It’s the worst nightmare of any website owner.
One moment, your site is showing up on the first page of search results. You’re getting tons of traffic every day. Outranking all your competitors. Making bank from your killer ad campaigns.
But then you wake up one morning, and it’s all gone. Your site got knocked back a page or two. Traffic has vanished into a black hole.
And now you’re sitting there wondering what to do after a ranking drop.
First of all, try not to freak out. Easier said than done, I know.
While ranking drops can seem totally random, you can usually find the exact cause if you dig deep enough. And if you fix the problem, there’s a good chance you can get your site’s ranking back where it was.
I’m here to explain some of the most common reasons rankings fall off a cliff and how to fix them.
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Google’s Naughty List
Google has a big list of things it hates, and if you’re caught doing any of them, there’s a chance you’ve been slapped with a manual penalty that sent your site’s ranking plummeting.
What are these awful things? While I can’t go over all of them here, I’ll explain a few of the most likely offenders.
Unnatural Links To and From Your Site
When used correctly, high-quality backlinks are great for SEO. They tell Google that your site is an authority and deserves a front-page spot in the search results. But the trick is that you have to build them naturally.
You may have thought you could cheat the system by purchasing backlinks from link farms. It’s much faster than building links the right way, after all (especially when you can easily find effective free SEO tools).
This trick may work for a while, but if Google finds out, you’re going to get a penalty. The same thing can happen if you get caught selling shady links to other websites.
To fix it, you can:
- Remove the links entirely.
- Add the rel=” no follow” attribute to the links.
- Redirect them through a page blocked by robots.txt
Google considers content to be thin if it’s of poor quality and offers no real value to users. Some examples are:
- Low-quality guest posts
- Content scraped from other sites
- Doorway pages
- Thin affiliate pages
- Automatically generated content
With keyword stuffing, site owners jam pages full of keywords in an attempt to game the search results and get higher rankings. It’s okay to have lots of keywords in your content if they’re relevant. But if you have big blocks of keywords that look weird and unnatural, Google might consider it keyword stuffing.
- Blocks of text that repeat the same city name over and over
- Huge lists of phone numbers where it doesn’t make sense
- Repeating keywords you want to rank for way too much
Remove the keyword stuffing on your pages, and you should be good to go.
Do you allow users to comment on your website? Comments can be a great way to build engagement and keep people coming back to your site. But if you fail to monitor the comment section, it might end up stuffed with user-generated spam that leads to a drop in rankings.
Some users post automatically generated content or affiliate links that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. For instance, if you have a blog post about SEO tactics and a user posts a link to a money-making scheme, that’s user-generated spam.
Manual comment approval works to combat this, but it takes forever. Instead, try a spam filter that blocks known terms, such as “free money” or “work from home.”
Getting Out of the Penalty Box
Once you’ve fixed whatever problem Google penalized you for, you can request a reconsideration review. You’ll need to tell Google what was removed and what you replaced it with (if anything). The review process can take up to a few weeks, but Google’s busy, so it might take a little longer.
Attack of the Malware
Did you know your website can get infected with malware? In fact, your site could be infected without you ever knowing it.
If Google thinks your site has been hacked or infected, it may drop its ranking to protect users from harm. Here are some common attacks Google looks out for:
- Code injection: Hackers inject malicious code into iframes, or directly into your site itself.
- Content injection: Hackers add hidden links or text through HTML, CSS, or other techniques. Google can see the content, but you and your users usually can’t.
- Page injection: Hackers may add entirely new pages to your site without your knowledge. These are usually phishing pages that try to get personal information from users.
- Redirects: A redirect happens when a user clicks on a link, but it takes them somewhere they weren’t expecting to go.
How do you fix a hacked website? You have a few options. One is to install a security plugin that scans and removes malware for you. You can also scan website files manually, but this may take a long time.
Another option is to reset your .htaccess file if your site is hosted on the Apache Web Server. This file is a popular target for malware attacks.
Restoring from the backup will likely get rid of the malware, but it also erases any changes you made since the backup was created. It’s best to use this option as a last resort.
It Needs Some Polish
Sometimes your site loses its ranking because, well, it’s just not good enough. Here’s what to do after a ranking drop if your site itself is to blame.
Is Your Site Slow?
Way back in the early days of the internet, people didn’t mind so much if websites took forever to load. That’s just how it was, and nobody expected anything different.
Now, though, users expect their content to load on demand. They don’t have the patience to wait. In fact, if your site takes more than two seconds to load, users are probably going to bail and go elsewhere.
Google does some fancy calculations to figure out your site’s speed. If it’s crawling, you might get hit with an automatic penalty.
To speed things up, try:
- Reducing unnecessary white space
- Compressing images
- Enabling browser caching
Does Your UX Suck?
If you made some tweaks to your user experience (UX), it might have been enough to knock your site down in the rankings.
Follow these best practices for UX:
- Stick with simple, easy-to-read typefaces
- Limit design colors to five or less (being aware of effective color schemes helps a lot with this!)
- Don’t overdo images
- Use intuitive navigation with clear internal links so users don’t get lost
- Use the same layout for all pages of your site
Don’t Forget About Mobile Users
A lot of web designers build their sites solely with desktop users in mind. They don’t bother testing the site to see how it looks and feels on mobile devices.
That might have been okay years ago when relatively few people were browsing websites on their phones. But nowadays, a poor mobile experience just isn’t going to cut it.
A site might display beautifully on a desktop or laptop screen. But if it’s not properly optimized, it could show up as a jumbled mess on mobile devices.
See how your website works on mobile for yourself. Does it load quickly? Is the text easy to scan on small screens, or do users need to zoom in to find what they’re looking for? Are images the right size, or are they taking up too much space?
If your site has mobile problems, it doesn’t mean you need to build a whole new site from scratch. You can if you want, but that takes a bunch of time and money.
Instead, practice responsive design. This technique automatically adjusts a site’s size and orientation to fit the screen. You can accomplish this through a combination of flexible grids and CSS media queries.
It’s All in the Timing
Timing really is everything.
You can use the Google Search Console to find the exact date and time your ranking took a nosedive. Check out all your Google Analytics reports – the page report, search term report, and so on – and look for any really big changes that could indicate something amiss.
Keep in mind that small fluctuations are normal, and they happen all the time. For instance, a little drop could mean you were outranked by a competitor for certain keywords. In that case, focus on improving your on-page SEO and maybe build a few backlinks (the legit way, remember). A few tweaks like these may be enough to get your ranking back to where it was.
A massive drop in traffic overnight is something entirely different. If you had 10,000 search visits one day and those visits fell to 500 overnight, something clearly went wrong.
What could that something be? Lots of things, actually. It could be an on-page issue, such as broken links. Another possibility is a big drop in lost links. If Google sees that you suddenly lost a bunch of links, it might think those links were unnatural and penalize your site.
There’s one other big thing that could cause a massive ranking drop, and I’ll talk about that more below.
The Two Most Dreaded Words You Never Want to Hear
Quick, answer me this: What are two words a website owner never wants to hear?
Could the answer be, “It’s broken?”
Well, you definitely don’t want to learn that your site’s crashed, and it will take hours to rebuild it because you forgot to back stuff up. But no, that’s not what I’m talking about here.
If your ranking has dropped, the two words that will put fear into your heart are “algorithm update.”
Why? Because if Google did an algorithm update and your traffic tanked, that could mean one of two things:
- It’s just a little update, and everything will stabilize back to normal soon. Keep calm and carry on.
- It’s a really big update, and you’ll probably need to change your SEO tactics going forward.
Google makes lots of small algorithm updates all the time, and usually, nobody really notices. It’s only when they make a major change that you see a whole bunch of people start to freak out at once.
They make those big updates to combat spam, show users more relevant content, and basically change search for the better. And while that’s great, it can hurt your website because your SEO strategy doesn’t work anymore.
If you’ve been in the SEO business for a long time, you might remember Google’s infamous Panda update. Back in 2011, users were getting sick of all the useless, thin content out there. Affiliate marketers were going crazy pumping out junk content to help them make bank off their ads.
Back then, Google rewarded sites that pumped out fresh content on a daily basis. So for a long time, that’s exactly what everyone did, and it worked.
But Google got tired of the trash content flooding its search results. It rolled out the Panda algorithm update, which favored quality over quantity.
The results were fantastic for users, but site owners freaked out. The whole landscape had suddenly changed, and they were faced with a harsh truth – adapt or die.
So if you got slammed by an algorithm update, what can you do? Keep an eye on the SEO community. It won’t be long before other people report what’s working for them, and hopefully, you’ll have your site rank back where it was in no time.
It’s Going to Be Okay – Really
Now you know what to do after a ranking drop. I know it’s scary, but it’s not the end of the world. In most cases, you can find the cause with a bit of detective work. If you know what the problem is, great! You’re one step closer to fixing it and bringing your site back to its rightful place in the search results.