Practically every website sees peaks and valleys when it comes to organic traffic. It’s perfectly normal to see ups and downs as a result of rankings fluctuations, seasonality, and lots of other factors. 

But sometimes big swings catch us off guard. A sudden drop in traffic can make it feel like the rug is being pulled out from under you. A big spike can make you feel like celebrating.

As digital marketers, it’s our job to move past these initial reactions and look to the data for what’s really going on.

Read on as we work our way through the possibilities. By the end, you should be well on your way to finding the answer you’re looking for. 

What to Do When Traffic Suddenly Drops

A general rule of thumb for when traffic drops is to not freak out. Of course, you should clearly communicate the situation to your client or boss and ask your colleagues for help if you need it. But taking a hurried approach to diagnosing a drop in traffic can often lead to mistakes, wasted time, and even damage to your credibility. Instead, take an open-minded, step-by-step approach to figuring out what the problem is.

Which brings us to our first step: making sure there actually is a problem.

Make Sure There’s Actually a Problem

Here’s a great opportunity to potentially save yourself a lot of time and money. Before you go any further, double-check to make sure there isn’t just an issue with measurement or a drop due to seasonal variance.

If there is, you’re in luck. This is one of the best possible scenarios because it means that A) there isn’t actually an abnormal drop in traffic and B) you know exactly what you have to do to resolve the situation.

Key questions: 

Is Tracking Implemented Properly?

For something that seems so simple, tracking issues cause a lot of headaches. There are a surprising number of ways in which tracking issues can arise, each resulting in a stream of analytics data that doesn’t mirror reality. An obvious sign to look for is traffic very suddenly dropping to zero or near zero, but this isn’t always the case. An easy first step here is to use a tool like Screaming Frog to check for instances of the site’s tracking code. You can also use Google’s Tag Assistant extension to check for tracking code on the fly.

Screaming Frog Custom Search

Is it possible this is just web traffic seasonality? 

If traffic is sloping downward, can you be sure it’s due to something ominous and not just seasonality? Most websites experience some form of seasonality, even if very minor. If traffic seems to be heading in the wrong direction, do a year over year analysis to make sure it’s not just following a seasonal trend. Traffic may be trending downward but still be up year over year for the same time period, which would be a win!

Check for Indexing Issues

An often-overlooked aspect of SEO is simply making sure search engines are able to properly crawl and index your website. A web crawler needs to be able to crawl a page in order to see its content and needs to be able to index a page in order to rank it. Indexation for e-commerce sites often brings about its own set of challenges. Google Search Console is a useful resource when looking into potential indexing and rendering issues.

Key question:

Could the traffic loss be attributed to any issues with crawling, indexing, or rendering?

Best practices for crawling and indexing:

  • Make sure the robots.txt file isn’t blocking pages that you don’t want to be blocked.
  • Ensure pages are marked “index” and that no pages you want to include in Google’s index are marked as “noindex.”
  • Parameters: if you’ve told search engines not to index pages with certain parameters, make sure you’re not accidentally excluding ones you want to include.
  • Search exact text snippets from pages to ensure search engines are indexing the site’s text.
  • Use the Google Search Console sitemap report to see how many URLs have been submitted vs. how many URLs are indexed.
  • Use GSC’s URL inspector if you suspect pages’ content isn’t being fully rendered and indexed.
  • When possible, avoid rendering critical content using Javascript.

Google Search Console

Make Sure the Website Hasn’t Suffered a Google Penalty

This is a quick and easy thing to check that requires zero analysis: look at Google Search Console to make sure the site hasn’t incurred a manual action. This usually won’t be the case but it’s worth taking the 30 seconds to look. 

Here’s where you can see the security and manual actions report in Google Search Console: 

Google Search Console Manual Actions

Run a Website Traffic Analysis

Once you’ve verified that there is in fact a significant drop in traffic and it’s not the direct result of indexing issues, the real detective work begins. This is where we start to dig into what’s really going on with traffic. Here we’ll answer some questions to see if we can get to the bottom of things.  

Key questions:

Is the drop specific to one section of the website or type of keyword?

This is a pivotal point in our process. Is the drop in traffic widespread or is it contained to a single page or section of the site? For example, we’ve seen clients whose blog accounts for a large percentage of their overall traffic. Sometimes, a single blog post may even be responsible for the majority of organic traffic. If rankings for this post slip, it may cause organic traffic to tank. 

This is a bittersweet scenario. On the one hand, you are in fact losing significant traffic. On the other hand, you know exactly what the problem is and the solution may be relatively simple (updating and improving the post, publishing supporting content, internal linking, etc.). 

Have the SERPS changed?

Take a look at the SERPs for some of the site’s most important keywords. How do they look now compared to before the drop in traffic happened? Doing this analysis can offer important clues about the nature of the problem. 

Search engines are continuously experimenting and changing the SERPs in order to deliver the best results for searchers. When the kinds of content that search engines favor for a particular search query changes, it can mean less traffic for your site. 

We like to use STAT Search Analytics for this analysis. In particular, the tool’s Archived SERPs report, which lets us view Google’s SERPs for a given keyword on different dates. 

STAT Archived SERPs

Could the traffic loss be due to PPC keyword cannibalization?

By now, most of us are sold on the importance of a mutually beneficial relationship between organic and paid search. Ideally, these two channels won’t compete for clicks but will instead complement each other to provide a more holistic search strategy. 

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. When there’s siloing of the organic and paid search teams or a paid search campaign isn’t properly implemented, paid ads can cannibalize clicks that were once going to organic listings. If this is the case, a resolution can be as simple as working collaboratively with the paid search team to address the issue. 

Review Changes to the Website

When traffic drops, the first impulse for many of us will be to look elsewhere for the cause: increased competition, algorithm updates, changes to the SERPs, etc. And these are all perfectly valid possibilities. But sometimes the root of the problem comes from within the site itself. Changes to a website can have serious SEO implications, so it’s important to review recent changes to make sure you’re isolating potential issues. 

Key questions:

Have there been technical changes to the site that could be responsible for the drop in traffic?

Technical changes to the site can alter the way search engines crawl, render, and index a site’s content. Examples include canonicalization, changes to URLs, and crawl directives. 

Have there been changes to the site’s content that could be responsible for the drop in traffic?

Look at the changes that have been made to the site’s content recently. Making updates to a page’s content can be an effective way to improve rankings by creating more satisfying results for users. But it can also be an effective method of self-sabotage if the updates aren’t favored by search engines. 

Focus on significant changes to important pages or sections of the site. Has a large amount of content been updated or removed from the site? If so, dig deeper and do some manual analysis to see if this might be the culprit. 

Be Aware of Google Algorithm Updates

Search engine algorithms: as SEOs, we live by the sword and die by the sword. The same algorithm updates that can take our traffic soaring to new heights can send it crashing to new lows. Even when we do our best to follow Google’s guidelines, we’re sometimes left reeling after being on the wrong side of an update.  

Key question:

Have there been any recent Google algorithm updates? 

This is one of the least-exciting possible reasons for a traffic drop because there’s usually no quick solution available. Sometimes there’s no obvious solution at all, other than auditing the website and seeing how it stacks up against Google’s guidelines and SEO best practices. For a great resource on recovering from an algorithm update we recommend this guide from Path Interactive.
Google Algorithm Update

Look for Changes in the Competitive Landscape

Sometimes the cause of a decline in traffic is good old-fashioned competition. Even if your site doesn’t occupy a highly-competitive niche, chances are it’s not the only game in town. Where there’s traffic to be had and money to be made, there will be competitors trying to oust you from your rankings.

Key question:

Is the competition stepping it up and stealing your rankings?

If the decline in traffic looks more like a slope than a steep cliff, check up on the competition to see if they’ve been making improvements. You may need to follow suit in order to regain those lost positions. 

Investigate any Changes to the Site’s Backlink Profile

We’ve talked about building inbound links for SEO and the importance of a strong backlink profile to search performance. Links are like votes for a website’s content. In the same way that gaining votes signals an increase in the site’s authority, losing votes can signal a decrease in authority. 

Key question:

Has the domain recently lost a lot of backlinks or gained a lot of spammy ones? 

The impactfulness of this will heavily depend on the quality and authority of the links lost or gained; losing a bunch of spammy, low-quality links shouldn’t lead to a decrease in traffic. 

If you suspect links may have something to do with the drop in traffic, do a full backlink audit. There are plenty of tools you can use for this, but we prefer Ahrefs. 

What to Do When Traffic Suddenly Spikes

Imagine that one day you log into your analytics account and find that your organic traffic has surged. 

Do you promptly pat yourself on the back and fire up an email telling your client or boss about the great news? 

Or kick your feet up and pour yourself a drink in celebration of a job well done? 

You could do any and all of these things, but before you do you may want to dig into the source of the spike to make sure there’s cause for celebration. Let’s walk through what to look for when traffic shoots up unexpectedly. 

Consider Timely Content

Having a strong content strategy that’s flexible enough to leave room for timely and newsworthy content is important to sustaining growth efforts. It can also lead to sudden spikes in traffic (and that’s a good thing in this case).

Key question:

Does the site have content that’s relevant to current events or trends?

Check the top landing pages. Are there blog posts that are relevant to news stories or current events? 

The content doesn’t even have to have been published recently. You or your client may have published a post years ago that is just now blowing up because the topic is in the news. Or, maybe a high-profile publication wrote about the same topic and linked back to your post, causing a spike in referral traffic. Tools like Google Trends can help you identify search terms that are currently spiking in interest. 

Super Bowl LIV Google Trends

Review Technical Changes to the Website

Just as with traffic drops, traffic spikes can also be the result of technical changes. Maybe a bunch of pages had noindex tags removed and are now in Google’s index. Maybe there’s been a change in the way search engines are able to render and index the site’s content. 

Key question: 

Did you make any drastic technical changes recently? 

Analyze where on the site you’re seeing an increase in traffic. Be sure to look into: 

  • Landing pages
  • Categories
  • Google Search Console

Ask About Media Exposure and Offline Visibility

The source of this change is entirely external to the website. As seasoned SEOs know, offline marketing can play a big role in online performance, including organic search. Some “traditional” channels that can impact SEO performance include:

  • TV
  • Radio
  • Newspaper/magazines
  • Billboards

Key question: 

What earned or paid media exposure has the business received lately, if any?

Sync up with the offline marketing team to compare marketing calendars. See what, if any offline media coverage the business has received. You can also look for steep increases in direct traffic in Google Analytics and clicks from branded search terms in Google Search Console. If you find there has been offline activity that’s caused the spike, don’t forget to annotate it in Google Analytics.

Going forward, work with offline marketing teams to create holistic campaigns that use both online and offline tactics to strengthen your presence.

Filter Out Ghost Spam

Ghost spam gets its name from the fact that these “visitors” never actually visit your site at all. Using the measurement protocol, spammers send data directly to Google Analytics’ servers using randomly-generated tracking numbers. 

Key question:

Do you see extreme engagement metrics in your analytics reports?

If a source of traffic has unusual metrics like a nearly 100% bounce rate, the culprit is often non-human traffic. The same goes for 100% new visitor rates or 1.00 average page views. Fortunately, solving the problem of ghost spam is often pretty simple. Since the spammers aren’t actually interacting with your site, there’s no blocking or defending you need to do. You can simply filter out ghost spam in your analytics platform including only traffic using your website’s hostname.  
Ghost Spam

Stay Privy to Google Algorithm Updates

As we mentioned before, the same fickle algorithms that can send your traffic spiraling downward can also cause it to surge overnight. If you’re in an industry with high volatility in the SERPs, such as YMYL and recipe sites, you may be more susceptible to big swings than others. 

Examples of industries with high search volatility include: 

  • Food/recipes
  • Health
  • Wellness/wellbeing
  • Retail and e-commerce

You may be doing something that your competitors aren’t. If you’ve been hard at work improving your site and its content, well done! You’ve earned your new rankings. Just don’t rest on your laurels and think that you’ll hold onto them without ongoing work. We recommend Moz’s list of Google algorithm updates to stay up to date. 

Spike in Organic Clicks

Rule Out Hacking Attempts

A nefarious but less common cause of traffic spikes is hacking attempts. Certain types of attacks, such as DoS/DDoS attacks, are carried out by sending a massive number of requests to a website, overwhelming the server and causing it to crash. 

We’re not cybersecurity experts, so we won’t go too in-depth with our thoughts or recommendations. If your site is set up on Google Search Console, you can check “Security Issues” to see if Google has detected any malicious activity on your site. Google also has their own recommendations for what to do if you suspect your site may have been hacked or there was an attempted hacking. 

Wrapping Up

By now you’ve hopefully had a chance to gain some real insight into why your traffic has changed. Maybe you’ve found that there’s really no problem at all. Maybe you’ve been hit with an algorithm update and you’ve got a long road to recovery ahead of you. Whatever the case may be, there’s power in knowing what’s actually going on. It’s only after you understand the root cause that you can begin to take action (or not take action, depending on the scenario). 

Do you have your own system for diagnosing changes in traffic? Let us know in the comments – we’d love to hear from you.

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