Did Your Google Rankings Really Drop?
Before you can fix your declining Google positioning, it’s essential to find out if your rankings actually dropped. To figure this out, let’s consider how you discovered your perceived decrease in search engine rankings.
Did you manually search on Google and see that your pages aren’t ranking as well on your favorite keywords? Google constantly fine-tunes its search algorithm, and the search engine results pages (SERPs) regularly fluctuate as a consequence. Wait a day or two and check again. As likely as not, your site will have regained its good search engine positions.
Do you use an online tool to track your Google rankings? Sometimes online tools glitch and report the wrong statistics. If your online tracker indicates your search engine rankings have dropped, do a manual search in an incognito web browser to see if your results match those reported by the tracker. If the manual search shows your site ranking as usual, contact the owner of the online tool to see if they’re having problems and ask when those issues will be resolved.
Has your site lost traffic? Many people immediately associate a drop in traffic with a decline in rankings, but the two aren’t always linked. If your traffic is down significantly, you should check with your web team and see:
- If all of your pages are in place. Mistakes happen, and some of your web pages may have been removed. It should be a simple process to get the pages back in place.
- If Googlebot has been blocked from visiting your site. There are several pieces of code and files that can be configured to accidentally block Google from crawling your site. For instance, a member of your web team may have meant to stop malicious robots from finding your site but mistakenly blocked all robots. It should be a simple fix to remove the elements that keep Google from discovering all your web pages. Once they’re gone, your traffic should bounce back.
- If your title and meta description tags are missing. These tags are often used as the headline and listing when your web pages appear on the SERPs. They not only describe your website but also compel searchers to click on your link. Without good tags, your click-through rate could sink, driving down your traffic.
If your pages are in place with proper tags and Google isn’t blocked, there’s one other question to ask: Does it really matter that your rankings have dropped? If your website is about car engines, there’s no need for it to rank well for car seats, and you don’t need to track your rankings for that term. Conserve your energy and make sure you only monitor keywords that make sense for your site. Keyword research can help ensure you’re targeting the correct search terms.
If you followed all these steps and it still looks like your rankings have dropped, it’s time to dig in and find potential causes for your decrease.
Pro Tip: Create a spreadsheet to track your lost Google rankings by keyword. The sheet should contain columns for the:
- Address of the page that ranked for that term
- Page’s former ranking
- Page’s current ranking
- Content type
- Likely reason for the rankings drop
- Actions taken to reverse the decrease
- Useful comments
A spreadsheet like this can help keep your efforts on track and may reveal patterns about which sections of your website lost rankings and why.
Now, you’re ready to go through the following checklist of questions to identify why your search engine rankings are down.
1. Has a Google Algorithm Rolled Out?
A few years ago, Search Engine Land reported that Google changed its algorithm more than 3,200 times in one calendar year. Industry publications like Search Engine Land do a good job reporting on the major algorithm updates and what they might mean for websites. Some tools also track ranking volatility, like:
If you do a little research and find that a Google algorithm update matches your rankings drop, you can check industry publications to see if they have any tips on recovering. More often than not, there are no tips, and you have to fall back on Google’s standard advice: concentrate on providing the best content possible for your site visitors.
Delivering good content depends on the full range of SEO best practices, including:
- Optimized titles and tags
- In-depth content
- Regular updates
- Resource-rich pages featuring optimized images, videos and infographics
Also, consider how fast your site loads and whether it’s mobile-friendly since both of those factors affect site visitors’ ability to access and interact with your content. You can check your site’s speed using Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool or third-party services like WebPageTest, and discover whether your site is mobile-friendly with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. Page speed and mobile-friendliness also play a role in Google’s search algorithm, making it doubly important to check these factors.
2. Did Your Site Receive a Google Manual Penalty?
Google has said that its search engine algorithms reward sites for doing things right rather than punish sites for doing something wrong. But that’s not the case with a manual penalty. If Google finds a site that violates its webmaster guidelines, it can place a manual penalty on the offending pages.
You can find out if your site has any manual penalties by logging into Google Search Console, Google’s free service that provides a wide range of information about a website’s performance. Once in Search Console, you can navigate to the manual penalty section and see if any of your web pages are listed there.
If you find manual penalties, check the reason for the penalty and then work with your web team to resolve the issue. Once that’s done, you’ll need to submit your pages through Search Console for reconsideration.
While you’re in Search Console, this is also an excellent time to check to see if Google found any security risks, errors or crawling issues with your site. These don’t have anything to do with manual penalties, but they could affect your search engine rankings. Again, note what Google says, work with your web team to resolve the problem and submit your site for reconsideration.
3. Has the Search Intent Changed?
Over time, Google can change its understanding of a search term’s meaning, directly affecting which websites rank well for specific keywords. A classic example of this is the search term “body bags.” At one time or another, Google has interpreted that term as referring to:
- Cadaver bags
- Big purses
- A 1993 television movie
You can see how Google’s interpretation of “body bags” would change which sites rank best for that keyword.
To find out if the search intent for your keywords has changed, you’ll need to perform manual searches on Google and take the time to study the listings that show up at the top of the SERPs. Does the content on those pages match the content of your website? If there’s a mismatch, keyword research can help you identify better terms for optimizing your site.
4. Have the SERPs Changed?
Another consideration is Google’s interpretation of a term and how it relates to what types of content rank well. At one point, Google might decide that blog articles are the best content to rank for a specific search term and then later decide that product pages are the best content to rank for that keyword.
Again, manual searches are the answer here. You’ll want to search for your keywords and review the top listings to see if they serve up the same type of content as your pages. If there’s a disconnect, consider updating your content or adding pages to your site that matches what you find at the top of the SERPs.
5. Has Your Competition Improved?
Sometimes, a drop in search engine rankings has nothing to do with your website or Google’s interpretations of search terms. In these cases, other websites have likely improved, pushing your site farther down the SERPs.
You’ll need to manually search for the affected terms and compare the pages that rank best against your pages. What is your competition doing better than you? Take note of any differences and work with your web team to make your pages even better.
6. Has Your Site Changed?
Many things can happen purposely or accidentally that can change your website rankings. For instance, if you launch a new website or migrate a part of your website to a new platform, you need to have 301 redirects in place to tell Google where to find the affected pages. Without the redirect coding, Google will think the pages have disappeared and remove them from the SERPs. Also, internal links from one web page to another are an important part of Google’s algorithm. When you move pages, you need to make sure to update all of your internal links to those pages so Google will still be able to find them.
A site change with unintended consequences can occur if you apply a new template to all or part of your site, and the title tags don’t get added back to your web pages. Title tags play an essential role in Google’s algorithm, serving as a signpost identifying the topic of each web page. Without a title tag, that’s one less clue Google has about your web page and one less reason to rank your page well.
These are just a few examples of site changes affecting your search engine rankings. You’ll want to check with your web team to see what changes they’ve made and how those changes may affect your positioning.
7. Have Your Backlinks Changed?
Backlinks are another critical factor in Google’s search algorithm. Links from good, authoritative sites can boost your rankings, while links from spammy sites can drag your performance down.
You should already be tracking your backlinks. If you are, all you need to do is pull an updated list of backlinks using a service like Ahrefs or Majestic. Google Search Console also can provide a list of sites linking back to yours.
Once you have the new list, compare it against the old list and see if any of your high-value backlinks are missing. If so, your first step will be to check Search Console to see if someone accidentally disavowed your good backlinks. A new, correct disavow file should do the trick there.
If an accidental disavowal isn’t the issue, you can send a politely worded request to the site owner or administrator. Explain what page the backlink was on and ask to have it reinstated. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.
If you find many spammy links during your backlink comparison, you can collect them all in one file and submit it in Search Console for disavowal. Approach this step carefully. As noted above, a poorly executed disavowal file can do more harm than good.
A related issue is broken links from other websites to yours. You can find these using a crawling tool like Screaming Frog. Once you have a list of which sites contain broken links, you can contact the site owner or administrator and ask that they correct the link.
Get the Help You Need with Your Google Rankings From OuterBox
A rankings drop is serious business. You need experts at your side to help identify your issues and devise a solution. OuterBox has 17+ years of experience as an SEO services provider, and we know our way around the SERPs. If you’re concerned about a rankings drop, contact us today to take advantage of our expertise.