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?
Don’t panic—this happens to all of us. This is a part of SEO. In fact, it’s one thing we can be sure of.
The good news is that often there’s nothing to worry about. It’s either just your rank tracking application (“rank tracker”) or Google’s crawling and indexing process acting up. Check again the next day, and often you’ll see that things have gone back to normal.
But what if they don’t, or if you’re just worried and want to make sure everything is in order? We’ve put together a structured approach to find out quickly whether your website is suffering from SEO issues, or all is good and it just needs a bit of time.
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 1: Did your Google Rankings really drop?
Did you rankings really drop, or is your rank tracker just acting up?
Check your rank tracker’s website 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, often rank trackers need to update their software. This can impact the rankings they report to their users.
If you don’t find anything on your rank tracker’s website, check out their Twitter account too. They may have tweeted about it, or have received tweets.
Pro tip: set up rank tracking for your most important keywords using a second rank tracking application too. Then when you’re questioning your main one’s validity, you can check your backup for verification.
Verify using analytics, Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
Do all signs still point to a ranking drop? Then scope the impact of the ranking drop in the next section!
Always keep this cheatsheet handy to quickly diagnose a ranking drop!
Step 2: Scope impact of the Google Ranking Drop
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 put together all the information we’ll need to diagnose the issue moving forward.
Here’s what to list:
- Search queries that were impacted by the drop
- The old ranking
- The new ranking
- The difference
- The URL you were ranking with
- Content type
- Whether the page is indexable
- Any comments that may be useful
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, we’ve made our template publicly available.
We’re also going to use this overview in the next steps when we’re investigating the possible reasons for the ranking drop.
Pro tip: In Google Analytics you can quickly identify sections that took a hit by heading over to
Site Content >
Content Drilldown. Choose Segment “Organic Traffic” and compare the period in which your rankings dropped to the period in which they were still good.
Step 3: Check for recent website updates or migrations
Often ranking drops are caused by large changes in a website. When there has been a major change, you’ll often see fluctuations in your rankings. This is natural and is not something to worry about.
Were there any recent updates to the website, like a redesign or migration? Check with your team and/or agency to see if anything was changed recently. Also check your projectmanagement software and code repository for any activity that may be related to the ranking drop.
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 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. If technical or content changes are the reason for the ranking drop, it’s likely you’ll find them in the website sections that were impacted by the ranking drop. Check your findings from step 2 and pay special attention to these while seeking changes that may have negatively impacted your rankings.
Technical changes and errors
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: do search engines still have access to all the sections of your website that should be indexed? Was your robots.txt changed?
- Hreflang: are your hreflang definitions still set up correctly?
- Load time: has the page load time increased recently?
- Crawl errors: aside from having monitoring set up to check crawl errors, it’s also important to check Google Search Console’s Crawl Error report.
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.
Pro tip: also check the HTTP headers as canonical URLs and robots directives can be defined there too.
You can only keep track of changes here if you save the results of previous crawls. Yet this is a time-consuming and error-prone process—so we recommend using ContentKing for it.
If you’re already using ContentKing, head over to the pages overview and use the “Tracked changes” feature to see if there were any changes in the elements described above.
We recommend that you continuously audit your website for any issues and changes surrounding its technical foundation. That way you have a changelog for your entire website.
Too often we’ve seen technical SEO disasters happen where people only find out about them weeks later. In fact this is why we developed ContentKing: things will go wrong. That’s inevitable. What you can control, though, is how you deal with it.
If you’ve found technical changes, dig in deeper to see if they were correct. If they weren’t, you may have found (part of) the issue.
Proactively monitor your website for SEO changes and issues. In case of trouble we’ll alert you so you can prevent an SEO disaster.
Search engines use content to determine relevancy for search queries, so content changes can have a large 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: body content also impacts your rankings. If you’ve found changes in titles, meta descriptions, or headings, there’s a large chance the body content has been changed too. If your CMS keeps track of changes, check for changes there. WordPress for example offers this functionality.
Similar to keeping track of technical changes, keeping track of content changes is a very time-consuming and error-prone task. Meanwhile ContentKing’s core feature is keeping track of changes that matter for SEO—including content changes.
If you’re already using ContentKing, head over to the pages overview and use “Tracked changes” to see if there were any changes in the elements described above.
We recommend that you continuously audit your website for any issues and changes regarding its content and that you set up alerts for big changes or issues using ContentKing:
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 4: Rule out a manual Google penalty
When rankings drop, people are often afraid that they’ve received a Google penalty. In most cases they haven’t, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. As it’s important and it’s quick to check, it makes sense to do that early in the investigation process.
Are your pages still indexed?
Manual penalties come in different forms, the most severe being a complete de-indexing of your website. (This usually only happens to websites that are really trying to game Google’s system.) Do a
site: query to check if your website is still indexed.
Example of a
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, but it could also mean you have a serious SEO issue in your website that’s technical in nature, as outlined in step 3.
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 problem.
Check Google Search Console
Head over to Google Search Console and navigate to the Search Traffic > Manual Actions section. This is what you want to see:
If it shows a notice about your website, then this is the issue… or at least part of it.
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.
We recommend checking out Kinsta’s article on how they were hit with an (unfairly) manual penalty.
Step 5: Rule out the chance that you were 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 websites are hacked they’ll inform you about this through Google Search Console. While Google doesn’t have access to your source code, it takes literally 10 seconds to check Google Search Console to see whether they know about a hack so we recommend always checking this.
Log on to Google Search Console and navigate to the
Security Issues section. This is what it looks like if everything is OK:
Google has also put together a comprehensive guide on hacked websites. Another good guide was put together by WordFence. Use these to check if your website was hacked. Note that WordFence also developed a solid WordPress plugin which you can already benefit from using the free version.
Pro tip: don’t trust Google to always report whether you were hacked. We’ve seen reports of Google not reporting that a website was hacked, while applying a manual penalty for cloaking or being a spam site. One account of a hacked website even got an algorithmic Penguin filter that obliterated their organic traffic.
Step 6: Impacted by Google updates
Google updates are often the reason behind ranking fluctuations. It’s said that Google makes 250–300 changes to their algorithms per year. Some changes are small; others are huge. Check if your ranking drop coincides with a Google update. While Google is rarely open about updates to their algorithms, 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.
Check the SEO news website https://www.seroundtable.com/ to see whether they’ve reported a recent Google change, and check out the tools below as well:
Two things to keep in mind:
- Not every Google update is about their algorithm. They can also change its search engine result pages (SERP), adding other elements to the page which push down your result. Think: images, videos, maps, news results, knowledge graph and direct answer boxes.
- Ranking drops don’t always happen instantaneously though: when your site has been flagged by a Penguin or Panda filter, you can see your rankings drop over the course of several weeks.
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.
Pro tip: Sometimes Google may decide to change its idea on the intent of a search query, thereby also changing the websites they deem relevant.
Step 7: Check your log files
Your web server’s 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.
Things to look for especially are among other things: decreased crawl activity from Google, an increase in 4xx or 5xx status codes and slower response times.
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.
Step 8: Competitor making their move
In SEO, there’s always a fierce battle raging for the top positions. Your competition is constantly trying to pass you, thereby pushing your listings down in the search results. While it’s rare that the competition takes you over for a large amount of search queries in a short amount of time, competition can 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. Together, this has a big impact and your website rankings drop across the board.
Investigate and discover who you lost you rankings to. In step 2 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: they have better content, they have more links, their pages load faster, they have no ads, etc.
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 no longer redirected.
Step 9: Lost backlinks that packed a punch
Links from other websites, called “backlinks”, are the most important factor in SEO. They can make or break your website’s findability, so when backlinks are lost this really has a big 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 the above tools 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.
Step 10: Disavowed backlinks that carried some value
People disavow spammy backlinks that they don’t want to be associated with, but in most cases this isn’t necessary anymore to prevent getting a penalty nowadays. Spammy backlinks don’t really contribute anything, but they also don’t hurt unless there’s malicious intent (such as for example buying 100,000 blog comments).
The most important reason why many SEOs don’t disavow backlinks anymore is because even the spammy backlinks sometimes help your SEO. Disavowing those backlinks may actually have a negative impact on your SEO performance, so be careful about this. A tweet from Google’s Gary Illyes on the matter:
^ that, and if you see your rankings dropped after a disavow, just remove the less shady links from the file. You have total control
— Gary “鯨理” Illyes (@methode) April 7, 2017
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.
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.
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. 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 do puzzle it out.
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?