Wondering why your website's traffic has worryingly dropped off a cliff? Luckily it's fixable in most cases - let's look at the source of the traffic loss, followed by a likely cause and a possible fix!
Identifying the source of traffic loss
Before looking into the possible reasons for traffic loss to a website, it’s best to first check which traffic source has been affected.
The easiest way to identify which source or medium of traffic has died is to click on each source and medium combination, starting with the highest number of sessions and then visually checking the user graph shown for any obvious drops:
I recommend choosing a date range over the past three months or so to get enough data to be statistically significant. Displaying the data weekly helps remove any big dips in traffic during weekends naturally.
Another way to identify changes within the source/medium report is to compare two date ranges for a before and after snapshot of the data. Try and keep the periods the same length and include the same number of weekend days for a fair comparison:
Look out for the % Change metric under each source/medium comparison to spot any significant drops:
If traffic has dropped to zero on all channels then it’s most likely that the tracking script code is no longer present or is no longer working, use a tool such as Google’s Tag Assistant to see what’s going on behind the scenes.
Also, bear in mind that seasonality affects every topic online, so check out Google Trends data for trend data before jumping to any incorrect conclusions:
Organic traffic drops
A drop in CPC paid traffic is a simple one to solve; you either have turned off a campaign, your payment method has expired, or the budget has been depleted.
For organic (search engine) traffic there could be a number of things that have gone wrong, with the most common reasons shown below.
Blocked robots.txt file
With one line of robots.txt code, you can instruct search engine bots to disallow an entire domain, removing it from all search results. This takes effect after a day or two and has devastating effects. This mistake is often made whilst transferring a newly developed website from a hidden staging domain on to the main domain, accidentally taking the blocking robots.txt file along with it, shown below:
A similar issue to a blocked robots.txt file is accidental inclusion of meta robots tags which tell search engines not to index the web page. See the noindex HTML code example below:
Missing 301 redirects
Search engines index web pages and rely on them having the same web address URL in order to rank them consistently. When URLs for key web pages are changed, a 301 redirect is required to automatically forward users from the old URL to the new URL. These 301 redirect instructions and to also tell search engines which URL to shift focus and weighting towards for ranking purposes:
Broken URLs give a 404 error when visited. You can use Google Search Console‘s crawl reports to spot any broken links or a tool such as Screaming Frog to fully crawl your website and identify any issues hidden within:
Search engine penalty
Search engine results have been gamed now for over 20 years. People keep trying to get their web pages higher than their competitors’ for increased free traffic, sometimes by sneaky, unethical or dishonest ways!
Google and other search engines are constantly weeding out web pages which have managed to rank highly with un-natural SEO techniques or web pages with content or experiences that their users wouldn’t be happy with after making a certain search. See an example below of a Google penalty affecting a website which paid for over 1,000 backlinks on a spam network to try and artificially increase their SEO power (done before this client used Hallam’s services):
There are a number of ways in which you can get a search engine penalty, including:
- A large number of deliberately placed external backlinks
- Poor, auto-generated or duplicated content
- Spamming of keywords within the content
- Showing users different web page content than search engine bots
Sometimes you can lose search engine traffic without doing anything wrong, including:
- Competition moving up search results and pushing your result down
- More space in search results being used to show increased advertising or featured snippet results
- Links from external websites being removed or accidentally broken
- Search engines not deeming pages as being mobile-friendly, which now reduces mobile rankings
- A ranking drop due to a search engine algorithm update deeming your content as less useful than before
If you suspect external factors harming SEO then it’s best to start looking at which landing pages have been affected by this change in the landing page report: [Behaviour > Site Content > Landing Pages]
Once here you can segment the data to only show organic traffic by using the [+ Add Segment] button at the top of the page:
Now all reports on Google Analytics will show data from organic traffic only. You can try the date comparison tool (see above) to identify which landing pages have lost traffic recently.
If this doesn’t reveal any reason why traffic has dropped suddenly over time then try out these other useful reports in Google Analytics:
- Device Category Report – [Audience > Mobile > Overview]
- Location Report – [Audience > Geo > Location]
- New Vs. Returning Report – [Audience > Behaviour > New Vs. Returning]
- Campaigns Report – [Acquisition > Campaigns > All Campaigns]
For organic ranking drops, you can use tools such as SEMRush and Ahrefs to try and identify the keywords which have dropped in rank and no longer bring in as much traffic. Please note that switching domain names often results in a ranking drop for up to two weeks before things return back to as they once were:
Referral traffic drops
Lucrative traffic can come from links from other website referrals such as publications, web directories or supplier listings for businesses.
The referral report gives you the domain name source of the referral which is useful when combined to the date range comparison method shown above: [Acquision > All Traffic > Referrals]
Clicking on a referral domain name reveals the actual referring pages which send traffic to your website. These may reveal broken or missing external links which were once present, which added SEO value and previously sent relevant website visitors.
To get a full picture of links made across domains you can run your own domain through a link analysis tool such as Ahrefs which gives you an overview of backlink profiles showing any new/lost links over a period:
Reversing the damage
It’s wise to seek professional help if there is a technical SEO issue which has lead to traffic loss on your website. Fixing technical issues the wrong way can actually lead to much more serious damage and an even bigger loss of valuable traffic!
Common sense, process checklists and automated error checking tools are the best way to identify and fix human error mistakes before they have a big impact on your business. These cost little time or money to implement but can save a great deal of lost value when it really matters the most.