each of your keywords and display changes on the Fluctuation Graph. The graph can display fluctuations for individual keywords, all keywords in your project, or both.
If you noticed substantial shakeups in the SERP for your keywords but aren't sure what the update was about, you'll find some clues from the competitive analysis. Here, Rank Tracker's SERP History table will come to rescue. Look at the competitors that dropped out of the top results along with your site. Examine those pages in-depth, and try to find patterns common for all of them that you think may have caused the drop.
Next, look at the pages that improved their rankings and are now among the top results. Again, look for the patterns that make these pages stand out: do they have more content? More images? Are those video results? Depending on the patterns you spot, think of how you could improve your site with the same techniques.
If your site suffered from a refresh of an older Google update, check with this article about the major Google updates for recovery tips.
Obviously, there's no sure-fire way to stay safe from future Google updates that you know nothing about. But one thing you could do is stay away from grey-hat SEO fads that don't have any purpose other than to manipulate rankings.
To stay safe from the now-real-time Penguin, remember that your link building game needs to be fair. When you build links to your site, make sure to only go after links on relevant sites, and keep your anchor text diverse. On top of that, audit your link profile regularly to spot any suspicious links coming your way. Here's an 8-step guide to a Penguin-proof link audit to help you out.
To prevent getting hit by Panda, run site crawls, and look for content duplication. You can do this with WebSite Auditor and spot the potentially problematic pages by looking at Duplicate titles and Duplicate meta descriptions in your site audit. For a full guide on staying safe from Panda, jump here.
3. Competitors outrank you in Google
It is possible that nothing is wrong with your website, it's just that your competitors got better. While rarely a cause of a dramatic drop in rankings, competitor activity is worth investigating if you have dropped a few positions across the board.
Use Rank Tracker's SERP History to see how the rankings have changed for you and your competitors. If the changes are chaotic (new websites, frequent shifts, a lot of movement), then you are likely experiencing a Google dance — a short period of high SERP volatility due to small algorithm tweaks. In this case, no action is required. But if you see many of your positions being overtaken by the same few websites, then it's time for an in-depth investigation.
If the competitor has outranked you across a large number of keywords, then they have probably implemented some site-wide enhancements. In this case, run their website through the WebSite Auditor and the SEO SpyGlass and see if the competitor outperforms you either in technical optimization or in the size and quality of their backlink profile.
If you have seen shifts across a few keywords, then the cause is probably on-page optimization. The competitor is likely updating their pages one by one, improving content, optimizing keywords, headers, and HTML tags. In this case, visit the pages in question, see how they compare to your own pages, and borrow optimization ideas.
4. Lost backlinks
Just as acquiring new, low-quality links can impact your performance in SERPs, so can losing the high-quality backlinks you already have. To check if lost backlinks are the reason your rankings dropped, open SEO SpyGlass, and go to Summary > New/Lost Backlinks History. The graph allows you to assess your backlink situation at a glance and see if there are any critical losses.
Next, switch to the Backlinks tab and click on the header of the Links Back column to sort the backlinks by status. Look for any links with a ‘link is missing' status — those are the lost backlinks that might have caused the issue. You can also consult the Last Found Date to see when the backlink was last reported to be present on the page.
If you're looking to reclaim lost backlinks, the logical thing to do is to get in touch with the webmaster. How you do this depends on the nature of the backlinks. Do you have a relationship with the site owner? If so, a quick call may be all it takes to get the link back. If you aren't familiar with the webmaster, then email, Twitter, or LinkedIn are your best bet.
5. Site changes
Making essential changes to your site — such as redesigning it, changing your CMS, or moving to HTTPS — is all but guaranteed to mess with your rankings. A small oversight may have serious consequences for your SEO performance, and result in a measurable drop.
If you have recently implemented site changes, open Google Search Console, and go to Index > Coverage. A sharp increase in either errors or warnings that corresponds to the dates of site changes should confirm your suspicion. Switch between the tabs and go through the error report to see any issues that occurred since you implemented the changes on your site.
As luck would have it, Google logs and describes all discovered crawling and indexing issues right there in the Coverage tab, so it's fairly easy to identify and fix the problem.
6. User behavior changes
Google representatives often say that behavioral metrics are too noisy to influence rankings, but a number of search patents and multiple real-life experiments say otherwise. So, while we understand that this might be controversial, there is a chance that some of your ranking drops may be explained by a drop in your click-through rates.
To check if this is so, open Google Search Console, go to Performance > Search results, and see if there are any changes to your click-through rates. You can view your CTR for the entire website or add filters to view CTRs either by page or by query.
If you see a drop in the CTR, it is either because your competitors have improved their snippets and stolen a share of your clicks, or because the intent of the query has shifted and your snippet doesn't look as relevant as it used to.
Improving your CTR isn't a “quick fix”, and you'll probably need to experiment for a little until your efforts are effective. Whatever the case, go to the SERP in question and see how your snippet measures up to the snippets of your competitors. Depending on what you find, you might have to optimize your title and meta description, or use schema markup to enhance your snippet with rich elements.
One good CTR hack is PPC-related. If you do paid search, you know how effective A/B testing your ads can be. Test some variations of snippets in Google Ads, and see how the changes you make affect the CTR so that you can use these takeaways for your organic listings. Of course, you don't have to do this for each of your site's pages — instead, look for patterns that you can use in your optimization efforts. Which wording works for the title? Does a CTA in the meta description perform better? Write down the tactics that work best, and incorporate them into the pages that rank in organic search.
If you haven’t tried Google Ads yet, do some googling, and you'll definitely get a bunch of coupons, usually ranging from $50 to $100, to try it with relatively free PPC money. Setting up experiments in Google Ads is pretty straightforward — go on and test variations of your organic snippets to find which ones are most successful in terms of clicks.
7. SEM traffic cannibalization
SEM traffic comes from paid advertisement while SEO traffic comes from organic search, and sometimes one can get in the way of the other. Your ads are given priority in SERP and have no problem stealing a sizable share of traffic from your own organic results.
Compare the list of keywords in your PPC campaigns with those that bring you organic traffic. If you spot any duplicate keywords, don't hesitate to pause the PPC campaigns that they come from. Because why pay for the traffic that you can get for free.
8. Mobile-first indexing
Search engines are particularly keen on making the web mobile-friendly. When it comes to Google rankings, mobile-friendly websites are a lot more prioritized. But don't panic, that doesn't mean desktop sites are not participating in the SEO competition.
However, missing a mobile-friendly version of your site may also account for a sudden rankings change as well as for SEO traffic drop. For instance, one of your competitors could have optimized their site for mobile devices and, as a result, outranked you on a mobile device.
To find out if your SEO rankings drop relates to mobile-friendliness, you can filter out your traffic by the device with the help of Google Analytics. By the way, here is a nice free tool for you to check if your website is adapted for mobiles. If not, it’s high time to do it. Just think of how often you personally surf the net with the help of the phone. See now?
Besides, you can use Rank Tracker with its settings for mobile bots to check if there is much difference for keywords drawing desktop and mobile visitors. In addition, there are Website Auditor’s on-page audits that allow checking your mobile-friendliness.
9. SERP changes
And the last, but not the least reason that may impact your rankings: Google changes its Search Engine Result Pages. Although it happens once in a blue moon, there's still a chance that Google started answering some of your queries directly in the search results.
Recently, Google has been increasingly enhancing its search results with knowledge panels, rich snippets, Q&A sections, video clips, products page, job ads, and a ton of other stuff. While those things are of benefit to the user, they do take away from organic search results.
To see if you have fallen victim to one of such enhancements, open Rank Tracker and go to Target Keywords > Rank tracking > SERP Analysis. The dashboard will show you the history of SERP enhancements, allowing you to see if any of them correspond to your ranking changes:
If it looks like new SERP features have had an impact on your positions, then it's probably time to learn how you can use structured data to enhance your snippets and either compete with the rich features introduced by Google or maybe even become a part of them.
Let me know if I have missed any of the causes for a sudden drop in rankings. I'm curious to hear if you've ever experienced a dramatic drop yourself and what has been your course of action. Meanwhile, bookmark this list for a rainy day, and let's hope you never have to actually use it. Cheers!