Why Has Our Traffic Dropped? Answering SEO Questions with Issue Trees

A few weeks ago, most of the Distilled team from our London office went for a training session with one of our board members.  The last time we did this, the session was about influencing change in clients and getting stuff done.  This time we were focusing on answering hard questions.  Try to answer the following questions easily -

  1. What should my strategy be?
  2. What keywords should I target?
  3. How do I increase traffic to my website?
Its pretty hard, there are loads of possibilities and counter questions you could ask.  How do you know where to start?

At this training session, we were introduced to the idea of using issue trees to answer questions.  The idea being that you break down a tough question into smaller questions which if answered, will give you the final answer.  In reality, for a true issue tree to work correctly, things are a little more complicated.  As an example, each section of the tree should be MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) which essentially means that each category of questions should not overlap and be distinct from each other.  Furthermore you should find that every category of questions should deal with all possible outcomes fully.   I could go into more detail but in the interests of keeping you all with me, lets relate this to a real SEO problem that we have all faced at some point.

Client Question - Why has my traffic dropped?

It is possible to use issue trees and the MECE principles to answer this question.  The advantage to using an issue tree is that you can be assured that you have explored all possibilities and now have the right answer for your client.

Below is a quick mockup of how an issue tree may look for this question.

Caveat - this has been mocked up quickly and I’m not claiming this is 100% accurate.   The point of this post isn’t to answer this specific question right now, the point is to get you thinking about whats possible and how you can use issue trees in your own SEO campaigns.

As I said, this is just for a demo and I’m sure some of you can find other ways to approach the question.  But hopefully this gives you an idea of what an issue tree is trying to achieve.  To give you more context and make this post as useful as possible, I’m going to go into more detail about these questions and the thinking behind them.

Is the data accurate?

This should always be the first question you ask.  You can save yourself a lot of time and hassle if you realise that the data you are looking at is false.  There are a number of reasons this may be the case -
  • Broken tracking code on your site
  • Analytics data not updated yet
  • User error (aka being a fool)
I wouldn’t laugh at the last one, sometimes it can be that someone is looking at the wrong report or the wrong timeline.

As you can see from the issue tree, we cover these possibilities.  If its a technical problem, we’ve led you to two endings.  One being that it is an Analytics problem, the other being that its a server / hosting problem.

Has something changed?

This can be classified a number of ways and there are all sorts of things that could have changed.  However fundamentally, it probably comes down to two areas - a technical problem or a change in the market.

Technical Problem

There are lots of technical things that could have been done to the site which has caused a drop in traffic.  Maybe someone has accidentally put rel=canonical on all their pages or even deliberately as Dr Pete once did.  Or maybe a the developers implemented a change that made all the content invisible to the search engines.  Either way, you need to explore what has been done in order to get to the bottom of it.

In this example, our issue tree finishes here but in a real example, it would probably carry on and get a bit more detailed about the type of technical problems that may occur.

Algorithm Change

It can be argued that this should sit under the “Change in the market” category, as it technically isn’t a technical problem.  However given recent Panda update stuff, it could also be argued that technical changes will be required to fix the issues.  Either way, an algorithm change can certainly lead to a drop in traffic.

Change in the market

The options under this category are a little harder to pin down.  Whilst it is hard to record changes that happen on your own site, it is even harder to monitor those made on other sites.  However if you have access to the right data, it is possible to spot industry changes and competitor changes.

Industry Shift

Is the industry that you operate in slowing down?  Is demand for your services growing or dropping?  To use an example, if I had a website that sold VHS video players, I wouldn’t be surprised if my traffic started to fall as DVD players became more popular and I hadn’t adjusted my own website to adapt to the market change.

A good way to measure this kind of shift is to use a tool such as Google Insights which can show you demand for a certain set of keywords over a given time period.

Competitor Movement

I’m not a huge advocate of spending loads of time spying on competitors or worrying about what they are up to.  I feel the time is best spent building your own business.  However you should definitely be automating the gathering of data including their rankings and link building.  You can set these to record automatically so the time and resource required is minimal.  But when the time comes to take a closer look, you have lots of data to play with and see what they’ve been up to.


As I pointed out earlier, this particular issue tree is not a finished example.  But hopefully it has given you some idea as to the possible with the help of issue trees in solving SEO problems.

Paddy Moogan

Paddy Moogan

There’s only one Paddy Moogan and he joined Distilled after spending over two years running marketing campaigns at another web design and development agency. Before that he studied Law at Coventry University where he spent more time learning about...   read more

Get blog posts via email


  1. This was really interesting - actually seeing the process we intuitively go through broken down into steps. The diagram is especially useful - a picture tells a thousand words, and all that. Many thanks indeed for sharing this.

    reply >
  2. Great post. I'm a sucker for this kind of methodical approach and I already use something similar. I get asked this question a lot and the answer is usually the top line - is the data correct with the odd server problem thrown in for good measure!

    reply >
  3. Ben

    This is a huge idea. Great stuff! Where can I find more information on establishing my own answer/question trees.

    reply >
  4. Definitely a great tool for diagnoses. Sometimes just the ability to rule out options makes the problem much more manageable. What's especially useful about this type of decision process is that in an agency that may have multiple people on a project, we can think "quicker" by evaluating potential problem areas with the people who have the most information.

    Excellent ideas as usual.

    reply >
  5. Paddy Moogan

    Hi Ben,

    I'm still learning quite a lot of this myself but if you look around for a company called Mckinsey, they are well known for using this approach to problem solving. There are a few Powerpoints in this search result which may be useful (didn't want to link straight to the downloads)

    Google Search Results

    As I learn more I'll probably post more here, but right now I don't know many other SEO / online marketing sites that talk about issue trees unfortunately!


    reply >
  6. With all the changes we often see in Google ranking and such, it would always pay to know the accurate reasons why these things happen. Your post is an enlightenment, thanks!


    reply >
  7. I love this! A question like 'why has my traffic dropped' is so overwhelming and laden with emotion that it's almost impossible to get a handle on it. Breaking the factors down is the way to get an answer that is actionable, rather than just guessing. I've done this in the past but adding a visual element makes it much more powerful.

    reply >
  8. Great idea - it's always best to ask yourself rational questions to why your traffic might have dropped. As a previous comment said, it's often down to a problem with reporting rather than a dramatic downturn caused by another reason. The best thing to do is not to panic! Break the problem down and look at each element one by one, as you would with the tree.

    reply >
  9. Richard Vaughan

    Nice post but I have one comment to make: You don't necessarily need each branch in the tree to be mutually exclusive, just that they be independent.

    reply >

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>