With more than 63% of digital marketers adopting search engine optimisation (SEO) as one of their primary tools to generate visibility and leads online, one of the most horrific things they face is the prospect of dramatic rank drops. These events can damage hard-won market share and seriously impact their incomes. MediaOne takes you through some important strategies to avoid these possibly catastrophic events.
The article includes many case studies and expert advice from the SEO industry’s leading minds, including Rand Fishkin. These are all situations where ranking dropped dramatically because of something that was out of their control but could have been prevented with some foresight or planning. By reading this article, marketers will learn to avoid these pitfalls and keep their Google rankings steady, regardless of future changes.
Back to Basics: Old SEO Vs. Modern SEO
In the pre-Google Penguin days of old, there was only one way to rank on Google—write a good article. And write it well. Your page would get ranked if you wrote a good article that fulfilled all of Google’s requirements.
It didn’t matter how many links came into your page or if you had any backlinks at all; Google algorithms solely judged articles on their writing, readability, and keyword usage. That, of course, meant that many SEOs who valued the importance of link building over everything else would have a hard time ranking.
Before that, we had the Panda update, which punished sites with thin content. It was easy for Google to recognize pages that were full of filler and fluff. This time, Google even removed the need for well-written articles because if your content didn’t fulfill a purpose, it wasn’t worth ranking.
The Future: Mobile & Voice Search
Currently, we are in an exciting period where all SEO updates seem to be geared towards the future. Google will continue to update how it ranks websites, but instead of making radical changes in its ranking factors, Google will gradually emphasize different elements in rankings over time.
The two most significant changes have been mobile and voice search. SEOs have been caught off guard in these two areas because they expected Google to change its rankings so drastically that they stopped taking action. And once they regained their footing, it was already too late to catch up.
The notion you should shed is that Google never punishes websites that fail to keep up with the times — it only rewards those that do. So yes, rank drops don’t always imply a penalty. You’re only getting outranked because you weren’t proactive.
The Challenges of Google Rank drops
We know what you’re thinking: “I’ll do a little research on the subject, and everything will be okay.” We wish that were true. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as researching for an answer because there is no single cause to a Google rank drop. In fact, most rank drops come from a combination of factors, which makes them harder to diagnose. Google has been very clever with how it builds its algorithm, and there are hundreds if not thousands of signals contributing to your rank position.
What’s Google Trying to Accomplish: Straight from the Horse’s Mouth?
On January 21st, 2020, Google posted on Twitter about a core update they had just released.
Later today, we are releasing a broad core algorithm update, as we do several times per year. It is called the January 2020 Core Update. Our guidance about such updates remains as we’ve covered before. Please see this blog post for more about that:https://t.co/e5ZQUA3RC6
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) January 13, 2020
Although they didn’t take us through the specifics of the update, they did link us to one of their posts, giving deep insights on what they’re always trying to achieve, not just with this particular core update but with the rest of them.
It turns out Google never penalizes or de-ranks websites that fail to keep up with the times– they only reward those that do.
And since SEO is a zero-sum game, one has to get demoted when a competing business gets promoted. The only way to avoid this situation is to stay on top of SEO and work your fingers to the bone not to be outranked by your competitors.
So, as you keep your eye open for any Google updates, the other eye must remain glued to what your competitors are doing to outrank you.
Google has an interesting analogy for this:
Suppose you made a top 100 list of your favourite movies in 2015. If you were to make the same list this year, you’d have to change it — right? There are so many new movies to consider, whereas older ones fall out of the public consciousness. The same thing happens with Google’s search algorithm. You can’t expect it to produce the same results as last year because there are just too many changes in how people interact on the web or use search engines.
MUM: Google Redesigning Its Search Using AI
On 29th September 2021, Google announced that they’re working on a new AI technology called MUM (Multitask Unified Model) to improve their search. During their Search On event, the company demonstrated new features, including those leveraging MUM to better connect their users with the content they want while making their search engine feel more natural and intuitive.
One of the features they’re launching is “things to know,” which focuses on helping users stay up-to-date on the news, issues, and events they care about. This feature utilizes AI [read: MUM] to understand how a user typically explores various topics, then recommends content to them in a personalized manner.
Google isn’t only using MUM for their search engine. They’re also using it to understand the browsing habits of their users better. The company demonstrated how you could use this technology to create personalized shopping experiences, using the example of looking for a new pair of shirts that would match your style.
What Does This Mean for Webmasters and SEO Marketers?
For Google: Advanced AI technology like this is nothing short of revolutionary. Although the company has been using AI for many years now, their previous programs didn’t feel as intuitive or useful as MUM does — and it’s only in its initial stages! Imagine what will happen if they’re finally able to perfect its algorithm? It could very well mean an end to Google’s constant ranking tweaks and updates, which will be a big sigh of relief for SEO professionals on the receiving end of these changes.
As far as web admins are concerned: if MUM works the way it’s supposed to, SEO will become a lot more automated — but that also means you’ll have to keep your SEO strategies up-to-date to survive in the SERPs.
What’s New in SEO? Everything!
Google isn’t rolling out new updates, just perfecting them. In other words, MUM will allow Google to listen in on the conversations people have while they’re web-surfing and understand the motivation behind what they search for.
Meaning, you’ll need to read between the lines of your users’ search queries and understand their needs and preferences to the core.
If your site fails to address these pain points, MUM will find the pages that do and promote them in its search results instead.
What’s Changed? Nothing!
Think of MUM as a fine-tuned version of Google’s current search algorithm. The difference is that it’s based on Natural Language Processing, which enhances the quality of its results while also providing more personalized experiences to users.
What this means for SEO professionals: keep doing what you’re doing.
This new technology is designed to understand your content more deeply, which means that if your SEO strategy is working now, it’s likely to continue being useful even after the new update.
The Takeaway: You can’t go wrong with improving your website’s content, design, structure, and, most importantly, user experience. Keep following all of Google’s guidelines for web admins, and don’t be afraid to experiment with new ways to connect better with your users — this is always a plus in SEO!
The takeaway: make sure you spend time studying what users think of your website — (not just how they use it).
What to Focus on
There are far too many changes here for one blog post, but let’s cover some of the major ones.
- No More Over-Optimization: Google won’t be looking for over-optimized keywords anymore, making it easier to rank for multi-word queries.
- More Personalized Results: Google has always ranked websites based on their authority and relevance, but MUM will now consider users’ individual preferences to bring them more personalized results.
- Increased Focus on Mobile Users: The updated algorithm will prioritize mobile-friendly websites and user experience, making optimizing your site for mobile devices even more important.
- More Diversity in Results: As mentioned above, MUM is supposed to understand complicated queries better than previous AI technologies could. This means that Google search results will include a wider variety of content thanks to the algorithm’s advanced understanding of users’ needs.
All in all, this is very exciting news — but it also means that SEO techniques are changing yet again! If you want to stay at the top of Google’s SERPs, you have to let your strategies evolve with them.
How to Make Sure Your Website is Algorithm-proofed Against Major Rank Drops
Google’s rank drop is every SEO’s Worst Nightmare. But before you panic, let us assure you: we’ve seen it happen to multiple websites; we know what works and what doesn’t.
We’ve compiled a list of top strategies to prevent drastic Google rank drops:
- Use News and Blogs for Your Link Building Campaigns: Analysis shows that high-quality editorial links are strong ranking signals. A traditional PR campaign may not be as effective as it once was, but you can still tap into the power of news and blogs to rank higher with less effort.
- Get More Traffic through Better User Experience: This is a no-brainer — users will always favour websites that give them what they want, and Google will always prioritize these pages over ones that don’t. Put time and money into improving your website’s design and content so that you can rank higher.
- Use People-Focused Keywords: If your keywords are more focused on people (and less on products), you’re onto something good! Research shows that Google prefers natural language search queries, which means that adjectives like “affordable” or “best” are far better than keyword-focused phrases like “online car insurance.”
- Work on Branding: Always be building your brand equity. Being known for something positive — especially if it’s relevant to your industry or niche — can make a huge difference in ranking higher and irreversibly so.
- Create Unique Content: Wait — this isn’t just for content marketing? Yes, indeed! If users find your content unique and valuable, Google will too. Make an effort to show your expertise in this way to avoid ranking drops (and get more loyal visitors at the same time).
- Use the Right Anchor Text: The best anchor text is natural words people use when talking about your business. Using your website’s name is good — but it’s not the only thing that can give you an SEO boost.
- Keep Track of Your Competitors’ Rankings: Monitor your competitors’ rankings in Google and pay attention to what they’re doing better than you. This will give your insight into what’s working for them — and if it’s not too late, you can apply the same strategy to your site!
- Follow The Google Algorithm Updates: Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm, which means SEO strategies are always changing (usually for the better). Be sure to stay informed, with an eye out for these updates as they’re rolled out.
- Hire a Pro: There are so many SEO techniques out there that it’s hard to keep track of with solo effort — particularly for small businesses with limited time and resources. If you don’t have the expertise yourself, consider hiring someone to clean up your current work.
- Add Schema Markup: Structured data markup helps search engines better understand what your content is about, which in turn boosts rankings! It won’t work for every site, but if you’re able to implement this effectively, it could be the difference between a rank drop and a rank rise.
The SEO industry is worth over $47.5 billion
In 2020, businesses spent an estimated $47.5 billion on SEO, almost double that of 2015 ((The Business Research Company, 2020). While this is still low, it’s snowballing (at a 9.7% CAGR) — and after the market recovers, it will likely explode (growing at a 19% CAGR and most likely hitting 77.6 billion) by 2023.
This spells fierce competition–if you can’t stand out from the crowd, your business will have a hard time standing at all. And when the competition heats up, it’s not just about who’s the strongest; it’s also about who adapts the quickest and learns from mistakes the fastest.
So, how much are companies spending on SEO?
According to Brian Dean of Backlinko, an average small business in the US spends about $500 on search engine optimization each year. It turns out, SEO might be among the few marketing strategies that actually pay off, something that many businesses are beginning to come to terms with.
The same study indicates that SEO is a bigger priority for companies than social media — and only slightly behind paid ads and “mainstream” marketing channels like TV advertising.
As it also turns out, companies that spend more than $500 a month on SEO are more likely to be “extremely satisfied with the results they get.
Is There Any Correlation Between Cheap SEO and Rank Drop?
The short answer is yes. Ranking high in Google is extremely hard — but it’s also extremely easy to tank your rankings by making simple mistakes. And many of these mistakes are the result of simply not hiring a professional to handle your SEO.
It’s no exaggeration to say that you can quickly lose weeks or even months’ worth of hard work overnight — and if this happens, it may take ages to recover.
If you’ve ever been to an Internet marketing group on Facebook, it’s not uncommon to see questions like this:
“I have just landed a big client who wants to rank for “Keyword X” — how do I do It?
The truth is, the digital landscape is brimming with noobs who think they know what they’re doing — but in reality, they don’t.
A second close case is the use of link schemes.
Link schemes are what they sound like: the practice of creating links to improve page rank.
Most “SEO companies” and shady bloggers will tell you that you can do it yourself — but most of them miss a few key points:
- Link schemes are risky at best and downright a death trap at worst — so even if you have a “trusted” or “big” website vouching for you, it’s still dangerous
- Google has gotten better and better at detecting spammy links and can now sniff them out with ease — and yes, they won’t hesitate to penalize you at the slightest whiff of a link scheme.
What You Really Need to Know About Cheap SEO
- If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it at all.
- If you’re looking to hire someone, get an experienced professional — not a college kid who’s only read some articles online.
- Cheap SEO is like Santa Claus– It doesn’t exist.
If you think SEO is an easy business or that it’s all about using the right software and getting a few backlinks — then I’ll be blunt: you’re in for a very rude shock.
Troubleshooting and Fixing a Rank Drop
Google has a detailed guide on this.
Diagnosing the Rank Drops
Check to see if your Search Console property definition matches your URL
Before panicking, Google suggests you check to see if you’ve entered the correct URL into your Search Console property definition. Make sure you’re not mixing HTTP and HTTPS or accidentally adding www to the URL.
The same goes for sites whose configuration includes different URLs for mobile and desktop. For example, if your site is http://example.com, but it shows a separate mobile URL in Search Console — then that’s going to be a problem. Google recommends choosing one canonical version and redirecting the other versions of the URL to it.
Patience is a Virtue — It Could be That Google has Yet to Crawl or Re-crawl Your Website
Google crawls websites by downloading their pages and content — but if your site hasn’t been crawled for a while, it could be that Google is still in the process of crawling it.
If you recently overhauled your site’s code, updated one of your pages, or made a large number of manual changes – then the chances are good that Google hasn’t crawled your new content yet.
If that’s the case, it could be a few days or even weeks before Google sees and ranks your updated content — but remember: once they do, you’re going to get a massive spike in traffic and rankings (unless, of course, Google sees your site for what it is).
In this case, just be patient and sit tight — you can always ask Google what the status of your re-crawl is from Search Console.
Google Thinks Your Site Might be Missing from their Search: You Want to Check with this First
It could be that your site isn’t getting detected by Google at all.
Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. If you’re brand new to SEO and have no backlinks — then there’s a good chance that Google hasn’t crawled your website yet. But if you’ve been around for a while and suddenly find yourself without any visibility in the search results, it might be worth checking to make sure Google can actually see your site.
Simple, just get the page’s URL and enter it into Google.
There’s a chance that you did something to get yourself de-indexed (hey, we all make mistakes — we’ve also made our share of these mistakes).
If it’s a website, feel free to do a site search — site: abcdefg.com
Replace the abcdefg with your site’s domain.
Google recommends using one of their tools to check for crawling errors, such as the Fetch and Render tool in Search Console. But if your website doesn’t exist or is de-indexed, then it helps to find out why. Again, Google has a detailed step-by-step guide to help you find out why.
Two of the possible reasons include:
- It could be that you’re subject to a manual action report
What’s a manual action?
I’m glad you asked.
Google has a whole page dedicated to it.
From Google: Manual action is an adjustment to your site’s standing in our search results that we apply when we detect activity meant to game our systems or engage in spammy behaviour.
A manual action can appear when one or more of the following things occur:
- We (read: Google) detect spam signals on your site: Your incoming links are low quality, have low relevance to your content, or are from suspicious sites.
- You seriously violate one of our policies: You try to sell products or services inappropriately or do it in a way that spams users.
- You try to build links aggressively by using methods that go against our Webmaster Guidelines: For example, when we find out that you’re selling links in your content.
- There is a sudden spike or drop in the query rankings associated with your site when there is no external reason for such a change.
- We detect other signs of suspicious activity on your site: For instance, you’re blocking Googlebot from crawling parts of your site.
Or it could be that your site has duplicate content issues. (Note: this is one case where I recommend hiring someone — another expert to help you fix your site)
- Or your subject to the security issues report (if you’re new to SEO, this will probably apply more to you)
If Google suspects your website was hacked or is a victim of a malicious attack, they’ll show a security issue warning in their security issues report.
Google’s security issues report shows you any early-stage Webmaster Tools warnings that Google has spotted on your site. This way, even if your website is compromised, you can take steps to fix it quickly before it gets worse. The security issue warning page will differ depending on what type of attack or hack Google suspects occurred, but every warning will include a brief description of what happened and how to fix it.
Check to See if Someone Has Filed a Successful URL Removal Request on Your Site
Google’s frequently asked questions page says that a URL removal request is a notification from a third party that the URL in question contains content that violates their rights. These can include claims of defamation or violations of copyrights and trademarks. If you receive one, you have two options:
- Option 1: Agree with the request and remove the reported item or content from your website. Google will then initiate an internal counter for that URL, triggering a re-crawl of the page by their indexing system.
- Option 2: Disagree with the request, and they’ll take another look at it. The other party can escalate their complaint to Google if they still think their claims are valid, at which point Google will take a look and make the final decision.
You Recently Moved Your Website to a New Web Host
If you recently changed web hosting providers, your website might be listed for the wrong IP address. Google’s own instructions describe how to fix this here.
Moz has more ideas on how to fix this here.
Fixing a Dramatic Google Rank Drop
If none of the suggestions we’ve made so far applies to you, then you might be dealing with a more serious issue.
The best way to fix this is to hire an SEO expert. But until then, continue with the rest of our troubleshooting guide:
Check Your Site’s Index Coverage
If you suspect Google might be indexing fewer pages than it’s usual, check your site’s index coverage.
Follow this link to go to your website’s Index Coverage Report.
Carefully toggle the report to see if there are any indexing errors, excluded links, or crawl rate issues. If you find the issue, please refer to Google’s help centre article on how to fix it.
Look for spikes in your crawl rate and drill down to find the source. You should find clues on why Google chose to de-index some of your pages.
- Excluded links – Crawled pages that we’re not allowed to crawl.
- Crawl errors – Pages that can’t be crawled and aren’t necessarily indexed.
- Pages with infinite redirects, missing sitemaps, and so on might be considered crawl errors too.
That said, here are a few common causes of crawl errors:
- Template Issues: Changing or deleting your website template or modifying parts of it might lead to severe crawl errors. Use the Robots.txt file with caution! It can block search engine crawlers from accessing crucial pages on your site.
- Permission/Access Issues: Sites with poor access control might be considered by search engines as spam. Google recommends configuring your permissions to ensure no one can alter or delete pages on your site outside of their respective business roles. Specifically check with no-index directives and robot.txt files.
If the rank drop was caused by an indexing issue that you have fixed, go ahead and request validation of the fixes. Bear in mind that re-indexing and validation take time. So, give yourself a few weeks, and then check to see if things are back on track.
If indexing errors aren’t the issue, then you might have a technical issue.
Check Your Search Traffic Numbers
You can check your website’s search traffic numbers by going through the Performance Report in Webmaster Tools. Google explains how to access the numbers here.
Go through the numbers and find out what’s changed:
- Go through display data for impressions, CTR, and position
- Go through the mobile usability report to see if your mobile traffic has dropped
- Check the traffic you’re getting from individual countries and make sure the hreflang has been implemented correctly and that you haven’t accidentally excluded any countries or set your targeting incorrectly.
- If the traffic drop is from a specific page, run the URL through the URL inspection tool. The tool will analyse the page and provide you with a detailed troubleshooting guide on how to fix the issue.
Common among the issues you’re likely to find are:
- The page might not be canonical: The report will show you if you’ve selected another page as canonical.
- There’s also a fair chance that Google Hasn’t Crawled the page: There are numerous reasons for this. Luckily for you, the troubleshooting report generated by the URL inspector should help you find a solution.
- If it’s video traffic, check to see if you’re following video best practices and if you’re using video sitemaps.
- If it’s video traffic, check to see if you’re following video best practices and if you’re using video sitemaps.
- Same with images! Make sure you’re using alt tags correctly. Also, check to see if Google Image Search has indexed the image. Same with images! Make sure you’re using alt tags correctly. Also, check to see if Google Image Search is indexing the image. Most importantly, make sure you’re not blocking Google from accessing your image through robot.txt.
Check to See if the Drop is Periodic
If your website is seasonal, you might see a brief drop in traffic from time to time. Analyse the numbers and make sure what you’re experiencing isn’t part of a pattern.
A Drop in CTR Not Matching a Drop in Impressions
Users might be seeing your site in the SERPs but not clicking through it. It happens more often than most people realize. It could be that people are finding your competitors’ search results more compelling. Or that you haven’t taken time to create meaningful meta titles, descriptions, and other search features.
Should it turn out that this is the case, you want to go back to the drawing board and create better content, meta titles, and so on. Google also has a guide for this.