Technical SEO

SEO Fire Drill: ‘Traffic Is Down!’

Organic search traffic often drives significant revenue for ecommerce sites. As a result, it is prone to fire drills around performance. Here’s how to determine when there’s a critical problem to solve.

The alarm rings out: “Traffic is down!”

Your first step will be to fight the panic and look for a reasonable explanation. Quickly crossing off some obvious items could save you many hours.

Confirm that natural search traffic and revenue have actually decreased enough to impact the bottom line, not just a favorite ranking in your executive’s Google’s search. Aside from the age-old argument that rankings aren’t KPIs, every person’s rankings are different — i.e., personalized according to his search patterns, location, and more.

Is natural search the only channel affected? If the answer is yes, and you’ve confirmed that the drop is indeed significant, it’s time to dig a deeper into the scope and scale of the problem.

Is this a quick 5-percent dip measured against last week, a long sloping downward trend, or a sudden drop-off on the order of 25 to 100 percent? Each trend suggests different areas to investigate, but the sudden drop-offs are the most likely to cause the greatest alarm.

Sudden Decreases

It’s easier to diagnose a sudden decrease than a long downward-sloping trend because there’s a definite date to tie the beginning of the issue to. Before digging into detailed reports to try to find a trend in performance across pages, templates, or sections of the site, check these three things: IT, attribution, and algorithms.

First, was there a site outage? Call IT and check your Google Search Console error report (Search Console > Crawl > Crawl Errors) for an increase in “Server connectivity” errors. If natural search is the only channel affected, this is probably not the cause. But it’s better to ask up front.

It’s easier to diagnose a sudden decrease than a long downward-sloping trend because there’s a definite date to tie the beginning of the issue to.

The cause could also be related to the projects that went live in a release, such as a platform change or upgrade. Check the date of the performance drop against the release calendar. If there’s a correlation between the dates of the decrease and the release, something in that release likely caused the problem.

Triple check that analytics tags are still in place and accurately measuring performance. Even if natural search is the only one to decrease, if other channels increased in a similar amount, you could have your culprit. Changes your IT team makes on the site, or changes the analytics teams make in the way that traffic is attributed, can skew the data.

Has there been a search-engine algorithm update? Check trusted search industry news sources such as Search Engine Land and Moz, and then head to the forums. The news will usually spike in the forums first with complaints of traffic changes similar to yours. But the news sites are quick to report these trends, also.

What to Do Next

Most of the “Traffic is down!” alarms stem from one of the sources above. If you’re monitoring your site’s natural search performance each morning, you will likely be the first to identify problems.

For those surprise alarms, five minutes of checking to make sure there is a problem at all can save hours chasing phantom issues. Many of them end up being false alarms.

However, if IT, attribution, and algorithms do not identify the issue, then it’s time to dig into the data and find the actual cause.

Start with metrics from your web analytics package. Focus on the reports that show natural search performance by entry page. Augment with data from Google Search Console on crawl performance and keyword performance.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to identify the cause of a change in traffic from natural search. Even Google employees shy away from giving judgments on why Google-referred traffic has decreased for individual sites, because they know that the answer could be anything from a tweak in the signals search engines value to a competitor suddenly upping its game to a change in the site itself.

However, as natural search continues to be one of the top traffic channels in ecommerce, merchants and SEO professionals must be equipped to interpret the data, to determine when an alarm requires immediate action — or when it’s an opportunity for education.

For more, read an excellent, detailed post from fellow contributor Hamlet Batista on how to quickly identify and reverse a traffic downtrend.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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