Digital Marketing Stories SEO

What Caused Your Site Traffic to Drop? An SEO Forensics Manual

One of the most challenging parts of managing a website is identifying the root cause of massive site traffic changes from a particular source. To detect the cause, you’ll need to use a scientific, forensic approach.

One thing to keep in mind when doing forensics on a site is to think like an autonomous machine and not be biased towards any technique that may have been working for years.

I wanted to share a recent case study that should provide value to the day-to-day activities of a search marketing practitioner. In this case, the site mentioned had a massive drop in natural search traffic. Here’s the overview, from our Searchlight SEO platform:

keyword pipeline

One thing to keep in mind when doing forensics on a site is to think like an autonomous machine and not be biased towards any technique that may have been working for years.

Possible Reasons the Site Traffic Decreased:

  1. A Manual Penalty – this is when a member of the search engine webspam team physically demotes the ranking of specific parts of your site (individual pages, tactics or the entire site).
  2. An Algorithmic Penalty – this occurs when your site has been impacted by changes in search engines’ algorithms (Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird).
  3. Filtered Impact – if there is a sudden change in marketing strategies or page level infrastructure (a ranking page suddenly serves a 404 – page not found error).

Penalties typically take more time to recover from.  In the case of a manual penalty, Google notifies you on Webmaster Tools (Search Traffic -> Manual Actions). To get your rankings back, you will need to identify the root cause and file a reconsideration request, although they can also resolve themselves with an expiration date.

Algorithmic penalties often require a massive shift in strategy and can often times be difficult if there is a legacy of specific tactics that were abused.

A filter is often the easiest form of ranking dilution to recover from.  Filters can often be blamed on algorithms or penalties if we don’t know where to look.

After you determine the pattern of ranking loss:

Once a pattern of ranking loss has been identified, the first thing to do with any forensics project is to start with your analytics.  What you are looking for is evidence that the impact is specific to a singular referrer, or is felt across sources.

If the impact is felt only by one entity (Google, for example) then we are looking at something along the lines of an algorithmic or manual penalty. Having the proper platform and reporting in place prior to site traffic changes will make a world of difference when building a plan of attack.

If your forensics shows an impact to multiple search engine referrals, then it is time to start digging into your own site.  The first set of data you will want to look at is a delta comparison of your rankings prior to the change and how those rankings are performing now.

Many times a marketer will look only at the keywords themselves, and that is not enough.  A thorough look of both the keywords, their rankings and the associated landing page should be done.  One of the most commonly overlooked data points is the landing page that has lost its rankings.

Having the proper platform and reporting in place prior to these impacts will make a world of difference when building a plan of attack.

Google search rank

An SEO Forensics Case Study

Recently, a client had reached out to us, fearing that their site had been impacted by a Panda update.  They had lost a substantial amount of rankings in the hyper-traffic positions of 1-3 in Google.  Searchlight showed the same data, and it appeared as though many of their ranking keywords dropped to page two or lower.  Some of their existing rankings were off the map completely. This is where having the proper platform in place prior to the shift was crucial for their identification and recovery.

If your platform reports only on your rankings, you are missing valuable information.

Doing a delta analysis in Searchlight on a few select keyword drops showed a common issue.  What we saw was the top ranking URL disappearing from the SERP, while the new top ranking URL had not moved much.  Other examples showed that Google had issues determining which page on the client’s domain was most relevant, and as a result, the top ranking URL shifted between many pages.  

What appeared to be a slight loss in rankings was actually a complete drop in rankings for a specific landing page.

We then exported the entire list of lost rankings from Searchlight and quickly identified a pattern of two specific directory structures that correlated with the drops.  Doing a quick audit of all of these pages revealed that each and every one of them was now 301 redirecting to the home page.

03-Conductor-Recovery

If a 301 redirect is put in place between two pages that are not contextually relevant then pre-existing rankings are almost certain to be lost.  This is why putting a blanket redirect in place is never a good idea.  We often see this is e-commerce platforms when items are discontinued, or in redesigns where some pages are no longer live.

If a 301 redirect is put in place between two pages that are not contextually relevant then pre-existing rankings are almost certain to be lost.

The fix here was simple, yet required some work digging into the old URL structure to identify which pages were no longer live. These pages were either reinstated or redirected to a more relevant page in the new design.  As a result of this work the site started seeing the rankings climb back up.

Keep in mind that this process does not take over night.  It all depends on the crawl rate of the page that has the redirect. Typically, you should start seeing measurable updates within a couple of weeks.  On a positive note, the extra time and care put into fixing these issues resulted in better rankings across the board just in time for the holiday season!

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