Troubleshooting a Drop in Search Engine Rankings

When your search engine rankings decline how do you figure out why? Below is a set of questions that can help you to troubleshoot whether the drop in rankings was due to a change in a search engine algorithm, or due to a change or problem with your own website.

This blog post was first put together in response to the Google algorithm change reported on Search Engine Land.

Have your rankings changed in the other engines or only in Google?

If the decline appears in all engines, this suggests that the problem is with your site. If the decline is only in Google this suggests that the problem is due to changes in the Google algorithm.

Are all of your outdated URLs being redirected to your new URLs?

If they are not redirecting, external links that have not been updated will 404 and you will lose the link value that could have been gained from those links.

Looking at historical trends, is there typically a drop off in rankings at this time of the year?

There can be pretty major swings in rankings across the year/month/week/day, but these cyclical changes are not necessarily a problem as long as you maximize visibility in the up-cycle.

Did this drop off impact rankings of specific landing pages or on specific search terms? Or was it an across the board drop off?

This will help you to determine whether the problem is site-wide whether there are particular parts of the site that need work.

Have there been any changes in the competitor landscape? i.e. who else is ranking on search terms that you have historically ranked for highly?

This can be helpful in a few ways:

1. If a new competitor is on the scene they may be pushing you down in rankings. By studying their site and you can identify and what they’re doing that you think is successful and implement that on your own site to boost your performance. If a new competitor has emerged, this suggests that your decline in rankings is due to a change in the competitor landscape rather than a change in the Google algorithm.

2. has there been a significant reshuffle in who is ranking on the terms that you historically ranked for? If so, this supports the idea that the root of the problem has to do with a change in the algorithm that has significantly changed how sites are selected, as opposed to a something on your website that has only impacted your sites rankings and has left other search results constant.

With that second point in mind, if changes to the Google algorithm have taken place, the description of the change presented in the recent Search Engine Land article suggests that the homepage would be less affected than pages many clicks from the homepage that have traditionally appeared in response to long tail terms. It would be good to investigate this further to see whether your rankings on long-tail terms been effected more than your rankings on shorter keywords.

Even if none of this reveals anything conclusive — and SEO is extremely complex so even with careful analysis sometimes the cause of a change is elusive – it’s important to structure your site so that it is as content rich as possible, and to work to attract high value external links.

A few basics to keep in mind are:

1. Pick one keyword per page and stick to it

Pick a keyword that is highly relevant to the page, and has high search volume (use the Google keyword tool). Make sure that your selected keyword appears frequently throughout the different components of the page, such as the h1 tags, meta description, alt text, and URL.  It’s also important to include some relevant text on the page that is keyword rich. Make sure that this content is not hidden in flash or javascript – if it is make sure that there is an html version of the site that the spider is directed to read.

2. Include your keyword in the anchor text of internal links

Make sure that the anchor text of internal links includes the keyword for the site that you are linking to.

3. Attract External Links

Ways to reach out for external links include creating forums, reaching out to respected bloggers who work in your space to let them know about specific features, events, or content on your site that they might want to share with their audience. Remember to put a marketing spin on things – people are much more likely to take action on something that is scarce and available for a limited time only. Include social media icons so people can easily “like” the site.

Search Engine Land and Matt Cutts are great SEO blogs and have lots of posts that cover all kinds of ideas for how to improve your site, so it’s good to keep track of them for tips and for the latest search engine news.