People often worry about – and often write about – fast, abrupt declines in traffic. A sharp drop-off can signal many things, from a display issue on your site to a search penalty. What’s more insidious, however, is a slow, minor decline.
A slow decline in traffic can have a much broader number of possible causes, and it’s worse because people don’t immediately try to fix it. It’s like the paradox of the frog in the pot; dump it in boiling water and it panics and escapes. Dump it in cold water and slowly warm it up and you’ll have a placid, cooked frog. All too many business owners simply don’t notice or don’t care about slow, minor declines until it has done nearly irreparable damage.
If you haven’t changed a thing about your process or your site, and your traffic is still declining, you might not have any issues with your site at all. The problem is, new competition can spring up and undercut you surprisingly quickly. New sites get a lot of attention when they have at least a minimum level of quality, and if they’re exceptional, they can be given quite a lot of initial benefit. If they’re too close to your niche, they can start to take over, poaching your traffic. It’s even worse if they’re expressly targeting you as a competitor.
While nothing you did caused the drop, if you want to recover and get back to growing, you will need to ramp up your content marketing and your advertising to cope with losing your dominance in your market. Ideally, you will be established enough to leverage existing budgets and connections to stamp out the competition, or at least place them firmly below “threat” level. If you don’t have those kinds of resources to bring to bear, you’re going to have a harder time of things.
Links are one of the core underlying fundamentals of SEO. You need enough good links to form a strong net underneath your site, to lift it up and prevent it from falling. A faulty link profile is like a net that was poorly woven; things can slip through it, or it can fall apart completely under a basic level of scrutiny.
Sometimes, it’s not your fault that your link profile falters. If you have a bunch of links from a specific site, and that site goes under, what happens to your links? Chances are, they have simply disappeared. It’s not like you can appeal the webmaster to get them back, either; once a site is gone, it’s likely pretty solidly gone. The best you can do is figure out what kinds of links you had and try to replace them with other, similar sites. A sustained backlink campaign is necessary at that point.
Blogs are one of those nebulous forms of marketing where, unless you really know what you’re doing, it can be difficult to quantify the return on investment. You look at it and you think “what good is this doing me?” It costs money to operate, it costs money and time to produce new content, and all for what? So you decide to dial back on it a bit, cut your budget or slash the number of posts you publish, and call it good. You saved money, so on paper, profits are up!
The problem is, in 99% of cases, fewer posts means less traffic, which means less customers and less sales. The effect won’t be immediate, though, so it’s hard to tie the two together. Just realize that if you want to drop the number of posts you’re publishing, you need to increase the overall quality of those posts and, if possible, ramp up your promotion.
Speaking of promotion, it too is up there on the list of “things that don’t have an obvious return on investment.” Promotion leads to traffic and links, which lead to more readers and more customers, but it’s yet another step removed from easy ROI calculations. So what if you stopped posting quite as often on Facebook, or dialed back on your Twitter because you just don’t have the time? What’s it going to hurt?
Well, the answer is, your bottom line. With less promotion comes less traffic, and with less traffic comes less of all the other things you want your website to be doing.
Google is constantly refining and upgrading their algorithm. Some of their changes are large and public, and some of them are big enough to get their own algorithm update named. These kinds of changes are tracked in places like Moz. However, there are always minor changes being made, and these can gradually increase the standards you’re supposed to be living up to with a website. If you haven’t been playing along and keeping up ahead of the standards, algorithmic updates can catch you by surprise. Major updates would fall under abrupt, swift decline and require a swift response, but minor updates show only minor dips in traffic, and it can compound over time.
A major usability issue, like your site breaking entirely for certain users or your web host having down time, will show a massive drop in traffic. Sustained issues along those lines can even see you removed from the search rankings.
Minor usability issues, on the other hand, will end up driving away a few users and getting some small bits of the Google algorithm on your case, but they won’t show massive drops. They’re insidious because it’s hard to identify when a small usability issue even exists. I recommend checking things like how well your site works on non-standard devices and while using browsers other than the most up to date versions of Chrome and Firefox.
Site speed is a relatively recent metric as far as Google search factors go, so it’s possible that your site was designed before it was important. It’s also possible that your site has been slowing down as internet connections get faster and people access it with different technology.
Your web host might have changed something that inadvertently slowed down your site, or you just might be running inefficient plugins or slow add-ons that make it take a while to load. Any of these cases might cause the “slow site” penalty, which is such a minor penalty that it’s hard to see when it hits. Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to speed up your site, and you can see a waterfall of what loads to see where the bottlenecks are.
Mobile compatibility is one of the more recent Google changes, and it’s becoming increasingly important as mobile usage rises around the world. You don’t have to do anything for your traffic to drop, if you’re not mobile compatible. Google will punish you, but even if they didn’t, the simple fact that an increasing number of users will not be able to use or read your website on their primary devices will drive down your traffic. Mobile compatibility isn’t a luxury any more, it’s a necessity.
It’s always possible that if you’re looking up traffic trends, you have filtered your data in some way. Always make sure that you’re getting all of your data and that it’s reporting correctly before you start making assumptions about how your site is working.
Additionally, if you’ve made any changes to your site code, especially partial changes to only some pages on your site, make sure you didn’t accidentally remove your Google Analytics tracking code. Removing tracking code from certain pages means those pages might as well be invisible, so any traffic they get is ignored.
Just like data errors can make your site look worse than it is, so too can interpretation errors. If you’re looking at data and seeing a downward trend, you need to put it in context. Are you moving into a slow period? Sales of school supplies and school-related content drop in the summer when school is out, and that can be several months. Alternatively, are you coming down off of an unusually good month or season? It’s possible that your traffic isn’t so much dropping as it is normalizing. Ideally, after a good season or a traffic spike, you normalize at a higher level than before, but that’s not always possible.
Social media is part of the same concept as lower levels of promotion up above, but there’s more to social media than just sharing links. A good social media presence curates content, engages with fans, and generally has an organic presence that takes a lot of work to maintain.
If you’re putting less time and effort into social media, it can reflect back on your traffic. Think about Facebook, where less engagement means less visibility for your posts, less reach, and consequently less traffic. They all want to encourage you to use their sites, and they do it in ways that hurt your site if you stop.
This is an easy one to diagnose. Were you running sustained ad campaigns? Did one of them just end? The gap between two ad campaigns can result in less traffic because, for obvious reasons, fewer people are reaching your site.
The thing is, if you’re not paying attention to paid traffic and only looking at organic traffic, it can slip through unnoticed. This is even more true if there’s a disconnect in communication between you and whoever is running your paid advertising. The main thing to remember is to keep in mind all of your traffic sources, not just your organic sources, when you’re comparing traffic then and now.
Onsite SEO is another element that it’s easy to start to slack off on over time. It can be annoying to keep doing keyword research just for little meta blurbs, or phrasing a bunch of different titles to find one that works, or putting in alt text for every single image in every single post. At some point, it’s just exhausting work. It would be so much easier to simply let it go, put in more organic descriptions and let an alt text generator do its thing, but then you start to lose out on value. It’s not much – a tiny bit here and there – but it can aggregate over time and degrade your rankings. It’s exactly the same as the slow build from doing it properly, just in reverse.
Sometimes it’s nothing to do with the traffic coming into your site that hurts your metrics, it’s what the traffic does once it’s on your site.
You want to capture people and keep them around, but if you don’t have enough internal links, or if your internal links are broken, those users won’t have anywhere to go. Sure, they can explore your breadcrumbs or your top bar navigation, but that’s way less effective than just having internal links in your blog posts. Even a related posts box is losing steam as more and more native ad networks start abusing them.
Changing your site structure, or really anything major about your site, can have a lot of positives and negatives. You’re almost guaranteed to see a lot of ups and downs in the search rankings while Google figures out what to do with you. Even something as simple as adding security via SSL can have a huge impact, potentially negative. Likewise, users will be confused and some of them might leave, while others find your new design clicks with them like it never had before. There will be turmoil, and you hope to come out ahead when all is said and done. Will you? There’s no way to tell until it’s all over.