In a search engine optimization (SEO) campaign, the ideal result is a steady, ongoing and reliable increase in organic traffic — meaning the measure of the number of people visiting your website after finding it in organic searches.
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At some points, you might reach a plateau where your organic traffic levels off and refuses to increase further; this is generally temporary and acceptable, a natural effect of the long-term landscape of an SEO campaign, which has hundreds of factors at play.
However, you may also encounter a more troubling effect: an active decline in the organic traffic your site is receiving. A small dip is no immediate cause for concern (it may just be a temporary drop in consumer interest); but if that dip lasts for more than a few weeks or turns into a more significant drop, you’ll need to troubleshoot the problem to see what’s going on.
Check for a manual penalty.
First, you’ll want to check for a manual penalty. It’s rare and highly unlikely that you’ll face a manual penalty from Google, but it’s the most identifiable root cause of the problem. If you are facing such a penalty, your organic traffic will steeply and instantly drop, and you’ll receive a notification in Google Search Console saying that your site has been penalized.
If you don’t see both of those signs, you’re probably in the clear. But if you have received a penalty, you’ll need to correct the problem that caused it, such as bad or plagiarized content, or spammy, “black-hat” optimization tactics. Then you should appeal the penalty with Google or wait for it to be lifted.
Pinpoint specific traffic drops.
If you aren’t facing a manual penalty, your next step is to determine the main areas of your traffic drop. Though your entire site may be experiencing a cumulative drop, it’s more likely that the drop can be traced to a handful of specific pages, or specific keyword terms.
You can use this information to guide the rest of your examination; if there’s one page for which traffic has disappeared, for example, you can narrow your focus to that page’s competition, links, and content, as you’ll see in the following sections.
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Examine the competition.
Next, take a look at your competition and how it may have changed in the past few months; this is especially important for startups in new industries, tech companies and any other business where the competitive landscape can turn on a dime.
To do this, examine your search positions for various keywords, and see where you’ve experienced a drop in rankings. If you have, are there any new competitors that have emerged on the scene to displace you? Have some of your older competitors recently stepped up their game, with better content and new inbound links?
Note that there are two potential effects here. First, your competitors may be investing more in their own SEO campaigns, outperforming you in the process. If this is the case, your main course of action will be to invest in more head-to-head competition, or to target different, more specific terms, if you want to avoid competing altogether.
Second, your own site could have declined for other reasons, giving your competitors the opportunity to improve their positions. You’ll be able to determine if this is the case by studying your performance in two key areas, link-building and onsite content.
Audit your link profile.
The quality and quantity of links you have pointing to your site has a direct bearing on how highly it ranks in organic search results. So, a sudden, unexpected change in your link profile could cause a drop in rankings, and, therefore, in organic traffic. Use a link-profiler like Moz’s Open Site Explorer to analyze the links you have pointing to your site, and determine whether either of two trigger points (described below) accounts for a drop in search visibility.
First, look for any new links from spammy sources. Are there any new links you yourself have built (or that have appeared mysteriously) on dubious websites? Second, are there links that appear spammy?
Either of these could make your website look less trustworthy to search engines. If this is the case, you’ll need to remove those links by contacting the appropriate webmaster and making a request. If that fails, ask Google to disavow the link.
Next, look for opportunities to build new, strong links to boost your link profile and site authority.
Audit your on-site content.
If manual penalties, competition and links aren’t the source of your drop in organic traffic, the cause could be the quality of your on-site content. For example, if you’ve recently removed some top-performing content, that could decrease the overall value of your site (though it’s unlikely you’ve intentionally removed high-quality content).
If you’ve decreased your content budget, or are publishing too much content that nobody is reading or sharing, that too could cause a similar drop. The solution here is long-term: You’ll need to root out any low-quality content and start investing in higher-quality material. I’ve listed some of my favorite tools for this purpose.
Make corrections and improvements.
Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for a drop in organic traffic. However, there are some straightforward ones; sometimes, removing enough bad links or building new, strong ones is enough to correct the problem, but it usually still takes weeks to months for Google’s search index to reflect your changes.
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Stay committed to best practices, and learn from any mistakes you’ve made; and, eventually, you’ll find yourself back on a trend of positive organic traffic growth.