Every day I hear from business owners whose online inquiries and sales have suddenly dropped off the map. Many times, they're not doing anything differently; they've simply got fewer visitors coming to their website, and fewer visits usually translate into lost income for the business owner. So they come to me in a panicked state, hoping I can figure out what's gone wrong and how they might fix things.
It's a bit of a puzzle to try to determine why there's a sudden loss of website traffic, because there are many different reasons why it could happen. Thankfully, web analytics programs such as Google Analytics provide many clues.
Here are some of the things I look at via Google Analytics to try and figure out what's gone wrong:
Type of Traffic Loss
First, I try to see what type of traffic loss we're dealing with. Often the loss is due to pages no longer showing up in Google as highly as they once did for their targeted keyword phrases. To determine this, I have to look beyond just the overall traffic that comes to a website and look at each type of traffic, i.e., direct traffic, referrer traffic, organic search traffic, and paid search traffic. While the culprit is usually lost organic Google traffic, every now and then there will be other reasons for the loss.
Amount of Lost Traffic
Next, I like to look at how much traffic was actually lost and when it started to happen. Sometimes I'll see a gradual decline over a period of years, and other times I can pinpoint a specific date when traffic completely tanked. When I see ALL traffic completely disappear at a certain time, it can be a sign of a technical issue with the website. It could be that a rogue Webmaster did something like add the "robots no index" tag to every page of a site, or that they excluded the entire site from being indexed via their robots.txt file. Sometimes it can even be as simple as someone having mistakenly removed Analytics tracking code from the pages, which would mean that there wasn't any traffic loss at all, but just a reporting error. If there aren't any technical issues, then it's likely the date when the traffic loss started is tied with a major algorithm change at Google, such as one of their Panda Updates.
Compare Apples to Apples
I also like to compare the number of visitors to a site to an equivalent time period from the prior year (if possible). Some companies have a seasonal sales cycle, with lots of traffic in certain months and much less in others. This makes comparing one month to the prior month much less valuable. For sites that don't have data that goes back into past years, I will compare it from month to month, but I do keep in mind that the data could be skewed.
Another important thing that I do when trying to figure out why there are fewer visitors to a website is look at "brand" related keyword searches. A large portion of most websites' traffic comes from people who've used a brand name search (or some variation of it) in Google. If there's a lot less traffic for branded keywords, it could mean that you need to do a better job with traditional marketing and advertising.
Once I make note of the branded traffic, I filter it out and review actual keyword traffic, which is more related to how well the site has applied SEO tactics. I'll look carefully at which keyword phrases have had a significant decrease in visitors, as well as any that are still providing traffic. For keywords that have lost a lot of traffic, I'll do a quick Google search for the phrases. Very often, the site in question is not showing up on the first page of results (and it's likely that they used to). Sometimes, however, I'll see that a page from the site does show up fairly high in the search results. When that happens, it could be that there are fewer people searching for that phrase now as compared to before. Or it might mean that the title and description in the search results aren’t compelling enough for people to click through. I also look for whether Google is showing maps pages or images, or shopping results. Those listings often get clicked on over others as they're often more enticing.
Landing Page Review
I also like to look at the page on the website that shows up in the search results for the keyword phrase that lost traffic. I try to determine if there is any obvious reason why it's not bringing in as many visitors as it used to. Perhaps the page doesn't even exist anymore, or it has changed substantially over time. I also look at whether the content on the page seems to be keyword-stuffed or if it is written naturally and in a way that makes an emotional connection with the user.
Penalty or Algorithm Change?
And finally, I'll try to determine if we're dealing with some sort of penalty applied by the search engines. While you may hear a lot about penalties, they're actually fairly rare. It's more likely that a site is just the victim of what Google calls "algorithmic changes." But to the site owner who has lost visitors and sales, it may still feel like a penalty. The first thing I'll check is their Google Webmaster Tools account to see if there are any messages of a penalty. Most of the time there are none, but that doesn't mean that the site is squeaky clean. Some site owners have gotten bad advice and have done things that push the envelope of what the search engines would consider best practices. Doing a full site audit review can uncover those types of issues.
If you've lost a good portion of your website traffic and sales, I hope the above advice provides you with a starting point to diagnose what the problem(s) might be.
As an SEO Consultant, Jill Whalen has been providing her no-nonsense, practical SEO advice since 1995. If you learned from this article be sure to sign up for Jill's popular High Rankings Advisor SEO Newsletter to keep up with the latest information in the ever-changing world of SEO. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen, "Like" her at Facebook, and "Circle" her on Google+.