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What To Do When You Have A Sudden Loss Of Traffic: Google Updates, Penalties And The Dark Unknown


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Everything is going great. Your blog’s growing, you’re making some money… But then you check Google Analytics.

Your traffic is suddenly down and you have no idea why. You feel stressed. You feel sick and, once you are over the initial shock, you don’t know what to do next… Except maybe cry.

So what should you do when one of the worse things that can happen to your blog happens?

There can be nothing more terrifying for a blogger than when you check your traffic hoping for a nice upward trend and you see a sudden big downward one.

I know.

It’s happened to me.

In fact, I logged in to see this on my lifestyle blog just last month:

Google Analytics for January 2020 from one of my sites – 72% loss of traffic thanks to the January update

While this is one of the biggest hits I’ve experienced, the good news is that I’m not particularly worried.

This is because I have always bounced back – to the point where a couple of months ago I said to someone I had never been hit by an update which I didn’t even realise wasn’t true until I thought about it later.

I had just forgotten about it because, in hindsight, it did not seem like a big deal.

Like you (I hope!), I’m in this for the long term. Not for a week, not for just this month and not for just this year.

So while it 100% sucks in the short term to see a graph like this, it also 100% doesn’t mean your blogging days are over or all your work has been for nothing or the crazy ideas that can go through your head when you are faced with something like this.

Below, I am going to walk you through what you should do if you notice a sudden loss of traffic like this, how you can tell if you have been affected by an update and what to do about it all.

Because if you are anything like me, having a plan is the best way to feel at least a tiny bit better when you face big problems like this.

 

First, I do want to say that this article is not about slight decreases. Slight decreases come and go. They can be due to updates, seasonal changes or just the cycle of how things seem to work.

I experience slight decreases on sites that are growing well occasionally. It happens and it’s not a reason to be overly concerned.

However, when the increases get bigger, it is 100% worth your time to step through this article and make sure your blog is best positioned to bounce back as quick as possible.

Click here to download your free SEO Audit Checklist – a big part of the process you need to do to get your blog back on track!

You will learn...

You will learn:

  1. What to do if you notice a sudden loss of traffic
  2. How to tell if you are affected by an update
  3. How to tell if the traffic loss = income loss
  4. How to keep the faith that your blog is worth the effort
  5. The next steps you should take
  6. When to move on
  7. My final thoughts

1. What To Do If You Notice A Sudden Loss Of Traffic

The first thing to do is not to panic.

Step 1: Check that your Google Analytics code is installed properly

It’s hard but take a deep breath. Especially if you are a compulsive analytics checker. Sometimes Google Analytics just doesn’t update in real time so don’t worry until at least a full day has passed.

At that point, the first thing to check is if your analytics code is installed and working correctly.

Does it show zero visits? Then most probably this is the issue.

 

Can you see anyone on your site in real time? Try opening a private browser window and go on the site yourself. If it doesn’t register your visit then yay!

Hopefully the traffic loss isn’t real and you need to make sure your analytics code is installed properly. You can read how to do this here.

Also check that you aren’t looking at the wrong day.

While this might seem obvious, I made this mistake just last month. After noticing the drop you can see above on my lifestyle site as soon as it happened, I checked all my other sites. I thought another one had a similar drop,

But actually, it is a US site so I had it set to the US time zone in Google Analytics… and I was looking at what was the previous day here in Australia… which still had over 12 hours to go in the US! Oops!

Thus, why I recommend a deep breath and trying not to panic. It’s easy to make silly mistakes like this when you are panicking.

Step 2: Analyse, analyse, analyse

I have had many students of mine think they have had a Google drop when, actually, it is something else entirely. Analyse your data in Google Analytics.

Determine exactly where the drop is coming from – what source (in Acquisition) and to what posts (Behavior).

 

Nothing replaces looking at the data when it comes to working out what is going on.

Is the drop to just one post? Across your site? From Google or social media?

Also look at the trends across the last month. Is this drop no different to what has been going on during a larger timeframe and you didn’t notice?

Or something that tricked me into thinking I had been affected negatively by an update last year was when I just compared a few days after an update to the same days of the week, the week before.

My malaysia site straight after the June 2019 update compared to same days the week before

My Malaysia site straight after the June 2019 update compared to same days the week before

Looks like I’ve lost nearly 30% of traffic!

However, when I compared it to the week before the update, my traffic was only down 10%. I don’t worry about losses at this amount as it could just be less people searching that week.

Lots of things can happen around a big Google update with lots of movement. It seems in this case (and I noticed it on some other sites with that update too) that my rankings improved in the week leading up to give me my best traffic week ever at that point which made it look like the update negatively impacted me.

When actually if I looked at the period around it – so a bigger picture – it wasn’t an issue.

Even better was when I waited another week and looked again. The following is showing the same 4 days straight after the update in the previous graph (in orange) compared to the week after the update:

The orange line is the 4 days directly after the update, blue is the same days of the week a week later

The orange line is the 4 days directly after the update, blue is the same days of the week a week later

So actually, overall I had a positive impact from that update – it just didn’t look like it straight after the update took place.

This is why if you are someone panicking in my Facebook group about an update around the time it’s happening; I’ll tell you to wait to see the full impact. It’s not me not caring or not understanding. You just don’t know straight away.

I actually had the same thing happen with another two sites in the January 2020 update. So check for this.

Step 3: Some other checks if your Google traffic is down

If the last step shows you that your Google traffic is down, then there are two more things to check at this point.

1. Do you have a Google penalty?

Check in search console to see if Google has sent you any messages about a penalty.

You can see messages at the top right hand corner where there is a bell symbol when you are logged in.

2. Check your search rankings for your main keywords

Are they down? It could just be seasonal if your rankings are still good and this is why I track keyword rankings rather than overall traffic – it gives me a much clearer picture of what I’m trying to achieve.

If your rankings are what you expect, you can also use Google Trends to see if this is just a low time of year for your niche area and keywords. Or even better, see if you had a similar dip last year around the same time.

You can see how I track rankings using KeySearch here. You can also look at Search Console to see what changes there are to your rankings but note that these are usually a few days behind what’s happening right now.

Is there a reason you could be getting less traffic?

 

For example, at the time of writing this, anyone writing about travel may have their traffic impacted by the Corona virus. I’m spending my usual time where I would be planning and booking trips, looking up the virus and crossing my fingers that my existing travel won’t be impacted.

Can you think of a reason like this that could impact your traffic?

Sometimes, you may see less traffic because Google gets better at showing the right search results for the right keywords.

It’s possible that you are ranking just as well for your main keywords but you have a loss of traffic because you were showing up for keywords that your content was not really appropriate for. Google has worked this out and has stopped showing this content. More about this below.

2. How To Tell If You Are Affected By An Update

Now that you have checked the data, you have a better picture of what is going on. This article will focus on what to do if the issue is with search traffic.

If this is the case, if it’s not seasonal and you see many rankings affected across your site, it could be an update.

The best way to check is simply to Google it – Big updates get lots of attention online and you’ll find something about it.

 

You can have big losses like shown in my lifestyle analytics without it being an update. The biggest loss I have experienced was not at update time but after my site was down for three days and then didn’t recover in search results after it was back up.

In this case, at least I knew the cause, but other than putting the site back online, the solution was still not clear cut.

I recommend following the same processes below no matter whether it was a known update or not.

3. How To Tell If The Traffic Loss = Income Loss

Before I get into what to do when you are facing a big search traffic loss, I want to cover one case where the loss is not necessarily a problem.

This is when a traffic loss does not equal an income loss.

Above, I mentioned that sometimes you can have a traffic loss because Google gets better at showing the right search results to the right people.

Anyone who has analysed what their blog ranks for in search console has no doubt found some weird keywords that their site ranks for at times. These are the types of keywords I am talking about plus keywords that are just not quite a match.

When Google improves, this can mean less traffic to your site.

 

However, I find with these types of improvements while I notice the traffic loss, I don’t notice an income loss. That’s because these people were never my target audience in the first place.

Unless you just want traffic for the sake of traffic (like if you rely solely on advertising revenue), these updates and changes to traffic just don’t really matter and I recommend you don’t worry about them. There is little you can do (except blog about the topic that you are losing keywords for – search console can give you some great article ideas!).

Google is always going to try to remove irrelevant results and I recommend you stay focused on your target audience – and only worrying about them getting to your blog.

How can you tell when this is occurring? 

If you have a strong monetisation strategy on your site, like affiliates, it is quite easy to tell. I notice my traffic is down while my income is up or unaffected.

In August last year, I had two my two best earning passive income sites have this happen with a 15% loss of traffic and zero income loss (both Australian sites so not about northern hemisphere summer).

4. How To Keep The Faith That Your Blog Is Worth The Effort

This step is the most important. If your head is all wrong, then it’s going to be really hard to keep moving forward with your blog.

Step 1: Let yourself be upset/angry/frustrated/however you feel

It is upsetting to have a big setback like this. I struggled to stay even headed when my lifestyle site crashed last month and I’ve been through this a lot and have a lot of sites so I’m not reliant on that site’s income to live.

I remember crying thinking my kids were going to go hungry when I had a big setback when we first went all in with my blogging business (not related to traffic loss but the result was the same for my bank account). My feelings and frustration were real (if overly dramatic) and I needed to get them out.

What you need to do, though, is set a time limit for them as these feelings won’t help you move forward and achieve your goals.

 

Before I met my husband, when a relationship ended, I would allow myself a day or two to grieve it, to sulk, to listen to soppy love songs, etc. Then I had to get over those feelings and try to move on.

That’s how I react to business setbacks now!

Give yourself some time to get out the negative emotions then make a conscious decision to move on.

Step 2: Take a break

Take at least a few days away from your blog. Preferably a week.

 

You should take long enough that you can take your mind off what has happened so you can return to it refreshed and ready to hit the ground running on fixing any issues and building a stronger blog.

Make sure you check after you come back to work that your traffic is still down and it hasn’t come back already. If it hasn’t, keep going through this tutorial.

Step 3: Remember your goals and fix negative talk

You have wins and losses in business and that’s just the reality. It happens with everything, including Google.

 

If you are really serious about being a blogger, you need to go back to your goals for your business and really feel them. Work on your mindset and remember you can have success.

Stop negative self-talk and anything that’s not serving you.

It can be hard for sure, especially when it’s all around you which I have certainly felt since the November update even though I wasn’t affected. I recommend avoiding other bloggers who are bringing you down.

I find the way to stop this is to question the things my mind (or other bloggers) tell me. Avoid reacting with emotion.

Some examples from what I have been reading other bloggers write:

SEO is not working. Google is not working.

Is it really not working or is it just not working the way you want right now?

It’s easy to find proof that it still works. Even with the pummeling my lifestyle site got, I’m still getting search traffic every day. It’s working, just not how I want right now.

Google is wrong. Their search results are useless now.

Is that true or is just not showing what you wish it would?

Personally, I think it is much smarter to look at what Google is showing and learn from it.

I would rather tell myself that Google is not dumb. They are a powerful and very smart company. They have so much data about what people want to see in search results that I don’t think I’m qualified to have a better opinion of what they should show.

Instead of thinking it’s useless, I’m going to keep analysing the top 10 for keywords I want to rank for and do a better job of making sure my content has what it needs to make the top spots.

Everyone was hit by this update.

Find someone who wasn’t. Ask me. I’ve never had an update affect all my sites and most updates don’t affect me at all. It’s easy to find proof that this is incorrect.

Remember, people who are negatively impacted are much more likely to be vocal than people who weren’t impacted and probably not even aware there was an update.

We can’t trust Google so we should concentrate on other traffic sources now.

A risk a blogger is always going to have is that we have to rely on other businesses to bring us traffic, whether that’s Google, Facebook, Pinterest or something else.

It is 100% a risk and something we should try to manage as a small business owner.

However, I also think it’s a mistake to rush to this line of thinking the second something doesn’t go how we want or from day one of building up a new blog.

The reality is that as bloggers, we don’t tend to have whole teams behind us and we need to be strict with how we prioritise time if we want to have success.

Diversifying is important but not as important as building up your blog to the point where it is worth your time to diversify. And by this, I mean it already earns you an income.

Because as soon as you try to do 5 things at once, it’s hard to do any of them well and ever get beyond having everything only partly working.

I was coincidently reading a book about investing and the mindset required to be a professional investor just yesterday and it talked about one of the mistakes people make being that they jump to diversify the second something doesn’t go the way they want.

Instead, they should focus. Become the expert so that these things are less likely to happen to them and they can learn from it when they do and end up a better investor overall.

I think the same thing 100% applies to blogging.

Of course at some point, if you just can’t get things to work you may need to move on. However, that point is definitely not straight after a negative experience.

Focus, learn, move forward as a better business owner.

 

I’ll cover the topic of when to focus more on other sources below.

These are just some examples. Whatever negative self-talk is going on in your head, try to reason yourself out of it. If you aren’t sure how, post in the comments below and I will help!

5. Next Steps You Should Take

When you are ready to stop the negative self-talk and want to move forward, the following is what I recommend.

Note that sometimes a sudden loss of traffic can be fixed easily. Sometimes, it can’t and it’ll take time on top of doing these things.

There is no magic bullet and you need to trust that you were doing the right things in SEO to get to where you were and it is worth continuing to do them. As much as it can feel like SEO has changed on you when your site has a setback, it most probably hasn’t.

The fundamentals of SEO – writing great content that matches search intent, using keywords and growing authority primarily through links – have not changed and are unlikely to anytime soon. You should keep concentrating on this while making sure your blog is as strong as it can be through the following process.

Step 1: Check for a negative SEO attack

The first thing I recommend is that you check for a negative SEO attack. This is when your site gets tons of spammy links from other sites in a short timeframe.

The first time I was impacted by a Google update, it was because of this. I had lost 90% of the traffic to this site. When I looked at the links to the site in search console, it became immediately obvious why. I had tens of thousands of links mostly from Chinese and Russian sites in the month leading up to the update.

You can read more about negative SEO attacks, how to check for one and what to do if you are a victim here.

Step 2: If the loss was due to an update, read what you can about it

But wait at least a few weeks to do this as no one knows straight away. Also keep in mind that what people do write is speculation. Even what Google says is what they want you to believe, not necessarily the truth.

Even though it is just speculation, these articles can give you some handy things to try that may help you get back on track. They are also where you can get some ideas about the latest things that Google is caring about in their search algorithm.

For example, in August 2018, there was a big update that impacted many sites especially in the YMYL niches (your money your life) and this is when E-A-T became more important (more about E-A-T here).

My personal finance sites were impacted by this as was a site I had in the parenting niche.

Going through everything recommended helped me fix the parenting site – I realised it was missing a privacy policy and disclaimer pages. I added them and BAM! It was straight back. I wouldn’t have thought about this if it wasn’t for reading these articles (including these essential pages is part of step 4 below).

Spend a day doing this step.

Unfortunately, sometimes the SEO community can be at a loss. I know the November 2020 update affected many members of the DNW community, particularly in travel.

It’s hard to find good information about this update with the main speculation being around dodgy link building (and I have noticed many people affected in the DNW group talking about doing many link swaps) and relevance.

The only reason I could come up with why none of my sites were negatively impacted by this update when some friends were is how strict I am with keeping content update. But this is very much just personal speculation.

If you can’t find anything useful in this step, this doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless!! Just keep moving on with the steps below.

Step 3: Be really honest with yourself

Is your content really some of the best in the world?

Is your site an established authority that has been around for over a year (preferably longer) with quality links to it?

Does your site and your content deserve a top 10 spot?

 

The main reason I am dismissive of the majority of times that an update has impacted one of my sites is because usually the site deserves it. Two of my sites were “hit” by the June 2019 update (I use inverted commas because I don’t actually consider them impacted since it seemed fair to me).

Both were less than a year old, had barely any links to them and less than 10 posts.

They ranked incredibly well for the content they had in a relatively competitive area. Much better than I would expect.

I was happy to take the extra traffic and income than I felt the sites really deserved and I was fine with the fact that they went back to where they should be given these factors.

Be honest with yourself – maybe your site was performing better than it should have been given its age, established authority and content?

 

It can be very hard to work this out when you only have one site’s data to analyse, but still try to think about it. Especially if your site is only a couple of years old or you only started working on SEO in the last year. These things take time.

Even my site that bombed last month has some risk factors for sure – the main one being that it is lifestyle which is incredibly broad.

As I have said many times, relevancy is a huge factor in search results and only seems to be getting bigger and general lifestyle is problematic. I’m definitely not an expert in all lifestyle.

Read through what Google itself tells you to question when you are impacted by an update.

Concentrate on what you can do to make sure you can say yes to all of this.

Step 4: Do an SEO audit

The next step is to work through my SEO audit checklist here.

This will help ensure you aren’t missing something essential (like I did with my privacy policy and disclaimer) as well as ensuring everything is healthy and good with your site.

I recommend doing this process as an annual job as well as anytime something doesn’t perform how you expect like if you see a sudden drop of traffic.

You can download your own free copy of the SEO audit by clicking here.

Step 5: Look at what Google is showing instead and LEARN from it

Learn from what Google is showing now. Look at keywords where you used to have a top spot. What is showing now?

Remember, cut out the negative self-talk and really try to learn.

Especially look at any areas of your niche where you ranked especially well across several posts or more and where they are all off the top page of results now. Can you see any pattern to what has replaced you?

What is better about your new competitors?

Remember, Google is showing their content for a reason and it’s worth trying to learn from it.

 

For example, with my Australian lifestyle site I used to go after any keyword, regardless of how competitive the keyword looked, if there was a lack of Australian sites competing for it and the top 10s were dominated with sites from other countries (usually British or American). I made sure my content was very Australian and this paid off as a strategy.

What I notice when looking now is that the top 10s have gone back to being dominated by overseas sites that have higher authority.

What can I learn from this?

Google has decided that higher authority sites are more important than seeing Australian (so what should be more relevant) content for an Australian audience.

While I would personally like to start some negative talk about how ridiculous this is because I would rather see Australian content about topics which aren’t relevant to me when written for American and British audiences, what do I really know?

While I hope Google changes its mind in future and puts it back to placing a priority on Australian content, I am far better off not dreaming about that and learning by what I’m seeing.

So in this case, I need to stop following my previous keyword picking strategy and instead look for keywords where I can compete on authority.

Step 6: Update content

If you haven’t updated your (previously) best performing content in a while, now is the time to do it.

Use Google Analytics to see which posts have had losses of traffic and update them. Here’s a starting point.

If you use Ezoic, another great starting point is to look at the reporting in there. Look at your articles with the highest EPMV (so the ones that earn the most per user on your post) and start by updating those.

Step 7: Give it time

Patience is the hardest part of SEO, in my opinion, whether that’s patience when I first started with SEO to get that first post ranking or patience after an update that hasn’t gone the way I wanted.

The fact is, though, that time cures most problems with updates as long as you make sure your site is strong and healthy and you don’t give up.

ALL my sites have come back after being hit by updates.

 

Every. Single. One.

Sometimes, I have been lucky enough that they have come back very quickly after me realising what was wrong and fixing it (like when I was hit by a negative SEO attack or forgot the privacy policy and disclaimer).

Sometimes, it takes longer though. This screenshot is a site I have in the personal finance niche which was hit in August 2018. It lost 43% of its traffic from July to August and then even more in the following months.

My personal dinance site - impacted in August 2018 update. It came back by itself later

My personal finance site – impacted in August 2018 update. It came back by itself later

I did everything I could think of after this update and then let it sit. I added no new content (although I did update what was on there afterwards and again as part of my usual annual update in November).

It ended up coming back all by itself and it kept rising after it finally recovered. It’s now my best earning site and we hope to sell it in a few months for six figures.

What if I had decided to give up?

6. When To Move On

While I do urge you to focus after a business setback like your traffic falling off a cliff, you obviously shouldn’t spend every moment on SEO for a year without seeing results.

My recommendation is that you do everything above.

Basically, learn everything you can about what went wrong, make your site as strong and healthy as you can and don’t forget about SEO when you are adding new posts or updating old ones.

However, at the point where you have focused and tried and you now have some extra time, do work on other traffic channels. This is the perfect time to diversify your traffic sources.

You should also learn from this experience, especially if you don’t have an email list.

Remember, an email list is the only access to your audience that you own.

Pinterest, Facebook, everything else can change tomorrow just like Google did for you but you own your email list. Make sure you are always working on growing it (there are some tips here and here).

Basically, keep working away on SEO in the background but put some effort into growing in other areas too.

7. My Final Thoughts

While I don’t want to understate just how devastating a sudden loss of traffic can be, I do want to emphasise that there is light at the end of the tunnel and you can have blogging success no matter how much a traffic loss hurts right now.

There will always be ups and downs in any business – or in anything else you do in life. And it’s how you face the downs that determines whether you can have success or not.

I like to think about the famous quote, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right” (Henry Ford).

You can get back on the horse, you can make your blog come back to life and you can have success.

 

Just remember that “our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time” (Thomas A. Edison).

I hope this tutorial gives you the steps forward to help you make the progress you need and to get over this hurdle.

Please ask any questions below or in the DNW Facebook group and I’ll do my best to help you.

Click here to download your own free copy of the SEO audit.

Looking for more SEO advice? Find all my tutorials here.

About the Author

Sharon Gourlay is passionate about working online and helping others to follow in her footsteps. She left Australia with her young family at the end of 2014 determined to grow an online business. She succeeded and now supports her family of 5 to live their dream lifestyle.

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