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7 reasons your rankings suddenly dropped,
or how to revert the SEO apocalypse

By: Masha Maksimava
March 21st, 2017

I'm about to do a terrible thing. I'm about to ask you to imagine you woke up one morning, looked at your ranking report, and found out that your site's hard-earned rankings are completely gone. You've disappeared from Google's top 100, not a trace left. Nada, nichts, nothingness.

I bet it's not the best feeling in the universe.

I don't mean to be mean, or scare you, and I wholeheartedly hope that it never actually happens. But I want you to recognize the threat and do everything in your power to ensure it never becomes reality. On top of that, in the unlikely event of it happening, I want you to be prepared, able to fix things up super quick, and recover from whatever caused the drop like a superhero.

So let's roll. Here are the top 7 reasons for a sudden ranking drop, with a list of symptoms, recovery tips, and prevention methods for each.

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 actions; the most common are: hacked site, user-generated spam, unnatural backlinks, thin content, and cloaking. You can learn more about each type of manual actions here.

Diagnosis: If you notice a big drop (over 10 positions) in rankings overnight, for a substantial number of keywords, manual penalties are the first thing to check for. These are easy to diagnose: log in to your Google Search Console account and go to the Search Traffic > 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 (Google won't be too specific, but they'll give you a solid idea on where to look for the culprit). It'll also say whether the action affects the whole site or only certain pages/subdomains.

The Fix: Identifying exactly what harmed your site is the first thing you have to do. In many cases, you'll know exactly what caused it since you probably realized the dangers when you tried that greyish-hat technique. But if you have no idea where the penalty is coming from, here are the most common violations and tips for each.

On-page violations:

1) If your site was hacked, here's Google's comprehensive list of what you can do to recover.

2) If you got penalized for user-generated spam, you'll need to go through the pages on your site that allow user-generated content (typically blogs and forums) and identify and correct the violations. These are usually posts with advertisements and irrelevant links. Make sure to spot the spammers' accounts and ban them, too. On top of that, it's a good idea to implement measures to prevent user-generated spam in the future.

3) If the penalty is for thin content, you'll need to find content across your site that duplicates content on other sites (Copyscape will be a huge help here), pages with little content and affiliate links, or auto-generated content. You'll need to take all thin and duplicate content down, and spend the time to create unique content that provides value.

4) If the notice is for cloaking or sneaky redirects, use the Fetch as Google tool in Google Search Console and compare the content fetched by Google to the content seen by a human (you!) in a browser. You'll need to fix anything that differs and make sure the same content is served to both search engine bots and users. As for sneaky redirects, look for any irrelevant redirects that take users "somewhere other than where they expected to go". For a quick check of all redirects on your site, you can use WebSite Auditor. Start by typing in your website's URL to create a project, and when the crawl is complete, switch to Pages with 302 redirect, Pages with 301 redirect, 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.

You'll need to remove all unnecessary redirects. Ideally, you should make sure you only use 301s, and only in cases when the redirect makes sense for the users.

5) If you got penalized for unnatural links from your site, you'll probably know which links need to be taken down (or nofollowed). These are typically paid links or links that are part of link exchanges. If you've got a big site that has been around for a while, it may be tricky to find all of them. In this scenario, go to WebSite Auditor once more, switch to the All Resources dashboard, and click on HTML (under External resources). This will show you all outgoing external links to HTML pages from your site. Review the list and identify the links that appear spammy, and the ones that have been bought or acquired through link exchange.

Off-page violations:

1) If the notice mentions unnatural links to your site, you'll need to go through your backlink profile to find the links that caused the penalty. To do this, I recommend using SEO SpyGlass and its integration with Google Search Console. Start the tool and create a project for your website. At Step 2, select both SEO PowerSuite Link Explorer and Google Search Console to import the links from (you'll need to specify your GSC login details to sync SEO SpyGlass with your account).

In a moment, the tool will display the backlinks to your site it has found. Next, switch to the Linking Domains module, go to the Link penalty risk tab, select all the domains, and hit Update Penalty Risk. SEO SpyGlass will now analyze all your linking domains in detail and give you an estimation of how toxic links from each of these domains are. Mind that this may take a while, as the tool will need to collect plenty of data on each of the domains.

When this check is complete, sort your linking domains by their riskiness by clicking on the header of the Penalty Risk column. In general, any link with a Penalty Risk of over 50% is worth looking into.

Remember that it's best to manually examine links that appear risky before you disavow them. For each linking domain you decide to disavow, right-click it and hit Disavow domains. Make sure to select the Domain disavow mode.

Lastly, when your disavow file is finalized, go to Preferences > Disavow/Blacklist Backlinks, review the URLs you're about to disavow, and hit Export. All you need to do next is upload the file into Google's disavow tool.

Finally, when you're positive you've fixed the issue that caused the penalty, submit a reconsideration request to Google (you can do that by clicking Request a review in the Manual Actions sections in your Google 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 and, preferably, to prevent it in the future as well. Google will review your request, and you should get a reply in a week or two max.

Prevention: On-page violations are unlikely to happen without you knowing, at least as long as you manage your site yourself. As long as you create unique content for your pages and don't participate in link schemes, you should be safe. One thing that could happen without you knowing though is hacking. This topic deserves a post of its own, but you can find some great tips on stepping up your site's security here and here.

To avoid off-page violations, you need to regularly monitor your link profile. Remember, Google isn't likely to penalize your site for one or two spammy links, but a sudden influx of toxic backlinks could be a problem. Look out for any unusual spikes in your link profile, and always look into the new links you acquire. SEO SpyGlass is a great help in this: it gives you progress graphs for both the number of links in your profile, and the number of referring domains (you'll find them under the Summary dashboard). An unusual spike in either of those graphs is reason enough to look into the links that your site suddenly gained.

Make sure to also monitor other stats about your backlinks, such as anchor text distribution and its diversity. You'll find these stats further down the Summary module.

2. Algorithm update.

First things first, an algorithm update can hit your site 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 is real-time, and Panda's part of the search engine's core algorithm (and thus likely refreshes more frequently than before), Penguin and Panda are the major updates to look out for, regardless of your niche and business type.

Diagnosis: More often than not, Google will be silent about the release of its algo updates. If you suspect there may have been an 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. Stick to expert sites like Search Engine Land and Search Engine Roundtable.

However, keep in mind that the update may also be niche-related and affect a small number of sites. In this scenario, the news might not get covered right away. That's why it's crucial to watch the changes in the SERP for your niche keywords and look for any unusual spikes and shakeups in the results for your keywords. You can do that in your Rank Tracker project. To start monitoring SERP fluctuations, go to SERP Analysis in the bottom part of your screen (while in the Rank Tracking dashboard), and click Record SERP data. Once you do this, Rank Tracker will record the top 30 search results for each ranking check you run. You'll be able to access these results in the SERP History table, and see how much the SERP is changing overall on the Fluctuation Graph. The graph can display fluctuations for individual keywords, all keywords in project, or both.

The Fix: If the update you got hit by got covered in the search engine news, you should be able to find detailed information on what the update was about and what you need to fix to recover. If you aren't sure about certain things, try asking the SEO community on Reddit — the folk there is always helpful and quick to respond.

If your site suffered from a refresh of an older Google update, check with this article about the major Google updates for recovery tips.

If you noticed substantial shakeups in the SERP for your keywords but aren't sure what the update was about, you'll need to dig deep into competitive analysis. In Rank Tracker's SERP History table, 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.

Prevention: 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. Above all, remember to create valuable content, and do all you can to increase user engagement on your pages.

To stay safe from the now-real-time Penguin, remember that your link building game needs to be fair. When you do link building, 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

Rankings are a zero sum game: if a certain page's ranking improves, at least one other page must go down in the SERP. This is the reason why SEO is a never-ending process, rather than a one-off effort: even if you get to the very top, competitors can outrank you any minute by improving their pages. Let's see how you can deal with this situation.

Diagnosis: If you get outranked by a competitor, you'll see a slight drop in ranking. To make sure this isn't a "Google dance" or some random shakeup, use Rank Tracker's SERP History. If the top 10 results are all shaken up, we're probably talking about a "dance", an algo update, or RankBrain.

But if your page got outranked by a competitor, and most of the other sites in the SERP are in the same positions as before, you are probably right — you simply got beaten by someone else.

The Fix: First and foremost, you've got to figure out why the competitor beat you. This is far from easy, and the reasons may vary dramatically depending on your niche, but let's look at the most common things to check about a competitor's page you got outranked by. You can see all of that info in Rank Tracker, by going to the Keyword Map dashboard, selecting the keyword you got outranked for, and switching to the Keyword Difficulty tab. Click Update Keyword Difficulty, and in a moment, you'll see a bunch of stats on your competitors.

1) Look at the competitor's InLink Rank — SEO PowerSuite's estimation of the page's PageRank, or ranking power. If the competitor's InLink Rank is substantially stronger than yours, chances are the reason they beat you is in their links, not their content.

2) If you believe the reason is indeed in the links, look at the other link signals, especially the number of sites linking to domain. See how it compares to the number of sites that link to you. If, for example, your and the competitor's link counts are more or less equal but their InLink Rank is higher, this means you've got to concentrate on quality in your link building efforts (as opposed to quantity). If you're looking for a more in-depth backlink comparison, use SEO SpyGlass and its Domain Comparison module.

3) The next thing to check is the on-page optimization. Does the competitor's optimization rate beat yours, or, on the contrary, is it just meh? In case of the latter, you might be able to re-gain your top ranking with a little on-page effort, even if the competitor is stronger in terms of backlinks. For a more detailed on-page analysis and optimization tips, open WebSite Auditor and jump to the Content Analysis module.

4) Finally, look at the social signals. While it isn't completely clear whether these play a part in Google ranking, there are plenty of ways they can affect your rankings indirectly (more frequent crawling, improved user behavior signals, etc), so do make sure to step up your social media game, especially if that's what your competitor seems to be doing.

Prevention: Tracking your main competitors is almost as important as tracking your own site. As you track rankings and run both on-page and off-page audits, make sure to also audit competitor sites to see and understanding their progress and the tactics they use. If they are steadily growing, it means they're doing something right — which means you've got to adapt your own strategies accordingly, even if they haven't outranked you yet.

4. Lost links

Just as acquiring new, low-quality links can impact your performance in the SERPs, so can losing the high-quality ones you already have. Particularly, if your site doesn't have a lot of links, the links you lose can have a substantial impact on your rankings.

Diagnosis: If lost links do result in a ranking drop, the drop is usually moderate. Typically, it'll also happen across most of your keywords as opposed to just one or two specific terms. To check if lost links are the reason your rankings dropped, launch SEO SpyGlass and open your project. Under the Summary dashboard, check with the Backlink Progress graph to make sure it's going up, not down.

Next, switch to the Backlinks dashboard and select all your links (mind that this step will only work if you already have a project, and are not creating a new one from scratch). Click Update Backlinks and select Backlink Page Info to be updated. Next, go make yourself some coffee — SEO SpyGlass will now go to each of the backlink pages in your profile and look for the link to your site, so this check may take a while. When it's done, click on the header of the Links Back column to sort backlinks by it. Look for any links with a No (Link missing) status — those are the links that have been lost. You can also consult Last Found Date to see when the backlink was last reported to be present on the page.

If there's a substantial number of those, read on to learn how you can redeem them.

The Fix: If you're looking to reclaim the links you lost, the logical thing to do is get in touch with the webmaster. How you do this depends on the nature of the backlink. 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 is your best bet. If you can't find the email address on the site, I really recommend giving RocketReach a try — it's the best tool for looking up email addresses and social media profiles I've seen.

Prevention: The possibility of losing links is yet another reason to monitor your link profile regularly. After all, if you discover a link was lost right after it was removed (and not 4 months later), the webmaster is far more likely to remember that they removed the link and understand your concern.

Decide on the date of your backlink audit and stick to it. On average, a monthly audit should be enough. Every time you audit the links, pay attention to your Backlink Progress graph and the backlinks you lose (the ones with a No (Link missing) status). Follow up on the links that have been taken down, and perhaps make a note of the emails you send in the Notes or Tags column in your SEO SpyGlass project. This will help you ensure you don't duplicate any of your efforts.

5. Site redesign, migration, or other changes

Making substantial changes to your site — such as redesigning it, changing your platform, or moving to HTTPS — will often not go the way you planned. A small oversight may have serious consequences for your SEO, and result in a substantial ranking drop.

Diagnosis: If you recently went through a site redesign or migration, the first thing to check is whether there are any crawl problems. To do this, go to Google Search Console, and jump to Crawl > Crawl Errors. Switch between the tabs and look at the graphs to see any issues that occurred since you implemented the changes on your site. Particularly, pay attention to the Not found tab. If there are spikes on any of the error graphs, these definitely need your attention.

The Fix: Google Search Console lets you download the problematic URLs in a .csv file. Get the file and start up WebSite Auditor to do a site crawl. In the tool's Pages dashboard, type in the URLs of the problem pages from your .csv file in the quick search bar, one by one. Your next steps depend on the nature of the error; if, for example, you've got a bunch of Not found errors (as shown in the screenshot above), look at Links to page to see where the broken links are hiding, and go fix those links.

Prevention: Always track your site in Google Search Console, and check on your crawl stats regularly. Also, just like with backlinks, decide on a date when you'll have your site audits. When you do the audits, pay particular attention to things like HTTPS issues, 4xx pages, and redirect chains (all of those can be found in WebSite Auditor's Site Audit).

Finally, never make big changes without a well-thought-out plan. If you are thinking about a site redesign or migration, use this step-by-step article to guide you through the process.

6. Negative SEO

Negative SEO is a set of activities aimed at decreasing a competitor's site rankings in search engines' results. These activities may include knowingly building spammy, unnatural links to the site, content scraping, and even hacking the site.

Diagnosis: Successful negative SEO attacks are rare, but when they do happen, they usually imply a big ranking drop across a substantial number of keywords. The two most common types of negative SEO are:

Building unnatural links to the competitor's site. To check if this is the case, run a link audit with SEO SpyGlass and look out for spikes on your progress graphs in the Summary dashboard. To actually see the links that contributed to a spike, switch to the Backlinks dashboard and sort the links by Last Found Date in descending order (by clicking on the header of the column twice). This will make the newest links appear at the top of the list, so that you can look into them. Select the links and hit Update Penalty Risk to check how toxic the links are.

Scraped content is another common negative SEO technique, which includes copying a site's content to other websites. The scraping and copying is often automatic, and if Google finds the "stolen" version first, it may de-rank your site, and rank the scraper site instead. To check if this is what happened to your site, Copyscape is a huge help. All you need to do is enter the URL of your page to find out if there are any duplicates of it online.

The Fix: If the negative SEO attack you identified was based on backlinks, your best bet is disavowing the spammy links that are being built for your site. Mind that this usually implies ongoing effort, and even when you think the attack is over, make sure to religiously check your link profile in SEO SpyGlass for any new, suspicious links.

Alas, there is no disavow tool for scrapers. You might want to reach out to whoever is stealing your content, but you probably realize they are unlikely to reply. The more effective way of dealing with the problem — especially if the scraping is systematic — is to report the scraper using Google's copyright infringement report.

Prevention: Like with many of the previous points, regular backlink audits are the best way to stay safe from a ranking drop. I recently wrote an extensive post about the 7 kinds of negative SEO attacks and prevention tips for each — make sure to read it if you're looking for more detailed suggestions.

7. User behavior changes

Before I get down to the gist of this one, I have to say the impact of user behavior on rankings is a controversial topic in the SEO space. Google's been switching back on forth from "we use it", "we don't", "maybe we do", "we don't use it directly, but we sort of do indirectly", etc.

That said, I am a strong believer that user behavior does impact rankings, and in a very direct way. We've seen it on our own sites, multiple real-life experiments have suggested it, and numerous Google patents imply it. The one user behavior factor that likely has the biggest weight is your SERP click-through rate.

Diagnosis: If you notice a slight ranking drop across any number of keywords, and you are positive it's not caused by any of the six reasons outlined above, your website's engagement metrics are the place to look. Log in to your Google Search Console account and go to the Search Analytics report. Select Clicks, Impressions, CTR, and Position to be displayed:

In the report, locate the keyword your ranking dropped for and click on it. This will show its CTR graph so you can see if the click rate has gone down recently. If you do spot a decline, it's possible that the CTR drop has affected your rankings.

The Fix: Improving your CTR isn't a "quick fix", and you'll probably need to experiment with things for a little while until your efforts are effective. The important things to remember are monitoring your top competitors: take a look at their SERP snippets, and use takeaways to make your own listing more engaging. Consider using rich snippets if those suit your niche.

My favorite CTR hack is PPC-related. If you do paid search, you know how effective A/B testing your ads can be. Test variations of snippets in AdWords, 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 don't have an AdWords account, do some googling and you'll definitely find a bunch of coupons ranging from $75 to $200. Setting up experiments in AdWords is pretty straightforward — go on and test variations of your organic snippets to find which ones are most successful in terms of clicks).

Prevention: Check on the CTR of your highest ranking terms regularly in Google Search Console so you can spot any drops early, and go through the tips above if you do notice any declines. For an in-depth guide on SERP CTR optimization, jump here.

Ugh, that was one long article! But I do hope it helped you understand the common reasons for ranking drops and make sure that from now on, your own rankings only keep growing. Sure, everyone can get outranked by a competitor and drop out of page one when an unforeseen Google update comes out; but at least now you know how to reclaim your top positions like a superstar. Quickly, calmly, and with style.

By: Masha Maksimava