How to Recover From a Google Ranking Drop in 14 Steps
Google ranking drops can hurt your business a lot.
A single ranking drop can take your hard-earned organic traffic from booming to virtually non-existent:
What’s even worse, a drop in rankings will have massive roll-on effects on other parts of your business, from leads and conversions to sales.
If you’ve seen a drop in your organic search visibility, don’t panic — there are plenty of things you can do to bounce back and climb your way back to the top again. The key is to take a step back, figure out the cause, then plan the road to recovery.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- Why Google rankings change
- A step-by-step guide to pinpoint and fix common issues
- How long it’ll take to move up in rankings again
Let’s get started.
Why do Google rankings change?
If you’ve suffered a Google ranking drop, the first thing you need to do is stop, step back, and take a look at the bigger picture. In other words, you need to figure out why your rankings changed before moving on to how to fix it.
There are a few reasons why your website might experience a dramatic Google ranking drop. These range from changes in Google’s algorithm, which affects the way pages are indexed, to losing valuable backlinks to your website or receiving a manual penalty from Google.
Below, we take a look at the most common reasons why Google rankings change.
Google updated its algorithm
Google is constantly updating its algorithm to provide the most relevant search results for its users. Large-scale changes, such as the Page Experience Update or Panda, occur once every few years and can affect as much as 10% of the entire web’s rankings. However, Google also rolls out core algorithm updates every month or quarter, which may also have an impact on rankings.
Here’s an example of what happened to one website after Penguin in 2012:
Image source: Web Site Advantage
Check to see if any known Google updates line up with your rankings drop. If you notice a correlation between the date of an algorithm update and a dip in your search visibility, a Google update may be to blame.
Your website received a manual penalty from Google
If you experienced a very sudden and dramatic rankings drop, it could be because your website was manually penalised by Google. Manual penalties happen when a human reviewer has looked at a site and found a website isn’t complying with Google guidelines. They can be either partial matches, which apply to specific pages on your website, or site-wide matches that affect your entire site.
Manual penalties are fairly common: in fact, the search engine giant issues a massive 400,000 manual actions every month.
So how do you know if you’ve been hit by a manual penalty? Simple. Take a look in Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools). If you’ve been hit with a manual action, you’ll see a message like this:
Google will also provide you with the next steps on how to resolve the issue, and give you the opportunity to request a review once your website has been updated.
You made changes to your website
Refreshed your website design recently? Migrated to a new server? These big changes can have a big impact on your rankings if the correct site migration procedures haven’t been put in place.
Google crawls the web using bots, then compiles those pages in a central index that it uses to respond to user search queries. When a website has been migrated or updated without putting redirects in place, search engine crawlers will essentially treat the new website as a ‘duplicate’ of the old one — and if there’s one thing Google hates, it’s duplicate content.
The same goes for structural changes, such as changes to your site navigation. If a page isn’t where Google expects it to be, it could wreak havoc on that page’s rankings.
It’s not just massive changes either. Smaller updates can have a run-on effect on your rankings, particularly when a few have been made back to back.
Let’s say you’ve refreshed your website with a new photo shoot but forgot to compress the images. Your page takes longer to load, which, in turn, drives more users away. Over time, this type of user behaviour signals to Google that your website isn’t delivering a quality user experience to audiences and your rankings drop.
You lost valuable backlinks that were contributing to your domain authority
High-quality backlinks are a signal to Google that a website is a trustworthy and authoritative source of information for a specific topic or industry. Unsurprisingly, when you lose links, it hurts your rankings — significantly.
Lost backlinks are usually the byproduct of a URL change, either at the website structure level or the individual page level. For example, you might have a blog post with the URL /blog/best-cold-brew-recipe, which has racked up hundreds of backlinks from authoritative websites. Later down the track, you update the URL to /blog/best-cold-brew-2021, but all of the backlinks are still pointing to the former URL. Without the correct redirects in place, all of that link juice that you built up to the first URL will be directing users (and Google) to a page with nothing on it.
Other reasons for losing backlinks include the website making updates and accidentally or deliberately removing the URL, or replacing the link with a different link entirely (such as a link to an internal page or to a competitor’s site).
Your competitors improved their rankings
Sometimes, the cause of a Google rankings drop is simple: you’ve been outranked by the competition. Your competitors may have been investing more in their SEO or experienced a surge in backlinks as a result of PR or social media activity.
In this instance, your rankings drop won’t be as pronounced as with an algorithmic update or a manual penalty. You might have lost the top position for certain keywords or for certain pages, rather than disappearing from search results entirely.
14 Steps to recover from a Google ranking drop
We’ve covered the why behind a Google rankings drop. Now, we’ll take a deep dive into how to pinpoint what’s hurting your rankings — and what you can do to fix it.
1. Make sure your rankings have actually dropped
Before you go out and start making changes on your website, it’s a good idea to first verify that your rankings dropped.
What does this mean?
Simply put, search rankings can fluctuate for a number of reasons. There might be a technical issue with your rankings tracker tool, or it might be a blip that will naturally correct itself over the course of a few days.
Follow these steps to check if your rankings drop is legitimate:
- Review your SEO rankings using different rank tracking tools. Cross-reference your Google Search Console data (a.k.a. data from your Google Webmaster Tools account) with Google Analytics and any other web tools you might be using. If your rankings drop is only showing up in one tool, it’s a sign that the tool could be playing up — not your SERP rankings.
- Compare organic traffic trends to other periods. Is the change in traffic more noticeable than the same period last week, last month, or last year? You may have natural peaks and troughs in your organic traffic trends that aren’t associated with SEO rankings: for example, it might be a quieter period of the year or a long weekend.
- Wait and see. It’s tempting to want to react as soon as you notice your rankings dropped, but resist the urge. Observe your traffic trends across multiple tools over several days to monitor the impact. You only have a real issue on your hands if you have a sustained search rankings drop over the course of multiple days or weeks.
2. Check your website is still indexed
If you’ve verified that your SEO rankings drop is genuine, it’s time to move on to the next step: checking that your website is still being indexed.
Run a quick domain name query in Google by typing in site:domain-name like so:
If your own site is still showing up in search results, that’s a good start. It means Google can still find and index your pages, and the cause of your rankings drop might be due to factors like competitors, backlink issues, or shifts in user behaviour.
On the other hand, if a lot of pages are missing, it might be a sign that you have a manual penalty or that there are some issues with your technical SEO.
Finally, if your website has disappeared off search entirely, it might be due to an unintentional robots.txt block. Hop on to Google Search Console and use the robots.txt checker feature to make sure everything is working correctly.
Address any errors immediately, and your website should be indexed again in a few days.
3. Review the scope of the drop
How widespread is the drop on your website? Is it confined to a few pages or is it site-wide? Understanding the breadth and depth of your rankings drop will help narrow down the issue and the impact.
Delve into your rank tracking and web analytics tools to scope the drop, and list out the following in a spreadsheet:
- Which search queries and clusters have been affected
- Their former ranking, their current ranking, and the difference between the two SEO rankings
- The URL that was ranking
- The type of content that was ranking (for example, a landing page or a blog)
- Any other comments that may be helpful, like any changes to the page or any rich snippets that it was ranking for
Here’s a great example from ContentKing:
This simple act of listing out the changes will help you establish any trends or patterns. You might notice that your Google ranking dropped dramatically on a specific section on your website, that your rankings dropped for a specific type of content, or even that your SEO rankings dipped for a cluster of the same keywords.
4. Check Google Search Console for any manual actions
If your Google ranking dropped dramatically (>10 positions) for a massive amount of keywords overnight, it’s likely you’ve been hit with a manual penalty.
As we touched on earlier, manual penalties occur when a human reviewer deems that your site isn’t compliant with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. According to Google themselves:
“We strongly encourage you to pay very close attention to the Quality guidelines, which outline some of the illicit practices that may lead to a site being removed entirely from the Google index or otherwise affected by an algorithmic or manual spam action. If a site has been affected by a spam action, it may no longer show up in results on Google.com or on any of Google’s partner sites.”
Some of the most common manual penalties include:
- Unnatural inbound links to your website, such as spammy links that have been purchased or links that have been obtained from schemes
- Unnatural links from your website, which have either been sold to another site owner or part of a spammy backlinks exchange
- Pure spam black hat SEO techniques, like auto-generated content or cloaking
- User-generated spam in the comments section of your blog pages
- Thin or scraped content that’s designed to manipulate Google search results
- A website hack
- Keyword stuffing, either on a specific page or across the entire website
- Hidden text that’s visible to search engines but not to readers
- Sneaky redirects to take visitors to a page other than the one they landed on
- Cloaking pages by presenting one version to search engines and another to browsers
- Hosting your website on a spammy platform
- Violation of the Google News and Discovery Policy
- Issues with structured data mark-up
- A mismatch between the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) version and the non-AMP version of your website
- Pages that have been created with malicious intent
To check if you’ve been penalised, log on to Google Search Console and navigate to Security and Manual Actions > Manual Actions:
Here, you’ll see a list of any manual actions that have been issued against your website, as well as details on the issue and the pages that have been affected.
Once you know why your website has been penalised, you can address the issue and submit a reconsideration request to Google.
5. Check for any Google algorithm updates
Unless you regularly keep up with Google’s algorithm updates, chances are you won’t even know when one has taken place. Google rolls out multiple updates every year — and one of these could be responsible if your Google ranking dropped dramatically.
Take a look at different SEO news platforms to get up to speed on any recent Google algorithm updates:
- Moz’s list of Google algorithm changes
- Brodie Clark’s SERP Feature Notes
- Search Engine Journal
- Search Engine Watch
Look for any correlations between your ranking drop and a Google algorithm update. Keep in mind that these updates can affect your website even if you only employ white hat SEO tactics.
It’s also worth checking the Reddit SEO community and Twitter to see if anyone is talking about new changes that haven’t been picked up by the major SEO news publications. Trust us — if there’s a trend or change in search, social media is the first place you’ll hear about it.
If you do believe your Google rankings drop is linked to an algorithm update, the next steps are fairly straightforward. Read through the notes to get an idea of what changed in the update, then take the necessary steps needed to resolve these issues on your website.
A final word of advice: rankings tend to shift around a lot after a Google algorithm update, before returning to normal. The best approach is to wait a few days and see if your rankings naturally stabilise before going into disaster mode.
6. See if your competitors are outranking you
Getting outranked by a competitor is both a good and a bad thing. On the upside, your site hasn’t been penalised by Google. However, it does mean that you’re losing out on valuable SEO traffic and sales.
You’ll know if your competitors are outranking you because you’ll typically only see a slight drop in rankings for specific keywords — even if you’re seeing a significant change in traffic.
The easiest way to check if you’re being outranked is to run a search for your target keyword. Look at the results: have your competitors moved up a few spots or is there an entirely new player in the game? Compare their content to yours, then find a way to make your content better by adding additional value, creating new content, or building high-quality backlinks back to the page.
7. Pinpoint any on-page issues
Your website’s SEO boils down to three key pillars: on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO. When the content or formatting of your pages change, this can have a big effect on your rankings in Google’s search results.
Let’s say you’ve added more videos and images to a blog post. These pieces of content may have brought additional value to your readers but they could have also slowed down loading speed significantly (which is a big ranking factor for Google).
Here’s another example. You (or someone on your team) has updated a blog post with the latest industry news or trends. However, in doing so, you removed the heading tags, title tag and meta description — all of which play a role in where your site lands in search.
Crawl your website using your SEO tool and look out for any issues with your meta data, headings, and body content. Make sure each page ticks all of the best practices for on-page SEO, including:
- Title tags and descriptions to help crawlers understand what your page is about
- Headings and sub-headings to break up content into readable sections
- Unique and relevant body content that’s optimised for your target ranking keywords
- Relevant internal links and external links to other pages
- Alt tags on images for Google Image Search
Take this opportunity to run a site speed test as well using one of Google’s own SEO tools, Google’s Page Speed Insights. PageSpeed Insights will analyse your website and generate a report on the speed of your website on desktop and mobile, along with recommendations on where there’s room for improvement.
8. Look for lost links
Lost backlinks can be the cause of a small drop in rankings or a steep decline, depending on how many links you lost and the quality of each link.
The key to recovering from this one is to start by figuring out exactly how many links you lost, and from which websites. Use ‘Lost Links’ report in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer to check the total number of links you’ve lost for a certain page over the past 90 days, as well as the reason why you lost them:
Keep in mind that there will usually be a delay before these applications pick up when you lose links. If you don’t see any changes in your link profile, check back in a few days to see if any lost links have been added.
Once you know which links you’ve lost, you can either contact the publication to get those lost backlinks reinstated or look to get new links to compensate for the old ones.
9. Observe any changes in user behaviour
Google is always trying to show its users the most relevant result for their search query. If it thinks your website isn’t delivering the best experience possible and answering a user’s search intent, it’ll bump you in search rankings for another website that does.
Google’s Page Experience Update is a prime example of how much the search engine values the overall user experience. In 2020, Google introduced Core Web Vitals as a way of measuring three aspects of the user experience — loading, interactivity, and visual stability — as part of their ranking factors.
The link between user experience and SEO is a whole topic in and of itself. However, you can get an idea of any changes in user behaviour by looking at core metrics, such as:
- Click-through rates to your search engine results in Google Search Console
- Overall average bounce rate and/or average bounce rate for the affected pages
- Time on site and time on page
If you do notice any significant changes, dig deeper to understand why. Is it because your page isn’t relevant to the people who are landing there? Do you have an issue with site navigation or internal link structure? Are your title tags and meta descriptions compelling enough to get people to click through?
10. Check your PPC campaigns
Paid results are given priority over organic results in Google — and sometimes your PPC campaigns can cannibalise your organic results and lead to an SEO rankings drop.
When you appear as a paid result and an organic result in Google, your ads might end up stealing the lion’s share of traffic because they show up first. While the visitors are still ending up on your website at end of the day, this shift in traffic distribution can have drastic effects on your overall marketing ROI as you’ll be spending for clicks that you could get for free.
Figure out if your PPC campaigns are responsible for the rankings drop by comparing your target keywords with those that you rank well for in organic search. If you have any overlap between the two, pause the PPC campaign or divert the budget to other keywords. This way, you’ll see an uplift in your rankings AND bring more visitors to your website.
11. Test your website’s mobile-friendliness
Almost half of all traffic comes from mobile devices. Search engines are increasingly prioritising websites that deliver a great mobile experience, particularly for those users who are searching for information on their phones.
While not having a mobile-friendly website won’t kill your rankings altogether, they may be responsible for an SEO rankings drop on mobile devices. Run the Google Mobile-Friendly Test to see how your website performs on phones and tablets, then implement any changes to recover and improve your ranking.
12. Look out for technical SEO issues
We’ve already mentioned on-page SEO and off-page SEO as potential reasons behind a dramatic decline in rankings. If you don’t have any issues in either department, your SEO rankings drop issue could be due to something else entirely: technical SEO.
Start by diagnosing any on-site and off-site technical SEO issues. These might include things like:
- Thin or duplicate content on your website
- Issues with crawlability and indexability
- Issues with your preferred domain
- You don’t have SSL installed
- You haven’t submitted your XML sitemap
- You haven’t properly signalled international content
- There are broken links or images throughout your site
- Orphan pages without any links to other pages on your site
- Multiple H1 tags in a single page
- Incorrect or missing redirects
Run a technical audit using an SEO tool like SEMrush, Ahrefs, or a built-in WordPress SEO tool. Take stock of what needs to be updated and fix your website accordingly.
13. Consult with your SEO team
Whether they’re in-house, a consultant or an SEO agency, your SEO team should be your partners in addressing, fixing, and recovery from a Google ranking drop. Speak to them as soon as you notice the issue and advise them of any changes you’ve made. They will be able to help diagnose the issue (if you haven’t already) and ensure you have a smooth road to recovery.
At the same time, you should be receiving regular updates from your SEO team around any website changes or changes to your SEO strategies. If your agency isn’t being transparent with you on what they’re doing to achieve rankings, this could lead to problems down the line, such as a Google penalty.
14. Monitor your rankings
After you’ve taken all the actions necessary to pinpoint and fix the issue behind your SEO rankings drop, it’s time for the final step. Monitor your rankings over the coming weeks to review whether your changes have made an impact. If you don’t see any changes, you may need to go back to the drawing board and look for other issues that may be hurting your position in Google SERP.
Don’t forget to take the time to review your SEO strategy, keyword research and best practices based on your learnings. For example, if you received a manual penalty or you had issues with on-page optimisation, you may need to implement training programs or checklists for your team to ensure these problems don’t happen again.
How long does it take to move up Google rankings?
You didn’t climb the rankings overnight and unfortunately, you won’t recover from ranking drops overnight either. Depending on the cause behind your ranking drops, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few months for you to get back to where you were before.
If the problem was technical, you should bounce back fairly quickly. On the other hand, if you had a manual action, you’ll need to wait for Google to review your reconsideration request and reinstate your ranking — and in some extreme cases, it could take years to recover.
That’s why it’s important to work with a team of SEO experts who can help you recover and reclaim your rankings in search engine result pages, stat.
Recover faster and reclaim your SEO rankings
Diagnosing and addressing the reasons behind why your rankings dropped can be tough. But it needs to be done if you want to regain your organic search engine visibility and drive traffic to your website. Every day you’re not on page 1 represents missed opportunities for visibility, traffic, and sales.
If you need help bouncing back from an SEO rankings drop, we have you covered. Our digital marketing Gurus have helped countless businesses recover from a Google penalty or a sudden drop – and in many cases, even improve their rankings. Get started for FREE today with a digital site audit worth $2,000. We’ll take you through why your rankings dropped and engineer a 6-month game plan to get your business back on top of search results.