A Sudden Website Traffic Drop: 15+ Reasons and Ways to Diagnose Them

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Imagine you own a nice shop in a mall and your store used to be abuzz with business activities and visitors throughout the day. Then one fine morning, you wake up and find out that your store was teleported to some deserted place by some paranormal force, and suddenly you find yourself with hardly any customers whatsoever.

Sounds like such a sudden change is quite impossible in the real world. Right? Wrong.

Welcome to the World Wide Web, where your website traffic can take a nosedive due to various reasons, and with that, your chances of generating leads or sales, or getting any kind of benefits from your website.

Traffic drop can be disastrous. Seeing your websites’ visitor graph taking a nosedive is devastating. Once the initial shock and horror fades out, and you’ve regained your senses one of the first questions that comes to your mind is “What’s the reason behind this unexpected shift?”

We are going to walk you through the process of diagnosing a sudden website traffic drop by revealing the most common reasons that may cause such nuisance.

First, let’s have a quick look at the 5 website trafficsources:

Direct: visitors who arrive at your website directly by typing the URL in the address bar of their web browser, or by clicking on a bookmarked link of your websit;

Organic Search: traffic from search engines (mainly Google, Bing & Yahoo);

Paid: traffic from paid ads, listings, or banner advertisements (e.g. Google AdWords);

Social: traffic from social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.;

Referral: traffic from partner websites that link to your site.

A significant drop in your overall traffic will result from a drop in one or a combination of several traffic sources from above. The first step is to figure out exactly which type of traffic has taken a hit. This is probably the easiest part. Just go to “Acquisition” section in your Google Analytics account. Take a look at the traffic graph for all these types and conclude which one has droppedsignificantly. 

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Some of these traffic types are more likely to result in a massive drop in overall traffic (e.g. organic search traffic) while others will result in less drastic changes. Below we are going to discuss the most common reasons for a sudden traffic drop in all five traffic types.

Reasons for Organic Traffic Drop

Nothing affects your website traffic like your SERPs. Managing to rank on top of search results for some highly searched keywords is nothing short of hitting the jackpot. In next to no time, your website will be getting hundreds and thousands of visitors (Google alone captures more than 65% of search market share while Bing, Yahoo, and Baidu pretty much take the remaining).

So, while organic traffic coming from search engines continues to be the biggest source of traffic, it is also the most vulnerable one, thanks to all those algorithm updates, and penalties that Google keeps rolling out.

As soon as your website receives a penalty, your rankings will collapse like a house of cards, and your traffic will take a horrible dip.

Following are some of the most common reasons for a drop in rankings and thus in organic traffic:

Penalties:

Google has this knack of penalizing websites that it deems to be using manipulative SEO techniques, having low quality content, and serving little or no purpose for its users. In most cases, it is a drop in rankings, but in some cases, your website might be de-indexed (i.e. thrown out of search results altogether).

The penalties can be imposed in two different ways. There are algorithm updates affecting a large number of website rankings. And there are manual actions, when your website is inspected by some individual, in case they see something fishy, it’ll be reprimanded with a penalty.

Reason#1: Manual Penalty

While equally devastating, manual penalties are slightly better because you will get a note in your Webmaster Tools account telling you the specific reason why your site was sanctioned. To check if you’ve got a manual penalty, just go to “Manual Actions” in “Search Traffic” Menu and see if there’s a message for you. 

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If you don’t see a message in there, but the drop in rankings looks like a penalty (e.g. your website has suddenly disappeared from the first page rankings and it’s now ranking on like 50th page of search results, for most of its keywords), it means that your website has fallen victim to an algorithm update. You can search around at SEO or Webmaster communities to see if Google has recently rolled out an algorithm update. If your traffic drop coincides with a known update, then there’s a strong chance that your website was one of the casualties. If you can’t find anything, and you still suspect you’ve got a penalty, here’s how to diagnose it:

Reason#2: Panda Penalty

Google has been making algorithm changes and penalizing websites for bad practices for quite some time, but Panda was the first across-the-board penalty that targeted the ‘bad’ websites algorithmically(while some ‘good’ sites suffered the collateral damage).

To put it in plain words, if your website has thin content, duplicate content, or poor quality content, you might receive Panda Penalty.

Other than analyzing your website’s content, you should also look at the total number of indexed pages (search for ‘site:yoursitename.com’). If you see an abnormally high ratio of low quality pages (pages with little or no content, unnecessary pages generated by your CMS like WordPress) indexed in Google, then your website is a valid candidate for Panda penalty.

To check the possibility of duplicate content, you can do a quoted search in Google with random snippets of content from your website (or use a tool called Copyscape) to see if you’ll get duplicate results. Also, go to your Webmaster Account and see if you can find a lot of duplicate pages (e.g. the CMS you are using might be resulting in duplicate pages issues).

Recovering from Panda penalty will require you to beef up pages with thin content, replace scrapped content, remove unnecessary pages, and sort out any kind of duplicate page issues.

Reason #3: Penguin penalty

If Panda is all about content, Penguin is all about back links. Initially dubbed as “over optimization penalty”, it was meant to target websites building wrong type of links to manipulate search engine ranking algorithms.

Google wants you to earn your links and not build them.

Your website link profile must look natural. Avoid the following:

  • Too many links coming from a handful of domains.
  • Links coming from link farms, PBNs, or bad neighborhood (casino, porn, or spammy websites).
  • Loads of links coming from websites that were penalized or de-indexed, links from link schemes, low quality websites with little or no relevancy.
  • Bulk of your back links going to the homepage, with very few links pointing to subpages.

If you’ve been aggressively using questionable practices like directory submissions, article directories, blog comments, or forum signatures, and even Guest posting on irrelevant blogs, it can be seen as a red flag by Google/SEs. Also, if you’ve been excessively using your target keywords as anchor texts, Google can look at it as over optimization and penalize your website.

Remember that all these reasons can also result in manual penalties. As earlier mentioned, the reasons and the aftereffects are pretty much the same in manual and algorithmic penalties. The only difference is that you can make the necessary changes and submit a reconsideration request in case of a manual penalty.

Reason #4: Top Heavy/Page Layout Penalty

While not as damaging as Panda or Penguin, Top Heavy penalty is another algorithm update that targets Ad-heavy websites, i.e. such with lots of ads and no content above the fold.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any ad in this area, but when most of your WebPages have nothing but ads in above-the-fold area, it will definitely annoy the users, and whatever annoys the users, will ultimately annoy Google.

In order to make sure your website isn’t Ad-heavy above the fold, go to Google Analytics, click on “In-page Analytics” and then click on “Browser Size” tab. You’d be able to see the above-the-fold area of your website. That’s the first thing your visitors will see from your website so arrange it carefully.

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Some Useful Tools for Handling Google Penalties:

In most cases, Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics coupled with some common sense and good analytical skills can help you diagnose what’s wrong with your website traffic.

In addition to that, ahref, Majestic, and OSE can be used to analyze and find problems in link profile. This backlink analysis tool can also be of help.

For Panda Diagnosis, you can try Pandarisk that uses 3rd party reviewers to assess the quality of your content while keeping in line with the risk factors associated with Panda update.

Fruition Penalty Checker does a mighty good job of identifying the penalties.

In case you’ve missed, we recently did a grand post on the best penalty recovery tools, voted by 24 SEO experts.

Other Reasons for Organic Traffic Drop

Other than Google penalties, there might be some interesting factors affecting your rankings and traffic. Let’s check them out.

Reason #5: Competitors Have Taken Over

There are times when you will get knocked over by your competitors. You might not see a sudden drop in rankings or traffic, but gradually you might start losing your main rankings to your competitors. The upside is that you are not completely stranded off the SERPs like with penalties. It’s easier to fight back with improved SEO tactics.

If you are using a keyword ranking and tracking tool (e.g. cuterank.net) you can easily go through your rankings, and see if you are starting to drop in position. Unlike penalties, these drops will be minimal, but even a small drop in rankings can result in a traffic drop, especially if you used to rank on the top position.

Reason #6: Ads Occupying the ‘Hot’ Property

As more businesses turn towards AdWords, you will notice that despite ranking on top for certain keywords, the traffic could start to drop.

That is due to the fact that Google’s entire above-the-fold area is covered with paid Ads. Here’s a screenshot from a quick search.

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If your rankings haven’t dropped, but your traffic has been affected, you can search in Google and see if Ads are stealing some of your traffic.

There’s very little you can do about that, except jumping on the bandwagon and spending some of your marketing budget on AdWords, especially because most of these keywords will have a high likelihood of converting.

Reason #7: Sandbox Effect

Google gives a lot of weigh to websites that have been in business for a long time. When a new website is launched, it will take some time before Google algorithm starts to take it seriously.

Sometimes, a new website will manage to climb up the ranks in next to no time. Then the Sandbox Effect (or Reverse Sandbox) comes into play and the website is dropped way down the rankings.

It’s hard to diagnose the Sandbox effect, but in case your website was recently launched, and you weren’t using any of the questionable content or link building practices described above, then the best option is to wait out, and hope that your website will be back on track after some time.

On-site issues:

There are a number of on-site blunders and bad practices that can lead to a Google penalty. Let’s go through some of the most common ones.

Reason #8: Your Site Is Hacked

If Google discovers malicious content or activity at your website it will suspect that the website is hacked and you will get a penalty (usually a manual one).

Reason #9:Cloaking/Redirects

Using a page to rank for certain keywords in search engines, but when a user clicks on search result, and gets redirected to another page, it is seen as cloaking and it merits a manual penalty.

Reason #10: Keyword Stuffing

If you were trying to rank for sets of keywords and phrases, to the extent of using hidden text or keyword stuffing, you can be penalized.

Reason #11:Redesign/Shifting to a New Server

If the traffic or rankings have dropped immediately after a major redesign, you need to check for common mistakes like redirects, deleting a lot of pages, or putting your SEO on hold for a long period of time during which your website will get an overhaul.

Similarly, migrating to a new server might cause some problems (e.g. poor loading speed, excessive downtimes, or poor user experience)that can negatively affect your rankings

Drop in Direct Traffic:

Direct traffic normally consists of your regular visitors, and there shouldn’t be a major drop unless you’ve abruptly stopped providing the kind of content, products, or services that they were expecting.

But there can be some additional factors that we’ve discussed below.

Reason #12: Traditional Advertising

When you are investing a lot on traditional advertising e.g. ads in TV, magazines, or newspapers, billboards, event marketing, and the likes, your direct traffic will obviously soar. But once the campaign ends, the direct traffic will come down for obvious reasons.

Reason #13: Your Site Is not Mobile Friendly

Statistics suggest that more people are using mobile apps to browse the internet as compared to desktop users. If your website is not responsive or mobile friendly, chances are that your target audience is turning towards a more mobile friendly alternative or a competitor with a nice, sleek smartphone app.

Reason #14: Wrong Google Analytics Settings

In a recent experiment that involved complete de-indexation from Google, Groupon found out that as much as 60% of the direct traffic might be coming from organic search. So, it’s highly possible that you have a tagging problem, or you haven’t properly set up your parameters, and Google Analytics was mistakenly showing some other type of traffic as direct traffic, which has dropped.

Reason #15: Seasonal Highs and Lows

Also remember that the main theme/topic of your website (or the products that you are selling) might be of seasonal nature. For example, if you are selling gifts, your website will get more traffic near occasions like Christmas, or Thanksgiving Day, and the traffic might drop after the season.

Reason #16: Shift in Industry Landscape

In some cases, a gradual drop in direct traffic can be a sign of shift in industry needs and demands. For example, if you were getting a lot of visitors on your website that has anything to do with fax machines or landline phones, the traffic will obviously drop because people are no longer interested in these products or services.

Drop in Referral Traffic

If you see a drop in referrals traffic, chances are that …

Reason #17Some of your top referring websites have removed the link (or their own traffic has dropped).

Reason #18 You were getting a lot of visitors from an affiliate or partner website, but they have stopped promoting your products or services.

You can easily identify the culprits by going through the referrers and looking for the one that has stopped sending visitors.

In both of these cases, your best bet is to get in touch and try to rekindle the love that you had for each other.

Drop in social Traffic

Other than the rare outages or blockages major social networks suffer, a drop in social traffic will be a result of your social media marketing strategy going awry.

Reason #19In order to figure out the reason, you will have to compare between your past and present social media campaigns and see what you were doing differently in the past, because the new strategy doesn’t seem to work.

Reason #20Another thing worth mentioning is the restrictions social networks can put on your reach (mostly because they want you to take the “paid” route). If a social media platform has stopped sending as much visitors as it used to send, you can search to check if they’ve made some changes to their user engagement policies in the recent past.

Conclusion

Traffic drops can seriously damage your business, but it’s not the end of the world. All you need to do is to identify and fix the reasons, and your website will be back on track. Remember, what doesn’t kill your website will only make it stronger.

If you’d like to add a traffic drop reason to the list, just drop us a line in the comments. If you have personally experienced the issue, you could even include some brief info on how you’ve diagnosed the problem and how you managed to eliminate it in order to regain your lost rankings.