Analysing & fixing organic traffic drops

Sam Underwood
Sam Underwood
October 27, 2020
15 mins read

We've all been there.

That panic when a Google algorithm update rolls out, and it isn't in your favour. Or maybe it's when a pandemic hits and nobody wants to travel causing demand to plummet?

It's 2020, who knows.

In these situations, one of the best things you can do is first, take a deep breath.

And then second, start diving into the data to find where the drop has occurred and then begin creating a plan to fix it.

Read on for an actionable guide on both analysing and then fixing a drop in organic traffic.

First, figure out the cause.

Your first step is diagnosing what caused the drop in organic traffic.

The usual culprits tend to be:

  • You've messed up something technical on the site
  • You haven't provided enough value for users, and Google's released an algorithm update to replace you with sites that have
  • Demand has dropped for your product/service
  • People have stopped searching for your brand as much
  • Your tracking is broken

With all these potential causes, we need to start by ruling some out.

Why is this the first step?

Individually ruling out potential causes is essential as it prevents false positives.

On more than one occasion a site I've been working on has had their tracking break, or a technical issue show up at the same time as an algorithm update.

Even with my last algorithm update analysis, I found Pinterest had dropped significantly.

pinterest visibility drop

Only to later find all that traffic was going to the .com site, potentially highlighting an issue outside of the update.

pinterest visibility change

Below are some steps I'd recommend running through to figure out what is going on.

Check your tracking works.

This is the first thing you need to rule out.

If you're a Google Analytics pro, you can just visit a few URLs on your site, and check the Google Analytics or Google Tag Manager code is in the HTML.

Here is an example of what you should see in the source for GTM (dataLayer code is optional).

gtm installation

You can also double check by heading to the network tab to see if requests are being sent to the Google Analytics tracking URL.

analytics network request example

If your tracking code is okay and requests are being sent, chances are things are okay. I would still triple check by doing the below.

Another method is by using the tag assistant extension for Chrome.

Once installed, enable it, refresh your page and see the results.

tag assistant

You should see one pageview request going to your Google Analytics property. If you see two, you may also find your bounce rate is low, and you need to fix your tracking.

No tracking issues?

Let's move on.

Check it's not a technical SEO issue.

Next, let's check nothing has broken on the site.

A quick first check is performing a site:domain.com search.

image 39

If crucial pages are missing from the result, or there is messaging about URLs being blocked from crawling there may be a technical issue. This will likely be because of:

  • A noindex tag in the <head> of the page or in HTTP headers.
  • Robots.txt rules not allowing crawling

Check whether a noindex is preventing indexing.

To quickly check for a noindex, I'd recommend installing a chrome extension such as SEO peek.

Once installed, you can see HTTP headers as well as any tags that may be causing the issue.

chrome seo peek

Check whether the robots.txt is preventing crawling.

If you want to check for a robots.txt issue, I'd recommend using the Google Search Console (GSC) robots.txt testing tool and entering a few different URLs to see what it says.

robots txt tester example

Check for issues with canonicals.

One common technical SEO issue is with canonical tags not correctly referencing the right page.

But first, what is a canonical URL?

A canonical URL is the representative page from a group of duplicate URLs on your site.

You suggest which page is the canonical with the rel=canonical tag.

When you use this tag, it suggests to Google which page ranking signals should be consolidated into.

canonicals

Canonicals can be found in the HTTP headers or in the <head> of the page. When in the <head> they look like this:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://example.com/dresses/green-dresses" />

If you find it is an issue with canonicals, audit them URL by URL and see if you can spot a pattern.

Sometimes it can be something simple like they're referencing pages incorrectly or they include parameters when they shouldn't.

Other potential technical issues.

Ultimately, the list of potential tech issues could go on. You could be having problems with:

  • International targeting
  • Redirect issues from a migration
  • Lack of parity between your mobile and desktop site
  • Internal linking changes reducing equity to essential pages
  • 404s on pages with considerable link equity
  • And more

To entirely rule out technical, you'll need to do an audit. If you're skilled in SEO, consider following a technical SEO audit template.

Check for technical issues site-wide.

If you want to check for these issues site-wide, I'd recommend using tools such as Sitebulb or Screaming Frog.

If you want to be alerted next time a technical issues arises, take a look at ContentKing.

Check for algorithm updates.

After I've ruled out both tracking and potential tech issues, I'll usually investigate whether there has been an unannounced algorithm update.

If you aren't on Twitter, my usual first place to check is Search Engine Roundtable for any news.

If it's early days, you can also use a variety of tools that monitor search results to measure how volatile they are.

accuranker grump

Here are some of the top ones:

If it is an unannounced algorithm update, jump ahead to the next step, analysing the drop.

There is also the potential here that Google has rolled out a pre-announced algorithm update, and you've missed it. Recent example updates include:

Double-check the Google Webmasters blog to see if there has been an announcement you've missed.

If there has been a pre-announced update you've missed, look into following the guidelines on the webmaster blog to update your site.

Check it isn't demand related.

If we're still coming up empty, it's worth also clarifying the drop isn't caused by a decline in demand for your service.

There are two ways I tend to do this.

My favourite way to see whether search demand has changed is the impression data you get through GSC.

Impression data shows how many times you've been seen in search results, making it a great way to measure the number of searches for a query.

What I usually do here is pick out a few head terms to see if impressions have changed significantly over time.

impression data example

In this example, demand has been declining for months, so this would explain a drop in search traffic.

I'd also recommend doing some year over year comparisons within GSC to see if the demand change is seasonal.

year over year comparisons

There are some caveats to impression data...

The only issue with using impression data to measure search demand is it shows how often you are seen in search results, not how many people are searching.

That means you could be getting fewer impressions because you aren't ranking on page one anymore.

To ensure that isn't the case, cross-check impressions with your average position. You want to ensure you're consistently on page one during the period.

impressions avg pos cross checking

For this example, the lowest this site ranked was position 8, so we can safely say this impression trend is reasonably representative of overall search demand.

If you aren't consistently on page one, making impression data inaccurate, the next best place to look is Google Trends.

Simply enter a head term and see how demand in your market is changing.

google trends example
Example Google trend chart for a head keyword

Check whether you've lost links.

There is the potential that you've lost essential backlinks which is hurting your organic performance.

To check whether that is the case, use a tool such as Ahrefs Site Explorer and check the below chart on the overview dashboard.

ahrefs lost links

If it looks like you've had a spike in lost links, investigate further in the lost referring domains report.

ahrefs lost referring domains

Once in the report, select a long timespan and check for domains you've lost links from that have a high Domain Rating.

ahrefs lost referring domains table

Use the Backlinks dropdown to find which page you lost the link from. If the link was relevant and of high-value, consider reaching out to the site owner to try to reclaim the backlink.

And if it's none of the above?

If you've gone through the above checks and come up empty, this points towards a broader SEO issue where your current strategy just isn't working, causing competitors to overtake you.

In this scenario, I recommend going to the next section and analysing the impact, then creating an action plan.

Analysing the impact

In some scenarios, further analysis is needed outside of just spotting the issue.

If the cause of the drop is technical or tracking related, the solution is as simple as fixing the issue.

If it's demand related, there isn't much you can do with your SEO to quickly counteract that. You more need to focus on marketing tactics you can use to generate demand.

However, if you've seen a gradual decline or you've been impacted by an algorithm update, you need to understand where the drop has occurred before you create an action plan.

Analysing the drop by specificity.

There are four different levels of specificity I figure this out on.

  • Sitewide: Obvious one, the overall impact to organic traffic
  • Site sections: Which areas of the site are impacted the most?
  • URLs: Which URLs are affected the most?
  • Keywords: Which keywords are affected the most?
drop analysis specificity

By using this model, you can quickly understand where to focus and prioritise the action plan.

Outside of narrowing down in this way, it can also be useful to get data by:

  • Device
  • Country

How to do the analysis?

There are two main ways I measure the impact of drops.

One is through Sistrix, and the other is by using GSC.

I tend to use GSC for sites when I've got access, Sistrix is my choice when I don't have GSC access.

Using Sistrix to analyse a drop.

Whilst I like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and other monitoring tools. At the moment, Sistrix is my favourite tools for quickly seeing ranking changes.

This is because Sistrix:

  • Makes it easy to break down changes thanks to its directories feature
  • Has a ranking changes report that makes it easy to pinpoint changes
  • Provides intuitive comparison tools like with its 'SERP compare' feature (shown later)
Ahrefs made an update...

While writing this, Ahrefs reworked its organic keywords report to allow for date comparisons.

ahrefs new organic keywords

This is a great improvement on their old report, but I'd still quite like to be able to set exact dates to compare, rather than months like you can currently.

To show you how to do this, I'm going to run through a drop analysis with Sistrix for Screwfix where visibility dropped that wasn't due to a known algorithm update.

screwfix visibility drop

From the above we can already check off the sitewide view of the drop, so next head to the 'Directories' area from the sidebar.

sistrix structure options

When you do this, Sistrix shows the visibility index again, but this time split by each directory of the site.

If you've implemented a good URL structure, you should hopefully now be able to see which section of the site has been impacted.

In this case, it's the /c/ directory which contains Screwfix category pages.

screwfix directory visibility drop

In the table below the chart select the /c/ directory and analyse path.

sistrix analyse directory path

At this point, you can analyse URLs within the /c/ directory by heading back to the directories section in the sidebar again.

screwfix directories 2

For this example, I want to see all ranking changes within the /c/ directory, so I'll stay there for now.

Head to the ranking changes report in the left sidebar.

sistrix ranking changes sidebar

We now want to filter for the dates we've seen the drop in traffic.

I also usually add a position filter based on the 'from' date.

sistrix filters

This is handy if you want to see what keywords have dropped that are traffic driving. These are the ones that are going to have the most considerable impact on Sistrix's visibility metric.

If you want to, tweak the filters more to see keywords that were previously in the top 3 and have decreased.

We've now got a list of keywords dropping alongside the associated URLs. Next, let's figure out which keywords and URLs have seen the largest drop.

We'll be taking data outside of Sistrix to accomplish that. Use the template below (making a copy via 'File > Make a copy') and follow along.

You can use any tool to do this analysis.

While I've used Sistrix, you can use any tool provider. As long as they can give you the keyword, position before, position after, URL, and search volume.

The latest version of the Ahrefs organic keywords report will work fine.

The first step is to download the data from Sistrix.

sistrix download data

You'll need to copy and paste the columns up to the 'Search Volume' column into the template.

Once you've copied the data, it should look like the below.

ranking change data

I've highlighted above some columns that will automatically fill in based upon some formulas. Make sure not to delete anything in these columns.

Head to the '📈Analysis' tab and see the results.

ranking change analysis

There is a handy dropdown at the top where you can pick an option on how you want to view the data, as well as an input for limiting the results returned.

The previous position option in the dropdown allows you to see from which position you dropped from caused the largest impact to traffic.

impact by position

As you'd expect, the drops from keywords Screwfix ranked higher for impacted them the most.

You can also see the drop by different sub-directory levels (3 levels deep by default).

directory analysis level

As well as by each URL individually.

url drop analysis

Any by every keyword.

keyword drop analysis
Some additional points on this analysis.
  • While I've used this to analyse a drop in rankings, you can also use the template to investigate an increase. Just put the relevant data into the sheet.
  • The estimated traffic change is precisely that, an estimate. It figures out the estimated change based upon expected click-through rates by position. Click-through rates and amount of no-click searches can vary massively by keyword, so just use this as an indication.

But what if you don't need to use third-party data to do the analysis? In that case, I'd recommend using Google Search Console.

Using Google Search Console to analyse a drop.

Google Search Console is my preferred way of analysing organic traffic changes as you get keyword-level data.

If we were using Google Analytics, our analysis would stop at the URL level of the specificity process I went through earlier.

We'll first go through analysing in the frontend, then I'll show you how you can take things further with the API.

You'll first need to head to the performance report in the left sidebar.

Once there, it's as simple as choosing the dates and heading to compare:

gsc date compare

Once you've done that, select one metric to compare. In this case, I'm looking for traffic changes, so I've chosen clicks.

gsc metrics compare

Then use the difference column in the table below to sort by significant decreases/increases.

gsc table compare

Using the tabs above the table, you can view the largest changes by page, country, device, and search appearance.

gsc tabs

Thanks to the keyword-level data, you can also filter by query.

By filtering by brand name, you can evaluate whether the change in traffic is due to non-brand or brand traffic.

brand filter

After you've filtered for your brand name, look at the scorecard metrics to see how much of the traffic change was due to brand.

gsc metric comparisons

If you want to analyse a specific directory, add a 'containing' page filter for the directory you want to investigate.

gsc page contains filter
Using my GSC traffic change analysis template

While the frontend is great, I like bringing data into Google Sheets to make checking drops and increases quicker.

The template is similar to the Sistrix one.

gsc traffic change template
I've blurred/hidden some parts to keep my client data anonymous!

You can see it's got a variety of features including:

  • A customisable date range, the comparison default to the previous period
  • Multiple data grouping options, showing you drops/increases by:
    • Keyword
    • Position
    • URL
    • Brand/non-brand
    • Directory level 1/2/3
  • Order data by the largest increases or decreases
  • Limit the data returned

It does use a paid tool called Supermetrics to extract data from the GSC API, you'll need to sign up if you want to use this template.

First make a copy of the template linked below via 'File > Make a copy'.

Head to the 'Data - GSC' tab and open up the Supermetrics sidebar via Addons > Supermetrics > Launch sidebar in the top menu.

Select cell A1 and modify the Supermetrics query in the right sidebar.

gsc modify query highlighted

You'll then need to:

  • Select the GSC profile you want to analyse
  • Select a date range (if required), it defaults to the 3 months. Remember you'll need a date range that includes the comparison period.
  • In the options dropdown, enter your brand name in the brand keywords area

Once done, apply changes and wait for the sheet to load.

Next, configure the '📈 Analysis' sheet to your liking and look over the tables/charts to quickly highlight where traffic changes are coming from.

gsc traffic change by url
An example chart showing traffic change by URL

Creating a plan of action

Now we know where we've seen the impact, the next steps are to evaluate why we think we've dropped in organic traffic.

Enter this part of the process with a mindset of:

  • Is your site providing more value than competitors?
  • Is there any way you could provide more value?

The plan of action needs to be an evaluation of your SEO strategy and maybe even your business model.

Details of how to do each task is outside the scope of this article. However, here's where I'd start.

Competitor analysis

If you've been dropping in traffic, someone else has been gaining.

So start by finding whose been taking traffic from you.

If you use a rank tracker, this could be as simple as logging in and checking some charts.

Market Share report chart showing how to highlight Google algorithm changes.

In Sistrix, it's as easy as entering adding some competitors when viewing your own visibility.

sistrix compare data

Once you've done that, you get a great view of market trends.

sistrix visibility comparison

But it's important to find who is gaining for specifically the keywords you're dropping for.

Pick out some of the top keywords from our earlier analysis and start with a SERP analysis to see what has changed.

To see which competitor has moved where, you would have needed rank tracking set up before the drop, or you'll need a competitor analysis tool.

Most competitor analysis tools provide historical data; if you're an Ahrefs fan, they provide it via their keyword explorer.

ahrefs keyword history

I tend to use Sistrix as they've got some handy features for comparing SERP changes.

In this example, I'm researching the term 'sheds'.

sistrix sheds search

Head to 'SERP Compare' in the left sidebar and enter a filter for the dates you dropped.

sistrix screwfix sheds drop

You've now get a view of what precisely changed for that keyword.

Now start making some page-level comparisons against competitors performing better, asking questions like:

  • How does the content compare?
  • Does this page have better inbound links?
  • Is the UX/UI on this page better than mine?
  • How is the site internally linking to this page?
  • Does the site cover the topic of what the user searches for?
    • For example, does it cover keyword variations, common questions, and multiple-intents in an organised way?

Then compare the domains, asking things such as:

  • Does this performing better specialise in this product/service offering?
    • For example, sheds.co.uk specialises, Argos is a general retail store.
  • Does the site have more authority?
    • Use metrics from tools like Ahrefs, Majestic, or Moz to compare.
  • Is this site a more popular brand?
    • Enter the brand names within a keyword research tool or compare using Google Trends.
  • Is this site more popular within the niche?
    • Use a keyword research tool and combine '[brand name] + [product/service]', in this case 'screwfix sheds' vs 'argos sheds'.

Once you've done this for a few of the dropped keywords, you'll start to get a view of potential reasons for the drop.

I've recently written on the topic of SEO competitor analysis, so if you're looking for more details, start there.

Content auditing.

We checked earlier for technical issues, so next start evaluating your content. While assessing, have the mindset that your site is only as good as your weakest pages.

It's best to do this because there is a good chance Google may evaluate your site as a whole.

In general when it comes to quality of a website we try to be as fine grained as possible to figure out which specific pages or parts of the website are seen as being really good and which parts are kind of maybe not so good.

And depending on the website, sometimes that’s possible. Sometimes that’s not possible. We just have to look at everything overall.

John Mueller

From experience, especially when impacted by an algorithm, I find issue areas of a site tend to drag down higher quality areas.

Begin with a site-wide analysis to spot issues with content performance, I do this by comparing the number of indexable URLs vs:

  • Google Search Console metrics
    • Clicks
    • Impressions
  • Google Analytics metrics (all channels)
    • Sessions
    • Pageviews
content performance analysis

This analysis allows you to quickly understand whether we have pages on the site:

  • With a low search interest
  • That nobody navigates to
  • That get a low amount of external traffic, both via organic and other channels

In the above example, you can see a large portion of the site receives no clicks from organic, no sessions from other channels, and isn't navigated to internally (zero pageviews).

This highlights a potential issue with the content being uploaded to the site.

To analyse further, it can then help to look at zero-click pages by site section.

content performance by section 2

We now know both the blog and news area need some work, and we've got quite a lot of products not performing too well.

You'll now want to go through and evaluate the content URL by URL and make a decision whether to keep, improve, merge or remove each page. With the preference being to improve where it makes sense.

Your decision should be based on a quantitative review of metrics collected about the page, such as:

  • Clicks
  • Impressions
  • Referring domains
  • Word count
  • Date published/updated
  • Ranking keywords

As well as a qualitative review, checking things such as:

  • Is the content grammatically correct?
  • Does the content cover the topic well?
  • Does it link to other useful resources?
  • Is it better than competing articles?
  • Is the author an expert?
  • Is the author clearly shown in the content?

Google themselves has provided more questions you could ask when reviewing, released shortly after the Panda algorithm update.

Content auditing really deserves an article within itself, so its something I'll cover in the future to provide more insights into how I do it, and also how to speed it up!

Summary

And we're done, you've successfully figured out the cause of a drop, where it's happening and found potential ways to improve your site.

Now you need to begin implementing your strategy and tracking your growth back to recovery.

Hopefully this article has helped, if you have any questions get in touch or tweet me @SamUnderwoodUK.

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