12 steps to take when your SEO rankings drop – The Telegraph

From ranking tools to manual actions, our 12 step guide to recovering organic traffic is fail safe
Seeing your search rankings drop is an essential rite of passage for SEOs. Like listening to the sound of your own heart beating when you put your first redirect in place. Or your knees knocking together when you have to discuss something vaguely technical for the first time. We’ve all been there.
The good news is that you’re travelling a well-trodden path. One with very clear steps to take when analysing how to reverse the drop. And having a sound reporting system is essential in monitoring your and your competitors’ performance.
Below, we cover our top 12 tips when it comes to understanding, analysing and reversing the decline.
Google’s algorithm contains more than 200 ranking factors that all play a role in your site’s SEO rankings.
There are dozens of page and site level factors to consider – from title tags to the age of your page and domain – alongside brand signals such as mentions in authoritative (or low-quality) sources that help Google piece together where your site fits into its ecosystem.
The more low-quality signals you send out, the more likely you are to lose rankings. Or never gain them.
While the number of ranking factors can seem a little overwhelming – and far too many to go into in detail here – you don’t need to do all of them perfectly. If you’re looking for an insider tip, none of us do all – or even any of them – perfectly.
1. Don’t panic
Arguably the most important point on the list is don’t panic. Ranking drops are a natural part of the SEO process and can right themselves within days, or weeks, depending on the root cause.
Algorithm updates are known to fluctuate over the first two to three weeks and, unless you see a business-critical drop, the best thing to do is to monitor and stay patient. If the drop is clearly more dramatic, then the next steps are vital.
2. Check there’s no bug in your ranking tool(s)
Ranking tools, although they are in essence machines, can act like humans. They’re fallible. They make mistakes like we all do. Even Google Search Console isn’t perfect, so double- and triple-check your rank tracker is behaving and corroborate through multiple tools.
If you’re still unsure, message your provider directly to see if they’ve noticed any bug(s) and they’ll be happy to assist you. Or at least they should be.
3. Check you haven’t received a manual action
We’ve never received one – and perish the thought – but there are multiple types of manual actions you could receive. These manual penalties – issued by a human reviewer who has determined your site is not in compliance with Google’s guidelines – range from publishing misleading or sexually explicit content to cloaking content/images, or the once ubiquitous keyword stuffing.
Fortunately, there’s a manual action report in Search Console that will tell you if your site has been given a manual penalty, and a guide for recovering from them.
4. Check your average rank
Checking your average rank is a simple but effective way to determine that the cause of your traffic loss is not from third-party events or a tracking tool error (unless the tracking tool in question is Search Console).
Impressions and clicks are subject to occurrences out of your control, such as search volume and news coverage. Whereas your overall rank is a generally good indicator of site-wide ranking drop-off.
Although site-wide ranking drop-offs are not the only thing you need to be concerned about…
5. And the rank of subfolders, subcategories and/or individual pages
Fortunately, your rankings are not only subject to site-wide drops. These can be on a subfolder or individual page level. If you’re particularly reliant on a single page, the drop in rankings and subsequent traffic or conversions can be a painful one.
If you have tracking set up (see below) then identifying and analysing subfolder drop-offs should be simple.
If you need to take the more manual approach, then adding custom URL parameters into Search Console’s Performance Tab means you can break down where and when you lost out to the algorithm gods.
6. Identify patterns
Patterns should be the foundation of your ranking decline analysis. The drop-off could be attributed to specific keyword types or location-specific content. Which should be a relatively simple fix. Or it could be far more nuanced. We typically start with something like:
– Are the keywords that have declined location-based? (eg: in the UK)
– Or has traffic dropped off from a specific subfolder?
– Targeting a certain type of subset of keywords (eg: ‘best’ or ‘cost’-related terms)
– Is it an entire subfolder that has dropped off?
Once you’ve found a pattern(s), everything becomes a little easier to understand.
7. Issue diagnosis
Now you know (hopefully at least) what section – or *sighs* sections – of your site are affected, it’s time to diagnose the issue. Breaking things down into technical SEO, on-page and off-page is a sensible, if a little obvious approach.
8. Technical SEO
Your content could be the best in the game, but if it’s hard to find, slow to load and hampered by a poor internal linking structure, it is capped by technical inefficiency. In many cases your technical SEO performance can be the answer to your ranking woes.
For your site speed performance, check Search Console’s Page Experience report. If you’re concerned about your internal linking and navigation structure – pages per session is a useful metric here – then Search Console also has a very thorough linking report that highlights how many links go into each page.
And if you can use Chrome DevTools Recorder, you can record user flows to see how people are interacting with your site. Which can be fantastic for navigational/click elements. All for free!
9. Check your backlinks
Links are still foundational in assessing a site’s overall quality. And while they may not be as valuable as a decade ago, there’s still very little more valuable a qualifier of E-A-T than quality backlinks.
“Oh look, we gained 900 backlinks yesterday, I must be creating quality content. Wonder why they all come from dodgy-looking porn and gambling sites. Never mind.”
If we had a pound for every time this happened, we’d have £2 to our name. While it is unlikely links from spammy sites can impact your site’s health – particularly since Google’s 2021 link spam update is more effective than ever at fighting link spam – it’s worth checking you’re following best practice guidelines around links. That includes adding low-quality sites to your disavow file.
10. Look at your content quality
While your content quality can be hard to quantify, there are some key things to consider:
– Is your content written by a living, breathing life form, or by a robot?
– Does your content match the search intent for the query?
– Do you go into an appropriate level of depth and detail?
    – Do you target relevant longer-tail queries and FAQs?
    – Do you use semantically relevant terms?
    – Do you use multiple content types?
    – How is your engagement rate and bounce rate? Pogo sticking – although still unconfirmed – is seen by many (including myself) as a ranking factor
Ultimately, if your content is ten-a-penny, then there’s a problem. Ensure it is unique in some way, that you use individual images, ratings, reviews of products and/or angles – something that makes you stand out as being an expert.
11. Cross-reference all of this with industry chatter
One of the great things about SEO is that no man – or woman – is an island. There are dozens of quality SEO bloggers, creators and website owners who discuss algorithm updates, best practices and wins or losses in forums and on social media.
So, once you have identified patterns or problems, cross-reference them with what others in the industry are seeing. If what you’re seeing is vastly different, there may be something wrong. Most likely with your analysis. Or, in worse cases, your site. But you have probably established this already.
A friendly reminder that word count is not a ranking factor
Why would a search engine use word count as a metric?
12. Look at your current SEO improvement program
We work towards three-year goals in six-month cycles. Setting up long-term SEO improvement processes that are designed to ensure we create unique, quality content that adheres to best practices.
As such we would have to find something out of the ordinary, and that doesn’t tie in to what we already know, to change our plans. Simply because our audits are designed to pick up core issues before our rankings decline.
But it’s good to be challenged and ranking decline forces us to review the work we have done and look at whether:
– It is focused on the right things
– We should change anything
– That we are heading in the right direction
If you don’t have a clear improvement plan in place, it’s time to create one.
There are many different factors that can harm your search ranking, largely broken down into technical, on-page and off-page SEO. Again, too many to go through in detail.
But you could see manual actions given if you were creating misleading or harmful content, or lose out on rankings if the content you were creating was deemed low quality. You could see similar search ranking drop-offs through making technical changes that negatively impact your site’s structure of page speed too.
Once you have established your site has seen a drop in rankings, corroborate your findings. If you saw the drop-off in Search Console, then check your third-party reporting tools to confirm your findings.
Then check your analytics provider to see if your organic traffic and, more importantly, your revenue has been affected. Finally, check the SEO industry for updates and further details to see if the ranking drop is localised or not.
A ranking drop can take days – or years – to recover from. Simple fixes such as adding blacklisted sites to your disavow file can see rankings start to recover in just a few days, but if you’ve been building links through a PBN (Private Blog Network) for years and have finally been caught, you may never recover.

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