Google SEO Update 2023 September 26

Debugging drops in Google Search traffic

A drop in organic Search traffic can happen for several reasons, and most of them can be reversed. It may not be straightforward to understand what exactly happened to your site; to investigate the reasons for a drop in Search traffic, you can use the Search Console Performance report and Google Trends.

To get an idea of what is affecting your Search traffic, check the sketches in the image. They show roughly what could potentially affect your traffic and how your graph shape would look like.

Site-level technical issue (Manual Action, strong algorithmic changes)

Seasonality

Page-level technical issue (algorithmic changes, market disruption)

Reporting glitch ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The following sections cover the main causes you should investigate when analyzing a traffic drop. Also make sure to check the Search Console Data Anomalies page to see if there is anything applicable to your site. The drop might be related to a change in the data processing or a logging error.

Technical issues are errors that can prevent Google from crawling, indexing, or serving your pages to users. For example, server availability, robots.txt fetching, “page not found”, and others.

Note that the issues can be site-wide (for example, your website is down) or page-wide (for example, a misplaced noindex tag, which would depend on Google crawling the page, meaning there would be a slower drop in traffic).

Check the Crawl stats report and Page indexing report to find if there’s a corresponding spike in issues detected, this might help you pinpoint the problem.

If your site is affected by a security threat, like malware or phishing, Google may alert users before they reach your site with warnings or interstitial pages, which may decrease Search traffic.

Check the Security Issues report to find if Google detected a security threat on your website.

If your site does not comply with the Google Search Essentials, some of your pages or the entire site may be omitted from Google Search results.

Check the Google Search spam policies and the Manual Actions report on Search Console to find if this applies to your website. Keep in mind that Google’s algorithms may also take policy violations into account even without a manual action.

Google is always improving how it assesses content and updating its search ranking and serving algorithms accordingly; core updates and other smaller updates may change how some pages perform in Google Search results.

You can self-assess your content to make sure it’s helpful, reliable and people-first; Google focuses on the users, so if you’re improving your content for your audience, you’re going in the right direction.

Sometimes changes in user behavior will change the demand for certain queries, either due to a new trend, or seasonality throughout the year. This means your traffic may drop simply as a result of external influences.

Find queries that saw a drop in clicks and impressions using the Performance report by applying a filter to include only a query at a time (choose the queries that receive the most traffic); then, check them on Google Trends to understand if the drop was only for your website or throughout the web.

If you change the URLs of existing pages on your site, you may experience ranking fluctuations while Google recrawls and reindexes your site. As a general rule, a medium-sized website can take a few weeks for Google to notice the change; larger sites can take longer.

If you see a drop after moving and it’s not recovering, check the site move troubleshooting section for common mistakes when migrating a site with URL changes.

The best way to understand what happened to your traffic is to look at the main chart in your Search Console Performance report, as it summarizes a lot of information.

If both impressions and clicks dropped, check the list above for the most common reasons that could have caused it. If your impressions remain the same but your clicks drop, you might not be generating the best page title and snippet that you could, and so users don’t understand the content of your page, or perhaps other sites had a more appealing rich result.

Visit the Search Performance report and try applying filters to your data as discussed in the following sections.

Choose the Date filter on top of the chart and select Last 16 months. This will help you analyze the traffic drop in context and make sure it’s not a drop that happens every year due to a holiday or a trend. If you’d like to extend the 16 months, you could use the Search Analytics API or bulk data exports to pull data and store it in your systems.

Screenshot of Performance report Date range filter showing Last 16 months

The following chart shows a Performance chart with yearly seasonality (16 months of data). Notice how the recent drop happened exactly as it did the previous year.

Screenshot of Performance reports showing yearly seasonality

Choose the Date filter on top of the chart, select the Compare tab, and then Compare last 3 months to previous period or Compare last 3 months year over year. This will help you review what exactly changed. Make sure to click all tabs to find out if the change happened only for specific queries, URLs, countries, devices, or search appearances (learn how to create a comparison filter).

Screenshot of Performance report Date range filter comparison

The following chart shows a three month comparison Performance chart. Notice how the drop in traffic is clear when comparing the full line (last three months) to the dotted line (previous three months).

Comparison mode on Performance report showing drop in traffic

Choose the Search type filter on top of the chart and try the different options available. This will help you understand whether the drop you’ve seen happened in web Search, Google Images, or the Video or News tab.

Screenshot of Performance report Search type filter

Click Average position above the chart. In general, you shouldn’t focus too much on your absolute position. Impressions and clicks are ultimately the measure of success for your site. However, if you do see a dramatic, persistent drop in position, try self-assessing your content to gauge if it’s helpful and reliable.

Screenshot of Performance report showing Average position decline

Review the Pages table below the chart to find patterns that might explain where the drop is coming from. For example, one important factor is finding out if the drop happened across the whole site, a group of pages, or even just one very important page in your site. You can do that by comparing the drop period to a similar period, and comparing the pages that lost a significant amount of clicks. Select Clicks Difference to order it based on pages that lost the most traffic.

If it’s a site-wide issue, check the Page indexing report. If the drop only affects a group of pages, use the URL inspection tool to investigate a few pages.

Screenshot of Performance report showing a Page comparison

If you want to go the extra mile, you can use Google Trends to understand whether the drop is a wider trend or if it’s just happening for your site. These changes can be caused by two main factors:

  1. A search interest disruption or a new product. If there are major changes in what and how people search, people may start searching for different queries, or using their devices for different purposes. In addition, if you sell a specific brand online, there might be a new competing product cannibalizing your search queries.
  2. Seasonality. For example, the rhythm of food website shows that food related queries are very seasonal: people search for diets in January, turkey in November, and champagne in December. Different industries have different levels of seasonality.

To analyze trends in different industries, you can use Google Trends, which provides access to a largely unfiltered sample of actual search requests made to Google. It’s anonymized, categorized, and aggregated. This allows Google to display interest in topics from around the globe or down to city-level.

Check the queries that are driving traffic to your website to see if they have clear drops in different times of the year. In the example below, you can see three types of trends (check the data):

  1. Turkey has a strong seasonality, peaking every year in November.
  2. Chicken shows some seasonality, but less accentuated.
  3. Coffee is significantly more stable; it looks like people need it throughout the year.

Screenshot of Google Trends showing trends for turkey, chicken and coffee

You may also want to check some other interesting insights that can help you with your Search traffic:

  • Check top queries in your region and compare them to the queries that you’re getting traffic from, as shown in Search Console’s Performance report. If there are queries missing from your traffic, check if you have content on that subject and make sure it’s being crawled and indexed.
  • Check queries related to important topics. This might surface rising related queries and help you prepare your site for them, for example by adding related content to address those new topics.

Improving SEO with a Search Console bubble chart

Analyzing Search performance data is always a challenge, but even more so when you have plenty of long-tail queries, which are harder to visualize and understand. A bubble chart can help you understand which queries are performing well for your site, and which could be improved.

If you’d like to test the techniques discussed here, you can use this template, connect to your data, and play with the chart settings.

If you haven’t read connecting Search Console to Looker Studio and monitoring Search traffic with Looker Studio, consider checking them out to understand more about what you can do with Search Console in Looker Studio.

A bubble chart is a great visualization when you have multiple metrics and dimensions because it enables you to see relationships and patterns in your data more effectively. In the example shown here, you can see click-through rate (CTR), average position, and clicks for the query and device dimensions in one view.

Elements in the Search Console bubble chart

This section goes into detail on some of the chart elements to clarify what the chart shows, and what it doesn’t.

The bubble chart shown in this page uses the Site Impression table available through the Search Console data source, which includes Search performance data aggregated by site and queries.

There are five customization options in the chart to help you control your data effectively:

  1. Data control: Choose the Search Console property you’d like to analyze.
  2. Date range: Choose the date range you’d like to see in the report; by default you’ll see the last 28 days.
  3. Query: Include or exclude queries to focus on. You can filter your data similar to how you do it in Search Console.
  4. Country: Include or exclude countries.
  5. Device: Include or exclude device categories.

The axes in the chart are average position (y-axis) and site CTR (x-axis). There are three significant transformations in the axes:

  1. Reverse y-axis direction: Since the y-axis shows average position, inverting it means that 1 is at the top. For most charts, the best position is in the top right corner, so it is more intuitive to invert the y-axis when using it to display average position.
  2. Log scale: Using a logarithmic scale for both axes enables you to have a better understanding of queries that are in the extremities of the chart (very low CTR, average position, or both).
  3. Reference lines: The reference line is very helpful to highlight values that are above or below a certain threshold. Looking at the average, median, or a certain percentile can call attention to deviations from the pattern.

Each bubble in the chart represents a single query, with the following style properties:

  • Size: Using the number of clicks as the bubble size helps you see in a glance which queries are driving the bulk of the traffic—the larger the bubble the more traffic the query generates.
  • Color: Using the device category as the bubble color helps you understand the differences between mobile and desktop Search performance. You can use any dimension as the color, but as the number of values increases, the harder it is to recognize patterns.

The goal of this visualization is to help surface query optimization opportunities. The chart shows query performance, where the y-axis represents average position, the x-axis represents CTR the bubble size represents total number of clicks, and the bubble color represents device category.

The red Average dashed reference lines show the average for each of the axes, which split the chart into quadrants, showing four types of query performance. Your quadrants are likely to look different than the one shared in this post; they’ll depend on how your site queries are distributed.

Bubble chart showing four types of query performance

The chart shows four groups of queries, which you can analyze to help you decide where to invest your time when optimizing your Google Search performance.

  1. Top position, high CTR: There’s not much you need to do for those; you’re doing a great job already.
  2. Low position, high CTR: Those queries seem relevant to users; the queries get a high CTR even when ranking lower than the average query on your website. If the query average position moves up, it could have a significant impact on your performance—focus on improving SEO for these queries. For example, a top query in quadrant 2 for a gardening website could be “how to build a wooden shed.” Check if you have a page about this already, and proceed in two ways:
    • If you don’t have a page, consider creating one to centralize all the info you have in the website about the subject.
    • If you do have a page, consider adding content to better address that user need.
  3. Low position, low CTR: When looking at queries with low CTR (both with low and top position), it’s especially interesting to look at the bubble sizes to understand which queries have a low CTR but are still driving significant traffic. While the queries in this quadrant might seem unworthy of your effort, they can be divided into two main groups:
    • Related queries: If the query in question is important to you, it’s a good start to have it appearing in Search already. Prioritize these queries over queries that are not appearing in Search results at all, as they’ll be easier to optimize.
    • Unrelated queries: If your site doesn’t cover content related to this query, maybe it’s a good opportunity to fine tune your content or focus on queries that will bring relevant traffic.
  4. Top position, low CTR: Those queries might have a low CTR for various reasons. Check the largest bubbles to find signs of the following:
    • Your competitors may have structured data markup and are showing up with rich results, which might attract users to click their results instead of yours. Consider optimizing for the most common visual elements in Google Search.
    • You may have optimized, or be “accidentally” ranking, for a query that users are not interested in relation to your site. This might not be an issue for you, in which case you can ignore those queries. If you prefer people not to find you through those queries (for example, they contain offensive words), try to fine-tune your content to remove mentions that could be seen as synonyms or related queries to the one bringing traffic.
    • People may have already found the information they needed, for example your company’s opening hours, address, or phone number. Check the queries that were used and the URLs that contained the information. If one of your website goals is to drive people to your stores, this is working as intended; if you believe that people should visit your website for extra information, you could try to optimize your titles and description to make that clear. See next section for more details.

We haven’t mentioned the device categories because they can be used as additional signs of query performance. For example, suppose some queries are more relevant when people are navigating in the street, trying to find a location; in that case, the query might have a high performance on mobile devices, but a low performance on desktop.

Once you find queries that are worth the time and effort, make sure to optimize or create pages related to those queries.

After you find the queries using the visualization shown in this page, you can create a query filter for specific queries using the Search Console user interface, or create a pivot table using Looker Studio; in both ways, you can check all the pages that are receiving traffic for a specific query. After you know the queries you want to optimize and their related URLs, use the SEO starter guide to optimize your content. Here are some tips:

  • Ensure that your title elements, description meta tags, and alt attributes are descriptive, specific, and accurate.
  • Use heading elements to emphasize important text and help create a hierarchical structure for your content, making it easier for users and search engines to navigate through your document.
  • Think about other words that a user might search for to find a piece of your content, for example, synonyms and related queries. You can use the Keyword Planner provided by Google Ads to help you discover new keyword variations and see the approximate search volume for each keyword. You can also use Google Trends to find ideas from rising topics and queries related to your website.