How to Diagnose and Fix Rankings Drops and Fluctuations

Aljaž Fajmut
Growth
October 16, 2019
7 Minutes Read

So, you finally got onto page one of Google and even climbed to position 6! And then dropped back down to page two. What gives? Rankings drop, that’s what. The good news is, they’re not as panic-inducing as they need to be.

Rankings Drops

Here at Nightwatch, we get asked a few questions from our users, and one of the most popular is how to deal with rankings drops and fluctuations.

Rankings drops and fluctuations are naturally concerning. When your page(s) drop down a full page, it’s hardly a cause for celebration. It flat-out sucks, and you want to rectify the problem as soon as possible.

And it’s hardly surprising that we get asked by our customers why it’s happening. Is it down to the search engines? Is it down to their SEO strategy? Is it down to the SEO tool itself? Has Google changed its algorithm again?

Here’s the thing: Rankings drops happen. The main thing is to keep cool, figure out why they happen — and then fix the problem. With your trusty tool by your side, that’s easy to do.

In this article, Nightwatch covers everything you need to know about rankings drops and fluctuations, from diagnosis to solutions.

What are rankings drops and fluctuations and why do they happen?

Rankings drops and fluctuations are a part of life now that you’ve got a website. If you’re looking to rank for a specific keyword, they’re going to happen to you at some point, and they’re not usually a cause for alarm.

A rankings drop is self-explanatory — it’s when a keyword page you were ranking for suddenly drops down a few positions. Sometimes, it drops down a whole page — or drops out of SERP. Not cool.

Before you get too worried, though — don’t panic. I know that’s easier said than done, but you need to keep a cool head when you first notice a rankings drop and take a step back. Grab yourself a coffee and then assess whether there really is a rankings drop issue going on here. ☕️

See, sometimes a change in rankings only appears to be a change in rankings. What’s going on might not be a rankings drop at all, but it could be that your rankings tracker (such as Nightwatch) hasn’t localized properly yet.

Or it could be that dear old Google is carrying out one of their rankings experiments.

To find out if you’ve really got cause for concern on your hands, ask yourself a few questions:

❓ Has organic traffic drifted off? Compare and contrast the traffic you’ve been receiving this past week with the traffic you were receiving the previous week or month. Is there a clear and sustained drop?

❓ Are you experiencing a significant amount of drop for a particular keyword? In other words, have you dropped down a few positions?

On the other hand, if you’re experiencing sudden rankings drop for a bunch of keywords, it could be that you’ve incurred a manual penalty. To diagnose a manual penalty, open up your Google Search Console and head over to Manual Actions.

Google Search Console Manual Actions
To diagnose a manual penalty, open up your Google Search Console and head over to Manual Actions

❓ Could there be a legit reason for why the search volume has drifted? (for example, did it occur over a public holiday, when people were otherwise busy?) If your target audience was busy with other things (Christmas, perhaps) it can explain a drop in search volume. Again, wait a few weeks to see if the drop in traffic is prolonged, or if it was just a temporary blip.

❓ What does Google Search Console tell you? Take a look at your Search Analytics to see the average position, impressions, and clicks for the keyword page you’re concerned about. Does the data corroborate with the data in Nightwatch? Or is it wildly different?

❓ And about your Nightwatch account — what kind of rankings change is it showing? Are the fluctuations sustained? Has your ranking for a particular keyword dropped off for a few weeks already?

It’s an excellent idea to monitor your keywords for a few days or weeks after you suspect a rankings drop to make sure it’s not just a temporary blip.

Typically, more fluctuation happens lower down in the search results. There’s still fluctuation and drops in higher results, but it’s less erratic and excessive.

Rankings Fluctuation
Fluctuation often happens lower down in search results. The keyword "how to find remote employees" dropped from position 49 to 88, and then dropped out of SERP for good

And while fluctuations are less common with high-volume keywords, you’ll find that they occur more often with niche and new keywords. For example, emerging trends can fall foul of ranking changes. Keywords will be created to satisfy the changing needs to a particular market, and they’ll cover service definitions, products and so on that seemingly came from nowhere, and which fluctuate in the SERPs.

Moreover, you’ll usually find that your rankings might fluctuate when you first gain rankings in the top 3, 4, or 5 spots. After a few months of sitting there, you should find that fluctuations and drops begin to subside or even stop altogether.

For example, if you've been consistently ranking for a keyword in, say, position 1 for two months, it’s really uncommon for you to then see a load of rankings fluctuation for that URL. Your position might change once or twice, but it shouldn’t be changing much more than that.

It’s also worth pointing out that ranking for temporal topics — such as hot news stories — can lead to a lot of fluctuation.

There are some reasons for these drops and fluctuations, from algorithm changes to website changes; from changes in search behavior to click-through rate changes.

The main thing to bear in mind is that it’s never your tools fault when your rankings fluctuate. With a precise plan of action, there are things you can do to bring your rankings back up again — and solidify them in the position you want.

How to fix rankings drop?

First of all, you need to identify why your rankings have dropped. In this section, we take a look at the possible reasons your rankings have dropped and how you can rectify the problem — and possibly even prevent it from happening again in the future.

The search engines algorithm changed

Google updates its algorithm all the time — literally. Sometimes, it will update its algorithm a few times over the course of a single day. While Google has rolled out some major algorithm changes in the past — such as Hummingbird and Panda — most of its changes are minor.

However, an algorithm update can have devastating effects on your ranking if you fall foul of it.

See, there’s always a reason for an algorithm update. The Panda update was designed to give precedence to unique, valuable content, while the Penguin update sought to punish black-hat SEO strategies. Google has also rolled out algorithm updates that target over-optimized sites.

Because each update is different, then, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to recovering your website if you experience a rankings drop in the event of an algorithm change. But because Google rewards websites that improve the user experience, you just need to keep pumping out content that offers depth and value to the reader.

You also need to optimize your website so that the UX is awesome. This means optimizing your website for site speed, nailing your metadata, ensuring there is contextual relevance between your keywords and the actual content, and generally employing white hat SEO techniques. Basically, you have to do the right thing.

Essentially, the more value you offer to the end reader, and the more you focus on producing top quality content and amazing user experience, the more you won’t fall foul of an algorithm change. Thus, you can be almost certain that an algorithm change isn’t the reason your ranking has dropped.

It’s also worth mentioning Google’s mobile-first indexing, an algorithm update that was rolled out in 2018. If a website isn’t deemed mobile-friendly, it will drop down the SERPs and be replaced by a website that does provide a solid mobile experience.

Google Mobile First Indexing
Google's mobile-first indexing update

Since the implementation of mobile-first indexing, the mobile version of any website is now the primary version in Google’s eyes. This means you need to have a mobile-friendly website to ensure consistent performance.

In addition to covering basic SEO items, such as page speed and structured data, you need to alter your metadata so that your keyword strategy is optimized for mobile and desktop. It’s also good practice to create a mobile-specific property for your website in Google Search Console so that you can monitor its performance.

Another thing to take care of is your canonical tags and XML sitemaps. If you use separate URL structures for your mobile and desktop sites, you need to create a mobile-specific XML sitemap.

If you suspect an algorithm change but aren’t sure, this free Website Penalty Indicator tool will help you find out as it shows you whether a drop in organic traffic coincided with an algorithm change. You can also use it to discover if a manual penalty (as mentioned above) is to blame.

Your competitor has overtaken you

Whatever keyword you’re ranking for, there’s someone else ranking for it, too. Sometimes you might outrank them — but sometimes they’ll outrank you.

If you’ve been outranked this time by a competitor, you’ll see a marginal fluctuation. Maybe you’ve dropped one or two places. But it’s okay because there’s still time to overtake them again.

There are three main reasons why a competitor might have overtaken you:

  • Their link profile is stronger than yours
  • Their on-page optimisation is better than yours
  • Their content is better than yours

Using your Nightwatch account you can check who's competing for the same keywords as you.

SERP Preview in Nightwatch
When in doubt, check Nightwatch SERP Preview to see the actual SERP page for a particular day

You can also use Nightwatch backlinks tracker to discover where your competitors are getting their links from (if you add their website as their own). Ergo, you can find which high-domain websites they’re grabbing links from, and you can then reverse engineer what they’re doing. You can put together a solid blogger outreach campaign that targets the same websites they’ve been targeting — but with better content.

If, on the other hand, it turns out that your competitors have optimized their page better (their website loads quicker, their metadata is better optimized et cetera), you’ll need to make a few tweaks to your own page to boost your rankings. This means optimizing everything, from your images to your metadata to your site speed. For more information, check out this resource on SEO on-page optimization.

Finally, if it turns out that your rival is ranking better than you for a particular keyword simply because they’ve produced better content, take a look at it. How is it stronger than yours? Does it offer more depth, more value? Have they used infographics? Is it more research-heavy? Is it much longer? Are the images of a higher quality?

If it’s ‘yes’ on all counts, it’s time to start producing better content. This means increasing your word length so that you’re able to offer more value and more actionable advice to your audience. Cite statistics and data. Add infographics and put the focus on creating the best piece of content imaginable that your audience wants to read, engage with, share and actually use.

As mentioned, Google is on the lookout for valuable content that benefits the end user. And as research has shown, long-form content consistently ranks better than short form. This isn’t just because it’s longer — it’s because longer content (theoretically) offers more value to the end user.

You changed your own page

Making changes to a page you’re ranking for has the potential to upset your positioning in the SERPs. How so? Because Google might decide that it’s no longer as relevant to the target keyword anymore.

Google is working hard to improve the user experience as much as possible. If it decides that a change to your content means your page no longer satisfies a particular user query as much as it did, it might rank you down.

Be careful whenever you make any changes to your pages. While content updates that make your page more relevant and better suited to solving the user query are fine, adjusting things like the URL, your H1, and H2s — or lowering the keyword density for your target keyword — can really upset the applecart.

You changed your URL

Changing URLs is risky business. Sure, it’s sometimes necessary, but you’re always playing a dangerous game. If you do it incorrectly, you won’t see a rankings drop — you’ll see a rankings plummet.

See, when you change your URLs you’ll not only compromise your SEO ranking, but you’ll also lose referring site traffic and email clicks.

Is it really worth it? That’s up to you to decide. Changing anything in your URL, be it an underscore or capitalization, can have devastating consequences, so you need to weigh your decision heavily. Only change an URL when you really have to.

And when you do change your URL, you have to redirect it. A 301 redirect will create a seamless transition from an old site to a new one. Here’s a resource on how to do just that.

Make a note of any changes in your Nightwatch notes, too.

Nightwatch Notes
You can record of any changes in Notes

You’ve lost some great backlinks

The more high-quality backlinks you have, the higher you (theoretically) will rank.

But while you might be celebrating each top-notch link you’ve landed in the past, what you might not realize is that you’ve lost some of them in recent months. This could be because a website linking to you has closed, been penalized or even removed the link. If they’ve removed the link, you could reach out to them. To make sure you don’t keep losing links like this, just work on establishing stronger relationships with bloggers and websites in the future.

It’s essential that you use the backlinks tracker in Nightwatch to monitor your backlinks. Not just this, but you simply can’t rest on your laurels when it comes to link building. Instead, see it as a continuous process. Create a small link building team that dedicates themselves each week to acquiring new high-quality links. This way, whenever you do lose a link, you’re gaining more — perhaps even better links — to replace them.

Backlinks Segments Graph
You can visualize backlink segments on a Nightwatch graph to review your progress

FAQ recap

💡 What are rankings drops and fluctuations and why do they happen?

When a keyword that was ranking pretty steadily suddenly drops down a few positions in the SERPs, you might have what is known as a rankings drop on your hands.

The good news is that there’s a reason why rankings drop happens. Once you’ve identified the reason, you can then work on implementing a solution.

💡 When are rankings drops more likely to happen?

Rankings tend to fluctuate more during the first few weeks after you’ve gained the top 3, 4, or 5 spots. If you’ve been sitting there for a few months, things should settle down.

Rankings drop are also more likely to occur with low-volume keywords, as well as niche and new keywords. Ranking for hot topics can also cause fluctuation.

💡 How can I fix rankings drop?

The first thing you need to do is identify why rankings drop has occurred. There are a few possible reasons:

  • The search engines algorithm changed
  • Your competitor has overtaken you
  • You changed your page
  • You changed your URL
  • You’ve lost some great backlinks

💡 If the search engines algorithm changed, what can I do?

Because search engines change their algorithms often and for different reasons, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to this. The best thing to do is to carry out sensible, white-hat SEO techniques at all times so that you stay on the algorithm’s good side.

💡 My competitor has overtaken me. What can I do?

First, figure out why they’ve overtaken you. It could be that their link profile is stronger, their on-page optimization is better, or their content is more extensive. Then, work out a strategy that combats either problem.

For example, if their link profile is stronger, you’ll need to use Nightwatch to help you spy on their links. Find out where they’re getting their high-quality links from and then reverse-engineer their tactics.

💡 I changed my page! What should I do?

Whenever you make changes to your page, try not to adjust your URL, H1, or H2s. Also, make sure your content continues to be relevant to the keyword you’re ranking for.

It’s also a good idea not to lower your target keyword density.

💡 I changed the URL. Now what?

Redirect it. Here’s a resource on how to implement a 301 redirect.

And from now on, only change an URL when you absolutely have to.

💡 I’ve lost some awesome backlinks. Can I get them back?

Probably not. From now on, work on establishing strong relationships with authoritative bloggers and websites so that you don’t lose links again.

Remember that link building should also be seen as relationship building. The stronger the relationship is with your link prospects, the less likely it is a website will trade your link in for another.

Stick to white-hat techniques, too. If you indulge in black-hat practices or gain links from PBNs, you’ll lose links — and it will be your fault.

Final thoughts

So, rankings drop happens. But it doesn’t need to be the end of the world.

Provided you remain calm and diagnose the problem — be it an algorithm change or a lost backlink — you can then fix the issue.

What’s essential is that you stick to white-hat SEO techniques at all times. If you do this, you probably won’t fall foul of an algorithm change, and there’s a good chance you won’t lose links. Thus, you’re minimizing fluctuations.

Use common sense, too. Don’t change your URLs unless you have to, for example. As you go along, you’ll get better at SEO. Rankings drop might still happen but hopefully, it will happen less and will be easier to fix.

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