Every website owner (or marketer) has opened their search report to find that their rankings dropped at least once. If this is your first time, don’t panic. Rankings fluctuate.
This guide is here to help you troubleshoot and discover what you can do to restore your traffic.
Ranking Troubleshooting Checklist
Analyze your rankings
- Did the drop affect a few keywords or your whole website?
- Did your position change by 5 points or more?
- How many clicks did you get before and after the drop?
- Check “Security and Manual Actions” in Google Search Console
- Google core update
- Check SEO news websites and niche communities
Indexing and crawl budget issues
- Run a noindex check
- Check if competitors outranked you with a rank tracker
- Check with Ahrefs and recover them (if possible)
Read on for a detailed explanation of fixes for each scenario
Step 1. How to Analyze Your Keyword Ranking Drop
Which Keywords Are Affected?
Identify the affected keywords in Google Search Console:
- Go to the Performance Report
- Select “Total clicks,” “Total impressions,” “Average CTR,” and “Average position” or only “Average position” to hyper-focus on the ranking
- Select “Date: Last 6 months” or longer to get the complete picture of how your rankings moved over time
- Select “Queries”
- Click through on specific pages to identify their keyword positions (if necessary)
How Serious Is the Drop?
Compare and contrast your keyword positions over time.
Your rankings may have increased recently, but your average position for a specific keyword across 6 or 9 months could be the same.
Don’t focus on average rankings across all keywords. If the average ranking declines, that’s not necessarily a cause for alarm. However, if your ranking for a specific keyword drops, it’s time to investigate.
If your rankings haven’t dropped significantly, there’s no need to panic. But if your average position was 1 and now it’s 10 - something is going on.
Check how many keywords were affected.
If only one or two were there, Google might be testing the search results. If multiple keywords are affected, or the problem is site-wide, it could alert to possible website SEO problems.
How Many Clicks Did You Get Before vs. After the Drop?
Clicks are a good indicator of your content's relevance to the keyword. For example, were you getting a 10% click-through rate before the drop? Or were you seeing a 0.12% CTR? If you’re seeing the latter, your content may have been deprioritized in the SERP because it’s irrelevant.
Check your CTR in Google Search Console:
- Go to the Performance Report
- Select “Average CTR” and “Average position”
- Select “Date: Last 6 months” or longer
- Select “Queries”
- (Optional) Check specific pages by clicking through on them
If your CTR is close to its average, it’s time to optimize your content.
If your CTR was low or if it was high and now it’s spiraled downwards, troubleshoot the potential causes.
Should I Worry About My Rankings Dropping?
If you don’t see multiple keywords affected, and your CTR and keyword positions are similar to their 6 or 9-month averages, you don’t have to take immediate action. If you’re seeing a sharp drop, let's get to work!
Step 2. Identify Why Your Rankings Have Dropped (and Fix the Drop)
Problem: Your Rankings Dropped Because of a Manual Penalty
How to Recognize a Manual Penalty
You could get a manual penalty if your website doesn’t comply with Google’s rules. Your rankings will drop by multiple positions sharply, often for multiple keywords at once.
Check if you received a manual penalty:
- Navigate to “Securities and Manual Actions” in the Google Search Console
- Review the “Manual actions” list
How to Fix a Google Manual Action Penalty
Google will hint at the problem, giving you a sense of what you should fix. Common causes for a manual action penalty include:
- Your website was hacked > Check the “Security Issues” report and strengthen your website security.
- Your hosting provider isn’t reliable > Verify that your hosting provider is legitimate.
- Unnatural link building (purchasing links, selling links, or a competitor directing negative links to your website) > Contact the websites asking to remove the low-quality links. If they fail to respond, disavow the spammy links. If you’ve sold links, add the “nofollow” tags or remove them.
- Keyword stuffing > Don’t use hidden text to add more keywords to your content and remove any excessive ones.
- Scraped, AI-generated, plagiarized, or spammy content > Remove it.
- Spammy comments > Prevent spammy comments.
- Content mismatch via content or image cloaking (sneaky redirects) > Remove redirects or plugins that direct searchers to a different page than the one Google sees or display cloaked images. Ensure your AMP content is identical to your desktop website content.
- Improper structured data implementation > Check if your structured data is accurate and relevant.
- Dangerous, misleading, hateful, and violent content > Check Google’s guidelines to ensure you post allowed content.
Once you fix these problems, submit a Reconsideration Request.
Problem: Your Rankings Dropped Because of a Google Core Update
Google constantly adjusts its algorithms. However, core updates sometimes cause sharp ranking drops. For example, the May 2022 core update affected millions of websites that posted “thin content.”
How to Recognize a Core Update Ranking Drop
Check reputable SEO news websites like Search Engine Journal to see if there’s been a recent update. If you run a website in a specific or smaller niche (particularly if it’s a YMYL niche), check the relevant Reddit and Twitter communities. If your website has problems that could correspond with the core update’s theme, assess the situation:
Are you going against the Quality Guidelines applied with the update?
- Yes? Adjust your website and content to meet the standards.
- No? Stay calm. Most websites go back to normal a few weeks after the update.
How to Fix a Google Core Update Ranking Drop
Stay tuned to SEO news for specific fixes (if applicable). For example, in the May core update, website owners had no other recourse but to remove the AI content, strengthen their existing pieces, and create a more in-depth content strategy moving forward.
Malte Landwehr’s May update analysis
As a rule of thumb, follow Google’s content quality guidelines. Focus on:
- Writing helpful content for people (not bots)
- Providing a good user experience
- Satisfying the search intent
If you’re doing everything by the book, your rankings should soon return to normal.
Problem: Your Rankings Dropped Because of Technical SEO issues
How to Recognize Technical Issues Affecting Your SEO
Check if all your pages can be indexed:
- Use SiteGuru’s indexation report (get alerts as soon as SEO problems appear)
- Use the NoIndex checker for specific pages (in case just a few keywords are affected)
- Check Google Search Console’s coverage report
SiteGuru will show you if your pages can’t be indexed
If you have a different technical SEO problem, check the other possible culprits, including mobile-friendliness and incorrect redirects. Our SEO Academy has extensive guides.
How to Fix Indexing Issues
If your pages are set to be indexed, you could be facing a different type of indexing issue:
- Poor navigation > Important pages should appear in the navigation menu. On your website, crawlers and searchers should be able to access them within a few clicks.
- Orphaned pages > Ensure all your website pages are connected via internal links.
- Your website isn’t mobile-friendly > Optimize your pages for mobile.
- Crawl budget > If your website has millions of pages, mark the pages you don’t want Google to crawl to make room for others.
- Website redesign > If you recently redesigned your site, check for broken links.
Other issues like cloaking could also affect your pages’ ability to be indexed.
Problem: A Competitor Outranked You and Your Rankings Dropped
How to Know When a Competitor Outranks You
Use a rank tracking tool to monitor your competitors’ positions. If they outranked you, you might spot a change in one or two places in the SERPs.
How to Outrank Your Competitors (Again)
If they only outranked you for one or two pages, strengthen your own content. However, if a competitor overtook you in multiple queries, learn from them:
- What type of content do they create? Does it contain more information? Is it presented differently?
- Where do they get links from?
- How is their user experience? Did they recently redesign their website?
For example, a competitor may have implemented structured data - and you haven’t. Or they could be creating in-depth content.
Problem: You Lost Your Backlinks and Your Rankings Dropped
How to Recognize Lost Backlinks
Since Google uses backlinks to understand the internet, they’re crucial to your rankings. If you lose them, your rankings will drop. Check your backlink profile with tools like Ahrefs.
How to Fix Lost Backlinks
As your website grows, you’ll naturally lose some backlinks. However, if you start losing them en masse, understand the cause:
- If you recently changed page URLs, contact the backlinking websites to update them.
- If competitors overtook your links, strengthen your content and reach out to the websites (or build new backlinks).
I Still Need Help!
If you didn’t spot any of these problems on your affected pages, but your traffic dropped, check if:
- Your competitors run ads on your target keywords
- Your keyword query is seasonal (use Google Trends or review your historical performance)
- The search intent changed (users look for additional information [e.g., COVID information while traveling post-2020], no longer look for the query, or a developing niche started growing and fragmenting into more specific keywords [e.g., “What is CBD?” was enough in 2005 - now you’ll need specific articles for “How to use CBD oils,” “CBD for fitness,” etc.])
Can You Future-Proof Your Rankings?
The only constant in SEO is that it constantly changes. No method can future-proof your rankings. They’ll always go slightly up and down.
But if you have solid SEO foundations, your traffic will always bounce back. And with preventive weekly SEO audits from SiteGuru, you'll know about issues before they get the chance to affect your rankings!