7 Easy Steps to Diagnose Your Google Ranking Drop

Don’t panic!

Your rankings suddenly dropped. 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.

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 seeing.

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.

Step 1: Find out if your rankings have really dropped

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.

No reported issues, but your rankings really did drop? Then move on to the next section!

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.

Step 2: Scope the impact of the ranking drop

The search queries and pages, or sections of websites, 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 make an overview. We’re also going to use this overview in the next steps when we’re investigating the possible reasons for the ranking drop.

Step 3: Check for recent updates or migrations

Were there any recent updates to the website, like a redesign or migration? Check with your team or agency to see if anything was changed recently. 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.

If there were recent changes, and they relate to the sections of the websites that were impacted by the ranking drop (see step 2), then you could be on to something. Double check them to make sure the changes were done 100% correctly and that nothing was forgotten. It wouldn’t be the first time that a URL migration was completely forgotten or only partly implemented after content was moved.

Step 4: Rule out a manual penalty

When rankings drop, people are often afraid that they’ve received a 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 pages are 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, but it could also mean you have a serious SEO issue in your website that’s technical in nature. We’ll cover that in step 6.

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:

Google no manual penalty

If it shows a notice about your website, then this is the issue… or at least part of it.

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 is good at determining whether your website has been hacked. They inform you about this through Google Search Console.

Log on to Google Search Console and navigate to the “Security Issues” section. This is what it looks like if everything is OK:

Google no security issues

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.

Step 6: Investigate internal factors

We need to distinguish between internal and external factors that impact your rankings. Internal factors are factors you can influence easily and directly, whereas external factors cannot be (directly) influenced.

The internal factors we’re going to look into are:

  • Technical changes
  • 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

Often technical errors are the culprit behind ranking drops. 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?
  • Hreflang: are your hreflang definitions still set up correctly?

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.

Tracked changes

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.

Content changes

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.

Tracked changes

We recommend that you continuously audit your website for any issues and changes regarding its content.

Step 7: Investigate external factors

External factors are factors impacting your rankings that you cannot (directly) influence.

These external factors are:

  • Google updates
  • Competitors
  • Lost backlinks

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:

Competitors

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 accidently 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.

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 or Majestic. 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.

You 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.

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.

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?

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