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All in-house and agency SEO experts who manage websites have come across the dreaded 'drop in rankings' scenario after an algorithm change or update. However, there is a better way to deal with the situation than losing the plot and going off on a Google slating session.
Some website owners have reported up to a 90% drop in recent traffic following the Mayday update. Unusually, Google themselves has cited the update as a possible reason for changing rankings.
Clearly, in situations like this there is no point moaning until Google revise the algorithm. The only thing you can do is try to find out where the issue is and address it. By looking at drastic ranking changes in a positive light, you may be able to correct issues and ultimately find that your long-term site results exceed their previous levels.
Once you have settled on the idea of resolving the issue you must then come to terms with the timescales involved. All search engine experts know that ranking improvements will not happen overnight. Once the damage has been assessed and the possible causes determined, you then have to spend a fair amount of time figuring out how to retrieve your site's previous status.
Before reporting the issue to the client as simply "Google's fault", you may want to try some basic checks and research to eliminate certain possibilities:
- Site Metrics - checking if the ranking drop is across the entire site or just certain pages gives you a clue of where to look and whether recent page amendments have triggered the fall. Also checking the percentile drop per page can tell you if some pages' characteristics are having the most effect.
- Indexing Problems - Double check that nothing is blocking the search engine robots from indexing your site's content. If a robot is being blocked then the chances are that you will see a drop in traffic from all the search engines, rather than just one. You can confirm this by looking into Analytics statistics and within Google Webmaster Tools for flagged issues.
- Penalties - bad behaviour in the form of black hat SEO techniques can result in search engine penalties, so reviewing your recent SEO methods may be a good way of eliminating this from the list of possible reasons for a sudden drop in rankings.
- Content - ensure duplicate content has not played a part in the issues and examine not only the uniqueness of site content but also where the origin of the content. If a new page leans too heavily on its reference sources, the search engines might devalue it.
- Links - check the link profile for the site. If a number of acquired links are from a similar network, the search engines may devalue them.
- Information Architecture - research the types of websites that have been impacted by recent algorithm changes and if these sites can be categorised by the type of architecture they employ.
- Algorithm - checking for algorithm change information that has been made public (this is rare) can shed light on possible reasons. This can be tricky as the majority of algorithm changes or updates aren't even acknowledged.
- SEO Community - one of your best sources for analysis and commentary on the latest algorithm changes is the SEO community and, in particular, their blogs and forums. While researching and reading this information it is important to stay critical of the references and theories, as a lot of it is both contradictory and biased.
Even if you have come to terms with your predicament, your employer or client may still be panicking about the implications of the drop in visitors. Calming down frenzied clients or managers is hard enough but an SEO shouldn't make the mistake of making continuous site changes, most of which can't be realistically measured. Explain the reasons for the drop in rankings and explain how you are going to address these issues. Create a corrective plan of action and keep your client fully informed of your progress, ensuring they are aware that you are doing everything improve the situation.
It would be great to be able to say that it will all be resolved by Friday in time for celebratory beers, but you must be realistic in managing client expectations and let them know realistically how long corrective measures may take. Patience is a virtue that any SEO must possess, but it is particularly important during a period of confusion over sudden changes in rankings.
If any Search Engine Optimisers have any further tips for this sort of situation then feel free to add them to the comments.