There are few things in the life of a website that are more frightening than a sudden drop in Organic traffic. With other channels, like email or paid search, a sudden drop can be relatively easy to diagnose because the entrance points are under your control – There will be clear indicators as to which email campaign or ad group isn’t working.
But with Organic traffic you don’t have that same level as insight or control – You know users are coming from Google or Bing, but there is far less data about behavior and the cause for a drop may be out of your control.
The key to diagnosing a drop in organic traffic is identifying clear trends in your Analytics data. Think of yourself as a doctor: each symptom you are seeing is a clue to the cause of the disease, and following the larger trend will take you to the heart of the problem.
The challenge, of course, is identifying Clear data trends. It’s not enough to say “X changed by 5%, this must be it!”. In my experience though, with any significant drop in traffic you will find a silver bullet of data… as long as you keep digging!
The key to diagnosing a drop in organic traffic is identifying clear trends in your Analytics data.
Start by setting your segment to “Organic Traffic”. You also need a time frame to compare the time after the drop to an equivalent amount of time before. Set the start date of your time frame to the starting date of the traffic drop and choose compare to previous period.
The best place to begin is the landing pages. We can’t control the entry points but we can see which ones were affected the most. More importantly, this will tell us what our next step is. If only one or two sections of the site were affected, then all you will need to do is identify what makes those sections different than the rest of the site/
Note: It’s REALLY helpful to have clear directories for this part. Otherwise, the filters will be tricky to work with.
However, if the drop in traffic is occurring across all landing pages your next step is to play a little guessing game with secondary dimensions
These are powerful tools, and can be instrumental in diagnosing drops in traffic. At this point, the only trends that are available to you are secondary dimensions. Not only that, it can devolve into a trial-and-error type diagnosis pretty quickly. If you get to this point, don’t worry, it’s fairly common for Organic Traffic. You just need to find a secondary dimension with a clear correlation to the drop to diagnose the problem.
My two favorites in particular are Device Category and Source.
Device Category, under the ‘Users’ dimension, can be one of the most helpful. Because of the different technical implications, mobile or tablet users can be affected. This is a good starting point. If you see a sharp drop from a certain category, you know that your site is having trouble on tablets or mobile.
We obviously already know that organic traffic dropped – but there are many of sources of organic traffic. In most cases, Google makes up the majority of your Organic traffic, but it’s worth verifying whether the drop occurred across all networks or if the drop is because of a difference in algorithms.. If you were getting a certain amount of Yahoo or Bing Organic traffic, for instance, a sudden drop might indicate a algorithm change, or perhaps something more dire (like a DMCA takedown on a specific network). This data can be found under ‘Acquisition’.
In most cases, these two secondary dimensions will get you headed on the right track. For the weirdest situations though, you may need to play around with other secondary dimensions to see if there is a hidden correlation.
The key to identifying most problems with Organic traffic is to start from the top down to identify the most relevant trend. This will lead you to the most likely cause of the traffic drop, and from there to a solution. Just remember to explore as much data as you can find and keep at it if you don’t cure the problem right away!