Traffic tanked, now what?
A sudden drop in traffic can cause a lot of panic and sometimes, rightfully so.
Sounding the alarms when traffic changes suddenly feels like the right thing to do. But there are a lot of reasons why your traffic may drop. Content changes, algorithm updates, template changes, and the list can go on.
It may not be easy to recognize the cause of the decline but we're going to try.
Confirm your traffic did actually decline
First, don't panic, make sure you're looking at the right data.
I prefer to use the Performance report in Google Search Console. You can also use the Traffic Acquisition (for Organic Search) in Google Analytics 4.
There are two ways to look at your traffic.
- Over a period of time
- Comparing date ranges
Over a period of time
Evaluating trends requires a view at the 10,000-foot level.
Google Search Console allows you to select a date range for the last 16 months. This will allow you to see if the decline is recent or if it's been eating away over a longer period.
You'll also want to give yourself enough time to assess if traffic has changed. Sometimes there is just a small drop that recovers in time. That's why I recommend choosing the longest period possible.
Comparing date ranges
It's common to compare this week to last week, this month to last month, or even this quarter to last quarter. But this wouldn't be a good method since you could be comparing a normally busy period with another.
You'll want to avoid comparisons such as Nov 20th - Nov 27th (which includes BFCM) compared to the week prior. However I don't recommend looking week to week or day by day as your sample size may be too small.
When evaluating traffic, I recommend looking at the current period compared to the same period last year. For example, Oct-Dec 2023 compared to Oct-Dec 2022.
Finding which pages dropped
If possible, check where the drop comes from. When looking at the Performance tab in Search Console, set your compare dates and select Apply. In the table, sort by Clicks for the older date range and then look for a negative number in Clicks Difference.
From here, pay attention to the pages that dropped. Should they have dropped? If you've removed a page from your website, then the current period could be zero clicks which makes sense.
Knowing if it's a handful of pages or every page on your site will change the action you may take.
Causes of organic Search traffic drops
I usually see 4 different types of declines in organic traffic.
- Waves of traffic
- Steady decline over time
- Sudden drop, then recovers
- Plummet to the bottom
1. Waves of traffic
When we see waves of traffic in our reporting, this usually is a sign of seasonality or routine.
For example, people search for diets in January, not in November. You'd most likely see waves of traffic with dips around holidays or vacations.
If you sell to other businesses, you may see waves like this due to the weekend. This is a form of seasonality where shopping on the weekend isn't routine for most businesses.
As long as the waves are consistent year over year, waves usually don't require any heroic action.
2. Steady decline over time
A steady decline in traffic over time is usually a change in Google's algorithm, competitors pushing you down the search results, or a change in customer queries and behavior.
This is the one that sneaks up on us and is often the hardest to overcome.
Algorithmic changes are often ones you can't control. Sometimes you do everything right and still don't see Google's changes in your favor. You can reference these Google Updates with your decline. If you were hit by a Google algorithm update, expect to see traffic changes within a month or so of the beginning and end of Google's update.
With that said, Google wants you to provide content that is genuinely helpful to your customers. If you find yourself not fairing well with Google's updates start by taking a closer look at your content.
If you had backlinks from another site and they removed their backlink, this could also cause a steady decline over time.
Trendy products can see steady declines as the trend fades. At its peak, Tab Cola was very popular as their one-calorie diet soda, but has since been discontinued. Thus we wouldn't expect to see search queries for Tab Cola anymore.
Pay attention to what your customers are saying. When they contact customer support, are you hearing a disconnect between the benefits of your product and what customers are asking for?
If you notice a decline, it could be that your content is missing the mark.
Going back to the early parts of this article, determine if it was a specific page or sitewide decline. If it was sitewide, you may have been hit with an algorithm update. Either way, look at the content on that page or your site as a whole. Honestly evaluate what you can improve it to fit more in line with your customer's needs. Additionally, if you haven't updated or written new content in a while, I'd recommend adding new content to your site.
3. Sudden drop, then recovers
In most cases, a sudden drop in traffic, and then it recovers, is a reporting glitch. Google makes mistakes just like the rest of us and sometimes, their reporting has hiccups. Reference Google's anomalies documentation for Search Console to cross reference known reporting issues.
Of course, if you made a change on your website and then put it back, this could be another reason to see a graph like this.
Generally, there is no action needed here. It's likely a simple hiccup and not worth the energy.
4. Plummet to the bottom
When you see a severe drop in traffic to the point where it completely drops off, there could be a few causes.
Manual Action or Security Concerns
A likely culprit would be if Google issued a manual action against your site. A manual action is usually given when you violate Google's policies and Google removes some or all of your pages from Search results.
Another cause is security issues, but these are few and far between on Shopify sites. Not impossible though especially if you're adding code found on the internet somewhere or hired a bad developer.
Search Console has a tab for Security & Manual Actions that you should check regularly.
I've seen some developers not familiar with Shopify remove all URLs from indexing by accident. It happens! Make sure you take regular backups of your theme anytime someone edits the theme code so you can revert changes quickly if needed.
If you recently moved your site, it's possible to see a significant drop to the bottom. When you change your URLs, especially if you don't set up redirects, Google has to reindex all those pages.
Check the Security & Manual Actions tab in Search Console. Make sure your sitemap is valid in Search Console. If you notice certain pages have no organic traffic, make sure you want them hidden from search engines.
As you can see, there could be a lot of reasons why there's a sudden drop in traffic. It's best to look into any potential issues early on, but recognize it may take time for you to see genuine issues.
Generally, I recommend looking at a few things some of which are within your control and some are not.
- Which pages saw a drop in traffic and what can you do to improve them?
- Is it expected seasonality changes?
- Did marketing efforts change? (ads, SEO, social, content, email marketing, etc)
- Did anything technical change on your website? (new theme, new code)
- Did content change on your website?
- Did conversions hold steady?
- Are there website errors?
- Are there recent Google algorithm updates?
- Did Search Console report outages making it look like a drop but really nothing changed?
- Do you see any manual actions from Google?
- Are you sure it's not just a tracking error?
Really it's not a simple answer so you have to look at each area to see what changed.
I get this is a lot to take in and the ideas here may not cover every scenario. Hopefully it at least points you in the right direction.