There are many reasons why your site might lose search engine result rankings. Some of those reasons can be traced to a particular fault while others just occur in the natural course of life. In essence, rankings change because change happens.
But understanding what causes typical loss of rankings can give us a better insight into sea of search engine ranking fluctuations and help prevent serious long-term effects caused by a sudden drop in search engine rankings. While we can never prevent all losses of search engine rankings, understanding the reasons why changes occur can, at least, help you make your presence in search results more stable over all.
Reasons for ranking drops (and rises) can be boiled down to three things: Your site changes, competitors’ sites change, or the search engine algorithm changes. Or any combination of those three. Let’s look at each of these individually.
Your site changes
Most businesses, to stay current, must go through frequent, if not daily site changes. This is nothing new and search engines understand this. Site changes alone are not necessarily bad and generally won’t effect your search rankings. But there are a few things that can really mess a site up.
On site changes. Many websites are frequently being changed or updated. For some of us this means adding new products, removing old products, changing pricing, or maybe just adding or removing information to keep things current. Whatever the reason, these changes often do have some kind of an effect on the “optimization” of the website or any given web page and therefore can effect the search engine rankings.
In most cases routine changes such as this have minimal effect, but there are times when a major change is implemented that the entire optimization of a page, or even website, needs to be re-evaluated. Some of the most common of these major changes are site re-designs and/or restructuring of site architecture—especially when URL changes are involved—moving or removing pages, or drastically changing the copy across your site.
If you’re just making small changes then you’ll likely only see small fluctuations in your search engine rankings. And even then, rankings should change only on a page-by-page basis. But large or small, changes to a strongly optimized website should be done with great care.
Back link profile changes. Changes to your website are not necessarily changes to your physical web pages or site coding structure. Site changes that can effect rankings also include your site’s backlink profile. While you don’t have direct control over your entire backlink structure, it is very much a part of “your site,” just like your site’s historical profile carries with you through time.
If you’ve done a good job earning natural (or natural looking) links then drastic changes in your backlink profile are rare. But they can happen. More typically, however, these changes occur when large numbers of paid or bartered links suddenly get removed. Dozens, or even hundreds of links you previously had secured can suddenly disappear. The loss of these links alone can be enough to cause search engine rankings to drop significantly. But worse, this sudden change in the link profile may flag your site as having a possible unnatural linking profile that will need further examination and/or filtering.
If you think you may even be susceptible to these kinds of backlink drops then you might want to consider diversifying your backlinks and gaining some natural backlinks that will remain indefinitely.
Server down time. In some cases ranking drops may be due to nothing more than your website being inaccessible when the search engines try to spider your content. Usually search engines won’t let a single instance of inaccessibility effect your rankings. However if your site is down repeatedly during crawl times you may have a serious issue.
If the search engine cannot spider your site when it comes-a-crawlin’ then they’ve got nothing in which to analyze for ranking placement.
A good web host provider is essential to prevent this happening. While all web servers have occasional down time, if it happens too frequently you are increasing the odds of it happening at the same time a search engine is trying to crawl your site. There are many reasons to host your site with a reputable company with very little, if any, noticeable downtime. This is just one.
Change in search algorithms
Search engines are constantly evolving. These evolutions are mostly compromised of small, subtle changes to how certain ranking factors are weighted and scored, or the addition and/or removal of other ranking factors all together. Other times, however, the changes can be pretty significant, causing mass upheaval of search results across the board.
Change in weighting and scoring. Search engines routinely make changes to their algorithms and how certain on and off page “signals” are interpreted and scored. With the major algorithm changes we can sometimes expect to receive “weather reports” from some of the major search engines, but the small stuff generally gets implemented without notice. Nobody, other than search engineers, really know what these small changes are—or even when they are implemented—but we do know they occur frequently. Sometimes even daily.
For the most part these subtle changes are not meant to “rock the boat.” In other words, they are just fine-tuning adjustments to enhance search results. Most sites weather these changes easily enough, but not all sites. With every change made, each site in the search index is subject to be scored according to the new algorithm in place. If there is something in your site’s profile that runs afoul of the new algorithm then your site can get dropped due to the offending issue, whatever that may be.
Hiccups. Hiccups are the unexplained—or unexplainable—drops in rankings. Most hiccups result in a site completely disappearing from the search results for all previous ranked terms. Hiccups such as this are usually temporary. We’ve seen some sites lose rankings for up to four weeks at a time only to come right back to their previous positions, without any changes having been made before or after.
Why does this happen? Who knows. They are likely caused from any of the issues mentioned above, or perhaps a ghost from the historical profile making an appearance in the current algorithm. Whatever the “cause,” hiccups, while frustrating, are usually nothing to be worried about. You simply have to wait them out.
You’re not the only site on the web so don’t be concerned when you suddenly find someone else ranking above you. There are a lot of factors working against any one site due to competition. Everybody wants that coveted first page placement. If your rankings drop, it may not be you, it may be them.
More pages. Every day new competitors come online with a competing website, or new pages. Many of these pages target the same keywords as you. With every new page added to the internet and subsequently indexed by the search engines it introduces one more piece of competition in the search engine ranking field. How well any of these pages compete in comparison to your pages can cause you to lose (or gain) a spot or two in the SERPs.
But you may not only be jostling with direct competitors—you may find yourself competing against industry related info sites, blogs, hobby pages, etc. For those most part new sites and the pages they create won’t be much competition against a strongly optimized website, but that all depends on the strength of each site and pages in question.
This isn’t a call to create more pages for the sake of building more page. However, building a very robust, information rich, authoritative website can definitely help you maintain your ranking dominance.
More relevance. Search engines are on a constant quest to determine which sites are mostrelevant to any particular search query. While we may not agree with their “decisions” in that regard, the fact remains that other websites may be determined, for whatever reason, to be more relevant than yours.
This is where SEO really plays its part. But you don’t just want to create an “optimized” website, you want to build a highly relevant source of information for your industry. Just because you sell products or a service that is a match for a search query doesn’t automatically make you relevant. Quality information on a quality website, however, certainly can play it’s role.
More/better links. One of the most powerful factors in achieving good search engine rankings is links. If you have a good link profile that appears natural then you’re off to a good start. But you can’t rest there. Competing businesses can at any time invest in optimization and link building. Enough of an investment on their part and you may suddenly find yourself at a disadvantage.
Maintaining a healthy and growing link base is essential to maintain top search engine placement. Link stagnation can ultimately cause you to be replaced in the ranking results by other, more link friendly websites.
Almost every site owner will, at one time or another, find themselves face to face with significant ranking drops. Panicking should be the last thing that you do. Sometimes the best course of action is nothing, however you can never go wrong with a bit of research.
Many people, when seeing sudden drops in rankings, make drastic changes in their website in order to compensate. For the most part, this is a bad move. The first thing you need to do is to research the issue, identify what (as much as can be determined) caused the problem and then carefully plan out a course of action, if any, which needs to be taken.
We all lose rankings, but it’s how you react to it that can have the biggest impact on your site’s long-term performance.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.