What To Do If Your Search Rankings Suddenly Tank

By Gordon Smith
SEO

SEO results droppedSo, you’re just browsing around on Google in a spare moment and you decide (as you do most days) to Google your own keywords. Fully expecting to see your website firmly in position #1 or on the first page (or somewhere nicely near the top) all of a sudden you are nowhere to be seen.

You frantically go to page 2, 3, 4, finally finding your website on page 10 or somewhere else. You’re basically invisible. Google has wiped you off the web and with a stroke of their pen maybe wiped out half your business.

It’s a heart-stopping moment.

But don’t panic.

Help is at hand.

You can recover.

If you (like most business owners) monitor your position in search engines religiously then you may have come across a situation when, all of a sudden, your search rankings for your favourite just tank. You go from being the authority website in your area to nowhere.

Part 1: what to do first

1. Don’t panic

First thing to understand is that very significant fluctuations in Google’s algorithms are not common. Typically a website once well-established at the top of the search engines for relevant searches will tend to stay there and not jump about too much. But it is still quite common to drop out of search completely, at least for a while.

So breathe.

Make a cup of tea.

Have a jaffa cake.

This is not the end.

Although it might be the beginning of a bit of a journey you would prefer not to have to embark upon.

2. Get the facts

Once you have overcome the stress it’s time to look at how you came to be in this situation.

So let’s first get the answers to these questions:

Is it just one keyword that you have dropped out of search for, or many?

Does it affect all your keywords or just a few? If you use a position monitoring service such as SEMrush or Moz.com check your overall visibility. Far too many business owners are focussed on just one keyword. The reality is your audience probably uses a much wider range to find services like yours. Get the full picture first.

Have your competitors also dropped out of search?

Check your deadliest competition. Have they gone up in search, or down. The reason you need to know is because it is common for Google to wipe out entire categories of website. For example, in 2018 Google took action against websites providing health and well-being information as a group. Ouch.

How long has this been going on?

Check your search position monitor and see how long your rankings have been down.

Double check that this actually matters.

We find that many business owners are focussed on just one or two keywords. But losing those keywords forever may not actually harm your search traffic at all. Perhaps your brand is strong to withstand the loss of important rankings. Check Google Analytics and look at search traffic and overall traffic to your website. In many cases, losing a few keywords doesn’t actually mean that much to your business.

Now, once you have established the facts, it’s time to make some decisions.

But here’s the golden rule to follow when you drop out of search:

No hasty decision, no knee-jerk reactions. Take your time.

Dealing with this situation depends on the outcome of your investigations from your fact-finding mission. So let’s look at why search rankings do actually tank.


Recover lost SEO rankingsPart 2: What to do, and when

Competitor overrun

Sometimes a new, shiny competitor appears in the marketplace with a spanking new website. Google wants to find out how relevant and popular this site is, so it ranks it fairly highly to see what the click-through rate is. This can knock you down a position or two but is rarely fatal. Often the audience reaction to the Johnny-come-lately is muted, and your competitor will sink without trace as suddenly as they appeared!

Solution: watch and wait. If this doesn’t work, move onto the next steps.

Google bug?

Bugs in Google do happen! For example on 7th April 2019 Google rolled out an update which bulldozed the search rankings of many e-commerce websites. It lasted about two days but you can bet the Dotwise phone was ringing during that time!

To find out what’s going on in the Google-brain, head to SEO news websites such as searchengineland.com and moz.com’s blog. These blogs and forums measure search engine fluctuations and try to establish when major search engines have rolled out new algorithm changes. They will also report on new suspected bugs in search engine algorithms.

Another way to establish whether you are the victim of a bug is to compare Google’s search results for your keywords with another search engine, such as Bing. If your rankings are still strong in Bing then it’s probably a Google-only issue.

Solution: if you think you are the victim of search engine bug there’s not much more you can do other than sit and wait it out.

Site hacked?

Make sure your website hasn’t been hacked.

It’s not always easy to tell. Many hacks involve injecting invisible or near-invisible links into your site’s code which are hard to detect with the naked eye. If you use WordPress, install the free WordFence plugin and run a site scan. WordFence will tell you if your site has been hacked. If you use another CMS, try isithacked.com for an overview.

Solution: if your site has been hacked you can either pay a professional to clean it up for you or (if you are technically minded) try cleaning it yourself. There are some good instructions on cleaning a hacked WordPress site with WordFence.

Black hat SEO

Black hat SEO is still around and still a menace. Avoid cheap, spammy SEO techniques.

Unethical/black hat SEO?

Have you engaged a new SEO company or so-called “expert”? You had really better check what they are up to. What have they done to your website recently?

Are they using fully Google-approved techniques? You can almost always find a page, blog post or forum contribution from Google themselves which explains how to do SEO in compliance with Google’s guidelines. If your SEO guys are unable to do this, it’s time to ask some serious questions.

Some of the most common black-hat techniques involve creating masses of spammy backlinks to your site using automated methods. Sign up for a free account with Moz.com and use their Link Explorer tool to find out who is linking to you (and why!)

By the way, all websites attract weird, spammy looking links. A few spammy inbound links are probably not the cause of your search engine disaster, and can be safely ignored.

Solution: should you conclude that you have succumbed to a black-hat (unethical) SEO company, you should still not panic because in almost all cases your site’s reputation can be cleansed, purified and come out smelling of roses!

If you found that you have been the victim of a spammy backlink campaign. You can instruct Google to ignore those inbound links. This is called link disavowal.

If you don’t feel confident with link disavowal You might need to engage an ethical SEO company next to do the clean-up work and it could take days or weeks. It’s frustrating of course, but not fatal.

Technical boo-boo

It’s possible to tank your own search rankings quite easily. Here are some examples how (we’ve seen customers do all of things several times):

Uploading a robots.txt file which disallows search engines. Your robots.txt file instructs Google which parts of your site it can index. It’s really easy to put a type in there which will ban all search engines from indexing and listing your site. Here’s an example:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /
The above robots.txt instructions tell Google and other search engines to bugger off and not index your site at all, ever.
User-agent: *
Disallow:
Now this robots.txt instructs Google to come right in, hang about, index all your pages and rank you in God-like positions (well …)

The difference between these two files is just one character!

One character is separating you from search engine destruction.

Other common technical boo-boos include misusing the options available to you via content management systems such as WordPress. For example, WordPress has a handy option to disallow all search engines from indexing your site. It’s just one checkbox but again, if misused it will lock Google out until you untick it.

And then many SEO plugins such as Yoast have options to stop Google from indexing single pages or categories. These are easy to tick or leave ticked inadvertently. Make sure you haven’t accidentally (or just by fiddling about) ticked any of these options.

To check if this is what is happening, try the Live URL inspection tool within Google Search Console.

Solution: revert your changes

If you found an obvious technical booboo such as switching off the indexability of your site (see above), then of course you can simply go and revert those changes and wait a few days. Everything should be right as rain again.

Losing vital, high quality links

This is common.

If you have just one or two really great backlinks from top-quality websites (such as respected newspapers, for example) then these links may be propping up your search rankings without you realising. Just a handful of amazing backlinks, or even just one, is sometimes all it takes to keep you up in the search rankings.

Links can be lost just as easily as gained and if those all-important backlinks disappear it is frequently the cause of search engine tankage.

Solution: regain your links

If the cause of your troubles is the loss of vital backlinks then obviously the first port of call is to contact the website owner and ask them to put the link back. A simple email may suffice:

I noticed that you’d remove the link from www.greatsite.co.uk to our site and I was wondering if you’d consider reinstating it?

If that doesn’t work, here’s a great article on link reclamation from Ahrefs.

Manual Google penalty?

Google’s own staff have judged you, and found you wanting. It’s very rare, but it does happen. Google usually apply manual penalties to websites that peddle low-value, thin content, spammy content, hidden text, keyword stuffing (to the max). You will probably already know if you are engaging in any of these activities.

To find out if this is the case, go to Google Webmaster Tools and look for the alert icon in the top right-hand corner for your website.

Solution: once you have established which of the “offences” you have committed, you need to stop committing it immediately. Remove thin content. Add rich, high-value content. Disavow spammy backlinks. Once you have done all these things, you can apply to Google to have the manual penalty removed.

If none of the above scenarios apply

Wait

If you cannot find any obvious on-site reason for the drop, then …

If you can stand it – wait.

Wait three days.

Most problems with search rankings rectify themselves within a few days. Such problems include Google bugs and competitor overrun.

Conclusion

When your search rankings tank it can be very stressful. Years of hard work can seem to go down the pan. It can seem very unfair that a machine like Google can have so much control over your business destiny.

But the best thing to do is approach the situation calmly and rationally. The fact is that almost all ranking drops can be rectified and many simply cure themselves. Don’t rush to blame yourself or your competitors – other factors are at play such as changes in Google’s algorithms or the loss of good-quality backlinks.

Establish the facts, fix the issue and if possible, don’t worry too much.

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