Traffic Drop Checklist: Start with the Obvious

Posted by Mike Vallano | Filed Under:

You’ve got a site that has had a sudden drop in the rankings and your organic traffic is in the tank.

What do you do?

Freak Out and Curse SEO

Before you spend hours diving into technical SEO issues and wondering if which of your sketchy links got you bitten by Penguin, Check the obvious!

“Why has my traffic suddenly dropped?”

The other day I had a client ask me to look into why traffic had dropped and my first idea was to start looking at the link profile. Then I remembered this checklist, started there, and I noticed the noindex,nofollow tag site-wide.

Finding that saved me untold time of checking other things. Check the obvious first!

off the cliff

Side note: I have no idea why adding a noindex,nofollow tag site-wide is such a common occurrence. DO NOT DO THIS!

Anyway, whether you manage clients or work in-house, it is likely that there are people that can access your sites and make changes without checking with you. These people often don’t think about SEO when they are making changes and when something goes wrong, it is super helpful to have a checklist that starts with the most obvious things first.

Here’s the checklist I’ve been using and I hope it saves you time and headaches in the future:

Step 1: Check the Obvious (aka It ain’t got no gas in it)

  • Check robots.txt file: is the whole site or major sections of the site blocked?
  • Check for noindex tag: check the homepage and a couple main pages to see if the noindex tag has been applied site-wide.
  • Check to see if there is a canonical tag referencing the wrong version of the page ( canonicaled to while is 301’d to
  • Is Analytics still tracking? Has someone inadvertently removed the tracking code from some or all pages? Use Screaming Frog to check Analytics. Perhaps something else isn’t working and you can do a quick GA audit.
  • Check GWT for any error messages, malware, hacking, unnatural link messages, etc.

If it is not something easy to find (it has gas in it), you want gather more data and look at whether or not you’ve been hit by a Panda or Penguin update.

Step 2: Gather more Data and Check for Panda or Penguin

  • When did the decrease start?
  • Is the traffic decrease seasonal (check year-over-year data) or is it due to ranking drops?
  • Is it a group of pages/keywords or is it site-wide?
  • Compare top keywords or keyword groups pre-drop and post-drop to narrow down what has been affected.
  • Was there successful PR or media mentions prior to the drop that temporarily inflated traffic numbers?
  • Does it correlate with an algorithm update?
  • Is the drop just Google or across all search engines (compare post-decrease to pre-decrease and view by search engine)?

There are lots of posts that do a great job on checking for those impacts (such as this and this), so I won’t go into detail here aside from you definitely have your work cut out for you. Sorry it wasn’t something simple.

If at this point you’ve ruled out the obvious and it’s not an algorithm update, now it’s the time to dig in deeper to see what’s doing.

Step 3: Potential Causes (other than Penguin or Panda)

Has anything changed on the site around the time of the decrease that could have had an impact? Review and document changes, and then determine if that’s the cause such as:

  • Navigation changes
  • Page redirects
  • Copy changes
  • Title tag changes

These changes can have big impacts on performance. If you reorganized your navigation, for example, and everything just moved two more clicks away from the homepage, that can have a negative impact.

Step 4: Tools for Further Analysis

In addition to getting those answers, dig into some tools:

  • Dig deeper into Google Webmaster Tools for any errors or issues (indexation, sitemaps, etc.)
  • Look at the campaign in Moz for regular errors, etc.
  • Look at historical Moz data: (campaign>competitive analysis>history) to see if their Moz metrics decreased over time and if it correlates to the drop.
  • Do a site:domain search and see if anything looks off.
  • Run the site through and
  • Check out Raven’s Site Auditor.

Step 5: Develop a Plan to Fix the Problem

  • Compile your data in terms of the decrease timeframes and levels.
  • Work up a process for fixing the issues.
  • Communicate everything to the client or your boss.
  • Create tasks and a plan for fixing issues.
  • Monitor results and speak to it on your next report.

Step 6: Lessons Learned

Once you’ve identified the problem and fixed it, use this as a learning opportunity to inform those that made the changes of their impacts so that similar things don’t happen in the future.

You can access this checklist in Google Spreadsheet format here as well. Hopefully you won’t need it.

If you’ve got anything to add to the checklist please leave it in the comments.