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SEO is a complex game that can turn your life upside down overnight. It doesn’t really matter how diligently you work on your brand and traffic online – your site could still end up in the gutter.  And by the gutter, I mean Page 2 of Google’s search results, which is basically a ghost town that only 1% of all searchers ever visit.

Search engine optimization can be your best friend, but it can also present itself as a real hornet’s nest if you don’t take it seriously enough. Keeping your position in SERP is as simple as putting a bear on a tiny unicycle and teaching him how to do laps around the circus.

Why? – Because so many things could go wrong. It doesn’t really matter if you’re employing only the best and most acceptable white hat SEO practices, you could still experience a drop in rankings. An instant drop in rankings could be caused by literally anything. These are some of the more common causes:

  • Links – The links pointing back to your domain could negatively affect your rankings in a couple of different ways. If you create low quality or unnatural links for your site, you could end up on Google’s naughty list. Broken and lost links could also cut your rankings down to size.
  • Dropped redirections – Removing or modifying redirects can often negatively affect rankings. Link equity gets lost, and a whole lot of different issues immediately start to surface.
  • Search engine penalties – Employing spammy linking techniques and producing rubbish content can also butcher your rankings. If you don’t play by the rules and stop investing only in recommended SEO practices, you could lose your hard-earned positions in SERP.
  • Algorithm changes – Many position drops can often be traced back to algorithm changes. Back in 2015, Google rolled out the new Panda update, and the SEO community provided analysis and reports, in order to understand what has changed. In these reports, there were clearly some winners and losers.
  • Page speedSpeed also plays an important role in your overall ranking performance. It doesn’t really matter how tight your design and content might be, if users have to wait for ages for your site to load, you’ll start to sink in SERP. That’s why it’s always important to check your server and hosting, and make sure that your visitors can fluidly navigate through your site.
  • Alterations in search performance – If you notice a slight drop in your website’s rankings, it might not have anything to do with your SEO techniques or the inbound links you’ve built so far. Google is committed to improving the web surfing experience for its users, which is why it can alter results to stay up to date, i.e. have in mind new queries.

    In case there is suddenly an increased number of searches for a specific topic, Google will give a slight boost to articles that contain fresh, updated information. This means evergreen content might end up on page two, as it is interpreted as less relevant.
  • Technical, on-page issuesBasic elements that power the crawling and indexing of your site can also be a source of your ranking problems. Bad canonical tags, no index tags, content that cannot be rendered – these are just some components that could butcher your ranking performance.
  • Changes in CTRs – If your click through rate has dropped, that could be the reason why your rankings have changed. Google focuses on user experience, more than anything else.

 How to Recover from such Issues?

As a person who has some significant experience in this field, I can tell you first hand that I have truly felt what it means to get screwed by the world’s most popular search engine. Some of the clients I used to work with had the misfortune of seeing their ranking drop in Google’s search results like a stone in water.

Every single one of these scenarios starts the same, like a trashy ‘80s horror movie. You wake up, same as every other day, sit in front of your computer, all mellow and chill, and do a simple Google search for your brand, keywords and site, only to see that your hard-earned rankings have suddenly nosedived from the top of Google’s SERP.

Whenever this sort of thing happens, people immediately enter a state of panic. They start running around like a cat being chased by Pepé Le Pew, stressed that they won’t be able to figure out what went wrong.

That’s not good. You should do the opposite. It’s important to stay calm, act fast, figure out what caused the drop and work from there.  

As a person who runs an SEO agency that works with 200 clients from all over the globe, I constantly find myself in situations where it’s up to me to examine specific rank drop scenarios, locate problems, and provide my team and clients with an action plan to expressly recover from these unwanted changes.

Truthfully, in order to survive a sudden drop in rankings, all you really need is a solid plan, a checklist, if you prefer, categorized according to source and complexity.

It’s all about having the right tools, principles and processes at your disposal, so you can immediately understand the cause of a specific ranking drop and reverse the damage. You want to pick up the problem as soon as it occurs, so you can work on it, before Google marks you an awful source that keeps piling up garbage.

In the following segments of this article, I’m going to provide you with a reliable checklist to easily detect and work on some of the most common ranking issues:

The Diagnosis + Solution Phase

The Duh Factor – Check for Algorithm Updates

The first thing you need to do when analyzing what has caused a certain drop in ranking is go through your list of possible issues and write off those that don’t really apply to your current troubles.

For example, whenever I start working on my ranking problems, the first thing I always look for are Google’s algorithm changes. Why? – Because this is extremely easy to determine. This sort of thing usually happens overnight. If you notice that your site has dropped more than 10 positions in SERP for multiple queries at once, this could mean nothing other than that you have been penalized.

When that sort of thing happens, you need to determine if you have received a manual or an algorithmic penalty. The difference between the two is that automatic penalties come with Google updates, while the latter are usually manually applied by someone who works at Google.

Manual penalties are usually caused by malicious behavior. If you don’t want to get one, you need to avoid conducting shady SEO activities. If you do everything by the book, you won’t have anything to worry about. Recovering from a manual penalty is nothing short of a nightmare. In order to detect why you’re being penalized, you need to open your Webmaster Tools and search for messages that explain why you are experiencing a certain drop in traffic.

This usually means that you have created some unnatural links, or have other on-page issues. Whatever you have done, you need to identify the root of your problem and remove it. When you fix the issues that have gotten you blacklisted, you need to submit a reconsideration request. Have in mind that you’ll probably have to wait a couple of days until the guys at Google start working on your case, but if you have fixed the issues – they’ll restore your rankings.

If you want to avoid an automatic penalty, all you really have to do is visit some of the most popular SEO blogs (like SEJ, SEO Roundable, Search Engine Land, MOZ, SEO by The Sea, the Ahrefs blog, etc.) and check if they have written something on that topic. These types of changes are usually announced by Google and all sorts of different publications that write about SEO.

If this is your issue, if Google has done something to its ranking system, the first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with what’s new, what the engine has changed and why, what it is penalizing now, and how to update your SEO playbook, so you don’t chance to do things that Google now hates.

Loss of Links

If there were no recent algorithm changes, your next move should be to check your links. Do you notice any suspicious site-wide link rank activity? Has there been a noticeable loss for some of the pages that you used to rank high in SERP? What about the pages that link back to those pages?

These are just some of the questions you can easily provide answers for by using tools like AhrefsSeomator and Screaming Frog.

By doing a simple link analysis or checking the internal link counts for pages that were connected to the affected pages, you can locate where the problem occurred. Check your site’s links for the last 90 days, go through every link individually, and figure out the reason why they were eliminated. From there, once you pinpoint the issues, you can work on regaining your lost links. Again, the cause of the problem might be traced back to unnatural linking. Open Webmaster Tools and look for messages.

Technical Screwups

Once you eliminate algorithm changes and link loss from the equation, you should always start looking at manual errors. Has someone altered the URLs of the affected pages? What about keywords? Are they all still there? Site load speed? CTR issues? What about the content? Is it visible to Google?

Even though this is probably the dumbest cause for a rankings drop, it’s also a blessing in disguise. How come? – Well, because you can easily fix these issues. If, for example, you’re having URL issues, all you really need to do is change them back, or see if you can do a better 301 redirect from an old URL to a new one. The same goes for content. Just revert the changes. However, if your site is no longer visible to Google, if that’s the case, you need to talk to your dev team and get them to fix the issues.


Double Check Your Internal Linking

Once you go through all these options, you’re left with internal linking.

This phase is focused on the link equity flow through your site and checking if something has changed.

Top navigation, side navigation, the footer, suggested pages and posts – these are just some of the main locations that you need to double-check for errors.

You need to figure out if some of your internal links have been removed and are not pointing back to your suspected pages. Your job here is basically to look for cracks in your site’s navigation. Once again, Screaming Frog can help you here. All you need to do is compare an older version of your site with the new one, and mark all the navigation changes until you find your problem.

Competitor Analysis

In case you don’t really have any penalties or errors on the site, a drop in rankings can often be traced back to your direct or indirect competitors. Maybe they have gotten better at what they do and pushed you out of the picture? Maybe they have created tons of quality links or perhaps improved their overall CTR score? – It could happen. This is not an unlikely scenario.

In order to truly figure out how someone can push you down SERP, you need to analyze their recent behavior. Keep close track of their social profiles, content tactics and link building activities. Having a tool like Ahrefs at your disposal could really help pinpoint activities that work well for your competitors. It’s important to closely follow your competitors, analyze their backlinks and look for success moments that you can easily replicate and beat them on their own home court.

Over to You

Once you figure out what has caused a certain drop in rankings, you can start working on the cure. Every single one of these scenarios demands a different approach, so it’s best that you really invest a bit of time and attention in mastering every single one of these tactics. There isn’t a universal action plan that you can apply to all of these problems.

That’s why it’s always best to keep your eye on the ball, surround yourself with quality tools and keep calm when errors surface.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post from top to bottom. I hope it has helped you understand how certain ranking drops occur and what you need to do in order to fix them ASAP.

That’s it for now,
See you again soon,

Rad @ Four Dots

author avatar
Radomir Basta
CEO and lead SEO strategist at Four Dots and lecturer at Digital Marketing Institute Also an angry driver and huge tattoo fan. In love with growth hacking.

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