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Traffic drop analysis checklist

By Lucy Kirkness | September 2018

Table of contents

If you have experienced a sudden or unexpected drop in website traffic or rankings and aren’t sure of the next steps, firstly, don’t panic.

Initial traffic drop checks

We all go through ups and downs, as is the nature of SEO. Being able to recognise a true traffic drop, as opposed to tracking errors or seasonal fluctuations, is a crucial first step. We’ve put together a process for assessing what has happened and why, as well as a checklist to help guide you through your own analysis.

There are many possible reasons for a site’s traffic to drop. The typical response is to assume that the site has suffered a penalty, such as an Unnatural Links warning, or is struggling with an algorithm change, such as Panda (poor quality). However, there are often other reasons that are totally unrelated to search engines. We’d advise starting here first.

Is it really a drop?

The first step is to understand whether what you are experiencing is really a drop at all. In order to do this we need to dig a little deeper into our historical and forecasted traffic data.

Is it due to seasonal fluctuations?

Drops in traffic due to seasonality are one of the most common ‘red herrings’ that we see. A simple way to tell the difference between a true drop and an expected dip in seasonal traffic is to look at year-over-year organic traffic data in Google Analytics.

A more advanced method is to use statistical forecasting and Excel to look for anomalies. Distilled have a very useful free traffic forecasting tool to make this step much easier.

Is there a tracking error?

Sometimes, the issue can be as simple as an error with the tracking implementation. Check whether someone has accidentally removed the Analytics tracking code from some or all pages. Screaming Frog is a perfect tool to verify Google Analytics code on each page of your site. I won’t go into detail here, as Seer Interactive already have an excellent guide for using this method.

Paid search cannibalisation?

Since we’re only focussed on organic traffic, it is still possible that there isn’t actually a problem. One reason could be due to PPC traffic cannibalising organic. To check whether cannibalisation is the cause, create a stacked area chart to visualise traffic by channel.

Here is an example, where we can rule out paid traffic cannibalisation as the case.

Here is an example, where we can see total traffic staying the same, and paid traffic increasing significantly in place of the organic drop. With this example, we may conclude that the drop is due to cannibalisation.

If it really is a drop, check the obvious

If we can rule out seasonal fluctuations, tracking errors, and traffic cannibalisation, then we can confirm the drop is real and start investigating further. Before wasting time looking into every potential cause, let’s start with the obvious.

Robots.txt

Could your traffic drop be due to fewer URLs being indexed in Google? Check whether someone has accidentally blocked the whole site or major sections in the robots.txt file.

Here is an example of a robots.txt that allows everything:

User-agent: *
Disallow: 

Here is an example of a robots.txt that would block all search engines (and result in your site not appearing in search results):

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

Here is an example of a robots.txt that specifically blocks Google from a particular folder:

User-agent: Googlebot
Disallow: /folder/

Noindex

Another possible indexing issue is related to the noindex meta tag. Check whether someone has accidentally applied a sitewide noindex tag. This can often happen when development changes are pushed live, and someone forgot to remove the noindex tag.

In order to check for this tag, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the website / webpage in question
  2. Click on “View Page Source”
  3. Use CTRL-F (or Option-F for Mac users) and search for the word ‘noindex’
  4. If you see something like the below, you’ll need to remove that line!
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex,nofollow” />

Penalty

Algorithmic updates are harder to diagnose (more on this later), however manual actions are easy to spot and can be found in Google Search Console. Simply navigate to the correct Property, and click on the ‘Manual Actions’ tab. If you have been penalised, you will be notified of this here.

Hacking

At this point it is also sensible to check the rest of Google Search Console, and look out for any error messages or security issues, such as malware or hacking. This is unlikely, but if your website has been hacked, you need to know about is ASAP so that you can take measures to regain control.

Google has put together a comprehensive resource on hacked sites.

Investigate other causes

If the cause for your website’s sudden traffic drop isn’t easy to find, then you’ll need to gather more data and dive a little deeper.

Google Algorithm update

A great place to start is to look for correlations with known Google Algorithm updates. Panda and Penguin represent the bulk of issues related to algorithm updates, however there are others that you may want to investigate.

My favourite tool for analysing Google algorithm impact is Barracuda’s Panguin Tool. Their interactive tool overlays coloured lines representing different algorithm updates over your site’s organic traffic, making it easy to spot any correlations. Why not give it a go, it’s free!

Here is a real life example from a client who came to us in July 2018, after experiencing a gradual but severe decline in organic traffic since late 2016.

Major site changes

There are three common site changes that can have a negative impact on your traffic:

  • Redesign
  • HTTPS migration
  • New domain

As well as several other site changes to explore:

  • Move to a JavaScript framework
  • Update all title tags
  • Remove navigation menu
  • Update internal linking structure
  • Migrate certain URLs

If you have carried out any major site change, and you have a reasonable hypothesis for how this could impact organic traffic, then you’ve likely found your culprit.

In the case of redesigns and migrations (of any kind) look out for incorrect implementation of 301 redirects from old pages to new.

Competition

Perhaps you have just been overtaken in the SERPs by one of your competitors. If you’ve dropped from #1 rankings, this can drastically lower your search traffic. Maybe there are new competitors entering your industry who have captured a percentage of overall share of voice.

To quickly identify whether you have lost rankings to a competitor, try using one of these tools:

Nozzle Share of Voice

BrightEdge’s Share of Voice

STAT’s Share of Voice

SEMRush’s Rankings Distribution Report

Changes to the SERPs

Before worrying over potential ranking loss, verify first whether the traffic drop is actually due to a lower click through rate (CTR).

See if there have been any changes to the search results pages themselves. Check specifically for results pages for your target keywords, and see if there has been a change in the way your pages - or your competitors pages - are displayed in search results. Any changes might have an impact on their visibility or CTR. Check for the following:

  • SERP features
  • Rich results
  • Direct answers
  • Top stories carrousel
  • Paid ads

Referring domains drop or poor disavow

It’s possible that the site has experienced a sudden drop in backlinks, or that you have lost some link equity from the sites still linking to you. Here are some possibilities to look into:

  • It’s possible that, rather than your site receiving a penalty, sites that were linking to you did. If this is the case, any value your site gained from these links will be lost.
  • Sometimes links just come and go. Perhaps you had links on a site’s homepage, that over time have moved deeper into the site.
  • It may be that you or your agency have submitted a poorly executed disavow file, containing links that were in fact beneficial.

Useful tools for analysis

If you have been through this checklist, you should be able to identify the cause(s) of your traffic drop. Or at the least, these questions will lead you down a path to discovering the cause with further investigation. As a recap, we have listed some useful tools to help with your analysis.

  • Panguin
  • Algoroo
  • Screaming Frog
  • Google Analytics
  • Distilled forecasting
  • Google Search Console
  • Siteliner
  • Copyscape
  • SEMRush
  • Ahrefs

Start analysing your website traffic drop

Download our checklist with tool recommendations and more