There are many possible reasons for a site’s traffic to drop. These days, when a site’s traffic drops, a webmaster usually is thinking that he or she has suffered a penalty such as Panda (for poor onsite quality), Penguin (for poor linking quality) or an Unnatural Links Warning. In many cases though, there is another reason that is totally unrelated to a Google penalty or algorithmic change.
Here are some other possible reasons for your site’s traffic to drop:
- Accidental noindexing.
- WordPress privacy settings incorrect.
- Recently changed urls.
- Robots.txt problem.
- Duplicate development site.
- Website template files duplicated.
- Hosting Problems.
- Tracking Problems.
- EU Cookies Law.
- Copyright Infringement.
- Adult Content.
- New Site.
- Change in the Image Search Algorithm.
- Another site has outranked you.
- Problem with sites that are linking to you.
If you have pages that are not appearing in the search engine results at all, it’s possible that they have been noindexed. There are several possible reasons for a site to be noindexed:
- Coding error: When someone was coding the page’s html they temporarily didn’t want the search engines to see the page, added a noindex tag and then forgot to take it off.
- Malicious attack: If an enemy has access to your files (i.e. has your FTP password) they can modify your code to add the noindex tag so that a page doesn’t appear in the search engines.
- WordPress privacy settings: This can cause a site to be noindexed as well. (See the next section.
How to check for noindexing:
- Navigate to a page in your site that is not appearing in the search engines.
- View the source of that page:
-In Google Chrome,Firefox, or Internet Explorer, right click and click on “View Page Source“.
- Hit CTRL-F (or for Mac users, Option-F) and search for the word “noindex”
- Do you see something that looks like this?
If so, you’ll need to go into your code and remove that line!
WordPress Privacy Settings Incorrect
If your WordPress blog is not ranking in the search engines at all, it may be because the privacy settings have been set wrong. Some WordPress themes will have a default setting that blocks search engines from seeing your site.
If this is the case, you will see the noindex tag that was mentioned in the previous point if you look at the source code of your site.
How to change the WordPress Privacy Settings:
- Access your Wp-Admin Panel
- In the left menu, click on Settings, then Privacy.
- Check the option that says, “Allow search engines to index this site.“
- Click “Save Changes“
Recently Changed Urls
Have you done a site migration? Have you changed your url structure? If so, this will definitely affect the indexing of your page(s) in Google.
Let’s say you have a page that used to be, www.example.com/product1.html and you decided to change the url to www.example.com/product1.php. This is a totally new page in the eyes of Google.
How to regain your Google rankings for changed urls.
The answer here is to do what is called a 301 redirect for each url that has been changed. To do so, you need to access your .htaccess file and create a line that looks like this:
redirect 301 /product1.html http://www.example.com/product1.php
You will need to do this for each page that has changed names. There are other ways to do this and some can be quite complicated. If you have a lot of pages that have changed urls you may want to hire an SEO professional to help you.
You can use a robots.txt file to restrict certain search engine bots from crawling your site. If you have accidentally blocked Google from crawling your site, then you will not appear in the Google search results1.
You can usually find your robots.txt in the root directory of your site’s files.
Here is an example of a robots.txt that allows everything:
Here is an example of a robots.txt that would block all search engines (and result in your site not appearing in the search results):
Here is an example of a robots.txt that specifically blocks Google from a particular folder:
If you see User-agent: Googlebot anywhere in your robots.txt file, take great care to make sure that you are not blocking Google from something that you actually want it to see! If Google can’t crawl your site then they can’t index it and it won’t appear in the search engine results!
Duplicate Development Site
Sometimes a site won’t rank because there are actually two versions of the site online! Let’s say your web designer created a site for you. Once it was complete he or she copied the files to your server and your site went live. But, for some reason, it just won’t rank. It may be that Google has accidentally ranked the development site first and thinks that your site is a duplicate.
How to check if a duplicate of your site exists online.
Cut and paste a chunk of your text from your homepage (or whichever page is not ranking.) Then, put quotes around the text and search for it on Google. Sometimes you might see that your site is in the index, but also another site that has a url that looks like this:
How to fix this problem:
If the two sites are identical, and the test site is ranking higher, then have your web developer put a rel canonical tag on the test site which points at your site. This will tell Google that your site is the one that should be ranking. Then, once your site pops into the higher ranking that the development site originally had, have the web developer remove the development files from his or her server.
There are other ways to deal with this problem, so speak with your web developer to find the best solution in your situation.
Website template files duplicated
Was your website created using a template/theme? If so, be sure that you have deleted the files that you are not using. Otherwise, they could create a duplicate content issue for you that can cause your site to be penalized.
How to check to see if your site has duplicate template files:
Do a site:search on Google:
Be sure to put no space between the colon and your site name. Don’t use the www or http://
Do you see any entries that look like this?
Ooops! These files that were part of the theme template need to be deleted! Google will see them as duplicates of the original theme files and this can cause your site to be looked at poorly in the eyes of the Panda algorithm.
How to fix this problem:
- Remove these files from your server.
- Tell Google that these files have been removed by going to Webmaster tools and selecting Optimization, then Remove Urls.
- You may need to wait until the next Panda refresh in order for your site to reappear in the search engines. We generally get a refresh every 4-6 weeks.
If your site has been infected with malware, then this can definitely affect your traffic. Sometimes, if your site has been infected, users who see your site in the search engines will see something like this:
A similar message that is sometimes seen in the SERPS is This site may harm your computer.
This means that Google has determined that your site may be infected with malware. As a result, searchers are very unlikely to click through to your site.
Sometimes, a site can have malware that has not been detected by Google. In this case, as a searcher clicks through to your site their anti-virus software may block them from seeing the site.
How to determine if your site has malware
- Check your webmaster tools: If Google has flagged your site as having malware, sometimes they will have tips for cleanup in your webmaster tools panel.
- Use a malware detection tool: Try visiting www.sucuri.net and typing your url into their malware checking tool. This tool is quite good at picking up malware, even if you have no message in your webmaster tools.
How to get rid of malware
Malware removal is beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few things that you can try:
- Contact your host: Your hosting company does not want to be hosting sites with malware! Often they will help you remove the malware from your site for no charge.
- Hire a professional: Some malware can be removed easily (by simply finding the file with malicious code and removing the code). But, in complicated cases, it is a good idea to hire a professional who can get rid of malware for you.
If your host is having problems then this will affect your site’s performance. If your site does not load for users then they are immediately going to click away. This will definitely affect your traffic.
If you have experienced a dramatic decrease in traffic, it is a good idea to contact your host to ask if there have been any outages or server problems.
Sometimes, it can look like a site has a decrease in traffic when really there is a problem with the analytics code that is embedded in your site. Here are some possible causes:
- If you changed your wordpress theme or CSS theme, you may need to manually add your analytics code to the footer or header of your files.
- You may have accidentally commented out the analytics code.
- I have seen Google Analytics code just suddenly stop working for unknown reasons. If you feel that you have had traffic to your site, but your code is not detecting any traffic, it is worthwhile to reinstall your analytics code.
Here is a site that appeared to be hit dramatically by the May 20 Panda 4.0 update:
While it looks like Panda drastically affected the site, it turns out that this site did a redesign that launched on May 19. The developer forgot to put the analytics code in the template for the new site.
UK Cookies Law
As of May 26, 2012, if you have a website in the European Union, you are required by law to have users opt in to using “cookies”2. Cookies are used to store information on a computer. They are often used for online shopping carts, advertisements and yes, analytics!
If you have implemented a cookie opt-in, then this means that every user who does not opt in will likely not be tracked in your Google Analytics. Unfortunately, statistics show that less than 10% of users tend to opt in to using cookies. This will make it look like you have a massive drop in traffic, when really you don’t.
How to track websites without cookies?
Here are two options that you can consider:
If your website or domain name are infringing on copyright or trademark then you can see a drop in rankings. The drop could be dramatic or may be subtle.
There are two ways that your site can suffer in the search results because of copyright:
- Direct copyright infringement: Let’s say you own the domain name, www.BetterThanEbay.com. “Ebay” is a trademark. You cannot legally have a domain name that contains a trademark that you don’t own. If someone from Ebay files a valid copyright removal notice to Google, Google is likely to remove your website from the search engine results.
- Containing copyrighted material: For example, let’s say you have a website that allows users to download music for free (but you don’t own the rights to that music). Or, in another example, let’s say that you have taken articles from sources that you don’t own and have published them on your website. The legitimate owner of that material can file a DMCA takedown request to inform Google that you have illegal material on your site.
In some cases, if the offense is obvious, Google will remove your site from the search engine results. But, it is not up to Google to decide whether you have broken copyright law. On August 10, 2012, Google announced that they will penalize sites that have a high number of DMCA takedown requests filed against them. As a result, these sites will appear lower down in the search engine results.3.
Do you have any adult content on your site? The default “Safe Search” setting when people are searching on Google is “Moderate“. This will filter out many sites that are deemed to have adult content.
How to determine if adult content is hiding your site from searchers:
- Make sure you are logged in to Google.
- Go to this page (opens in a new window): http://www.google.com/preferences?hl=en
- Change your SafeSearch filter to no filtering:
Then, hit “save” at the bottom. (Note: at the time of writing this article, Google gives a 404 error when you hit save. Don’t worry though, your preferences are still saved.)
- Open a new tab and go to Google.com. (It is very important to open a new tab so that this search will have your new SafeSearch settings of “no filtering”).
- Do a site operator search for your website and take note of how many pages are in the index:
- Now, go back to this page: http://www.google.com/preferences?hl=en, and change the settings to Strict.
- Open a new tab. (This is important! You’ll need to open a new tab to tell Google your new SafeSearch preferences.)
- Now do the site: search again:
- In the example above, you can see that the site reddit.com has 19,400,000 pages in the Google Index when SafeSearch is turned off, but only 17,900,000 pages when SafeSearch is turned on to strict. This means that 1.5 million pages of Reddit are not in the Google Index for people who are searching with their SafeSearch Settings on strict.
If your site is new, it can take several weeks before it appears in the Google index. Then, there will be a period of time where you can find your site in the index by searching for its url, but you are still not ranking for any keywords. This does not mean you have a penalty!
Some sites, when they first start to rank will get what is called a “honeymoon boost“. Google will often place a new site high in the search engine rankings and then after a week or two they will drop down one or more pages. Again, this is not a penalty, this is just a normal procedure that a new site goes through as Google decides where to rank it.
Changes in the Image Ranking algorithm.
Does your site get a lot of search engine traffic from images? If so, a slight change in the Google Algorithm for how images are ranked can make a big difference in your traffic.
To assess whether image search is affecting you, take the following steps:
- Open your webmaster tools.
- Select traffic, then Search Queries and then, just over to the right, click on the Filters button:
You will see an option to filter results to just images.
- This will give you a list of how your images are performing in the SERPS. A look at trends in this area can often give you some good information.
Another site has outranked you.
You may think you’ve gotten a penalty, but perhaps you have just been beaten in the SERPS by one of your competitors! If you used to rank #1 for a term, but now rank lower, this can drastically lower your search traffic.
Not sure if a site is outranking you? Here is a way to check your SERPS for a keyword without getting personalized results. You can open up www.pagewash.com, and do a Google search that is completely free of cookies and any form of personalization.
You may find that you thought you were number one, but really you are not!
Problem with sites that are linking to you.
Sometimes it can look like you have a penalty (because your rankings have dropped) but really, what has happened is that you have lost some link equity from one or more sites that link to you. The loss of these links can affect how your site ranks.
Here are some possibilities:
- Loss of directory links: It is believed that in May, 2012 (and possibly earlier), Google began to deindex a large number of directories that existed primarily for SEO benefits4,5. If you had links from directories they may have helped your site in the past but not any longer if those directories have been removed from Google’s index.
- Loss of link equity from blog networks: Have you previously purchased links from blog networks? A large number of these networks were completely devalued by Google in February of 20126. Any benefit your site was receiving from links from these networks would have been erased.
- Link partners hit with a penalty: It’s possible that your site has not received a penalty, yet sites that were linking to you did. If you had a great link from www.example.com and that website was hit by Panda or Penguin or an Unnatural Links Penalty, then your site will lose any benefit that that link previously held.
- Simple loss of a good link: Sometimes links just come and go. Perhaps you had a great link from a highly authoritative, relevant site that was giving you great benefit and then that site owner decided to take it down. That will affect your rankings. Another possibility is if you had a link that was on a site’s blog homepage, but then, over time the link has been pushed off of the home page and onto an inner page of the site. That link is going to be less valuable to your site.
Can you think of other reasons?
There are many possible reasons for sites to lose traffic. While the major algorithm changes and penalties can certainly be a cause, this list should give you some ideas of other things that can cause traffic drops. Have I missed any? If you have other ideas, please leave a comment below!