Updated: Mar 2
Whether you're a content marketer or website owner, chances are you've seen sharp traffic fluctuations from time to time. You've likely gotten a good enough feel for your traffic's ebbs and flows that you know what's natural or not. In turn, you may sometimes see your organic traffic suddenly drop, seemingly unnaturally, and be understandably alarmed. Fortunately, there are multiple usual suspects behind it, and many underlying causes are easy to fix. Still, it's imperative that you get to the bottom of such issues quickly to ensure minimal losses and swift recovery.
With that in mind, let us explore said usual suspects one by one. In no particular order, the following 5 practices may deserve your consideration.
#1 Contextualize the drop
A crucial, preferably first, analytical step is to contextualize the drop. That is to say, your organic traffic doesn't suddenly drop in a vacuum. Rather, it may be related to various factors that may either remedy themselves or require your appropriate intervention.
Market traffic trends
For one, the issue may not be on your end specifically. It might simply be a general market traffic trend that's affecting your website, along with others in your niche. Thus, you may use such analytics tools as SEMRush's Market Explorer, Ahrefs, or Moz to compare your market's overall traffic trends with your domain's. If your traffic follows your market's general trend, it may be a natural drop – albeit sharp enough to alert you.
Similarly, it may be that you're losing organic traffic due to no fault of your own. Rather, it may be you're losing traffic to your competitors. In this case, the issue is typically one of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). To deduce this, use any competitor analysis tools available, or consult digital marketing agencies to conduct competitor analyses. Examine such factors as keyword research, and compare your month-to-month traffic with that of your peers.
Finally, another contextual element is seasonal traffic. Comparing traffic month-to-month may hint at a pressing, immediate loss of traffic, but it may simply be a self-correcting seasonal drop. Renowned marketer Neil Patel describes this perspective as "zooming out", and it may indeed set your mind at ease. Here, you may use Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and any third-party analytics tools at your disposal to deduce this.
#2 Examine your website’s SEO foundations
Then, you may take your time to deeply examine your website as regards SEO. A well-structured website is by no means immune to organic traffic drops, but it certainly is much less prone to them. In this regard, whether you're examining your current website or building a new one, consider such factors as the following.
URL structure; subdomains and subdirectories
Here, you may initially examine your URL structure. Your initial choice of using a subdomain or a subdirectory will weigh in on your organic traffic, and switching it up may account for cases when your organic traffic suddenly drops.
In brief, a subdomain looks like blog.example.com. In contrast, a subdirectory, or subfolder, looks like example.com/blog. Google's John Mueller explains both in-depth in the video, "subdomain or subfolder, which is better for SEO?"
As he notes, both are "fine" for SEO. There are, of course, SEO merits to both, depending on your specific website of choice. Regardless, what matters in this context is consistency; in Mueller's words, "picking a setup that you can keep for longer" matters, because "changes to a site's URL structure tend to take a bit of time to settle down in Sear
XML and HTML sitemaps
Similarly, both XML and HTML sitemaps are crucial to organic traffic. The latter enable search engine crawlers to index your pages faster and prevent orphaned pages, while the latter ease human visitors' navigation.
Thus, a malformed or incomplete XML sitemap may account for sudden drops of organic traffic; it may simply be that Google isn't indexing your new pages swiftly enough. Conversely, a lack of proper, or any, HTML sitemaps may be deterring existing visitors. In turn, reduced engagement metrics may be lowering your SEO score, impacting your search engine visibility, and reducing your traffic.
#3 Audit your internal links and backlinks
Looking both within and outside of your website, you may then begin auditing your links. Both internal links and backlinks are the proverbial backbone of SEO, and oversights on both may account for cases when organic traffic suddenly drops.
First, as highlighted above, your site structure is crucial to a pleasant User Experience (UX). Here, you may examine your internal links under a few different scopes:
Do internal links enrich their pages, or distract visitors? You may examine your users’ behavior using heat maps to deduce this.
Do internal links follow a logical structure? Examine whether your internal links lead to logical pages across your visitors’ journeys.
Is every page on your website linked to from another? This is particularly important in the case of orphaned pages, and well-structured internal links benefit all your pages.
Should you be wondering how internal links affect organic traffic, the answer is simple. User engagement metrics dictate your page's SEO score – so the less authoritative Google perceives your site to be, the less it will recommend it to new visitors.
Then, you may check your backlinks or inbound links. Link losses are often to blame for sudden drops in organic traffic, as well as, by definition, referral traffic. Here, you may use such backlink audit tools as Ahrefs, Majestic, and others to identify backlink losses. If you do, you may then begin to rectify the issue through such means as reaching out to linking sites or bolstering your link-building strategies.
As you do, it may be ideal to also examine your resulting Follow/NoFollow backlink ratio. While rare, any sudden changes to your ratio may cause Google to suspect foul play and penalize websites.
#4 Look for potential Google penalties
On the subject of Google penalties, there is a vast array of them to be aware of. Penalties are among the primary reasons for sudden drops in organic traffic, and are unfortunately relatively hard to anticipate.
WordStream helpfully identifies 4 main types of Google penalties, with varying severity:
URL or directory-level penalties
Delisting or de-indexing
Then, they distinguish between manual penalties and algorithmic penalties. The latter typically occur due to perceived black hat SEO practices, such as:
Unnatural links to your site
Structured data abuse
These are most typically preventable. Should they occur, you may use all tools at your disposal, from Google Analytics to third-party tools, to identify the potential cause and make adjustments. Over time, the penalty will be lifted – although belated responses may still cost you valuable traffic.
Manual Google penalties are much easier to address, fortunately. Simply use Google Search Console, and navigate to Security & Manual Actions> Manual actions in your dashboard. There, you may find exact information on the issue, apply your corrections, and submit them for review.
#5 Check for Google algorithm updates
With all of the above covered, there are still Google's algorithms themselves to examine. At this stage, you may understand your customers, cater to their journeys' needs for an impeccable UX, and fully match their search intent – but still observe sudden drops in organic traffic. If none of the above work, it may very well be an algorithm update that has hampered your SEO score.
Unfortunately, SEO ranking factors are less than fully transparent. Backlinko's 200 ranking factors list attempts to explore them, but it still does so based on research, study, deduction, and conjecture. What's worse, ContentKing notes that "Google conducted 3,200 updates in 2018 alone", and estimates the number per year has only risen since.
Thus, there are no clear-cut answers for this issue. Still, you may consider such solutions as the following:
Use relevant change detection tools. Such tools as Barry Schwartz's aptly named Was There a Google Update can provide some initial actionable insights.
Follow digital marketers. Marketers such as the aforecited keep a very close eye on everything SEO; if there have been algorithm changes, chances are they’ll notice.
Consult digital marketing agencies. Finally, consider consulting reputable agencies whose SEO services you trust. Agencies with intimate knowledge of your niche may be best for this purpose, as they work with many of your peers.
To summarize, there are many potential reasons why your organic traffic suddenly drops. It may be natural, such as due to market traffic fluctuations or seasonal drops. It may be competitors siphoning away your traffic, or it may be internal site issues that undermine your SEO score; poor structure, sitemaps, backlinks, and so forth. Finally, Google penalties or algorithm changes may be to blame. In all cases but the natural, self-correcting ones, swift responses are in your best interest to minimize your losses.
If you have any questions, schedule a call-we love talking all things marketing!
We make creatively bold brands, experiences and solutions.