How To Handle An SEO Setback

One of the hardest things to deal with in SEO is when a setback occurs. I will outline how to deal with these today, with a focus on those that don’t result from a search engine penalty. Even when you do all the right things, you can still run into situations where it doesn’t work out. There could be many reasons why, such as:

  1. Unexpected changes by Google can put you in a situation where you need to scramble (such as the recent change to how Google crawls JavaScript).
  2. The web development team may make a change that is not supposed to have SEO impact, but for reasons unkown to them, it does.
  3. The web development team can make a mistake, for example, copying the NoIndex tags from a staging server over to the production site.
  4. Of course, it can happen that you make a mistake too.

Bottom line: setbacks do happen.

Protect yourself

The first step takes place before a setback occurs. Make sure you keep a detailed log of all the changes made to the web site, not just changes made specifically for SEO reasons. This includes all obvious major changes, such as changing domains, changing navigation, or implementing a new CMS, but you should also log any other non-trivial changes made, including:

  • Changes in how menus are implemented
  • Placing new analytics code on the site
  • Using a new method to implement ads

I chose these three items to list here because most of us probably think that these changes could not possibly affect SEO, but they are examples of things that can, if they are done improperly. For that reason, your SEO log must be thorough.

One last step in building your log is to monitor the major search blogs (such as Search Engine Land) for significant search engine announcements. Did Google announce an algorithm change rolling out? Did they change a policy as they did recently with NoFollow? Are lots of people claiming that they are seeing dramatic changes in their search results? All of these things belong in your log too.


The first diagnostic step is to see when the downturn in your web site traffic began. If you have experienced a sudden catastrophic drop off, this is pretty easy to identify in your web analytics solution. If the change is a steady decline over a sustained period of time, this may be hard to nail down exactly, because some day to day and week to week moving around of traffic levels is normal. Nonetheless, you should be able to get a rough timeframe on when the problem started.

Next, see if the downturn is affecting your site in a broad based manner, or if it is isolated to a section of the site. You can also check to see if it is specific to one search engine or seems to be happening in all of them. Then, you should also determine if the problem is a manual penalty (you can see a great flow chart on how to do that in this SEOmoz article which shows how to determine if you have a penalty). Lastly, check the SEO blogs and forums out there and see if it is possible that an algorithm change by the search engines is in play.

Once you have learned what you can from this research, the next step is to look at your change log and start figuring out possible causes. First of all, changes made after the dropoff started, or six months before, are not likely to be the cause. The sweet spot timeframe for your culprit is in the 5 day to 3 month range, but changes outside this range can’t be completely ruled out.

Next, you need to start trying to determine the actual cause of the problem. The basic process is to try and match up the symptoms with the possible causes (from your change list). In addition, conduct a step by step SEO review of the changes made in that zero to three month time range from when the dropoff began. Change to a menu structure? Check to see if the links are still crawlable by the search engines. New analytics code? Make sure that the analytics code is properly implemented.

Once you have found something worth addressing, implement fixes and wait to see if it solves your problem. The time delay for the fix to take hold is likely to be about the same as the time delay between the change in your change log and the time you saw the dropoff begin to happen.


Problems do come up in the world of SEO. Unfortunately, cause and effect are not simple to determine. The site change log will be invaluable to you when the time comes, as it will allow you to zero in on the key suspects very quickly. Then, a manual review of the code for the changes you made will often get you the rest of the way there.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength


About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

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