Google consistently evaluates the factors that indicate a high-quality website for its users. It’s important to keep up with these ranking factors if you want to stay on top of the search engine results pages, or SERPs.
Organic search traffic fuels website performance
Your analytics platform monitors and measures website performance, providing data on the size of your audience, where users come from and what those users do once they arrive on the site.
You pull reports monthly, weekly or even daily to ensure that your SEO program stays on track. You diligently follow best practices. You expect that, over time, you will see a steady increase in organic search traffic to your site.
But what do you do when organic search traffic starts dropping and you don’t know why?
5 external factors that may impact your site’s organic search traffic
1. Search and seasonality
To everything, there is a season. Every business has its busy season and its off-season.
Seasonality refers to predictable changes in demand for a product over the course of a calendar year. For example, florists can expect to see a regular spike in sales around holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas.
It’s critical to be dialed into the seasonal trends that impact website traffic. Businesses can use historical sales data to better understand whether the demand for their products and the rise and fall of their sales cycle varies over time or follows a predictable pattern.
When a business has a seasonal demand cycle, it’s important to understand how this impacts website traffic.
Simply using month-over-month data to estimate upcoming sales can lead to predictions that are either too high or too low.
A busy month will elicit exaggerated numbers, while a slow month will lead to lowball calculations.
The more historical data available, the easier it is to predict how a product or service will perform at any given time over the course of a year.
Using this kind of data, we can begin to set baseline predictions for next year’s anticipated changes in traffic.
If traffic is consistently dropping month over month, look at the percentage change and compare the numbers to previous years. If there is a consistent pattern, hypothesize that typical seasonality is impacting this decrease in traffic.
If the ups and downs are inconsistent, another factor may be at play.
2. Organic search and industry trends
Are you the victim of changing tastes? Google Trends aggregates billions of daily instances in which users query a specific search term and allows users to see aggregated search data for keywords, industries, lists, topics and more.
“The kinds of searches that users perform can be a good proxy for the public’s interests, concerns or intentions, but these searches do not necessarily represent users’ opinions,” notes Pew Research Associate Galen Stocking.
Google Trends graphs are created using a scaling system of 1-100, with 100 being the most popular. These estimates are scaled against the most popular time, region or query.
Search for your product or service in Google Trends to see how search interest changes over time. A company selling computers, for example, may notice that year over year organic search traffic for the keyword “computers” is decreasing, even though internal SEO efforts have increased.
Using the Trends tool, you’ll find that while the term “computers” has decreased in the U.S. since 2004, searches for the keyword “tablets” have increased.
While your efforts may result in a larger portion of organic search traffic, overall traffic from the keyword “computer” may be decreasing. This could explain why your site’s overall organic traffic is not improving.
On the other hand, a site may improve in terms of traffic without doing anything, because the industry search volume is naturally increasing. This looks nice in terms of traffic but results in missed opportunities.
If keywords are delivering positive margins, take advantage of the profitable traffic that is available.
Additionally, while it’s important to recognize which trends have fluctuated search volume, it's more important to recognize when an increase in popularity isn’t relevant to your business.
3. Analytics tracking for organic search traffic
Often, the reason for a drop in site traffic is due to unreliable data. One of the most common Google Analytics failures occurs within a site's tracking code.
Is tracking implemented properly? Test to ensure that the tags are set up correctly. Analytics tags are notoriously easy to install improperly.
When working with code, it's easy to break something with the addition of extra characters (commas, brackets, semicolons, etc.), changing the formatting or using a different case. Tag Manager can help with this because you're able to manage and test the tags in one place without changing the code on your site.
Setting it up this way means you only need to get the code on your site right once. You can continue to manage and test using Tag Manager without worrying you may break your site.
However, you can still run into errors installing the Tag Manager code. You could install the code in the wrong spot or, even worse, not add it to every page on a site you want to track.
If overall site tracking is appears to be working properly, try narrowing the focus to test for organic search traffic. The Traffic Sources report will allow you to see how organic, direct, paid and referral users access the site.
Businesses may assume their websites are performing satisfactorily if they don’t know what errors to identify. It’s important to talk to an analytics expert to determine any holes and create a plan to increase website performance.
“Sometimes, policy and procedure can create roadblocks for implementing new services on your website," says Adam Smith, director of development at Silverback. "Cutting through the bureaucratic red tape may be a pain in the neck, but it's much less stressful than answering questions about the performance of your very expensive, time-consuming and resource-devouring website without metrics that show the value of that investment.”
4. Organic search keyword competition
Look at how main keywords change position over time and compare the movement to changes in clicks, average click-through rate and impressions. Check to see if the reduction in traffic could potentially be explained by the drop in keyword rankings.
If some of your organic ranking for your main keywords have dropped, it’s important to understand why.
- What sites ranking above your site?
- Have any improved in rankings?
- Are there any new sites listed in the results? Any you do not recognize?
- Are more competitors coming into the market?
- Did a competitor increase its SEO efforts?
Tracking your main competitors is almost as important as tracking your own site. Figure out why an organic search rival is out-performing you. This is not an easy task, and the reasons may vary dramatically depending on niche.
- See stats on high-performing pages in Rank Tracker by going to the Keyword Map dashboard, selecting the keyword you were outranked for, and switching to the Keyword Difficulty tab. Click Update Keyword Difficulty.
Once you’ve determined that the top keywords have fallen, take a look at their natural search results.
Analyze the pages that are outperforming your own and try to understand why they are ranking well.
See if there are any opportunities to improve your strategy based on what has appeared to work for them.
- Consider some of the most important search ranking factors and make sure you are utilizing these efforts as part of your organic search strategy. Was there a change on your site that negatively impacted the organic visibility? Did Google make an update to its algorithm?*
*Google regularly updates their algorithm and often the changes go unnoticed. These algorithmic tweaks can account for minor shifts in rankings, but you can find out information about larger changes by checking out Moz’s Algorithm Change History.
5. Mobile First Indexing
Mobile-First Indexing means that the mobile version of a website is now considered the primary version — regardless of whether there is a responsive design or separate mobile and desktop sites. Mobile searches have consistently been on the rise since 2009 and surpassed desktop searches in 2018.
Prior to 2018, Google’s index was based on desktop usage of websites. It made the move to primarily use mobile index for SERPs because users were increasingly relying on their smart devices to receive and search for content.
Studies detail the trend is likely to continue, as the number of search queries and time spent on websites on mobile devices continues to outweigh the time spent on desktops.
If organic search traffic is dipping, look at the website’s mobile performance.
- How fast is the load speed?
- Does the site use software not commonly found on phones? (Such as Flash)
- Are links within text easy to click on?
- Is the text side adequate for a user on a small, mobile device?
To receive an unbiased opinion of a website’s mobile performance, try out Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test Page. There, you can test how easily a visitor can use your page on a mobile device.
Organic Search Performance Takes Work.
Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to increasing website traffic and high search engine rankings.
If you experience a month of poor performance, it’s important to understand why it happened. Whether it’s an internal site problem or some external factor(s), knowing the issue can help inform your strategies for the future.
Stay informed about the latest updates and best practices to increase online visibility.
Work with the Search Experts.
Need some help with your SEO and performance marketing programs? Silverback Strategies has been a leader in search and social media for the past decade.
We can help your business reach its marketing goals across the board. For more info, contact us today.
Originally published May 30, 201
Updated July 17, 2017
Updated July 1, 2019