5 Things to Know When Your Site Loses Rankings
Why is your website losing rankings? To understand why sites once have rankings and then lose them, you need to understand the bigger picture of search.
In an August 2020 Google Webmaster Central Office Hours with John Mueller, he goes over three reasons that sites lose rankings. Here, I’ll discuss Mueller’s insights in more detail and explore a couple more of my own.
Search Is Always Evolving
… just because a site was appearing well in search results for a number of years does not mean that it will continue to appear well in search results in the future.
–John Mueller, Google Webmaster Central Office Hours, August 2020
In an ideal world, you’d achieve top rankings and stay there. But the reality is that search is always changing. And that means rankings fluctuate.
In other words, you have to work hard to maintain those top rankings and try to figure out what’s going on when they drop. As Mueller put it, ranking changes are “to be expected on the web. It’s a very dynamic environment.”
It might not always be obvious what has changed when you lose rankings. It may not have anything to do with your website at all. So what are some of the reasons rankings drop? Let’s look at five categories:
1. Competitors Change
One of the reasons you lose rankings is, as Mueller pointed out, that “things on the web change with your competitors, with other sites.”
I’ve said it before: SEO should always aim to beat the competition, not the algorithm. It’s impossible for anyone who is not intimately familiar with the Google algorithm to figure it out. So the mindset about rankings needs to shift from beating the algorithm to beating the competition.
Given that there are likely hundreds of new websites created every day, you must consider those entering into the search competition. And yes, some of them will be better than yours. Also, content or webpages that are new can have the added advantage of “freshness” when it comes to SEO.
Solution: Analyze your competition in the search results, and do better than them.
Check out the article SEO Should Beat the Competition Not the Algorithm for a better understanding of how to be “least imperfect” compared to your competitors in the search results.
2. Algorithms Change
This is an obvious one: “Things on our side change with our algorithms in Search,” Mueller says.
In 2019, Google made more than 3,600 improvements to Search. And it’s safe to say that some of those changes shook up the rankings for websites.
How does the algorithm change? In some cases, Google expands algorithm variables. In other cases, the algorithm may change the weight given to those variables. For example, maybe a mobile signal got stronger — or something else. And sometimes it’s software, not people, that are making those changes (I’m looking at you, RankBrain).
One of the best ways to weather algorithm changes is to ensure you have a sound website. Remember when Google’s Gary Illyes said this?
i really wish SEOs went back to the basics (i.e. MAKE THAT DAMN SITE CRAWLABLE) instead of focusing on silly updates and made up terms by the rank trackers, and that they talked more with the developers of the website once done with the first part of this sentence.
Solution: Are you staying on top of changes to the algorithm? Are you continuing to put in place proven SEO strategies? Check out these articles:
- The Real Impact of RankBrain to understand how RankBrain and search rankings work.
- Our SEO Guide for step-by-step guidance on how to create a website primed for rankings.
- SEO Is Done When Google Stops Changing Things and All Your Competition Dies (enough said).
3. Expectations Change
Just as the search engines change, so do “things on the user side as well — the expectations change over time,” says Mueller.
- When user’s expectations change around the type of content they want to consume.
- When user intent changes around keywords.
A current event, for example, can bias the search results. Take the pandemic. Old target keywords take on new meaning in light of current events.
Consider how expectations have changed around a search for “homeschooling” or “hand sanitizer.” This can impact the rankings of websites that are not meeting user expectations.
Solution: Follow search trends to better understand how searcher intent changes and how expectations evolve over time with your target audience, and respond. Check out these articles:
- Google Search Trends Amidst COVID-19 and How to Respond to get more insight into how search trends change during current events.
- Complete Guide to the Fundamentals of Google’s E-A-T to ensure you’re creating content that is in line with Google’s view of quality.
4. Websites Change
Google once said in its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines that unmaintained sites are the lowest of the low:
Some websites are not maintained or cared for at all by their webmaster. These “abandoned” websites will fail to achieve their purpose over time, as content becomes stale or website functionality ceases to work on new browser versions. Unmaintained websites should be rated Lowest if they fail to achieve their purpose due to the lack of maintenance.
But, in the case of maintenance, you’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s because website maintenance is a known one cause of dropped rankings.
Consider the following:
- Refreshing content on an existing URL can sometimes cause a drop in rankings. On the other hand, old, outdated content can do the same. Remember to preserve the main keywords when refreshing a page.
- Technical issues that are less obvious can cause a drop in rankings. Here is a handful of scenarios: A large jump in 4xx and 5xx errors as part of a site migration; when a staging site is indexed after the launch of a new site, causing duplicate content that impacts the main site; too many redirect hops; confusing rel=canonical issues such as using rel=canonical pointing to a staging site as opposed to the site’s main domain; and there are, of course, more examples like these.
Solution: Before making any changes to a website, ensure you are aware of how it might impact rankings. Consider doing changes in small batches so that you have better insight into what might be causing a rankings drop. Monitor rankings before and after.
Read How to Keep Your Business Relevant During Hard Times and Come Out a Winner for ideas on maintaining the content on your site, if that’s on the agenda.
5. Other Things Change
Sometimes, not-so-obvious things change that are both in and out of your control. Consider the following:
- Operating changes: For example, new customer service methods could change your brand sentiment and reviews online.
- Social changes: For instance, a new focus on environmentalism might cause a plastic straw maker to lose rankings to a paper straw maker.
- Changes to other advertising channels: One scenario would be pulling a TV ad, causing fewer people to talk about your brand online. This could result in fewer links to the website.
And you can never rule out the fact that you may have been hit with a search engine penalty. So you want to be sure your website is keeping in line with Google’s guidelines. Watch out for any gray areas and make sure you err on the side of white versus black SEO strategies.
Solution: Look at the bigger picture around your brand and industry — has anything changed? Also, have your finger on the pulse of your other ad and marketing efforts; SEO does not exist in a vacuum. Check out these articles:
- Is Sentiment an SEO Trust Signal? This dives into how brand sentiment can impact SEO success.
- Paid Guest Posting: More Proof That It’s Bad for Business so that you can explore one of those “gray areas” that violate Google’s guidelines.
Every business and website is unique, so there is no general answer that covers why you’re losing rankings. But exploring these five categories can give you a good starting point for figuring it out.
If you’re dealing with organic ranking losses and don’t know why, you could benefit from expert SEO analysis. I invite you to contact us for a free consultation today.