It can be unsettling when you log in-to Google Analytics and see a dip in the number of visitors landing on your site. A feeling of worry is likely; a small traffic drop could signify a larger issue and this drop could be the start of an avalanche. It could be that your website has been affected by one of Google's latest algorithm updates. Alternatively, it could just be a naturally occurring blip; unfortunately blips do happen every now and then.

For a seasoned SEO, it might be possible to figure out whether the website in question has been hit by an algorithm update or a data refresh, but the same might not necessarily apply for most company CEOs or Directors. Fear and confusion might set-in and not being sure whether to press the panic button could potentially make things worse.

Hopefully this guide will help out in the time of need.

Google Webmaster Tools Messages

The first thing to check after a traffic drop is your Google Webmasters account for messages. A message very rarely brings good news for webmasters. There are different types of messages you could receive from Google Webmaster Tools but one of the most dreaded among them is the unnatural link message.

Unnatural link warning message

If you receive this message, you can skip the rest of this post and call in an SEO expert -- any old SEO expert wont do, you need a real expert. This message means that a proportion of the links pointing to your website look like spam and therefore, Google wants you to remove those links in order to get the visibility of your website back on track.

This can be a tricky job. Google will certainly not help you decide which links to remove and which links to keep and you might find yourself in a bit of a sticky position. There are hundreds of metrics and factors that need to be checked before removing a link. Links are the currency of the internet and are precious, you are better off leaving this task to an experienced SEO who knows his job incredibly well.

Google Bot cannot access your website

This is another crucial problem. If you happen to get this message when you log into your Webmaster Tools account, it means that Google Bots are unable to crawl your website which in-turn means some - or all - of the pages of your website will not get indexed and this will result in loss of visibility in search engine results.

This can occasionally be an issue with Google Spiders but you should certainly investigate, especially if the message has appeared more than once.

There is a possibility that the firewall settings of your server could be behind this mess. If you have the know-how; check the DNS server in case it is down and make sure that the web server is not blocking Google Bots unintentionally. If you are overwhelmed with this, I think it would be the right time to find yourself a technical SEO expert.

Malware Detection Message

As you can imagine, hosting malware on your website is certainly not something to be proud of. Your website's security is actually much easier to breach than you might think, especially if you don't follow certain procedures to keep it safe. So, if you get a message within Webmaster Tools regarding malware detection, you need to do something to get your website cleaned up otherwise, Google will drop your website from its index. Contact your hosting provider for help.

Rankings Are in Free fall

Search results change all the time for a multitude of reasons so don't get worried if you see sudden fluctuations in your rankings. If your rankings are falling like a rock, however, you have to accept that there could be something wrong with your website. As well as using Analytics on a regular basis, you should also use a ranking tracker. SERPS.com has a useful piece of tracking software, as does Moz.com. Cross-referencing traffic drops to ranking drops is always good practice.

None of the above

If none of the above apply, Google Analytics can give you plenty of answers. First things first; log in-to your account and go to "Traffic Source" then "Overview". Here you might find out where your problem lies. Check how many visitors have arrived on your site from Google and from other referral sources for the previous 7 days and make a note of the numbers. Then do the same check but change the date to the 7 days prior to the 7 days you have already checked. Repeat this process a few times. This should give you an indication of which source is causing the traffic drop. Once you know the culprit, you can make a change in your strategy to apply more onus in that specific area.

One common cause of traffic drops is when website owners move or change page URL's. Changing a URL will result in Google de-indexing the original page as it will signal a 404 error when Google Bots crawl the site. It is very important to ensure you follow the best-practice for repairing 404 errors after editing URL's.

Still stuck? Maybe you should call in the SEO detectives.

Matt Janaway

Matt Janaway is an eCommerce and digital marketing specialist who resides in the UK. He owned a chain of successful eCommerce stores before moving into directing an in-house team of web marketers, web designers and content curators at a leading global company. In his spare time he tries to help other webmasters on website issues.


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10 Responses to “Traffic loss or penalty? – When to call in the SEO detectives”

  1. […] Traffic loss or penalty? – When to call in the SEO detectives, Search Engine People […]

  2. Hi Matt,
    Great article here! Extremely useful.

    I have a question for you: A few months ago I changed one of my business websites (not the one linked to this article) from a dot me domain to a dot com domain (same URL otherwise.) I haven't seen any analytics yet, so I don't know at the moment how the traffic compares, but wondering if I need to apply some of your advice here?

    When you go to the dot me URL now, it says Google Chrome cannot find yada yada dot me. Try reloading yada yada dot me.

    Do you think my new dot com domain is being affected by my old dot me domain?

    • Matt Janaway says:

      Thanks for the feedback.

      If I understand things correctly, you used to have a domain at mydomain.me, you replaced it with mydomain.com?

      If you care about not losing out on any visitors then a 301 redirect should be applied from the mydomain.me to the mydomain.com – you have a couple of options:

      1 – Do you have similar content on the .com that was on the .me? One option if you want to direct traffic to exact replacement/pages is to 301 redirect specific pages on the .me to the most relevant page on the .com – If you are unaware the exact URL's of the old page try out The Wayback Machine, it allows you to enter any website and take you back to an older version of it. However, actually setting up the redirects could be challenging so seek help if you want to choose this option.
      2 – You could just redirect the entire domain over the the .com – this is an easy solution.

      However, there are a few other things to think about before doing so. Redirecting on domain to another does more than send visitors, it also passes various metrics which the search engines use to rank your website. For example, if you have a bad link profile on your old site (.me) then 301 redirecting mydomain.me to mydomain.com might not be the best thing to do. Much depends on how many visitors you were getting as to whether it would be worth the risk – that's assuming there even is a risk at all, your link profile on the .me might be good. If you want me to check it out and advice, pop me a mail from my website.

  3. recipes says:

    Hello !!

    Tanks matt this a good , useful and helpful post

  4. Janell Casey says:

    You really great in SEO Matt, thanks for your post, everything have been answered!

  5. Any manual action message in your WM tools inbox is dangerous, I think. The rest can be somehow detected by comparing the timeline of traffic drop and Google algo update dates. Since manual action requires a lot of corrective measures plus reconsideration request, an Expert SEO cop has to be called in as you rightly phrased :)

    • Matt Janaway says:

      Yes, quite right. There are some pretty cool tools out there to use when cross-referencing traffic drops to algo updates. My favourite is the Panguin tool. It's pretty easy to use too, simply connect the Google Analytics account to the tool and it will sort the rest out for you.

  6. Julia McCoy says:

    Excellent point. Of course, I especially love the Batman picture – made me think what if we had a webmaster superhero to signal for help whenever we needed! Overall, though, you covered the essentials of what to do when traffic loss occurs and what the error messages mean. Very informative and useful.

  7. Deepika says:

    This post is awesome. I was also having some problems regarding drop in traffic and don't get any idea about how to check the culprit. Thanks a lot. I'll work on it.