Only rarely does website traffic remain perfectly steady. Over the course of a month, your position on a search engine results page (SERP) is likely to shift even in the presence of steady traffic.
In 2021, Semrush found that across 25 common U.S. industries, the top 20 Google search results shifted an average of 4.8 places on the SERPs in just one month. Volatile industries (news) showed greater shifts, while stable industries (pets) showed smaller shifts.
Sometimes changes are normal, and other times they indicate that something is wrong. How can you tell the difference? Here are factors that cause website traffic changes and which ones matter the most.
Things That Can Cause Sudden Website Traffic Drops
Simple volatility can cause a temporary drop in website traffic. Therefore it’s important to track traffic year-round and year-over-year.
You may notice a drop in website traffic and grow concerned. Then you may realize that traffic always drops during the second week in January, for example.
Here are some other causes of website traffic changes aside from normal variations.
Here are just some of the technical issues that can cause a drop in website traffic:
- Non-indexed pages
- Orphaned pages (pages not linked to by any other page)
- Non-updated robots.txt file from initial site development
- Website hosting problems
- Responsive web design issues
- Broken redirects
- XML sitemap changes
It’s a good idea to check these simple issues before worrying about whether your website has been penalized or otherwise run afoul of a search algorithm.
If your website has too many pages trying to rank for the same keywords, the result can be a confused search engine. This can cause the “wrong” page to rank highest and can hurt the SEO of the overall website.
Normally, this type of keyword cannibalization isn’t bad enough to affect the entire website’s ranking. Furthermore, pages can rank for many different keywords.
But it can be a problem if, for example, your website has two versions of the same blog post: one for 2019 and one for 2022. If this affects sitewide traffic, the logical thing to do is to combine the pages.
The End of a Marketing Campaign
SEO and SEM are close cousins. SEM generally produces quick results in terms of boosting a page, while SEO operates long-term.
If a major marketing campaign has recently ended, you can expect website traffic to fall off while SEO does the heavy lifting for a while.
So if you see a sudden drop in website traffic, check your digital marketing campaigns and see if one has recently ended.
SERP Layout Changes
Remember when you used to Google something and saw a simple list of 10 links in the results? Those days are over.
Ads, knowledge panels, People Also Ask panels, maps, and even featured videos now take up valuable real estate on the first page of search results. This leaves less room for those classic link results.
It is possible that your SERP ranking hasn’t technically dropped. Rather, it has been pushed off the front page by all the new types of Google results that show up there. This can cause your search traffic to drop.
Recent Website Changes
When you do a major website refresh, you have to be careful not to throw the baby (your good SERP ranking) out with the bathwater (old URLs).
During a website refresh, keep as many of your existing URLs as possible. Then set up 301 redirects so you can keep the SEO value of URLs from your old website.
Don’t frustrate visitors to your refreshed website with broken links and 404 pages. Smart website refreshes don’t have to harm your website traffic.
Nobody likes to consider this, but they should. Sometimes you lose traffic to a competing website that appeals to more people.
Fortunately, tools like SpyFu and BuzzSumo can tell you who your biggest organic search competitors are. Knowledge is power when it comes to your competitors.
Analyzing competitor keywords and updating content can help you regain some of that website traffic. And you can monitor competitor sites’ performance as you fine-tune your own SEO.
Loss of Backlinks
High-quality backlinks are a staple of SEO strategy. Losing good backlinks can ultimately cost you traffic.
Losing one backlink probably won’t hurt your website traffic. You can use tools like Ahrefs to find out if specific pages have lost links.
If you find that over time your site has lost several great backlinks, that may be why your website traffic has dropped.
Your best backlinks send website traffic your way. Lose enough of them and you could lose a noticeable amount of traffic.
This is the one that everyone frets about. But real penalties based on changes to the Google Algorithm are rarer than they used to be.
If Google has penalized you, you will see a message to this effect in your Google Search Console. When this happens, it’s time to figure out what happened and why.
A loss in website traffic shouldn’t immediately make you think that Google penalized you. There are usually simpler, more common explanations.
Major World Events
Owners of event venues can tell you that their website traffic changed once COVID-19 became front-page news. Sometimes traffic changes are due to events outside our control.
A hurricane, the beginning of an armed conflict, an election, or a major crime can capture people’s attention to the point that their normal search habits temporarily change.
Don’t discount the effect of major world events on web search patterns. Unfortunately, your site could be affected and all you can do is wait it out.
Major Google Algorithm Changes
Google tweaks their search algorithm all the time. Major updates — the so-called core updates — only happen once or twice a year and are well-publicized.
If you work in SEO or follow SEO resources online, you will probably know about core updates before they happen. However, even if you don’t, Google puts a date marker into their Search Console for core updates.
Core updates can shake up the SERPs, and there will be winners and losers. But this doesn’t always happen. So don’t immediately blame a Google algorithm update if your website traffic drops.
If You Suspect a Google Algorithm Change
If you believe that a core update to the Google algorithm has caused your website traffic to tank, here are some things to do.
First, find out if there actually was an update by looking for a date marker on your Google Search Console.
If there indeed was an update, read as much as you can about it. Why did they do it? What were they trying to accomplish? Is your website less well-aligned with the updated algorithm?
Does the date of your traffic drop line up with the date of the algorithm update? Has your traffic from other search engines (Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, etc.) been similarly affected?
Your answers to these questions can help you determine if an algorithm update caused your traffic problems.
Importance of Long-Term Analytics
Noticing a sudden drop in website traffic may be less jarring if you understand the context, as well as what “normal” variation in your traffic looks like.
There are many additional reasons to monitor your website traffic over time. You may discover seasonal variations or changes that correlate with other big things going on in the world.
Simply knowing that drops in website traffic usually resolve themselves in 10 days or so can prevent you from jumping in and making changes to your website that could end up causing real problems.
Who Has Time to Diagnose Website Traffic Drops?
Understanding and monitoring website traffic doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. However, it does need to be performed consistently as part of a strong SEO strategy.
Maybe you don’t have time to monitor SEO and SEM the way they should be monitored. But we do. Schedule a call with our team and we can talk about ways you can understand your website traffic better and adjust SEO accordingly. We’d love to help!