It’s happened to everyone at some point. You take a snapshot of your current keyword rankings and discover, to your horror and confusion, that you’ve dropped significantly for at least one query. It isn’t the end of the world, of course—in most cases these inexplicable drops are only a few ranks at a time—but it’s significant enough to bear an impact on your inbound organic search traffic, and it’s frustrating because you can’t immediately pinpoint the reason behind the drop.
Fortunately, the world of search rankings have become much more logical. While the inner workings of Google’s search algorithm are still draped in secrecy, the day-to-day fluctuations of rank are usually the result of an explainable change.
If you’ve noticed one or more of your keyword rankings have significantly dropped, it’s probably the result of one or more of these motivators:
The most likely culprit is actually the simplest explanation. Google has released a new algorithm update or a new data refresh that reevaluated the rankings of businesses for a particular query (or the way that the evaluation takes place). As a result of the update, you’re ranking lower.
Google releases updates from time to time, though only a handful warrant widespread attention. For example, Panda 4.1 and Penguin 3.0 were massive algorithm updates in the past year that received great amounts of attention and instigated major shakeups in page rank, but these aren’t the only type of updates that Google unveils. Google regularly applies data refreshes to its index in order to keep its ranking predictable and in line with its current standards—so one of these data refreshes, while small in scale, could easily disrupt your previous rank.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to reverse the effects of one of these updates. If it’s a data refresh, there’s practically nothing you can do. If it’s a larger update, and Google has made adjustments to some of its ranking factors, learn which factors were affected, and adjust your strategy accordingly to compensate for those changes.
Even the best content marketers aren’t always perfect. Writing well-written, appropriate, in-depth, relevant topics on a weekly or daily basis is quite a challenge, and a couple of slips in that consistency are all it takes to cause a temporary slide in your online rankings.
There are some usual culprits for this. First and foremost, if you post a piece of content that’s a duplicate of one you’ve already posted, or a copy from something that already exists on the web, you could have inadvertently triggered a slight content-based penalty. Scan your site for any pieces of duplicated content, and get rid of them or use redirects to mask one iteration in favor of the other.
Irregular posting of content could also interfere with your page rank. If you usually post three times a week, and you stop for a month, Google’s algorithm could detect the change and dock you for the lapse of new content.
If you’ve recently changed topic focus or hosted an abnormal guest blog, the sudden alteration in authority could slightly interfere with your rank as well. For example, if you usually write about hamburgers, and you suddenly start posting about steak, your keyword rank for hamburger could potentially see some downward momentum.
Your backlink profile is a collection of links on the web that help Google analyze your authority on the web. If the constitution of that back link profile suddenly changes, your rankings could drop as a result. If you’ve slipped up and posted an irrelevant link, or a link on a low-quality source, or any kind of link that could be considered spam, you could see a drop shortly thereafter.
Backlink profile changes aren’t always at the fault of the webmaster, however. It’s possible that one or more of your existing high-quality links were removed by an external webmaster. If your link profile is diverse enough, this shouldn’t be enough to move you, but if several of your links or a majority of your links disappear overnight, you could easily experience a significant ranking drop accordingly.
Additionally, negative SEO attacks are rare, but possible. In a negative SEO attack, a competitor or other malicious entity would intentionally post bad, spammy links to your domain in an effort to lower your authority. If you are concerned about this, or if you just want to audit your current backlink profile, try using Moz’s free tool, Open Site Explorer, to check your external links.
Competitors can be sneaky, and even niche companies can face the emergence of a highly similar rival. Search engine rankings take time to build, so it’s unlikely that a new competitor could completely catch you off guard, but it isn’t unheard of. Take a look at the new company profiles of the businesses now outranking you. Have any of them made massive changes recently in order to improve their ranks? Have any of them been rising up slowly from the back pages? If so, it’s possible they have simply overtaken you because they’re spending more time and effort building their authority on the web by using a link building service.
In order to fight back against this emergence, you’ll either need to step up your effort to match and exceed theirs, or shift your focus to specialize in a different niche and overtake them in a tangential strategy.
Google produces its ranks based on the information it crawls on the web. If there isn’t enough information on your site for Google to crawl, the result will be a lower rank. Ordinarily, all of your internal pages should be crawled and indexed by Google’s bots, but there are cases when some of your pages suddenly stop being indexed, and your rank suffers as a result.
Pages could be de-indexed as a result of a manual penalty, but it’s more likely that something easily fixable is causing their disappearance. Check your pages for any 404 errors, nofollow tags, or any other quality that could make them invisible to search engines. You can also log into Webmaster Tools and check your site for any crawl errors or de-indexed pages—this is a great way to analyze your current sitemap and fix any glaring errors preventing your pages from being seen.
Now that you understand the reason (or reasons) behind that once-inexplicable ranking drop, you can take action to correct the anomaly and correct your processes so it doesn’t happen in the future. It’s impossible to guard against everything all the time, so don’t be too concerned if you see more ranking drops in the future. As long as you use them as opportunities to investigate your current processes and make a significant improvement, any ranking drops you face will only be temporary.
If you’re having trouble pinpointing the exact cause for your ranking drop, contact us—we specialize in figuring out why your search engine rankings have declined and working with you to get them back where they belong.