Help, I’m Sinking! Diagnosing – And Fixing – A Google Ranking Drop

Published April 22nd, 2014 by Michael Farin

What do you do when you wake up and discover your website has suddenly plummeted ten, twenty, thirty – or more – spots in Google search results?

A) Panic B) Read this article.

(The correct answer is B, in case you were wondering.)

The first step to recovering your rankings is figuring out what’s going on. So take a deep breath, step back, and analyze the problem. What kind of ranking drop are you looking at here?

First things first: Check Google Analytics. Is it telling you your rankings have bottomed out for only one keyword? Congrats! You’ve just been a victim of the Single Keyword Drop. Check out where that keyword appears on your site, and search that page for problems. You could be looking at a pretty easy fix. (For instance, you might need to update a particular keyword to reflect trending search behaviors.)

Now that Google is implementing completely secure search, you may not be able to get organic keyword referral metrics from Google Analytics alone. To access all of your keyword data, you may want to use Google Webmaster Tools, SEMrush or WordStream.

However, if you discover that your whole site – not just a selected keyword – has dropped in search rankings, you’re probably on the wrong end of a Google algorithm update. Sadly, Google just drops these updates on us without any prior notice. But you can keep up with all the most recent changes on Moz.

In order to fix your rankings and get your site back where it belongs, you’ll have to make updates that comply with Google’s new rules. Keep in mind that, even after you’ve fixed the problem, you may still have to wait to regain search rankings while Google crawls your site again.

Here’s a handy list of some individual factors that may impact your Google search rankings – whether you’ve taken a hit on one keyword or on your whole site.

  • Errors in robots.txt files. This is one of the most common rankings problems. Your robots.txt file tells search engine bots which pages to look at, and which pages to skip. If your robots.txt file is somehow telling Google to ignore your whole site...well, that’s an issue. To see if this is the problem, type into Google and see if your site is showing up properly. If you’re only seeing certain pages, you may be experiencing a robots.txt problem.
  • Google updates. We mentioned these above – but we didn’t tell you the best way to avoid getting penalized. Google’s latest updates – Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird – have all focused on getting sites to feature naturally-worded, quality content without over-optimized backlinks. Make sure your site has high-quality content that’s updated regularly, and you have a much better chance of surviving future algorithm changes. Remember, don’t write for Google – write for your audience.
  • Broken backlinks from other sites. Google likes to see backlinks – they’re kind of like vouchers for your site’s popularity and authority. But if your backlinks are broken for any reason (deleted site, moved pages or typos) they’re useless. To check for broken backlinks, use tools like Xenu, Screaming Frog or Open Site Explorer.
  • Stale content that just sits there. If you created a website and then figured you were finished with it, that’s a problem. Just like we said earlier, fresh content is key. A site that regularly updates a blog will score consistently higher than sites with static content. You know that blog you started and then forgot about? Time to start remembering.
  • Hacking or malware. If Google detects malware on your site, it puts a warning on your search result snippet. “This site has been compromised” – you’ve seen it before. And you didn’t click through to that website, did you? While this isn’t actually a Google penalty, it can seriously impact your traffic – and eventually, your search rankings. So check Google Webmaster Tools regularly to see if you have a malware warning. (For more tips on dealing with hackers, read our article here.)
  • Bad SEO practices. Sometimes, people use keyword stuffing and over-optimized text by accident. Sometimes, they resort to all kinds of sneaky tricks to fool Google. (We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume it was just an accident.) The trouble is, Google’s not so easy to fool any more. Footer spam, parked domains, hidden text and doorway pages – the savvy search engine catches and penalizes them all. So don’t play with bad SEO. It’s not so easy to get away with accidents these days.
  • Duplicate site content. You can’t raise your rankings by copy-pasting boilerplate text onto 100 different pages. It’s the same principle as keyword stuffing, and Google doesn’t like it. Make sure you’re not featuring duplicate content on your site by accident – this is often an issue with WordPress sites where entire blog posts display again on the archives pages. Check your settings! You could save yourself a lot of trouble.

If you still can’t figure out why your site is sinking in Google rankings, it’s often worthwhile to get a professional SEO audit. A third party can examine your site and solve any problems you may have missed. Ideally, you should be back at the top of search rankings before long.

For more tips on improving your website – for search engines and for regular readers – click here.

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