Google Ranking Dropped Dramatically? Here’s How to Recover in 13 Easy Steps

Last updated: October 20, 2020
SEO Reporting and Management
Recovering from Google Ranking Drop in short

A dramatic Google ranking drop can be caused by many factors, such as for instance content changes, an algorithm update, technical issues, improvements competitors made, SERP lay-out changes and a Google penalty.

We’ve put together a handy checklist to quickly diagnose the issue and recover your rankings!

Imagine this: your rankings suddenly dropped dramatically. Maybe by a dozen positions—or maybe they’ve dropped outside the top 100.

Your face has gone pale and you’ve got sweaty palms. What now?

How do you go about diagnosing what the issue is, and in what order? What are the most likely reasons for your rankings to have dropped?

Step 1: Don’t panic!

Don’t panic—this happens to all of us. This is a part of SEO. In fact, it’s the one thing we can be sure of in SEO.

The good news is that often there’s nothing to worry about. Maybe your rank tracking application is acting up or Google’s tuning their ranking algorithm. Check again the next day, and often you’ll see that things have gone back to normal.

But what if your rankings don’t bounce back, or if you’re just worried and want to make sure everything is in order? Go through the steps listed in this guide to quickly determine whether your website is suffering from SEO issues, or all is good and Google only needs a bit of time.

Google ranking drops come with the job
Google ranking drops come with the job
Barry Adams

When your rankings suddenly drop, the key is not to panic. It’s crucial to have a list of things to check in place, so that you do the right things for the right reasons and don’t start pushing buttons at random that could make matters worse. Always keep in mind that Google doesn’t care about your website, they only care about their users (and their own bottom line). Follow the user and rankings will come.

Step 2: Did your Google Rankings really drop?

Did you rankings really drop, or is your rank tracker indeed just acting up?

Check your rank tracker’s website and Twitter account to see if there are any known issues. Google and the trackers play a bit of a cat and mouse game. When Google changes their search engine result pages, rank trackers often need to update their software. Until they can, the rankings they report to their users may be off.

Pro tip

Set up rank tracking for your most important keywords using a second rank tracking application. Then, when you’re questioning your main one’s validity, you can check your backup for verification.

Verify using analytics, Google Search Console and other tools

Additionally, check your web analytics suite and Google Search Console to verify that your Google rankings and organic traffic did indeed drop.

Here’s a screenshot from Google Search Console’s performance screen that shows a drastic decline in clicks:

Screenshot of Google Search Console that shows performance that goes down

And here’s one from SEMrush showing a similar trend:

Screenshot of SEMrush that shows performance that goes down

Do all signs still point to a ranking drop? Then scope the impact of the ranking drop in the next section!

Cheat Sheet for ranking drop diagnosis

Always keep this cheat sheet handy to quickly diagnose a ranking drop!

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Step 3: Scope the ranking drop’s impact

The search queries and pages that are impacted by a ranking drop say a lot about the underlying issue.

Use your rank tracking application, web analytics data, Google Search Console data, and Bing Webmaster Tools data to identify what the scope of the ranking drop’s impact is so we can diagnose the issues.

List all search queries that are showing a ranking drop, and include for each one:

  • What cluster the query belonged to
  • Their old ranking (to establish a baseline)
  • Their new ranking
  • The difference
  • The URL that was ranking
  • The content type that was ranking
  • Whether the page is indexable
  • Any comments that may be useful (for instance, the date when you’ve made changes to this page)
Template diagnose Google Rankings drop
Template to diagnose your Google rankings drop

Often just doing this, lays out a pattern. It could be that the ranking drop only impacted specific sections of your website.

To help you with this process, we’ve made a template.

We’re going to use this template in the next steps when we’re investigating possible reasons for the ranking drop further.

If you’re using Google Analytics, you can quickly identify sections that took a hit by heading over to:

  1. Behavior > Site Content > Content Drilldown
  2. Choose Segment Organic Traffic
  3. Compare the period in which your rankings dropped to the period in which they were still good.

Step 4: Recent website changes

Ranking drops are often caused by large changes to a website. When you’ve migrated a bunch of pages, rolled out a (responsive) redesign or reworked a lot of content you’ll see big fluctuations in your rankings. This is natural, and should only worry you in ase your rankings don’t come back to their previous state.

Ask around within your team

Ask around with your team and/or agency to see if there were any high-impact changes made to the website. Check with your team and/or agency to see if anything was changed recently.

Also check your project management software and code repository for any activity that may be related to the ranking drop.

William Julian-Vicary

When we see ranking drops the first step is - don’t panic! It could well be a penalty but, 9 times out of 10 the issue is simple - you/your team broke something. Check your change logs before you go blaming an algorithm update.

Check your SEO monitoring tool

If your rankings are essential to your business, then it’s a no-brainer to monitor your website for on-page SEO changes. We distinguish between technical changes and content changes — technical changes often affect the entire website, whereas content changes often only affect the pages directly affected.

Technical changes

Double check that search engines are still crawling and indexing your website in the same way as before.

Do this by crawling the website and checking specifically for changes in:

  • HTTP status codes: are your pages still returning HTTP status 200, and are redirects still in place?
  • Canonical URL: have your canonical URLs changed?
  • Meta robots tag: have search engines suddenly been told not to index your key pages?
  • Robots.txt: was your robots.txt changed? Do search engines still have access to all the sections of your website that should be indexed?
  • Hreflang: are your hreflang definitions still set up correctly?
Pro tip

Also check the HTTP headers as canonical URLs, hreflang definitions and robots directives can be defined there too.

Patrick Stox

Most of the time when I see big drops now it’s because of redirects. It’s either old redirects were dropped in a migration or rules are overwritten, removed, or put in wrong. Sometimes it’s less obvious and say an old domain that was redirected to your site expired or if your old site was on HTTPS, one thing I’m seeing a lot more of recently is that security certificates on old domains are expiring and they no longer redirect properly.

We highly recommend tracking changes on your site automatically, and for your entire site. It’s what ContentKing was built for, so be sure to check it out if you haven’t already.

If you’re already using ContentKing:

  1. Log onto ContentKing
  2. Go to the Pages overview
  3. Click Tracked Changes in the top right and select the date range you want to analyze.
  4. Go through the changes to see if anything stands out to you.
Tracked changes

If you’ve found technical changes, dig in deeper to see if they are related to the ranking drop you’re experiencing. If they aren’t, continue your search.

Real-time monitoring of your website

Proactively monitor your website for SEO changes and issues. In case of trouble we’ll alert you so you can prevent an SEO disaster.

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Changes to the internal link structure of the website can have a big impact on your pages’ SEO performance, especially if we’re talking changes to links on the homepage, on other authoritative pages and in the sidebar or footer.

Especially when a redesign has been rolled out, you often see a big shift in the internal link structure so be mindful of that.

Content changes

Search engines use content to determine relevancy for search queries, so content changes has a big impact on your rankings. And pages that are removed have an even bigger impact.

To double-check whether your content has changed, crawl your website and check specifically for changes in:

  • Title: even the smallest change in the title tag can have a big impact on your rankings. Were there any changes?
  • Meta description: while not impacting your rankings directly, the meta description does impact the click-through rate (CTR) for your search result. And the CTR does impact your rankings. So check for changes in your meta descriptions.
  • Headings: headings communicate relevancy to search engines too. Changes to headings may impact your rankings, so check to see if they were changed.
  • Body content: Google heavily relies on your page’s body content to determine what queries it’s relevant for. If you’ve found changes in titles, meta descriptions, or headings, there’s a big chance the body content has been changed too. See if you can find the changes that were made. For instance, WordPress tracks these changes automatically. Alternatively, you can look up Google’s cached version of your page with a cache: query or by checking the Way Back machine.

Similar to keeping track of technical changes, keeping track of content changes is a very time-consuming and error-prone task. It’s something you want to have running on autopilot, like ContentKing does.

If you’re already using ContentKing:

  1. Log onto ContentKing
  2. Go to the Pages overview
  3. Click Tracked Changes in the top right and select the date range you want to analyze.
  4. Go through the content changes to see if anything stands out to you.
Tracked changes
Alerts for high-impact SEO changes and issues

Is something big doing down on your website? ContentKing will catch it, and alert you and your team so you can take swift action.

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Liam Delahunty

It pays to be proactive in your monitoring. Know your rankings, your back link profile and have regular technical audits. Then if a crisis happens, it needn’t be catastrophic.

Step 5: Technical issues

If Google’s been having technical issues crawling and indexing your site, this is very likely to impact your rankings.

Crawl anomalies

Crawl anomalies are preventing Google from receiving the information they requested. If they fail in this step, they won’t be able to index and rank your content:

Crawl Anomaly visualized

So, is Google reporting crawl anomalies in the Index Coverage report?

Screenshot of Google Search Console’s Index Coverage report

And what are your log files telling you? Log files record low level information from visitors and search engine crawlers, potentially containing clues as to what’s going on with your Google ranking drop.

Analyze your log files, and zoom in on the affected URLs that you’ve found in step 3. Things to look out for: decreased crawl activity from Google and an increase in 4xx and 5xx status codes.

Kevin Indig

When rankings drop, crawl rate for specific pages or the whole domains goes down. Analyzing log files is a great way to verify it’s a devaluation or some other sort of thing. You also get a better understanding when exactly rankings might have dropped and can correlate it to updates or changes on your site.

Blocking Googlebot

More often than you’d think the reason why rankings drop is because a trigger happy system administrator decided to block all traffic from bots, or all traffic originating from the United States in the firewall.

Keep in mind that almost all crawl activity performed by Google is done from the United States, so you’d be actively preventing Google from crawling your site, which will quickly lead to your pages being deindexed.

Use a VPN with a location in the United States, and visit your site. If that works fine, do the same thing but additionally, define your user-agent as Googlebot (see the exact user-agent strings here). Does that work?

If that works fine, there’s another thing to try: see if Google’s IPs may be blocked. There’s af ew ways you can do this:

  1. Use the Test live URL feature in Google Search Console. Fill in a URL there, and hit the TEST LIVE URL button in the top right. If that process fails, Google’s IPs may be blocked.
  2. Use the Rich Snippet tester to request a URL on your site and see if that works. If that fails too, you’re on to something — Google may really be blocked on a IP-level!

Load time

Have the load times significantly increased for pages affect by the ranking drop?

  • Check out your crawl stats in the old Google Search Console.
  • Check the page loadtime in Google Analytics (Behavior > Site Speed > Overview)
  • Analyze it through CrUX.run

Step 6: Google algorithm update

Google updates are often the reason behind ranking fluctuations.

According to Search Engine Land, Google made 3.200 changes to their algorithms in 2018. We think that number only grew since then.

Some changes are small and barely noticable; other changes are huge and make or break businesses.

Check if your ranking drop coincides with a Google update. While Google is rarely open about smaller updates, SEO specialists across the globe keep a watchful eye and have built tools that find large changes in rankings and try to tie them to updates.

To check whether there’s been reports of a Google update, check Barry Schwartz’s Was There A Google Update.

To monitor ranking volatility over time, check out the tools below:

Keep in mind that ranking drops due to Google algorithm updates don’t always happen instantaneously. Often times, you’ll see your rankings gradually slipping away. This makes sense, as Google has to recalculate and reprocess immense amounts of data sets.

Google filters such as Penguin or Panda can work the same way, leading to rankings drop over the course of several weeks.

Evan Roberts

It’s important to know it’s not all about what you did. When you are experiencing a rankings drop, one of the first things to do is take a step back and look at the SERP. A lot of times you’ll see a rankings drop correlate with a bigger shift in how a SERP looks. If there have been no major changes with your site, it is likely that Google is shifting the SERP landscape and you might need to adjust your content to go with it. Think for instance about pushing video content, implementing structured data or maps listings.

Step 7: Google SERP update

Not every Google update is about their algorithm. They can also change their search engine result pages (SERP) layout by adding other elements which push down your snippet, or attract more attention than your snippet.

Keep in mind that rank tracker treat featured snippets differently. When a feature snippet appears for a query, some may not even take it account when reporting rankings while others will.

Do you think this featured snippet impacts your ranking, and in turn organic traffic?

Example of a table featured snippet

And what about this one?

Example of a crowded SERP

Always mimic searcher behavior and look at what the SERP returns for the queries you’re targeting.

People disavow spammy backlinks that they don’t want to be associated with, but in 99% of the cases you won’t have to in order to prevent getting a penalty.

While spammy backlinks don’t really contribute anything, they also don’t hurt unless there’s a clear malicious intent (such as for example consistently buying 100,000 blog comments every month).

What’s more, disavowing those spammy backlinks may even have a negative impact on your SEO performance, so be careful with this.

Here’s a tweet from Google’s Gary Illyes on the matter:

Gary Illyes about disaviwong

Step 9: Google Manual Action

When rankings drop, people are often afraid that they’ve received a Google penalty. In most cases they haven’t — that’s why this section is placed so far down in this article.

If you’ve gone through all of the other checks and you haven’t found the reason for your ranking drop yet, do check whether you may have received a manual action.

Are your pages still indexed?

Manual penalties come in different forms, the most severe being a complete de-indexing of your website — which usually only happens to websites that are clearly trying to game Google’s system.

Do a site: query to check if your website is still indexed. Example of a site: query:

Google site query

If your pages are indeed still indexed, then that’s good news. If your pages aren’t indexed anymore, this could mean you have a manual penalty. It could also mean you have a serious SEO issue in your website that’s technical in nature, as outlined in step 5.

Are you still ranking for non-branded queries?

If Google applies a penalty, it’s often less severe than a complete de-indexing of your website. A common example of a less severe penalty is only letting your website rank for its branded search queries.

Check to see if you can identify this kind of pattern in the search queries for which your website dropped. Are you still ranking for non-branded queries? If you are, then that’s good news. If you aren’t, a manual penalty could be the issue.

Check Google Search Console for a manual action

To check if you’ve got a manual action:

  1. Log onto Google Search Console
  2. Navigate to Security & Manual Actions > Manual actions
  3. This is what you want to see to rule out a manual action:
Google no manual penalty
Google Search Console showing there's no manual action

If it shows a notice about your website, then it’s highly likely this is the issue… or at very least a big part of it.

Useful resources
David Iwanow

When digging into the organic drop see if it’s homepage (brand) or non-homepage (non-brand) queries and look at which sections or URLs saw a fall. Try and review what changes were made to those sections such as page title updates, new copy or changes in internal links. Also take into account trends: compare week on week, month on month and year in year and see how organic compares against direct traffic.

Step 10: Website hacked

Unfortunately, site hacking is a really active line of business. Once they’re “inside,” hackers often infest websites with malicious code and spammy content and links. This is very harmful for your rankings, so it’s important to rule out that you were hacked.

It’s actually not likely your website was hacked, but if it has been, you need to know about it ASAP so that you can take measures to regain control of your website and restore it to its original condition.

Google scans websites for malicious code and activity. If they find your website’s been hacked, they’ll inform you about this through Google Search Console. While this check isn’t fool proof, it literally just takes 10 seconds to check Google Search Console to see whether they know about a hack so we recommend always checking this.

To do so:

  1. Log onto Google Search Console
  2. Navigate to Security & Manual Actions > Security issues
  3. This is what you want to see to rule out a manual action:
No security issues reported in Google Search Console
Google Search Console reporting there are no security issues
Resources on recovering hacked sites

Step 11: Change in search intent and behavior

Sometimes Google may decide to change its idea on the intent of a search query, and thereby also changing the websites they deem relevant.

Take for example the query Birds of Prey — this could refer to the movie that had trouble ranking (and was later named “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”), the bird species. We may not realize this, but for a lot of queries the query intent changes over time.

Especially during strange times, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Search behavior rapidly changed, which must — directly or indirectly — have impacted rankings. Some products and services were no longer needed, and for others there’s an extreme demand.

Here’s the Google Trends chart for theatre tickets:

Google Trends chart for theatre tickets

And here’s the chart for toilet paper:

Google Trends chart for toilet paper

Step 12: Competitors making moves

Your competition is constantly making moves, trying to over take you and thereby pushing your listings down in the search results.

While it’s rare that the competition takes you over for many search queries in a short amount of time, competition can definitely play a role in your ranking drop.

Imagine this scenario: during a recent release, a set of 301 redirects was accidentally removed. URLs that carried a lot of authority now served 404 – Page not Found pages instead, rendering that authority useless. At that same time, your competition stepped up their game and won some of your featured snippets. Together, this has a big impact and your website’s rankings drop across the board.

Investigate and discover who you lost you rankings to. In step 3 you made a list of search queries that your positions dropped for; now dig in and see who benefited from this. After you’ve done so, try to find out how they managed to beat you.

Examples:

  • Did they win featured snippets for your targeted queries?
  • Do they have better content?
  • Do they have more and better links?
  • Do their pages load faster, and do they provide a better user experience overall?

Gather your findings, and make a plan to win back those rankings!

Pro tip

Note that not all backlink tools alert you in case a redirected domain is in fact no longer redirected. Keep a list of redirecting domains, and check from time to time whether they’re still properly redirecting.

Lost backlinks can have a big impact on your Google rankings
Lost backlinks can have a big impact on your Google rankings

Since backlinks are still the most important ranking factor in SEO, losing backlinks that really packed a punch can have a huge impact on your rankings.

Check whether you’ve lost any backlinks, using an application such as Ahrefs, Majestic, Monitor Backlinks or Kerboo. Please note that there’s always some delay before these applications pick up lost (or new) links, so take that into account.

Moving forward, it’s recommended that you monitor your backlinks with one of the tools mentioned above so you get alerts when backlinks are lost. You can then reach out to the linking websites to see if you can get the backlinks restored.

Came up empty? Look into this!

You’ve gone through all the steps above, and you still came up empty. This too is part of SEO. It’s not always straightforward to find out why your website’s rankings have dropped.

Analyze user engagement

Another area to look into to is the user engagement with your website. If users leave quickly because they’re bombarded with pop-ups or ads, this will hurt your rankings. The same goes for not satisfying a user’s search queries with your content. If they don’t find what they were looking for, and they go back to the search result page to click another result, Google knows that your answer to their search query wasn’t completely satisfactory.

Factors like this are playing an increasingly large role in Google’s algorithms. You won’t see these issues listed in Google Search Console, but they do impact your rankings.

Google has published an extensive document on this, called Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. It’s quite complex, but it could be really useful for coming up with theories as to why your rankings have dropped.

Algorithmic penalties

While they are rare, they do happen: algorithmic penalties — penalties that are given by algorithms without human intervention.

As you may know, Google heavily leans on machine learning to continously learn and improve their search results, which — if you don’t play by the rules — may result in an algorithmic penalty. The ones we’ve seen in the wild are not reported in Google Search Console, and usually result in a demotion of a URL in Google’s search results. This demotion lasts until you resolve the issue. Fixing it, and filing a reconsideration request may speed up the re-evaluation process.

At this point, it makes sense to hire outside help as well, as it seems your ranking drop is an enigma. Hire a SEO consultant to puzzle it out.

Oliver Mason

If you’re being systematically removed from the index, ensure Googlebot’s getting the same experience as users. Not so much from a “cloaking is bad” perspective, but to ensure you are serving something to Googlebot at all, and not just the HTML5 boilerplate to any user-agent containing “bot”.

This kind of problem can be uncovered in several ways: crawling with the right user-agent, Fetch and Render in Google Search Console and checking the server logs for the download size for all requests to problem resources for outliers. I’d also entertain the possibility of genuine Googlebot encountering DDOS mitigation services (again, outliers vs bytes downloaded), as some return a 200 combined with a noindex on the requested URL.

Conclusion

Rankings do drop; that’s a given in the world of SEO. Just keep a cool head and systematically investigate what may have caused the drop.

Besides having a process in place for investigating the possible reason for the drop, it’s highly recommended that you have monitoring that tracks changes to your website’s content and technical foundation. After all, without that information, you’re in the dark.

If you’ve read this article, it’s obvious your website’s SEO is really important to you. Why not let ContentKing monitor your website?

Frequently asked questions about Google Ranking Drops

📉 Why did my rankings drop in Google?

Many factors can cause your rankings to drop in Google. Most frequently, we see drops because of changes that were made to the website, but they can also be caused by an algorithm update, technical issues, improvements competitors made, SERP lay-out changes or a Google penalty.

Whatever caused it, you’ll quickly find it and recover your rankings using the checklist we included in this article!

🤪 Can it be my rank tracker is on the fritz?

Yes, that may very well be the case — rank trackers play a cat and mouse game with Google. Google doesn’t want them scraping their search result pages, so they deploy countermeasures aimed to throw off rank trackers. On top of that, Google frequently rolls out SERP updates which can cause rank trackers to report the wrong information too.

🏆 Can SERP features influence rankings?

Yes, they sure can. Rank trackers interpret SERP features differently; some may for instance report a featured snippet at the top of the SERP as number 1, while others will count the first “regular” snippet as number 1.

Frequently Asked Questions

ContentKing Academy Content Team
Steven van Vessum
Steven van Vessum

Steven is ContentKing’s VP of Community. This means he’s involved in everything community and content marketing related. Right where he wants to be. He gets a huge kick out of letting websites rank and loves to talk SEO, content marketing and growth.

Vojtech Zach
Vojtech Zach

Vojtěch is ContentKing’s Customer Support & Localization Manager. He is the one who will answer your questions when you reach out to us. He is a studied translator, so apart from making our users happy, he also loves to take on our localization challenges.

Ondrej Koraba
Ondrej Koraba

Ondřej is ContentKing’s Content Marketing Specialist. He lives in the Content Marketing trenches, making sure that our existing content stays up-to-date and that there’s a continuous flow of fresh content.

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