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Isolating The Causes Behind Organic Traffic Shifts

With the recent 03/12 Google Algorithm Update, I have seen a shift in how Google isolates queries via user-intent to better serve users with a type of landing page and content type. To deliver more qualified information to their users based on their search intent. Most notably, we have seen the largest SERP Volatility in the Medical and Technological industries.

As a result, we have identified numerous instances where Google has changed the desired type of landing page that should rank for a given query, while also shifting the SERP Landscape to better deliver the desired search result in the form of Knowledge Panels and Quick Answer Boxes. In most instances, pushing the first organic listing further down the page. Resulting in decreased search volume and organic exposure for many SERPs in the affected industries.

I want to walk you through how to identify potential changes in site traffic as they relate to the 3/12 Google Algorithm Update, among other trends that might be the result of an organic traffic shift to your website.

Look For Symptoms & Root Causes

When identifying traffic shift, while looking at trend lines, it can be easy to jump to conclusions without having a full understanding of where traffic shifts are actually occurring and how it directly impacts your bottom line.

Diagnosing Traffic Shifts

The three following points are cornerstone foundations to discerning whether there has been a shift to your organic rankings:

  • Proper analysis and diagnosis need to be made with clean and reliable data.  Otherwise, you likely identify false positives and chase false leads.
  • Small changes to your tracking codes can easily have a huge impact on traffic numbers and the view of your site’s organic health.  It is important to start the discovery process with reliable data points.
  • Google search engine algorithms directly affect Organic Search results. If you are seeing a shift in Referral, Direct, or Paid traffic, then the change is most likely attributed to something other than an algorithm update.

Use Search Data via Google Analytics and GSC

In my opinion, the best place for raw organic traffic data is Google Search Console. Once known as Google Webmaster Tools, it is a great supplemental resource for identifying shifts in traffic data, keyword visibility, and content exposure over time. The data naturally pairs well with Google Analytic’s ability to drive insights based around on-site user engagement. These tools are free, and both of these resources should be used as cornerstone foundations for determining the severity and cause of most algorithm updates. Excluding link-based search engine updates, which are another beast entirely.

Other third-party tools are great at looking at aggregate search data, and site visibility, but for the sake of today’s conversation, I am going to leave those talking points out. For now.

Trend Lines versus Date Comparisons

With any change in traffic, it is easy to see via trend lines that a change has occurred. Traffic is up, Traffic is down. We have gone to the moon, or it has completely fallen off the face of the Earth.  

It is more difficult to isolate changes and understand WHAT exactly is different from one period of time to another. When it comes to drastic shifts in traffic, there are two overarching considerations that should be made when diagnosing the root cause. Google Analytics

  • Have specific landing pages changes in traffic?
  • Are specific keyword groupings the cause for these changes, and can they be attributed to a common cause for the traffic change?

Both data views are extremely useful as we reflect on traffic shifts.

Historical, trend lines (Typically an aggregate of rankings/landing page data views) are wonderful for looking at keyword/page rankings and landing-page content visibility.

When isolating specific keywords for a chosen landing page, over a period of time, we can see how Google’s search engine has considered the purpose and intent of the landing page, by using Impression and Position data to draw conclusions. The idea is that the more impressions and higher position that a given keyword has on a landing page, that it generally means that Google has a high enough confidence in the landing page to test it as a correlated search result for someone’s search query.

True insights, however, are derived by comparing traffic from one period of time to another. Most often, this is performed by the Week in comparison, Month vs Month, Year vs Year views become extremely useful.  These views allow you to review two periods of time to make meaningful conclusions as to how specific landing pages or keywords have been affected.

Most often, these are a result of:

  • A technical site change
  • A shift in search engine exposure
  • One of any myriad of reasons, such as site speed, mobile usability, among many others

The best use of these time comparisons is to capture time periods both before the traffic shift and after. Allowing for a detailed review of landing pages by aggregate keyword exposure, and search analytics trends from one time period to the next.

Manual SERP Review for Target Keywords

Google has been notorious for taking valuable search result real estate away from organic listings. All in the “effort” of directly presenting valuable information to users in the form of Knowledge Panels, Local Search Map Packs, Quick Answer boxes, among many other rich snippets features that they are actively testing.

Google is actively making it more difficult for websites to compete, and earn organic search visibility with the active inclusion of Paid Search media and Quick Answer Google SERP Features actively pushing down organic listings. I have even seen Google change the search landscape for my client’s flagship search phrases to require a full-page scroll down the page in order to see the first Organic listing. If you have ever studied heatmapping, then you will know that a user is less likely to click on anything below the fold. Google taking more of the search landscape for their own, directly hurts organic sites ability to draw in users to their site.

What Type of Content Now Ranks?

Google SearchSome search landscape changes, like the 03/12 update have presented a shift in the type of content and landing page intent that Google chooses to rank. Especially in regards to informational searches versus E-commerce focused search queries. Blog posts have been seen dominating search landscapes as Google tests the type of content they want to deliver to users. Especially regarding search landscapes where they see users commonly searching for product or service comparisons before they make their final decisions. I have seen blog articles for “Top 47 [Product Type]” articles, begin to directly compete with well-established cornerstone pages as a result of the 03/12 algorithm update. 

The same can be said for search results that are highly specific to a given brand, or government agency. I have seen a number of instances where an E-commerce site is reselling a brand-specific product and has historically performed well in the Search Results, only to completely fall from the top page as Google chose to instead rank the branded site over all other 3rd party retailers.

Resource style landing pages are not exempt from these changes either. A client of mine sells products in accordance with OSHA standards and resources. They have ranked well and received steady traffic in communicating changes to OSHA standards on their site, only to have Google to completely remove all third-party organic listing from the OSHA related search results. Choosing instead to focus purely on the government resource pages, over all other competitors. Effectively removing the competition from the first page of the search results.

Go back to the Basics

Language semantics are still ingrained in our search landscape, but it is important to return to the basics when addressing keyword rankings. If a historically lucrative search phrase has lost positioning or search exposure, you should take a look at how it is communicated on your landing page. Is the term listed, or was it a synonym for a similar phrase? How well is it discussed, and is the phrase it included within your Page Title and H1 tag?

How do the top landing pages for the given phrase or search query discuss content in relation to the subject matter? In other words, has your competition changed how they address their customers and have your fallen behind?

Reviewing the content structure, and overall page layout wise a strong place to first consider your own competitive positioning for the given search phrase. Directly, how do you line up to the next guy or girl?

Go back to the basics, structure the content and Call-to-Actions to align with the search intent, and clearly communicate how your landing page is the best solution and answer.

Don’t Neglect Mobile Experience & Site Speed for User Experience

On-page user experience is an amalgamation of user-centric search signals that Google uses to rank a given site and landing page. Stay on top of the on-site experience and make sure that your content is easy to navigate and digest. Titles should be clear and direct so that it supplements your conversion goals.

Have You Experienced A Shift in Organic Traffic?

Changes happen, and that is OK. If you are experiencing a change in traffic, and need some help isolating the root cause, feel free to reach out. We would love to work with you to isolate the changes that you are weathering and help you to develop a strategy to regain your competitive edge.

For a more in-depth review or request for our team to look at your site’s content, please feel free to contact our team at Sales@hivedigital.com or find me on Twitter at @JohnGibbings!


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Hive Digital can help you get the most out of your website. Simply fill out this form, and we'll get back to you with a free quote. No risk, no obligation.

Hive Digital respects your privacy. We will never spam you or sell your information to any third party. Privacy Policy

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