Sudden Search Traffic Drop? 6 Questions to Help Diagnose the Cause

Your website is humming along when, suddenly *poof* the rug is ripped out from under you. Your traffic has plummeted by 85 percent and the organization is in a panic.

In the blink of an eye, your dreams of expansion have turned to the gut wrenching reality of looming layoffs. The problems that can send a website’s traffic through the basement are varied in terms of scope and fixability.

You can use the following six-question checklist to identify the underlying cause, and prioritize the list based on the simplicity of the solution.


Before Getting Started…

First ensure that the problem is actually a search issue. To do this, log in into Google Analytics and select Traffic Sources->Sources->Search->Organic and select a 6 month date range. If you see anything close to the screenshot above, you’ve likely encountered a serious problem that needs to be corrected.

Question 1: Has the Analytics Tracking Been Removed/Altered?

Everyone wipes their sweaty foreheads and smiles with relief when this relatively miniscule issue is discovered. It can happen with surprising frequency, especially if a junior programmer starts messing with the footer.php file that contains the tracking code.

To find/fix this problem, use one of the many Analytics checker/debugging tools that are available, such as GA? – Is Google Analytics Installed and Google Analytics Debugger (by Google).

Question 2: Have Any Significant Website Changes Occurred?

Often times, a redesign can totally annihilate rankings, particularly if there isn’t a redirect strategy in place.

Additionally, removal of content or hierarchical restructuring can also have unintended consequences. This problem can usually be solved through interfacing with the client, using the Wayback Machine to determine if design changes occurred, and using the Top Content page in Google Analytics to find once-popular but now-deprecated content.

If the website is using a CMS or version control, look through the logs to determine if any major changes occurred in the days preceding the traffic drop.

Question 3: Has the Website Been Hacked?

The symptoms of a hacked website are much less obvious than popular culture has led us to believe. Many spammy hack attacks don’t affect the active pages. Instead, a new directory of spammy content is created, making it less likely to be discovered. However, when a search engine discovers this type of hacked content, it typically de-weights the entire website, causing devastating results.

Installing Google and Bing Webmaster Tools well help a website immediately discover and diagnose vulnerabilities. Also, a manual Google search of “” will frequently uncover spammy meta descriptions (Cialis descriptions in the snippet are a big tip off).

Exact steps to rescue a hacked website will depend on the CMS, but it will typically involve loading a clean backup and changing all ftp, user, and database passwords.

Once the threat has been removed, there will likely be a latency/sandbox period, followed by a steady return of traffic. Be proactive about avoiding these issues in the first place by:

  • Keeping your CMS updated.
  • Use complex passwords.
  • Automatically back up site versions.
  • Use Bing Webmaster Tools and opt-in for emails.

Question 4: Has There Been a Major Algorithm Update?

If you’ve come up empty so far, there’s a reasonable chance your website has been negatively affected by an update. Search through reputable forums, blogs, and publications to determine if a large number of webmasters are suddenly experiencing significant volatility in website performance (a.k.a., incremental gains or sudden drops). Additionally, look for messaging such as this from Matt Cutts of Google or the Google Webmaster Blog.

If your website has been a victim of a major algorithmic update, it might be wise to contact professional help. The types of changes that must be made are likely more holistic in nature. Unlike the analytics conundrum, this issue will likely require a major shift in practices, strategy, content, and link building.

Question 5: Has the Website Incurred a Ranking Penalty?

If your search for an algorithmic update comes up empty, it’s distinctly possible that your website has incurred a penalty. If this is the case, you will likely notice a significant drop in your non-branded search term rankings.

In short, penalties typically revolve around a sudden influx of bad links or spammy content. If you have an SEO firm, web consultant, or in-house staff member, it might be wise to conduct an audit of their work to ensure they are following best SEO practices.

Question 6: Has the Website been a Victim of Negative SEO?

If your search has still come up empty, you might be a victim of negative SEO. Negative SEO occurs when a competitor automates a large series of spammy links at your website, which can result in sitewide rankings drops.

To help fix this problem, Bing Webmaster Tools has a Disavow Links Tool (and Google is reportedly working on adopting something similar). Again, you can feel comfortable ignoring this tool unless you see a sudden influx of low quality links.

For more on this topic, see: Google Penalty or Algorithm Change: Dealing With Lost Traffic.

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