Debugging drops in Google Search traffic

A drop in organic Search traffic can happen for several reasons, and most of them can be reversed. It may not be straightforward to understand what exactly happened to your site; to investigate the reasons for a drop in Search traffic, you can use the Search Console Performance report and Google Trends.

Main causes for drops in organic Search traffic

To get an idea of what is affecting your Search traffic, check the sketches in the image. They show roughly what could potentially affect your traffic and how your graph shape would look like.

Sketches showing traffic drop graphs and their potential causes

Site-level technical issue (Manual Action, strong algorithmic changes)

Seasonality

Page-level technical issue (algorithmic changes, market disruption)

Reporting glitch ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The following sections cover the main causes you should investigate when analyzing a traffic drop. Also make sure to check the Search Console Data Anomalies page to see if there is anything applicable to your site. The drop might be related to a change in the data processing or a logging error.

Technical issues

Technical issues are errors that can prevent Google from crawling, indexing, or serving your pages to users. For example, server availability, robots.txt fetching, "page not found", and others.

Note that the issues can be site-wide (for example, your website is down) or page-wide (for example, a misplaced noindex tag, which would depend on Google crawling the page, meaning there would be a slower drop in traffic).

Check the Crawl stats report and Page indexing report to find if there's a corresponding spike in issues detected, this might help you pinpoint the problem.

Security issues

If your site is affected by a security threat, like malware or phishing, Google may alert users before they reach your site with warnings or interstitial pages, which may decrease Search traffic.

Check the Security Issues report to find if Google detected a security threat on your website.

Policy violations and Manual Actions

If your site does not comply with the Google Search Essentials, some of your pages or the entire site may be omitted from Google Search results.

Check the Google Search spam policies and the Manual Actions report on Search Console to find if this applies to your website. Keep in mind that Google's algorithms may also take policy violations into account even without a manual action.

Algorithmic changes

Google is always improving how it assesses content and updating its search ranking and serving algorithms accordingly; core updates and other smaller updates may change how some pages perform in Google Search results.

You can self-assess your content to make sure it's helpful, reliable and people-first; Google focuses on the users, so if you're improving your content for your audience, you're going in the right direction.

Search interest disruption

Sometimes changes in user behavior will change the demand for certain queries, either due to a new trend, or seasonality throughout the year. This means your traffic may drop simply as a result of external influences.

Find queries that saw a drop in clicks and impressions using the Performance report by applying a filter to include only a query at a time (choose the queries that receive the most traffic); then, check them on Google Trends to understand if the drop was only for your website or throughout the web.

You recently moved your site

If you change the URLs of existing pages on your site, you may experience ranking fluctuations while Google recrawls and reindexes your site. As a general rule, a medium-sized website can take a few weeks for Google to notice the change; larger sites can take longer.

If you see a drop after moving and it's not recovering, check the site move troubleshooting section for common mistakes when migrating a site with URL changes.

Analyze your Search traffic drop pattern

The best way to understand what happened to your traffic is to look at the main chart in your Search Console Performance report, as it summarizes a lot of information.

If both impressions and clicks dropped, check the list above for the most common reasons that could have caused it. If your impressions remain the same but your clicks drop, you might not be generating the best page title and snippet that you could, and so users don't understand the content of your page, or perhaps other sites had a more appealing rich result.

Visit the Search Performance report and try applying filters to your data as discussed in the following sections.

Change the date range to include 16 months

Choose the Date filter on top of the chart and select Last 16 months. This will help you analyze the traffic drop in context and make sure it's not a drop that happens every year due to a holiday or a trend. If you'd like to extend the 16 months, you could use the Search Analytics API or bulk data exports to pull data and store it in your systems.

Screenshot of Performance report Date range filter showing Last 16 months

The following chart shows a Performance chart with yearly seasonality (16 months of data). Notice how the recent drop happened exactly as it did the previous year.

Screenshot of Performance reports showing yearly seasonality

Compare the drop period to a similar period

Choose the Date filter on top of the chart, select the Compare tab, and then Compare last 3 months to previous period or Compare last 3 months year over year. This will help you review what exactly changed. Make sure to click all tabs to find out if the change happened only for specific queries, URLs, countries, devices, or search appearances (learn how to create a comparison filter).

Screenshot of Performance report Date range filter comparison

The following chart shows a three month comparison Performance chart. Notice how the drop in traffic is clear when comparing the full line (last three months) to the dotted line (previous three months).

Comparison mode on Performance report showing drop in traffic

Analyze different search types separately

Choose the Search type filter on top of the chart and try the different options available. This will help you understand whether the drop you've seen happened in web Search, Google Images, or the Video or News tab.

Screenshot of Performance report Search type filter

Monitor your average position in search results

Click Average position above the chart. In general, you shouldn't focus too much on your absolute position. Impressions and clicks are ultimately the measure of success for your site. However, if you do see a dramatic, persistent drop in position, try self-assessing your content to gauge if it's helpful and reliable.

Screenshot of Performance report showing Average position decline

Look for patterns in the pages affected

Review the Pages table below the chart to find patterns that might explain where the drop is coming from. For example, one important factor is finding out if the drop happened across the whole site, a group of pages, or even just one very important page in your site. You can do that by comparing the drop period to a similar period, and comparing the pages that lost a significant amount of clicks. Select Clicks Difference to order it based on pages that lost the most traffic.

If it's a site-wide issue, check the Page indexing report. If the drop only affects a group of pages, use the URL inspection tool to investigate a few pages.

Screenshot of Performance report showing a Page comparison

If you want to go the extra mile, you can use Google Trends to understand whether the drop is a wider trend or if it's just happening for your site. These changes can be caused by two main factors:

  1. A search interest disruption or a new product. If there are major changes in what and how people search, people may start searching for different queries, or using their devices for different purposes. In addition, if you sell a specific brand online, there might be a new competing product cannibalizing your search queries.
  2. Seasonality. For example, the rhythm of food website shows that food related queries are very seasonal: people search for diets in January, turkey in November, and champagne in December. Different industries have different levels of seasonality.

To analyze trends in different industries, you can use Google Trends, which provides access to a largely unfiltered sample of actual search requests made to Google. It's anonymized, categorized, and aggregated. This allows Google to display interest in topics from around the globe or down to city-level.

Check the queries that are driving traffic to your website to see if they have clear drops in different times of the year. In the example below, you can see three types of trends (check the data):

  1. Turkey has a strong seasonality, peaking every year in November.
  2. Chicken shows some seasonality, but less accentuated.
  3. Coffee is significantly more stable; it looks like people need it throughout the year.
Screenshot of Google Trends showing trends for turkey, chicken and coffee

You may also want to check some other interesting insights that can help you with your Search traffic:

  • Check top queries in your region and compare them to the queries that you're getting traffic from, as shown in Search Console's Performance report. If there are queries missing from your traffic, check if you have content on that subject and make sure it's being crawled and indexed.
  • Check queries related to important topics. This might surface rising related queries and help you prepare your site for them, for example by adding related content to address those new topics.