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Investigating and Diagnosing SEO Traffic Decline

Investigating and Diagnosing SEO Traffic Decline

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

ID-10097641   How many times have you looked at your monthly SEO reports and seen a dip in visits and thought “oh sh*t”? If you have clients (or are a brand) in a volatile industry, then this can turn out to be a monthly regime.  Unfortunately, diagnosing a decline in SEO traffic can be a minefield, so I’m going to take you through the steps I take to “suss” out the problem and narrow things down a little. This blog post by no means covers every single point or area to investigate, however, I’ve tried to highlight the most important areas to check – which can easily be overlooked. Lets get stuck in!

Step 1: Analyse Traffic from All Sources

Sometimes its not just organic search that’s down, all traffic from all sources may be down as well.  Taking the time to look at traffic from other sources, mainly direct* traffic, paid traffic, referral traffic etc. can show some straightforward insights.  If there’s decline across the board, it’s easier to fine tune causes, which leads on to step 2…

Step 2: Check Google Trends

If you’ve noticed a decline from other traffic sources (and even if you haven’t), it’s worth checking Google trends to work out if there’s been a decline in the overall market YoY.  Take your top target keywords and check them by plotting them against year on year data.  This will tell you whether there’s an overall decline in the market; please see below for an example:

Google trends simon cowell yoy

Tip: You can plot year to date and longer date ranges to get a better overview of trends.

Step 3: Deep Dive into Analytics

This may not always be an obvious one, but checking some key areas can highlight something you may have overlooked such as:

  • Checking keywords that have lost traffic (could directly be linked to ranking losses, see step 4)
  • Checking pages that have lost traffic (SEO landing pages may not be ranking well anymore or the pages may have been down due to server issues)
  • Comparing YoY data to make sure keywords are being attributed to the correct pages (you can also do this with ranking data)

Step 4: Check Rankings

This is quite an obvious one and should be done initially, however I usually find step 1 and 2 to be my starting points (and there’s not always a correlation between ranking drop and traffic drop).  If you’ve noticed huge ranking drops as with step 3 and If you’re a wiz with excel, you can match rankings with visits to see if the drop in rankings* have affected visits. *Don’t forget to allow a caveat for universal rankings and personalized results

Step 5: Check GWT (Google Webmaster Tools) for Messages and Server Errors

This ties quite nicely with step 9 below but I decided to separate it anyway.  Google quite nicely sends messages about problems they’ve encountered whilst crawling a site, so its worth taking a good look at every section in GWT to make sure all is well; you can then pick up with the dev. team if you notice any issues (see step 9).

Step 6: Check Marketing Campaigns for the Previous Year

Did you forget about that huge marketing campaign the previous year that drove tons of traffic? Well find the marketing or comms calendar for the previous year and cross check with analytics to negate this as an issue (it’ll usually be brand terms or specific campaign terms that stand out).

Step 7: Weather


Believe it or not, this can actually be an issue, if you’re a brand (or dealing with a brand) that requires its customers to physically visit its stores or places of business.  In the early part of this year (2013) a client of ours that does not operate an ecommerce site suffered from lack of foot traffic due to the heavy snow, which led to a decrease in visits as customers had to complete their ‘goal’ offline.

Step 8: Duplicate Content / Canonical Tags etc – Other Internal Teams

Some brands have many departments managing content on their websites, and you’ll find that the merchandising team, marketing team, PR team etc, create pages on a regular basis. Has there been a sudden influx in pages showing up as duplicate content because someone created a similar page ages ago but they’ve left and there’s no record of their changes? Happens all the time!  The best way to fix this would be to control go-live of pages, but that’s another discussion.  Asking the main digital contact to find out whether this issue has occurred helps with mitigation, you can then advise on processes to alleviate this issue, as it dilutes page equity in SERPs.

Step 9: Site Changes – Web Dev. Team

Grrr! This can be a frustrating one as I’ve seen things from analytics code disappearing from updated pages to parts of the site being down with no warning whatsoever!  The relationship with the dev. team has to be one that is nurtured delicately as they can give insights you can only dream about.  When the dev. guys decide to roll out an update, make sure they’ve gone through your critical SEO checklist to make sure things like canonical tags, and tracking code don’t mysteriously disappear. There are a few things missing from this list, such as Google Algo updates (which can be quite tricky to decipher), Google penalties and general things beyond your control, however I find that these checks are similar to those emulated by my colleagues internally and externally in the industry. Diagnosing SEO traffic decline is not always easy, sometimes it’s the most complicated issue or the simplest fix; that’s the problem. Next time you need to investigate SEO traffic decline; having a go to list of ‘things to check’ generally helps narrow down the issue(s).  It’s a process I’ve stuck to and refined for a long time and its always-generated results; some interesting, some insightful.   Did I miss something crucial? Let me know in the comments section below. All Image Credit FreeDigitalPhotos

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