Imagine checking the ranking report and your website's positions have suddenly taken a nosedive. Years of hard work gone in a day. What would you do?
Well, the first thing to do is not to panic — a sudden drop in rankings is not an unusual thing and has been experienced by most websites. The second thing to do is go through a checklist of potential reasons, see if any of them have been triggered, and fix discovered issues. Depending on the cause, your website will either bounce back within days or climb back over a course of several months.
To keep you prepared, here are the top reasons for a sudden ranking drop, complete with symptoms, recovery tips, and prevention methods.
1. Inaccurate data
Before you start making changes to your website, it's worth checking whether your rankings have actually dropped. More often than not, an unexpected shift in traffic/rankings is a false alarm caused by a change in the way the data is reported. Either there was a reset in your tools, or someone on your team has messed with the settings, or you yourself have accidentally excluded a time span, a device, or a page type. So the first step is to make sure that your reporting is in order.
The second step is to check whether the drop is outside the range of normal traffic fluctuations. It is common for traffic to ebb and flow, to change from day to day, month to month, and deteriorate over time. Make sure to include at least a year or two of historic data and check for a pattern of similar drops in the past.
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.
2. Manual actions
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 several causes of penalties, the most common are: your site has been hacked; the site contains user-generated spam, unnatural backlinks, thin content, or uses cloaking. You can find out more about each type of manual action and how to deal with it as explained by Google.
If your rankings have dropped over 10 positions for a number of keywords, manual penalties are the prime suspect. Log in to Google Search Console and go to the Security & Manual Actions > Manual Actions. If the site has received a manual penalty, there will be a note stating that the action was manual, naming the cause, and specifying affected pages.
For on-page issues, you'll probably have to revert some of the recent website adjustments. For off-page issues, you'll probably have to review your backlink profile for unnatural links. If you have no idea what caused the penalty, check for these common issues:
Comment spam 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.
Thin or scraped content
Very low-quality content is another popular reason for manual actions. In this instance, low quality could mean a number of things: insufficient volume, gibberish, and/or plagiarism. 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. Other than that, make sure your content is written by hand and is of actual value to the visitors of your website.
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
The most common problem here is the paid 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.
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.
In the example above, the Backlink Summary tab shows a sudden uptick in the number of backlinks, so it might be worth investigating. Switch to the Backlinks tab, sort your backlinks by date found, and see if any of the recent ones look suspicious. You can evaluate backlinks by looking at the website's name, website's rank, page rank, and penalty risk. Or you can visit the source and see if it looks like a legit website.
Alternatively, you can visit the Penalty Risk tab and sort backlinks by, well, penalty risk. Anything with a risk of over 50% is worth investigating. And if you find any malicious links, simply add them to the disavow file, download the file when done reviewing, and submit it to Google's Disavow Links Tool. Once submitted, go back to Search Console and request a review of your penalty.
No website is immune to attacks by hackers and, unfortunately, most of these attacks may go unnoticed by website owners. Consult Google's guide on how to know if you were hacked and what you can do to recover from various types of attacks.
3. Algorithm update
Google tweaks its search algorithm several thousand times per year. It's rare for Google to announce algorithm updates, even the major ones, so most of them will be rolled out quietly. The absolute majority of these changes are too small to notice, but a few of them could be big enough to wreak havoc on the rankings.
In case of a big update, it will usually take a few days for SEOs to register unusual ranking shifts, by which time they will start comparing notes with other SEOs and ask Google representatives to make a comment. 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! 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.
It's also 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.
4. Competitor activity
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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
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.
7. 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.
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.
8. 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.
9. SERP changes
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!