One of the most asked questions in our site reviews is “What happened to my rankings!?”. Although we have the possibility of using all kinds of great tools to analyze your website, this question remains one of the toughest ones to answer. Google isn’t always clear about why some sites rank better than others. In this article, I’d like to illustrate how we go about found drops in rankings or traffic, by describing a case we once dealt with.
Please note that we don’t offer the website reviews mentioned here anymore. We do offer SEO courses and plugins to help you optimize your website! If you’re interested in more real-life examples of SEO in practice, check out our Ask Yoast Case Studies!
Analyzing the drop
Perhaps something happened to your website at a certain point that caused your rankings to drop or traffic to plummet. Using for instance Google Analytics, you should try to pinpoint the date of the change. The tool we usually use for that, is Searchmetrics.com. Based upon collected data, so not that useful for newer sites, Searchmetrics tells you at what point things changed. Here’s a real life example:
That simply hurts. This website took a hit around May 18, perhaps a bit earlier already. Luckily, they were able to gain back a lot of their traffic, but things haven’t been quite like before.
What caused the drop
What we do in this case, is align the graphs in Searchmetrics with Google’s algorithm updates. Usually we turn to Moz, as their overview is accurate and has some convenient links to articles about that drop.
Panda 4.0 (#26) — May 19, 2014
Google confirmed a major Panda update that likely included both an algorithm update and a data refresh. Officially, about 7.5% of English-language queries were affected. While Matt Cutts said it began rolling out on 5/20, our data strongly suggests it started earlier.
Hm, that sounds about right. Right? There was a Payday Loan update on the 16th as well, so let’s not jump to conclusions. What could have triggered a Panda penalty in this case?
The website at hand is packed with news, has built up quite some authority over the years and its link profile looks awesome (see image on the right). In MajesticSEO, which we use alongside Searchmetrics for deeper insights on backlinks, that deep purple color indicates loads of linking domains. One might argue on the trust flow of these sites, but a lot of these circle around 20-30 and that seems alright (there is always room for improvement, right). This shouldn’t have anything to do with that drop.
Panda is about quality. So we checked a number of things, like content quality, design quality, code quality. All seemed right. At that moment, we were tearing our hair out and drinking heavily, as we just could not figure out what happened.
Just the other day, I was at Conversion Hotel and an obvious subject was ghost buttons. Don’t use these, they’re scary. The website we were analyzing might have had a penalty because of another bad spirit, being ghost banners. Google is a machine. Google recognizes certain sized elements on your website, that have a link and might perhaps be a banner. Think along the lines of a popular posts section, a list of product images or (and even worse) links to related articles on other websites. If your website is packed with these, Google could quite easily mistake these for banners.
Does this mean changing something like a sidebar would help you get rid of that possible Panda penalty? That isn’t guaranteed. Too many factors we can’t influence might play a part in this. There is no number one ranking guarantee. You have a part in that optimization, and Google has a part in picking up on changes. So give it your very best go. If you need more help or want to learn more, have a look at the (free and paid) courses in Yoast Academy!