So your traffic fell off a cliff…but what cliff?  Before you flip the bird at Hummingbird or Penguin, let’s have a look at the all of the common causes for a drop in site traffic, and how to use the information from various tools to figure out what went wrong.

What Kind of Traffic Did I Lose?

For starters, I’ll presume you did NOT get a notification in Webmaster Tools of a manual penalty.  If you did, well, you may also have an algorithmic penalty, but you better solve that manual penalty first.

The first step: isolate the source(s) of the traffic that dropped.

Apparently far too many people were finding what they needed in Google Analytics (“not provided” notwithstanding), and so they’ve moved things around and renamed them so that we all have a new puzzle to solve.  *sigh*.  In Google Analytics, you’ll want to click on Acquisition, then Channels.  Then, pick a decent block of days before the traffic drop, and compare to the same sized block of days after the traffic drop (and give yourself a few days margin on either side of the drop date).  And note (unfortunately) that with the new & improved GA, you’re not going to see anything for the organic channel prior to July 25th, 2013 (SERIOUSLY guys?!!!!). (Note that data is available via Campaigns–>Keywords–>Organic, just not via Acquisition–>Channels.)

Did organic drop?  Or referrals from another site?  Or are you just not getting traffic from your social media efforts?  In the example below, we don’t have a Google penalty or even an impact from Hummingbird or Panda:  organic traffic is pretty steady.

all channels

If your traffic drop was in referral traffic, drill down to see what site(s) stopped sending you lovely customers.  If it’s a drop in social, or direct traffic–you can figure that out without my help.

What Flavor of Organic Traffic?

So let’s assume we’re seeing a drop in organic traffic.  Click on Organic Search in the table:

organic search in GA

Then, click Source/Medium at the top:

source medium

In the example below, Bing and Yahoo dropped, but not Google.  The Penguin is innocent!

bing and yahoo dropped

Let’s presume we have seen a drop in just Google…and click on Google in the table to look at traffic just from Google search.

Is it Keyword Specific?

To see traffic by keyword from just Google, click on Secondary dimension, then expand Traffic Sources, and select Keyword:

secondary dimension

Now, we’ll want to look at the traffic by keyword to see if a specific keyword or keywords seem to have taken a big hit for us.  Be sure to factor in the migration of a lot of traffic that used to be reported on by keyword to “not provided” (especially if you’re comparing before and after Sept. 23rd 2013).

more not provided

In the example above, what’s really happened?  Traffic for the two top terms didn’t really drop; it’s just being reported under “not provided” now.

You’re going to want to look at more than the first page of keywords, most likely.  But I’ll warn you–be careful of how many rows you tell it to show on a page–if you pick the maximum (5000 rows), you’ll have time to play a few games of tennis before the report is done.

tennis time

Beware of Other Stuff

Let’s say we’ve found a couple of terms that look like Trouble.  Before you jump to the conclusion that you have a Penguin penalty for those keywords, do a quick depersonalized ranking check (Firefox: append &pws=0 to the query string after a search; in Chrome, do a New Incognito Window).  In this example, it looks like I’ve lost a bunch of traffic on these closely related terms:

best time to visit tahiti drop

Oh no!  50% drop!  But do the search:

best time to visit tahiti SERPS

And I’m still ranking at #1.  So it’s not a penalty, it’s not Hummingbird loving me less.  In this particular case, it’s the traffic reporting moving from keywords to “not provided”.  But, it could have been seasonality, or some other site’s result is suddenly much more appealing and drawing more clicks–for instance, what if one (or more) of your competitors are getting rich snippets?  Google+ authorship, pulling the photo?   I’ve seen stats showing that getting the Google+ authorship working and showing the photo can increase clicks on that result 40% or more.  And those 40% of clicks were taken away from someone else’s site…Google didn’t manufacture new customers to do this.

It’s also possible that 1-2 new competitors have bumped you down a spot or two.  If you were previously at #7 on page one and now are #8, you’re not going to see much change, but if you were #1 and now you’re #2 or #3, it’s likely to be much more significant.  So maybe Google doesn’t love you any less, they just love your competitors a little more than they used to.

So We Found a Keyword-Specific Penalty

You’ve been Penguinated, and now need to get links removed or disavowed for particular keywords.  The best tool I’ve found for spotting over-optimized anchor text issues is Open Site Explorer.  Put in the home page of your site, then click the Anchor Text tab, then select All Pages on This Root Domain.

ose

What if it’s Not Keyword Specific?

If your organic traffic dropped across Google, Bing and Yahoo, then perhaps you’ve lost some backlinks.  If your link-building has been a bit on the Dark Side, you might have a whole pile of links from networks of websites that have suddenly disappeared.  I’ve had a number of clients see this happen: link networks out there are going out of business because more and more webmasters are understanding that buying links from them are a recipe for a penalty.  You might not have been penalized for these links by any of the search engines….but, the network itself gets shut down because they can’t sell much anymore.

Another thing that can cause traffic to drop across all the engines is when a really strong link moves from a prominent page on a really prominent site to the archives.  This is most likely to have a noticeable effect on smaller sites with relatively weak profiles.  That awesome link from a big national monthly magazine site all of a sudden moves from being on a page 1 click (and tons of link juice!) from their super-strong home page, to 4 clicks in, buried in the archives, now on a page that gets barely a drip of link juice.

What if it’s Not Keyword Specific, But Just Google?

The obvious first check is going to be to compare the date of the drop to the known dates of Google algorithm changes (Moz.com has a great resource for this).  Unfortunately, this is now only going to be helpful if the drop happened after July 25th (I’m still pretty pissed about this, can you tell?).

It Smells Like a Panda

If the drop seems aligned with a Panda algorithm or data update, then it’s time to look at the core factors that make a web page tasty (or not) to Panda:

·         Internal duplicate content issues: do you have many pages with nearly the exact same content?

·         External duplicate content issues:  are you republishing the same text and images that exist on dozens of other websites?

·         Above-the-fold content: without scrolling down, take a screen shot of one of your pages, and print it.  Take a yellow highlighter, and color over everything that’s in your header, main navigation, a form, anything that’s a background image (vs. a regular img src= image) content that’s on most pages (e.g. a testimonial list, or a set of logos of partner companies), and everything that could be clicked on.  What’s remaining is your unique content for that page–aim for something like 70% of the page or greater to be unique content. If you need a second highlighter to finish this task for that 1st page, I think I’ve found your problem.

·         Richness: how fabulous is your content on the page?  Are the images big, or postage stamp sized?  Do you have embedded video?  Embedded Google maps?

It Smells Fishy, Like the Penguin

If the drop seems aligned with a Penguin algorithm or data update, but it’s NOT keyword-specific, then perhaps it’s a link quality issue.  Use Open Site Explorer to see if you’ve got any sitewide (or nearly sitewide) links from any particular domain (remember how WPMU got hurt by this?)

Or maybe your adventurous link-building techniques over the past few years have finally caught up to you, and Penguin is not a happy bird over some of the places linking to you.  A super tool for finding toxic backlinks is the Link Detox tool from Link Research Tools.

detox

Be a bit careful with this tool, however, as it can register false positives at times.  Pay attention to the reason (e.g. click on TOX1 in the report to learn why this one got flagged), and then investigate a few for yourself before going hog-wild disavowing most of the known universe.  It’s a terrific tool, but you can’t just fire-and-forget.

detox 2

Final Warning

If you KNOW you have a very risky backlink profile, be aware that Google may update its Penguin backlink data and calculations without any particular announcement; it happens all the time. Google could decide to no longer count links from www.shady-backlinks-r-us.biz and that could suddenly affect your rankings overall.

As well, if you’ve got some article marketing in your checkered past, be aware that Google is hunting these networks down and slaying them on a regular basis.

19 Comments

  1. Bruce Jones October 22nd, 2013

    Nice job lining out all the steps you took, I realized I was doing many of the same tasks but not in the same order and not using the same tools.

  2. Michael Cottam October 22nd, 2013

    Thanks Bruce!

  3. Sergiu Draganus October 22nd, 2013

    Hi Michael, the article is excellent and very helpful about how to recover on penalties.

    I would like to add something to it, as it happened to me and maybe other users are experiencing the same.

    When checking the rankings of the website for a specific keyword, need to be sure you are logged out from google and have cookies deleted, otherwise, sometimes you can still see your site on 1st position but in fact this will be only because of your browsing history…

  4. Michael Cottam October 22nd, 2013

    Good point, Sergiu.

    Two other options for relatively sanitary searching are (a) in Chrome, use a New Incognito Window, and (b) after doing the search, append &pws=0 to the query URL up in the browser’s address bar. Both of these techniques turn off personalization to an extent, although in my experience they don’t produce exactly the same results. Note that I don’t think you can do the &pws=0 in Chrome anymore as it doesn’t show you the query URL in the address bar. *sigh*.

    Dr. Pete at Moz did this article on depersonalization techniques about a year ago.

  5. jbrock October 22nd, 2013

    But I’ll warn you–be careful of how many rows you tell it to show on a page–if you pick the maximum (5000 rows), you’ll have time to play a few games of tennis before the report is done.

    Actually, there’s a way to see all the rows on one page. Avinash Kaushik explains it over on his Occam’s Razor blog. Here’s the post Google Analytics Tutorial: 8 Valuable Tips To Hustle With Data!.

    Scroll down to #8 and follow steps 1-5. It’s a bit technical at first. But it’s not so bad once you’ve done it a few times.

  6. Michael Cottam October 22nd, 2013

    Good tip jbrock! Avinash is a continuous source of gems (and a great speaker, too). Thanks!

  7. jesse fogarty October 23rd, 2013

    Great article.

    Though i would recommend using the Panguin tool from Barricuda. This tool will utilize your Google Analytics data and compare it against the latest Google Algorithm changes. The tool plots the data on a graph making it easy to figure out what penalty you were hit by.

    Give it a check and let me know what you think. I’ve become almost loyal to this tool so, if there’s anything better please do let me know. I’m always trying to make my life a little bit easier :)

    Cheers

  8. Michael Cottam October 23rd, 2013

    Cool…I haven’t used that tool, although I’ve used the Chrome plugin that overlays the algo changes on your Analytics traffic graph. Unfortunately all of these tools are becoming less useful when looking at keyword-specific penalties, as Google goes closer to 100% “not provided”. Still totally helpful for general poisonous-linking-domains penalties though.

  9. Jessica Zurik October 23rd, 2013

    Hey Michael, What are the main Link Detox alternatives IYHO?

  10. Michael Cottam October 23rd, 2013

    Hi Jessica, honestly once I tried Link Detox I never looked back (at least for non-keyword specific penalties). There may be better tools out there, though. MC

  11. kennethvonrauch October 24th, 2013

    Thanks for the article. It’s just in the nick of time because I’m currently trying to figure out why one of my client’s sites was hit. Problem is, it was not a sudden drop but a really steady one. Are there any ‘tricks’ to deal with that sort of prolonged drops in traffic?

  12. Michael Cottam October 24th, 2013

    Hi Kenneth,

    A steady drop over time could be many things. Are they losing backlinks? Or if many of the backlinks are in blog posts, it could be that those blog posts are getting pushed out into the archives of those blogs, and now the pages with the links to them are weaker and weaker.

    What’s their bounce rate like? If it’s terrible, it could be that is affected them.

    What has the competition done? Have they been pushed down in the rankings 1-2 places for their biggest terms?

  13. marita October 24th, 2013

    Thanks a mill for posting this!! I’ve started losing track with all the changes Google has been going through, but this is a great way to figure out why traffic is suddenly going up or down. Hurray :)

  14. Spook SEO November 28th, 2013

    Hi Michael,

    I tend to agree with you that another thing that can cause traffic to drop across all the search engines is when a very strong link moves from a famous page on a really famous site to the archives.

  15. Sunny December 5th, 2013

    Hi Michael!

    Great article! I did notice that you are using Default Channel Groupings to diagnose, which I found to be not 100% accurate, unless you’re customizing them or working within Google’s definitions of a grouping (http://www.seerinteractive.com/blog/new-google-analytics-channel-groupings).

    I actually still use the All Traffic report in GA and filter as I need. Since Google is pre-defining these groupings w/ their own definitions, the “drops” might not match what you’re used to looking at.

    Hope this helps!

    Sunny

  16. Michael Cottam December 5th, 2013

    Good point, Sunny…I’ve been coming to that same conclusion about the channel groupings too. Thanks for the reference to the Seer Interactive post, too.

  17. Jobeesh Pignati February 6th, 2015

    This post was super helpful! Thanks so much.

    FWIW, I found somebody on Fiverr that will do this for $5.

  18. Abdul Rehman February 24th, 2015

    Sir, I was also facing problems with my website, and i was worried that why this happened, you helped me alot,
    after investigation, i found that it is due to a keyword specific,
    Thank you for such a kid info.

  19. Ben William September 14th, 2016

    Hello Michael,
    Thanks for your great illustrations based on dropping keywords rank.
    It is horrible situation for business owner or webmaster, when you are losing organic traffic or business leads.

    There are many reason behind for dropping keywords. If it is reason for few keywords dropping , you may not panic for that. Just concentrate on your seo work.

    If you drop bulk keywords rank, then you may need do bit more research on your back-links, content and other technical issues.

    Google commonly change their search algorithm for better user experiences. So, try to do only white had seo optimizations for long run business

    Cheers
    Ben William
    Business Development Manager
    Dynamic Web Solutions Pty Ltd
    http://www.dynamicwebs.com.au

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Michael Cottam is an SEO consultant and native of Portland, OR, with addictions to travel, motorcycles, and flying. He serves on the board of SEMpdx, is an Associate at Moz, and is the founder of the travel planning website Visual Itineraries.