The landscape of search engine optimization has changed drastically in the last 3-4 years. Even as it changes, a lot stays the same. It has been very challenging to see a multitude of friends and colleagues approach me with problems that often seem beyond repair with clients that they have worked with for years. There is often frustration accompanying organic search marketers that creates a jadedness bordering on cynicism. The public sentiment of SEO is never very positive, sometimes even bordering on downright distrust of shady worthless criminals. At the very least, it has become much like IT – everyone needs it, but has little idea how it works. In much the same way, SEO has become a thankless job at times.
It becomes difficult to talk about “ranking on Google” without launching into a tirade on higher barrier to entry, “links, and the glass ceiling”, and other problems associated to SEO as service, or even a channel. The rise of not provided, and other challenges have rendered many an agency near useless on the SEO front it seems. The space is limited, and it is most certainly competitive. It is no accident that as advertising inventory gets larger, the organic search is pushed down the page. Vertical creep, knowledge graph results, and other issues have challenged even the most talented of the SEO folks.
Affiliate marketers and small business owners who pushed the limits of what big G deemed acceptable, felt the sharp edge of the Google sword that we live and die by when a site was dependent on organic search traffic. The easy affiliate marketing wells dried up. Add to that, the proliferation of marketers willing to heckle and berate your opinion and substitute their own publicly, and we have a somewhat more hostile environment than only just a few short years ago. It’s no wonder more than a few SEO professionals are trying to rebrand themselves into different areas of expertise. I, for one, embrace this brave new world and welcome our new robot overlords. I will keep my wearable devices powered at all time, and try not to make jokes about Del Spooner (Will Smith) and I, Robot.
There are a few things that have remained consistent in organic search in the past 5 years, among them:
- Competition is Rising
- Landing Pages are the New Keywords
- Only Advertisers Have CPC, Volume, & Conversion Rates
- Everyone Wants More Organic Traffic
- Everyone Has an Opinion
There’s are probably hundreds of reasons your site is not ranking, or you’ve slipped from the rankings, but here are some of the most common reasons for organic decline:
- Not enough domain authority
- Not enough page authority
- Not enough topical relevance
- Content is not organized
- Content is not expert
- Increased competition
- No media spend
- Site is slow
- Bounce rate is high
- Duplicate content
- Site migration moved URLs
- Not a penalty
- Lack of understanding
1. Not Enough Domain Authority
Domain authority, in my mind, is what PageRank was long, long ago in a simpler time when we knew the words people searched to reach our website because that data was important and provided. DA is often also called Power, Trust, and other names as a metric of total link authority.
DA is a very influential factor that you will not succeed without. It is the inevitable truth of why most sites don’t rank inside the black box that is organic search results. Compare your root linking domains to your competitors’ – if you have a whole lot less, you probably won’t overcome them with “on-page” optimization, and nifty content writing.
Domain authority is the rocket shuttle for your rankings. It is the catch-all for all things offsite that impact your domain. You can argue semantics with me if you like, but there are a variety of sources that you can track a 1-10 or 1-100 scale metric for backlink domain authority.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that links are important to your website, but you may need to be an SEO to figure out which links are now effective. The fear, uncertainty, and doubt around this topic has changed the vernacular used in organic search marketing for years to come. Be assured, you will not succeed in buying PageRank anywhere these days.
The heavy influence of this factor lead to the “bad linking thinking” that created many a link scheme. These schemes lead to penalties, and paranoia of penalties. Bad linking and SEO has left a very sour taste in the mouth of more than one CMO without question.
Despite the tumultuous tides of backlinks and their value, offsite equity remains a highly significant factor in how well a webpage or site performs in the search results. There is no question in the value of a high quality link from an website of topical authority in your vertical.
Call it link juice, domain authority or whatever you’d like to label it; this is just difficult ground to cover when you start seeing the damage from the after math of “bad linking thinking” in the passed few years. There is a very long list of “dont’s” and caveats that go on the list before tactics that are viable for developing this authority.
The need for domain authority has sparked the need for better content, and re-kindled the idea of “content marketing” and “inbound marketing”. In my jaded SEO-mind, many of the these marketing labels are just thinly guised strategies for “getting more links”.
Perhaps this view is fickle and oversimplified, but the simple truth is that your website needs links to rank better. Your site needs MORE links of HIGHER quality, trusted sources. You also need a content strategy that is more than a blog post a month to build those types of links to your site.
When a site STOPS link building, or has some issues with tactics that were performed by an overly aggressive SEO, and receives a penalty or keyword or page level filter – we often see a slow slide resulting in 10-40% traffic losses slowly over time. With so little public keyword data left, we are very dependent as search marketers on third party data sources to identify where these losses occurred, and if they are significant to the overall bottom line.
A site may have the best user metrics of all time, but without domain authority, they will not pop into the top 10 for competitive terms to receive an “audition phase” for those search phrases. You’ll never get the chance to see the value of your on-page SEO efforts – with a page ranking in the SERPs, without building your site’s DA to a point that is close to that of your competitors’ in the search results.
Think of engagement metrics as the validation that your web page is a star. Your webpage waits in que like all those American idol want-to-be stars for a day to shine for an audience. If the audience approves, you get to stay. If your page fails, you go home to nowheresville to cry yourself to sleep after your dreams of Hollywood, (or at least some search rankings) are crushed to tiny pieces.
Domain authority is the summation of all of your website’s link authority cumulatively. While it is not the only metric for ranking it has always been a very significant one with strong influence. Chances are, your site doesn’t have enough of it. An increase in root linking domains, or legitimate site authority will always help your website SEO efforts as a whole, and should always be a tactical priority.
2. Not Enough Page Authority
If you really want to shake an SEO Practitioners’ tree – ask them, “what is more important, content or links?” To the initiated, this is a silly chicken and egg type of question, and to others, each serves as a line item for their marketing budgets. This is a similar debate of – what is more important -“page authority or domain authority”?
Page authority is definitely part of the rocket shuttle for an individual page’s ranking. One page can make it to the Google number one moon, but a high domain authority site with a well-written page will get there a whole lot faster, and stay a lot longer all else being equal.
If a page goes viral, and receives social mentions and ultimately links, it will rank for those terms. Both domain authority and page authority are vital to a strong organic marketing strategy, which is why many companies in e-commerce and other sectors have developed “content marketing strategies” to improve both.
Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of really great looking websites with excellent content that will never see the light of day in Google due to a lack of domain and page authority.
3. Not Enough Topical Relevance or Authority
While authorship might be dead, the idea of topical expertise by author remains alive and well. The fact that G experimented with rel=author for so long to collect the data is demonstration enough to most folks that this is a factor that has the potential to influence search results. While anyone can write and publish with the proliferation of open blog platforms, not everyone can write for the trusted sites with the most relevant audiences and expertise.
Language processing has always been a part of the algorithm for search ranking, and google is certainly delivering more relevant results by using artificial intelligence to better understand a user’s intent, and deliver a specialized result based on that intent in under a fraction of a second. We are teaching “rankbrain” with every search – the common language used around different topics. While this is fascinating as a topic of conversation, it isn’t always incredibly useful as a search marketing strategy.
While your site may have domain authority and page authority on par with your competitors, you may still be lacking in this area. Your links and content may be viewed as more generic, generalized, or not at the same level as the competition. Social shares, backlinks, and ultimately rankings are the result of a well delivered piece of content that is exceptional in it’s information, and flawless in it’s execution.
4. Content is Not Organized
When you first create your website, it’s easy to look past “little issues” like information architecture. When you scale your site from 10 pages to 10,000 the need for organization becomes a bit more apparent. The organization of your content will often dictate how well your site is linked internally, and how easily accessible it is when being referenced by other websites.
Another area that SEO folks often have a hard time discussing is the concept of a “deep architecture” vs. a “shallow architecture. Your IA consists highly of the internal linking structure of your website (or how the pages link together) and your website’s URL address, and the organization of category/ subcategory in that URL. Everyone has an opinion as usual, but most can agree that organizing and describing your content effectively is among the top priorities.
While it often seems easy to create an effective navigation and structure when creating it, it can be a bit more challenging in retro-actively organizing content within a site without breaking landing pages that are working. This becomes especially tricky when you don’t want to move pages that are already performing well in search.
5. Content is Not Expert
Just because you write an article about a topic, does not mean anyone will be compelled to read it, or Google will reward your high school literary efforts on another article on the same topic that exists three dozen times on other sub-par ad agency websites. Marketing folks are the largest culprits of this. Often the “expert level” blogging is done by junior level staff that is a day above intern. The responsibility to write quality content that is done at a high level is often delegated down the line, as those who actually have expertise are generally riddled with other tasks.
Outsourcing content is generally not the answer. Insourcing your content to junior level is not the solution either. If you are the expert – you will need to sit down and write the content, or be inspired with someone who can help you make it visual and fun. This can obviously be difficult for a dentist, doctor, lawyer, or other professional who does not want to create a blog post at the end of a hard day’s work.
A great blog post is punctuated by a handful of effective images, and now designed to retain our ADD generation for a few minutes at best. Expert content must be compelling, engaging, and written at an high level for those who will actually do more than skim the information. Help your experts by giving them outlines, topics, tools, and imagery that may be useful in reducing the time it takes to transcribe their expert wisdom into written web content.
6. Increased Competition
Every search result is becoming more highly contested. The barrier to entry in most search results is quite high because at least some of those businesses have been benefitting from the benefit of commercial intent keyword searches. The relevance and value of these types of consumers is obviously immense. When the value is realized through paid search, conversion tracking, and analytics refinements used in a complete online marketing campaign, an adequate budget can be allocated for content marketing and outreach even if the spend is not directly attributable like in other forms of direct online marketing.
This is a fact of life in organic search. If you’re not planning your strategy for the future, you are already well behind. If you are not actively doing competitive research, then you’re likely losing ground to your competitors. This doesn’t mean that you have to reverse engineer the algorithm, it does, however, mean that you will need to have a online content and marketing strategy that will rival these competitors.
7. No Media Spend
There is no doubt that media spend indirectly influences search traffic volume on a brand and non-brand basis. When your competitors are draft kings and fan duel, you are probably going to have a hard time keeping up.
The brand awareness that comes with large media spends creates search volume, and brand mentions about a website or business. The media spend can be traditional media, paid search, or re-targeting. Television is obviously still the most mass market advertising channel, but the user and intent based filtering of internet advertising is highly effective in many cases. When big dollars are poured into this type of media for a hot industry, it can be difficult to be competitive with a web only strategy. Despite the “spray and pray” approach of television ads versus the very specific rifle like approach to internet targeting, there is no argument that media spend will create brand awareness and brand search volume that are positive influential signals to Google about a business’s topic and keywords.
8. Site is Slow
Downtime is costly, but a slow website is sometimes even worse, as the problem can go undiagnosed much longer. There is nothing more frustrating to a large marketing campaign than a slow website or suffers this type of downtime.
A fast website is the foundation for great online marketing, and should be a given. It’s no secret that people want things immediately these days, or that a slow website causes high bounce rates. Black friday downtime is the perfect example of how a holiday rush creates the need for redundancy, speed, and backup plans when “doorbusters” can cripple a website.
In addition to frustrating users and sending poor engagement signals to google during your “audition phases” in the the top of the search results, a slow website will also impede Google from finding important pages, and impact how well your website is crawled. These issues can cause crawl path problems, and have pages or sections of a website drop intermittently from the search index. These drops can be devastating after months of positive engagement metrics and proper indexation to reach a top position.
You can test your site speed regularly, and monitor downtime with tools that will keep these issues to a minimum. When you’ve worked so hard to attract them with all your organic marketing efforts – Don’t make your users wait!
9. High Bounce Rate
While bounce rate is not directly attributable to how Google ranks a webpage, it can be a strong indicator of performance and the user engagement metrics of a webpage. As a general rule, If your bounce rate is over 80%, you likely won’t be in that position for very long. That means if your content sucks, and your price is too high, and you don’t deliver on the promise of your titles, people probably won’t stay on your website.
It’s well known that a long loading time will have a significant negative impact on your bounce and abandonment rates. It’s also known that Google incorporates user clickstream data in various ways to improve relevancy. While there is not direct causation, there is certainly correlations between higher bounce rates, and lower search rankings. Some of this is attributable to panda related filters.
10. Duplicate Content Issues
Duplicate content causes a few significant problems are large websites. Most significantly, it can dilute page/domain authority, negatively impact user experience and metrics, and confuse search crawlers which wastes crawl cycles on your website.
All too often, the approach with large e-commerce sites is to have everything indexed and let Google figure it out. While this approach can work for a while if your domain authority is high, it will eventually falter as a bloated site index inflates out of control. Common duplicate issues include tag pages on blogs, non-unique product description pages on e-commerce sites, and generation of tracking or other superfluous URLs.
RavenTools has even cited duplicate content as one of the top 5 most common on-page SEO problems in a recent study which surveyed these common problems.
11. Site Migration Moved URLs
Moving old URLs is a bad idea in general. When the URLs you’re planning to move have inbound links, and a history of strong performance – moving them can be down right devastating. If you must, you should try to work off a website migration checklist.
Consider that most sites receive the bulk of their organic traffic from only a small percentage of their site. While this is not always true, it is relatively easy to track most of this information with google analytics and some 3rd party tools. The URLs shouldn’t need to change if they perform in search. Track and cherish those landing pages. If there are no inbound links to a page, it can still suffer losses when 301 redirecting to the new page, but will likely suffer less than those pages with history and inbound links.
Save yourself and your team some headache, and focus on adding well edited content to pages, and not moving or generating lots of new URLs. The old pages can stay, and you can add to them, or you can add new pages without redirecting the pages that have existing page authority from inbound links.
12. Not a Penalty
Like Arnold says…It’s not a Penalty…
It is likely a filter, series of landing page demotions, devalued links, or other significant problem that is causing the decline. The use of lost keywords in SEMrush, and the Now Provided report in tandem with tracking your organic keyword profile helps identify these problems when they occur, so extra efforts can be put in place to recover those losses as applicable.
Google penalties and drops in organic traffic occur all too frequently, and has caused fear, uncertainty, and doubt around what is acceptable within webmaster guidelines.
It can be difficult to properly attribute seasonality, media spend, and other important influencing factors when looking only at organic search volume, but significant changes are easy to see, but not as easy to remedy sometimes. Identification is the first step to recovery, and finding the changes, and problems that caused them is often a rather hands-on experience for someone with a long checklist of ideas.
13. Lack of Understanding
Someone in the team screws up. It’s inevitable. Most of these mistakes are avoidable with a checklist and plan. Train your marketing team so you’re using the same terminology, tools, and tactics. This way, at least when problems occur, you’re team is speaking the same language.
The most difficult hurdle to an SEO campaign is often the mistakes of the uninitiated. There are all too many examples of problems that were easily avoidable creating significant organic problems. Title tags get over-written or lost in transition, images and links get broken, top pages don’t get redirected properly, and many other transition type issues can arise when all the details haven’t been considered before rushing a relaunch. The best way to avoid these problem is to have a team that is educated on the value of organic search and the impact it has on the entire marketing and conversion funnel.
It’s important to be able to recover quickly when mistakes are made, and be able to communicate between online marketing disciplines to avoid these issues. SEO will always be most effective combined with PPC, analytics, social media, email, conversion, and other marketing channels. You need analytics to justify your existence and summarize your performance over time. You’ll need the keyword data from PPC, and the distribution of social media campaigns, along with a landing page that converts users to your intended key performance indicators and site goals.
There are plenty of other problems that can create a significant decline in organic traffic, but these are among the most common we’ve come across. If organic search was easy, everyone would be optimizing. Creating long-term sustainable strategies is the result of education, planning, and executing on tactical SEO strategies that have stood the test of time. Building organic search as a viable channel is not the result of chasing the latest algorithm or “secret” piece of information, but rather the long term dedicated approach of using time-tested techniques of content creation and outreach with the understanding of where your site can be competitive.