Don’t Panic—What to Do Instead When Your Search Rankings Drop

Ron Dodby Ron Dod

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It can take a good bit of time to see SEO results, as SEO is a discipline that requires patience and perseverance. Therefore, when a retailer sees that their search ranking dropped, it can induce a bit of panic.

However, the entire goal here is to not panic. Instead, when sellers see their search ranking dropped in any sort of meaningful way, it is best to approach the situation in a logical, levelheaded, and systematic manner, as this is the best way to get things back on track.

The truth is that there are a panoply of potential reasons as to why rankings drops might occur. A Google algorithm update might have taken place, the site might have been slapped with a penalty or maybe the search ranking drop was an unforeseen consequence of some aspect of the brand’s digital marketing strategy.

No matter which scenario is true, there is only one way to get to the bottom of an inexplicable search ranking drop.

That’s what we are here to detail.

That said, take a deep breath, calm your nerves and use the following process to figure out what happened and establish a strategy for ranking recovery.

Search Ranking Dropped? Figure Out What Happened.

The first step is to get grounded and take a look at your website objectively, kind of like it’s a science project.

There are multiple reasons a change could have occurred, and it’s going to do you a world of good to understand whether the search ranking drop is due to something on your end or largely due to an algorithm update.

There’s a slight chance that if your search rankings dropped, it could be because of a search algorithm update. Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm, but large updates only come around every so often. 

If it is an algorithm update, there will likely be multiple people posting about it and trying to figure out what to do. This is one of the reasons it’s useful to regularly check SEO forums and follow relevant SEO influencers on Twitter so you can see these conversations in real-time. Even leisurely perusing Reddit SEO or Reddit Big SEO is a great way to stay up to date. 

If the SEO seas are relatively quiet, either your situation is incredibly specific to your domain (which is highly unlikely, as there are millions of pages on Google) or the cause is something unique to your site. 

To find out, analyze pages that are similar to yours. It’s useful to “spy” on your competitors in the digital space by keeping tabs on their rankings and traffic, using tools such as Ahrefs. 

Are your competitors’ rankings dropping? There might be some strategy that you are all doing that is getting you penalized.

Are your competitors suddenly receiving more traffic? Your rankings dropping could be due to you simply being outperformed for key search terms. 

Did You Do Anything to Get Yourself Penalized?

Now it’s time to look at the variables that are within your control.

Countless search ranking drops happen not because someone knowingly tried to game the algorithm at a risk, but because they have been doing something unwittingly. Additionally, you may have hired SEO help that is harming your site more than helping.

It’s important to make yourself aware of the various things for which search engines tend to penalize. Before we dive into a few of the most popular, you need to understand things from the search engine’s perspective. 

Google, for example, seeks to provide value to the massive number of people searching the platform. If people game the system and flood the search engine with sub-par material, search engine users will look for alternatives elsewhere. This poses a huge threat to Google’s fundamental business model, and Google is incredibly scrupulous when it comes to protecting its users. 

Here are a few of the most popular reasons people unknowingly put their search rankings in jeopardy, and how to adjust course to handle them.

Paying for Links

Google is particularly diligent when it comes to paid links. Additionally, many services that do offer paid links are not only providing low-quality links but are also at a high risk to be penalized themselves—and your site could have been swept up in the penalty.

Redemption: To redeem yourself from this and ensure you are building high-quality links, it’s important to do a link audit. Here’s how:

  1. Use Google Webmaster or Ahrefs to extract all links pointing to your domain. 
  2. Get rid of any duplicates, and organize the links by domain. 
  3. Identify the quality of links—which ones come from high profile websites, which ones come from poorly performing websites?
  4. Extract all the low quality and create a “disavow” file.
    1. Make sure the file is a .txt and always named “disavow.txt”.
    2. Each line represents either an individual link or an entire domain you want to have removed from your site. 
    3. If it’s an entire domain, do “domain:examplebadlinkdomain.com”.
  5. Upload your disavow file into Google Webmaster. 

Producing Poor Content

Google’s Panda update from six years ago is still in effect. The Panda update targets shallow content or content that is very superficial and not providing value. This penalty not only hits your individual pages but your entire domain as well. This is why it’s important to always produce high-quality content, and follow up with an adequate marketing strategy. Research has even shown that longer-form content that provides an incredible amount of value tends to get shared more.

Redemption: In order to make sure you’re not getting hit with this penalty, perform a content audit to make sure that the content on your site is not only valuable to your readers but, also, relevant to your site. Here are a few steps to help you on your content audit journey:

  • Make an Excel spreadsheet with all your content pages, their visitors, bounce rates, etc. (This can also be exported through Google Analytics.)
  • Log in to Google Analytics and view which pieces of content performed the best and worst. 
    • When analyzing content that performed well, try to come up with a justification for it so you can replicate it in the future. Perhaps you wrote about something your audience really enjoyed. Maybe a few influencers you reached out to really enjoyed the piece and shared it on their networks. Figure out what content marketing tactic worked for that piece of content. 
    • When analyzing content that performed poorly, be sure to look at the bounce rate. A low number of visitors could just mean that you did a poor job at marketing the piece, your headline wasn’t catchy enough or you’re not ranking for keywords you are targeting in that piece. The bounce rate, however, shows how people interacted with the content. If it’s really high, you can assume that they didn’t want to stick around because either the article wasn’t relevant to them, it was poorly written or maybe even just the intro was weak. 
  • Remove, repurpose or remarket your weakest pieces of content. There’s no reason your site should grow around clunky, so-so content. Shedding your bad content could also help you get unpenalized. 

Keyword Stuffing Your Web Content 

An easy mistake to make is including a keyword too many times, especially when creating content that revolves around that specific keyword. Keyword stuffing is one of the oldest spam tactics, and those who unknowingly and knowingly do it are penalized just the same. There’s no golden rule for the number of keywords you use, but it’s safe to say if you’re nearing triple digits, it might be time to slow down on that keyword. 

Redemption: Find out which keywords you have been targeting and analyze how those pages are performing for that specific keyword. This can be done by Googling the keyword and finding where you end up or using an online tool to see where your page actually is. Go through your site’s pieces of content and do a “Control + F” search to see how many times you have used that keyword. You may find that the pages with a high number of keywords aren’t ranking as high. The next step is to prune your content of these keywords while making sure that the content still flows well for a reader.

Understand the Rankings Factors and Act on Them

While there is no publicly available golden rulebook on how search engine ranking algorithms work, it’s safe to assume that an unpenalized site can see increases in rankings if optimizing a handful of these factors. 

1. Link Building

Backlinks have consistently played a huge role in site rankings. Just because your search rankings dropped doesn’t necessarily mean that you have bad links pointing to you. It could just mean that some of the sites sending you good links are losing their juice. 

For example, if you’ve always had a good working relationship with ShoeStoreJoe.com, which is willing to link out to your quality articles for free, and then ShoeStoreJoe.com experiences a significant dip in traffic unrelated to you, you’ll still see the drop. This is why it’s important to constantly explore new link-building opportunities and diversify your links around high-quality sites.

Know what works and what doesn’t work, and be willing to explore new methods of link-building that will work for you. Many people are cruising on the same link-building strategy from 2012 and are likely to get swept up by competition that builds on top of the strategies that work with tactics that work better

2. Content

Good content is enshrined as one of the best performing techniques for building search engine rankings and traffic. The emphasis here is on good content. This is why it’s important to constantly refine your audience, scope out new topics that are interesting to your audience by exploring forums and push your content through marketing channels to spread your value to the largest number of people. 

3. A Good User Experience

Poor site performance is no excuse to start dropping in search rankings. As mobile search has continued to grow, Google has placed a premium on the top-tier mobile experience. This is why it’s important to benchmark your site not only against your competition but against some of the best user experiences the digital world has to offer.

Moreover, user experience has become especially important in light of Google’s recent Core Web Vitals update, which almost exclusively focuses on a site’s user experience through various metrics. 

4. Site Speed

While this should technically fall under user experience, the fact of the matter is that site speed is a ranking factor unto itself. Back in 2018, Google’s speed update took place, thereby forcing retailers (who wished to rank well) to reexamine their load times.

Fortunately, if a retailer sees that their search ranking dropped and it turns out that speed is the culprit, there are a variety of tactics retailers can use to improve their mobile speed score, including:

  • Employ Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs)
  • Minify resources
  • Use a premier hosting service
  • Develop and launch a progressive web app (PWA)

5. Mobile-Friendliness

As mentioned a moment ago, there has been an increased focus on mobile experiences over the past several years. In fact, the focus has been so intense and important that it has shifted the way that search engines work, with Google implementing its mobile-first index for the entire web in 2020.

Naturally, this can have—and has had—a great impact on certain websites. If search ranking dropped for a site after Google opted to convert the entirety of its index to mobile-first,  merchants with less than mobile-friendly sites can bet that their decrease in visibility is likely due to their neglect of mobile optimization.

Therefore, in order to mitigate the damage from the search rankings drop and start climbing the SERPs once more, retailers should focus on mobile optimization strategies that will put the site back into Google’s good graces.

Some ways merchants might achieve this include:

  • Ensuring site responsiveness
  • Maintaining lightning-fast mobile speeds (as discussed in the section above)
  • Optimizing content for small screen devices
  • Implementing voice search features

6. Security Encryption

This is a factor that many people neglect because they assume it is done automatically. In 2014, Google confirmed that websites using HTTPS encryption will rank better than HTTP websites, and sites that do not use HTTPS are marked unsafe in Google Chrome. This is a simple and easy way to make sure your domain is going to continue ranking, as well as keep yourself and visitors safe from threats. 

7. Pop-Ups

Users have proven time and time again that they don’t like pop-ups. Google’s mobile-first focus has led Google to target sites that use intrusive interstitial pop-ups. Any page with a CTA or advertisement that covers a majority of the main content or sends users to a new page by clicking it could suffer a substantial penalty.

Alternative Strategies

Sometimes, a sudden or gradual drop in search rankings doesn’t have much to do with your site or search engine algorithms. It might have to do with your digital marketing strategy. 

For example, perhaps you pursued an aggressive Facebook ad strategy, and the sheer amount of traffic to your website helped you climb up in the rankings—and then a sudden pivot in marketing direction stopped the flow of traffic, so your rankings gradually fell back down. 

While this may seem like an overly simplified example, there are a lot of moving parts to an effective digital marketing strategy and any changes in these could substantially alter your rankings. 

If you’ve performed the necessary actions to ensure that your site is functioning normally, not under penalty and you are not being actively out-competed, then it might be worth considering exploring new marketing channels.

Final Thoughts

If search ranking dropped for a site unexpectedly, it is important for sellers to keep their wits about them and establish the underlying cause(s) in a methodical, unpassionate manner. While this is certainly more easily said than done for some, it is critical to correctly identifying the potential problem(s) and coming up with effective solutions. 

By utilizing the processes outlined above, retailers can successfully navigate the uncomfortable waters of a search ranking drop and figure out not only what has happened, but how to increase their site’s visibility once more.

That said, having a professional partner during such times can be an immensely valuable resource for getting the site back on track sooner rather than later. If your site is having issues with its search engine performance—rankings drop or not—then reach out to Visiture’s eCommerce SEO specialists

Our team of SEO professionals can help to develop a tailored search optimization strategy that utilizes tactics specifically designed to help your site improve its SEO performance and SERP visibility.

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