SEO checklist when rankings drop

If your rankings dropped suddenly there can be a number of different reasons. If ranking falls are just for a few keyword groups the issue is likely to be localised i.e. on-page SEO for a previously ranking page or an issue with the backlinks to that page, such as over-use of exact-match anchor text.

If rankings have dropped significantly for the whole site it is likely to be a site-wide issue or a Google penalty or could possibly be the result of the website being hacked

Here are some possible factors that could have impacted rankings. Check these for any website that has seen localised or site-wide ranking falls:

1.   Too Many Poor-Quality Backlinks

Check the backlink profile for the authority of every linking domain. Moz, Majestic SEO, Ahrefs and many other SEO tools have their own metric to measure this. Also check the ratio of low-quality linking domains to higher quality ones.

Sometimes genuine content on a good-quality site is copied onto many poor-quality sites – affecting the overall backlink profile. The content can be stolen or “curated” but the duplicated content rarely adds value so identify sites where you have published content but it has been duplicated elsewhere and avoid publishing on those sites in future..

2.   Loss of Large Numbers of Backlinks

There are plenty of SEO software tools where you can check whether your website has lost large numbers of links in recent weeks. SEO tools maintain databases of backlinks and can highlight whether backlinks that previously existed no longer exist.

Loss of backlinks can be due to a number of factors such as a re-design of the linking website, a change in policy about external links or even that the website no longer exists.Bottom of Form

3.   Has Page Title Tag Recently Been Changed?

The title tag is an extremely important ranking factor and small changes can have a major impact on rankings. Always log all changes to the page title tag of your most important pages and record the previous title when making a change so if rankings dropped suddenly you can check back in the log for a possible cause.

4.   Has Page Content Recently Been Changed Significantly?

There might be a sudden drop in rankings after making significant changes to your site content, including H1 header tags, formatting and quantity of text. Content is a critical ranking factor, and the ranking position of all web pages is based to some extent on the text content. Any significant changes are likely to cause fluctuations in rankings. 

5.   Has Google Updated Its Ranking Algorithm?

Google’s ranking algorithm is constantly changing to improve the experience for online searchers. However, from time-to-time, they release major core updates to their algorithm which can have greater impact on the rankings of some sites or sites in certain industries.

Check for major core updates at the official Google Webmasters Blog. Alternatively, create a Google alert for Google updates and check the major blogs in the SEO industry such as Search Engine Land for any information about search engine updates. 

6.   Have Competitors Increased Their Level of SEO Activity?

Sometimes your SEO campaign can do everything right but your competitors have upped their game. Determine if this is the case by monitoring their strategies to identify how they differ from your SEO strategy. If their new approach means rankings dropped for your website you may need to re-think your strategy to compete better with your rivals. 

7.   Check the Website & Individual Pages Are Mobile Friendly

Use Google’s free mobile-friendly test to check the mobile-friendliness of the most important pages on your website or check all pages with a free mobile-friendly tool from Experte that automatically tests multiple URLs. Also check on your Google Search Console account for any errors or warnings in the “Mobile Usability” section. It is good practice to check Search Console on a regular basis to identify any issues that could affect organic search rankings

8.   Recent Changes to the Internal Linking of Your Website

Any changes in the internal linking structure could cause a big fall in search rankings. For example, you have 1,000 internal links from the main sidebar on your blog posts pointing to one of your important pages that is ranking highly on search. Now, suppose you re-design the sidebar and the internal link is removed – this would result in a loss of 1,000 internal links; and a significant change like this could result in rankings dropped suddenly. 

9.   Your Site Has Been Hacked

If your site gets hacked or infected with malware rankings falls are almost instant and can be across the whole site. A common symptom of a hack is a large spike in traffic and/or a large fall in rankings so set up alerts in Google Analytics and your chosen SEO software to warn you if this happens.

Fortunately, when hacks are dealt with quickly organic search rankings return to normal quickly.

10.        Too Many Pages on Your Website with Poor-Quality Content 

Have you been adding lots of short blog posts that don’t add real value? Or pages with little content on them? Review all you content and look for ways to improve the value of the content. Could you, for instance, combine several short blog posts or pages into a single one that covers the topic in more depth?

Alternatively, if the pages are of no value to the human visitor consider tagging them as “noindex” so that Google and other search engines ignore them.

11.        Too Many Pages on Your Website with Similar Content

Too many pages about similar topics and no clear focus page or “cornerstone” content could mean Google doesn’t rank any of your pages highly. This can also result in content cannibalisation, which means you have the same or similar content on multiple URLs and so you could have different landing pages targeting the same search traffic.

When rankings regularly move up and down the rankings this can be a sign of content cannibalisation. The solution is to make sure each topic has one clear, optimised page – maybe with supporting pages on related topics as in a pillar-and-cluster approach to content.

12.        Duplicate Content on The Website

If duplicate pages exists because of a re-design of the website that involved renaming pages then set up permanent 301 redirects to redirect old pages to new pages so the old pages aren’t accessible by search engines or users.

If there is a genuine reason for duplicate content such as a website for a franchise business that shows general content relevant to each franchise in the individual franchise sections of the website then use the “rel=canonical” tag to let search engines know which content to treat as the original.

13.        Redirects from Old Pages to Unrelated or Irrelevant Pages

Identify all the 301 redirects and check they are redirecting visitors and search engines to new pages that are broadly about the same topic. Trying to gain some SEO value from an irrelevant old page is more likely to hurt your rankings than benefit them. 

14.        Noindex Tag Mistakenly Applied to A Page

When a new website or group of new pages are being developed it is common for web developers to apply the “noindex” tag to prevent a staging area of a website or pages being modified from being crawled and indexed by Google.

If your website has recently had some redevelopment work make sure the new pages no longer have the “noindex” tag. Ask your web developer to check. This is a common cause of a rankings drop.

15.        Poor Click-Through Rate From Search Listings

Google may decide to rank one of your web pages in a high position but if few people click on your site then youi won’t retain that high ranking for long. Google will assume the page is not what people are looking for. For this Reason click-through-rate from the search listings or search engine ranking pages (SERPS) are important to retain high rankings.

Encourage visitors to click on your page with a page title that capitalises each word and incorporates a call-to-action (CTA) where possible (but note item 3 on this checklist about changes to the page title). Also use the meta description in the same way to encourage visitors to click – this should be a brief but actionable marketing message.

16.        Low-Quality Visitor Metrics

If traffic to your website has a high Bounce Rate (>80%) and short time spent on the page then that is a clear signal to Google that the page does not provide what the visitors are looking for. Note that a high Bounce Rate combined with a long time spent on the page (high dwell time) will not negatively impact rankings because this is an indication that visitors found what they were looking for and read the page.

17.        Negative SEO

Negative SEO is relatively rare in most industries – after all why waste time, energy and money trying to negatively impact a competitor when you could spend those same resources improving your own SEO? However, it has been known to happen in certain dubious industries.

It is usually easily identified by an increase in very low-quality backlinks so, as for normal good SEO practise, monitor your link profile on a regular basis. This will also reveal if you are losing large numbers of links, which may also be due to competitor activity. Another potential indication of negative SEO is a large amount of traffic with extremely high bunce rate so, similarly, check Google Analytics on a regular basis; and, as already mentioned on Check #5 set up a Google alert to notify you of unusual rises in traffic volumes.

About Michelle Symonds

Established as an SEO specialist since 2009, following a career in IT in the oil industry and investment banking. Michelle draws on her IT and web development experience to develop best-practice processes for implementing successful SEO strategies. Her pro-active approach to SEO enables organisations to raise their online profile and reach new audiences, both nationally and internationally. She has a wealth of cross-industry experience from startups to Fortune 500 companies .

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