A drop in Google rankings can have a major impact on a business relying on online traffic to bring in regular leads. To make matters worse, it isn’t always clear what causes a drop in search engine rankings. This is one of the reasons many business owners turn to SEO agencies for help.
This can in some cases be quite costly with no guarantee of success. SEO should be seen as a long term process rather than a quick fix but there are some issues I find regularly crop up in an SEO audit that are quite easy to fix and can in some cases reverse the decline in search visibility.
- Competing pages
Multiple pages that compete for the same keyword are a major red flag in SEO. This is perhaps the number one issue I look for when a website doesn’t seem to be performing well on Google – even with what seems to be a well put together website and great content.
This issue also happens to be one of the simplest areas to fix. Say for example you want to rank a business for electricians in a given town or city. You might have the home page meta title and headings targeting electrician in [city name]. If I then go on to create further pages on my website or even target an about page to targeting this exact keyword, then two urls on the same website are going to be competing for the same keyword target.
If you think having more than one page targeting the same keyword won’t do any harm then take a look at a typical search results page for a keyword with high competition.
If the keyword has any level of competition such as in this case ‘SEO Chester’ then there is only room for one url from each individual website. Rarely will you see to urls from the same website ranking in the top 10 for the same keyword.
So what tends to happen is the two or more pages on your website will compete with each other for a place in the search results which results in Google constantly flipping results around while it tries to decide which page provides the best answer to the query.
I often hear website owners blaming the competition for stealing their Google search positions when it is in fact their own actions of creating trying too hard to rank for a narrow group of keywords and sabotaging their own efforts
- Poorly managed website migrations
Website migrations can result in all sorts of problems when the process isn’t managed correctly or not at all in some cases. Website migrations fall into two categories; a migration following a redevelopment or design process or a domain name is changed following a rebrand.
In both cases it is important to at least keep a good record of the keywords a website is ranking for prior to migrating the website so that any problems that may arise can be quickly identified and solutions found if keywords subsequently slip down the Google rankings.
Most responsible web developers will at least make sure old urls are 301 redirected to new ones when launching the migrated version of a website but some will not and build something entirely new. When this happens all the old authority is lost along with thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of backlinks depending on how long the previous website was around.
Recovery in the case of a domain name change is likely to be much harder to achieve when preparation work isn’t done and the correct process followed for migrations.
While a website redesign can be quite effectively handled with 301 redirects, a domain change requires extra steps in the process. This includes:
- Gather a list of all ranking pages and keywords before the migration.
- Registering the new website on Google Search Console and submitting the new sitemap.
- Notifying Google that your website has moved to another domain (don’t think Google is just going to find it via a 301 redirect, this doesn’t always happen). To notify Google do you will need to visit Google’s tool to tell Google that your old domain has moved to the new one. https://search.google.com/search-console/not-verified?original_url=/search-console/settings/change-address&original_resource_id
- Ideally keep the website structure and page urls the same. Changing the structure of the website as well as the domain name will only the lengthen the time it takes for Google to find all the pages and reindex them. This process is slow as it is, typically taking up to 3 months and longer for smaller websites that didn’t have good authority to begin with.
- Post launch, performance should be monitored to check if the new domain is gaining traction. The new domain should show signs of gaining visibility within the first week of launch and if it isn’t then further investigation will be needed to check for 404 errors.
- Google Algorithm Update
Another common reason for loss of visibility in the search results is a Google update. These happen frequently as results are refreshed. Sometimes updates can be beneficial for a website’s rankings or they might lead to a significant loss of traction.
Identifying ranking drops due to Google updates can be difficult. Often the reason is not clear and you won’t get any help from Google other than being advised to produce great content and follow their webmaster guidelines.
Ranking penalties that happen as a result of Google updates can usually be sourced to poor quality content, web pages that are thin on content or serve no useful purpose. Localisation in recent years has also made it more difficult to rank sites in multiple locations unless specific landing pages are created to target those locations.
Loss of search engine rankings from an algorithm update are not always permanent and sometimes rankings can be restored within a couple of weeks. There is no reason to panic if keyword rankings have dropped a few places but if your web page has dropped down 2 or 3 pages or out of the rankings altogether, this would indicate a more serious problem.
- Toxic Backlinks
If your website’s Google ranking has dropped and none of the above apply, then toxic backlinks may be the reason. Backlinks are created all the time whether you build them or not. Submitting your website to local directories and having other websites link to yours is a natural part of building up your website’s authority.
Unfortunately, there are cases where disgruntled competitors will attempt to undermine your attempts to gain an edge by building links that may be toxic for your website.
A drop in keyword rankings caused by toxic backlinks will likely be less obvious and happen over a longer period of time. It will usually affect particular pages such as the homepage or a page that ranks prominently for a competitive search term.
To identify any potential issues, Google provides a useful tool to find how many links point to particular pages and the websites they originate from. Toxic backlinks originate from low quality spammy pages or worse.
Once you identify the websites that are potentially toxic and there is plenty of software out there that can help you find them, they should submitted to Google via their link Disavow Tool. Use this tool with care because it isn’t always obvious which links are toxic and which ones are actually helping the website rank.
The important thing to do when suffering a drop in Google rankings is not to panic. It is important to systematically go through the potential causes and not make any knee jerk decisions.
Gathering as much information about your website search performance over time as possible is essential. The more knowledge you can gather prior to anything happening the easier it will be to rectify the more obvious issues that can arise with most websites from time to time.
Rectifying any issues with poor performance as soon as they arise will prevent those issues from becoming entrenched and leading to a long-term or even permanent loss of traction for your keywords.