Has your website recently experienced a sudden drop in organic traffic? It’s all too easy to panic when you lose significant rankings for your key phrases, but in most cases the change in organic search traffic is short term, and it’s often possible to make a full recovery.

What is organic traffic?

In short, organic search traffic is the amount of users or sessions that visit your website from search engine results pages (SERPs), whether that’s Google, Bing or other search engines.Google search engine resultsOrganic traffic is hugely valuable – according to Ahrefs, 68% of online experiences begin on a search engine and 53% of all website traffic comes from organic search.

It’s therefore very important to get it right. The most effective way to attract and retain any organic traffic that travels to your website from search engines like Google is by optimising your site for SEO.
However, from time to time you may see a drop in your organic traffic for a number of reasons that we’ll be going over in this blog. But first, how can you actually tell whether your organic traffic has dropped?

How to know whether organic traffic has actually dropped

First thing’s first: don’t panic! It’s best to confirm whether your organic traffic has actually dropped before deciding what to do next. Here are a few things to check:

Could it be a tracking error? 

The first thing you should do when diagnosing a potential drop in organic search traffic is confirm whether it’s a drop in actual organic traffic and not a tracking error or a drop in measured traffic. 
A tracking error could be caused by something like the accidental removal of the Google Analytics tracking code. This can be more common than you think, especially if there are a number of people making changes to your website on a regular basis.
We might also see a measured organic traffic decline in Google Analytics after implementing a new cookie policy, which is something unavoidable that businesses have had to install due to GDPR regulations. For example, we can see below that an abrupt decline in organic traffic was due to a change in measured organic traffic as a result of a new cookie banner:So, check in with your analytics team to see if there’s been any changes that could have impacted tracking.

Is the drop only in Google Analytics or is it in other tools too? 

Jump into Google Search Console and check if you’re seeing the same pattern here. If you’re not seeing the same drop in organic traffic here as you were in Google Analytics, then this suggests that it’s an issue with your tracking rather than it being a genuine drop in organic traffic. This is because Google Search Console doesn’t require a tracking code and doesn’t need to take into account cookie implementation, so it can offer a more realistic picture of organic traffic from Google.
Similarly, it can be helpful to use a third party SEO tool like Semrush, Ahrefs or Sistrix to confirm whether organic traffic and visibility have decreased. For an actual drop in traffic we’d expect these platforms’ traffic and ranking estimates to see a decline too. If you see a similar decline in Google Search Console and other tools, then we can safely assume that the drop is genuine and needs further investigation.
At this stage, it’s important not to jump to conclusions about the performance of your website!a man jumping off a cliff with the headline 'jumping to conclusions'

Consider seasonality and changes in demand

If you’ve seen traffic decline in Google Analytics and Google Search Console, then compare it to the same period last year – does traffic always decline around this time of year? Depending on the business, Christmas and the height of summer are obvious times for traffic to decline. The same can be said for spikes in traffic too, such as Black Friday and Boxing Day for ecommerce businesses. With so many changes in how consumers shop and interact online brought about by Covid, it’s also a good idea to compare to a pre-Covid year to see if the trend still existed.
If you’re seeing a similar trend in previous years, then just be aware that your traffic is seasonally affected and demand naturally increases and decreases at certain times of the year. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with your website.

Have your rankings dropped, too, or just your traffic? 

Let’s delve a bit further into how consumer demand could be impacting your traffic levels. If you’re seeing a drop in organic traffic but not seeing a drop in rankings, it could suggest there’s reduced demand for your products or services.
You can confirm this by looking at target keywords in Google Trends for the pages that have lost traffic.google trends homepageIf, along with your traffic, Trends data is declining whilst rankings have remained stable, this suggests that demand for your products or services is declining. The problem in this case is less an SEO problem and more of a wider marketing issue. However, if rankings have declined as well as traffic, then we can start investigating potential SEO causes of the traffic drop.

Have specific pages lost traffic or is it a site-wide drop? 

Using Google Analytics and Google Search Console, compare a set of data before and after the traffic drop.
At this stage, you should try and identify:

  • Has just one valuable page lost a lot of traffic?
  • Is the traffic drop limited to a specific directory or section of the site?  
  • Has there been a site-wide drop in traffic? 

If you notice that one URL is responsible for most of the drop in traffic, it may be the case that it was accidentally removed or blocked from Google and you can regain the traffic by reinstating the page or fixing the technical issue (more on this shortly!).

If it’s a specific folder that’s seen a drop in traffic, you can hone in on this to start investigating what might have caused the issue. Has a particular technical change been applied to this folder, like a no-index tag or block in your robots.txt? Were changes made to the design or copy on the pages within this folder?

At this stage it’s also worth considering your brand’s paid activity. If an extensive new paid campaign recently launched, it’s likely that it could be impacting organic clicks on those target keywords. Searchers may be more likely to click on the ad than the organic listing because it’s at the top of the page and pushes organic down. 
Again, it helps here to understand whether the drop is on a folder level or is site-wide. 

Is the drop sudden or long term?

If your site’s dropping in traffic over a long period of weeks, months or even years, there’s likely no single explanation as to what’s causing the decline.
Focus on improving the overall quality of your site’s content, understand what competitors are doing well and aim to do it better. Get in touch with some experts if you’re stuck. If it’s a sudden decline, we can start to narrow things down a bit more. 

What causes an organic traffic drop and how can you fix it?

1. Changes to the website

This is most likely the culprit. Before jumping to conclusions and blaming Google’s algorithm, you need to get the full picture of what changes have been made to the site in the period around and preceding the drop in traffic.
Organic traffic can drop due to changes in:

The most frequent and likely cause that we see is changing URL structures. This is usually done unintentionally when other people working on the website don’t understand the SEO importance of URLs.
Speaking of which, never change a URL unless you absolutely have to, please! URLs accrue authority and rankings over time. Changing a URL means that Google has to restart the crawling, indexing and ranking process. Ensure SEO education across your organisation is in place to minimise the risk of this happening in the first place. If possible and if it hasn’t been changed for too long, just revert the offending URL back to what it was, and traffic should recover.
If URLs have to change, ensure that 301 redirects are well-mapped out and expect a degree of volatility in visibility and rankings in the short term following the change.

To identify whether changes in URLs have caused the issue, simply compare traffic data from Google Analytics with the previous period and identify where URL changes have been made. If you don’t have access to Google Analytics, use a third party tool like Semrush to get a picture of the top-traffic driving URLs before and after the drop and assess whether any changes were made to the URL structure.
Changes to the navigation or internal linking throughout the site will impact the visibility of pages. For example:

  • Check if URLs have been added to or removed from the navigation 
  • Have internal links in the footer been removed?
  • Have internal links had a nofollow tag added to them? 
  • Has the pagination set up changed?

We can use tools like the Wayback Machine to identify whether content or design has been changed too.

2. Technical SEO changes

Outside of the visible content and URL structure, behind the scenes technical changes may have been made that have hindered your site’s visibility by limiting Google’s ability to crawl and index your content.
Fairly common things that could accidentally be added and cause havoc with your organic rankings and traffic include:

Once you’ve identified which areas of the site have seen the drop in visibility, it’s worth doing some manual checks of these key areas, as well as running a crawl using a tool like Screaming Frog to check if all of these elements are as expected.

Real time monitoring software such as ContentKing will alert you to issues like this as they happen, so you can take action before they have a negative SEO impact. 

3. Site migration 

Whilst the issues like URL, technical and content changes might be unwelcome and have taken you by surprise, in some cases, like website migrations, these issues are to be expected. Site migrations are likely to introduce changes to a domain name, updates to a website, merging multiple domains into one or migrating from a subdomain to a root domain, and these changes often happen all at once.

Even if things are being improved and with 301 redirects are in place, migrations often still lead to at least a short term drop in organic visibility and traffic, as Google re-crawls and indexes the new URLs and content. Again, education is key. Some volatility should be expected during a migration and stakeholders should be made aware of this. If the migration was properly managed and redirects were in place, it’s likely that traffic will naturally recover over time.

4. Algorithm updates 

Google updates its algorithms several times a day, and it’s unlikely this will be the sole cause of your organic traffic drop. The most significant of the updates are the core updates – there tends to be two or three a year.

How can you know if an algorithm update has caused your drop in traffic?

First of all, confirm whether any changes were made to the site during the same period as the update and rule out any other causes. Core updates are also likely to affect URLs site-wide, rather than a particular page or set of pages. Then, compare your traffic to Bing and see if that went down as well.
We had a suspicion that our site was negatively impacted by the May 2022 Core algorithm update, which was reinforced when we noticed that Bing traffic didn’t follow the same pattern – it was very much only a decline in organic traffic from Google:graph showing organic traffic decreasing on Google but remaining steady on BingIf you suspect that you’ve been re-evaluated after an algorithm update, rather than there being one specific problem with your site, it’s likely that the issue is with overall content quality. It’s a long process to update and improve content quality.
Ensure your site conforms to Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines and meets high standards of expertise, authoritativeness and trust (EAT). Audit your content and make sure that all URLs on the site are adding value. Get rid of or improve anything that isn’t. Have a look at your competitors and make sure that what you’re providing is better.  
Generally, you’ll have to wait until the next core update to see significant uplift, but the investment in improving quality should pay off eventually:graph showing an increase in traffic when content quality was improved

5. A manual penalty

Being impacted by a manual penalty is an increasingly rare occurrence. For example, where a site might previously have been hit by a manual penalty for unnatural links, Google now claims to automatically ignore these links in its algorithm. 

It’s quick to check if you’ve been slapped with a manual penalty – just look in Google Search Console under the Manual Actions section and it’ll tell you. However, if you’ve been impacted by an algorithm update, you won’t be told in Search Console.

6. Increased competitor activity

If competitors start doing a better job at SEO than you and are delivering pages that better serve the user’s needs, it’s likely that they’ll eventually start to outrank you. If you’re noticing a gradual process rather than a sudden decline, it’s not necessarily that your site’s doing anything wrong, it’s just that competitors have started doing more things right.
Assess who has started outranking you and for what queries – you can carry out a competitor audit to get a clear picture of what they’re doing well and what you need to improve on. If it’s not a case of increased investment in SEO, it could be that the quantity of competitors has increased. As an example, the pandemic lockdowns saw huge amounts of ecommerce sites crop up across many different verticals, and in many cases, challenging previously well-established sites. Again, this ties in to market trends and challenges, so always be aware of what’s going on!

Final thoughts

On the topic of increased challenges, you should also consider that we’re entering a year of unprecedented economic turmoil, so right now there’s probably less overall demand across the board.
That point notwithstanding, let’s recap what you can do if you see a decline in your organic traffic:

  1. Don’t panic
  2. Confirm it’s not a Google Analytics tracking error
  3. Verify that traffic has dropped by looking at Google Search Console and third party tools
  4. Consider whether seasonal trends have caused the drop in traffic
  5. Have a look at whether rankings have dropped as well – if they’ve remained stable, it could be that overall demand has dropped 
  6. Assess whether the drop is sitewide
  7. Assess whether the drop is sudden or over a longer period 

Once you’ve confirmed a drop in traffic, identify the potential causes:

  • Changes to the website
  • Behind the scenes technical SEO changes
  • A site migration
  • An algorithm update
  • A manual penalty (unlikely)
  • Increased competitor activity

If you’d like further guidance and help increasing your organic traffic, please don’t hesitate to contact us.