One of the scariest moments for us SEO’s can be checking your analytics and seeing that traffic has taken a nose dive. Knowing what to check can help quickly get a better understanding of what is happening. The following are the first 10 metrics (or places) I usually check when I see a significant drop in traffic.
As an industry, we tend to meticulously track our rankings. When your traffic drops, rank tracking can yield some helpful data. If these keywords have taken a big drop you should review your backlinks (and back link building practices) for possible penalties or devaluing (covered later).
In addition to track your most important keywords, it is also important to track a number of keywords to represent mid and long tail keywords. If you are not already tracking rankings, SEObook has a great Rank Tracker FireFox extension; or there are paid options like the rank tracking included in SEOmoz PRO or Link Assistant’s Rank Tracker.
If you have built links that Google might not be very excited about, these may have been devalued so you are no longer competitive for these keywords. If you straight up bought a significant amount of links, you may be penalized. It is also a good idea to go through your competitor’s backlink profile; it is possible they have been performing SEO and you are ranking worse simply because they have improved their SEO. As a bonus, when you are going through their backlink profile, you can see if there are any link opportunities that you may have missed. If you are not ranking well for branded terms, it is very likely that you have a penalty that you need to deal with.
You can also track you backlinks to see if any of your links have simply disappeared – maybe someone decided that your content was not worth linking to. The other aspect to look into is the quality of the links you have built. The ratio of low quality links is what you should be looking at. Are there paid links or spammy links that make up a significant (unnatural) portion of your backlink profile? Do you have more links with exact an exact match for a keyword than your website or brand name? Again, this looks unnatural as branded terms tend to make up most of the anchor text portfolio.
Keywords Receiving Traffic
If the number of keywords receiving traffic has dropped, this could be pointing to an indexation problem or an algorithm update. You should check to see if the drop in traffic was received equally across all pages and keywords or if the drop is focusing on head terms or long tail keywords. You can check whether the keywords receiving traffic are head or long tail keywords by exporting a .csv list of your keywords and then using the following formula to determine how many words are in each keyphrase:
To classify the keywords you can use the following function (based on the logic: 1-2 words = Head Term, 3-4 words = Middle, 5+ words = Long Tail):
Note: This assumes your list of keywords starts in A47 (based on my most recent Google Analytics output.
URLs Receiving Traffic
Looking at the number of URLs receiving traffic can help you understand whether search engines have decided to not send traffic to your URLs or whether they have decided to send less traffic to your URLs. It is also good to take a look at the URLs receiving traffic for patterns. Try to find a correlation between the pages receiving more traffic and the pages receiving less traffic. Are product pages no longer getting traffic or is it the category pages that have taken a hit?
Going through the server logs, you can find out if there is a change in how often bots visit your site and how many pages they visit. The goal of looking through this file is to determine if search engines still think your site still has good content and they are still crawling it or if they have given up on your site. If bot crawl activity significantly decreases, there are a couple possibilities.
- Your backlinks may no longer be passing value and inherently there is less value associated with your site; as your site is less valuable, Google may not be allocating as much bandwidth to your site as it previously did.
- Another option is that you have a penalty and as such Google may be preventing its bots from coming your way.
Has your count of indexed pages fallen off a cliff? If you aren’t able to gain access to your server log files, this can be used at an attempt to get the same information. This data is typically from Google Webmaster Tools or (worse) doing a site search meaning you will get a number instead of a list of URLs. If you have to do a site search, you will be getting a typically inaccurate list of URLs. Due to the limited amount of actionable information that can be taken away from this, you should also look at the number of URLs receiving traffic to help give you a better insight into the number of indexed pages.
Sometimes PPC pages will be marked incorrectly and show up as organic traffic. This is bad because these metrics have been throwing off your PPC campaigns and you have been basing advertising decisions and conversion tests off of incomplete data. The good part is that your organic traffic may not have dropped, or may not have dropped as significantly. If this is the case, you will need to go in and rectify your data and then analyze a traffic drop. Best case scenario is that there was a decrease in the amount of exposure for the incorrectly tagged PPC campaign.
Have there been any recent site updates? Have landing pages that once passed link juice been eliminated? Were some pages accidently noindexed or nofollowed? Was analytics code accidently removed from part of the site? There is a lot going on with big sites making it easy for small accidents to have big ramifications.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (lame but true): I strongly recommend, and recently wrote about, making SEO part of your site’s project process and using SEO checklists. These can be really helpful in cutting down the amount of “accidents” affecting your site’s SEO.
Two really fast metrics to check are your historical data and your calendar. Holidays can cause significant drops in traffic and an equally significant amount of unnecessary panic. If you are the SEO for an international site, checking your calendar becomes a bit more complicated and it may become easier to simply do a Google search for the date. This should be easy to confirm by looking for drops in traffic for specific countries.
PRO Tip: Depending on time zones, you may need to be searching for a different date.
Assume you run an international site based out of Seattle. You could see a significant drop in traffic on September 30th but the reason for the drop in traffic is that October 1 is a holiday, which everyone is supposed to be off work, in China. If you use an analytics package that shows hourly updates, such as Omniture, in this situation you would probably notice your traffic started to drop off around 3-4pm (7-8am in China). A way to verify this is that the traffic loss from China should account for most of the overall traffic loss. Exceptions to this would be international holidays (such as Christmas).
Forums and Communities
If you have diagnosed where your site is receiving less traffic but are unsure why, SEO communities can be really helpful. If there was an algorithm update, it will be affecting a lot of folks and odds are pretty good that people will be talking about it in their respective communities. When the May Day update happened, I was able to learn a lot from what other webmasters had posted at Webmaster World.
Going through these different metrics, and seeing what other people are saying, should help give you a better understanding of what is happening. All of these metrics fit into the big picture in one way or another and many are related. Your conclusions, though they are based on correlation, should have multiple metrics to back up your theory. By listening to what other webmasters have to say, you can gain a better understanding of whether your situation is site specific (a penalty) or if it is being seen by many sites (algorithm update).
Geoff Kenyon is an SEO Consultant in the Seattle office and is determined to find the best burrito in Seattle. Outside of work he spends his time playing ice hockey, building igloos and eating maple syrup.