Declining Organic Traffic? How to Tell if it’s a Tracking or Optimization Issue

Declining Organic Traffic? How to Tell if it’s a Tracking or Optimization Issue

SEMrush/Moz keyword, traffic, and domain authority data Looking at the SEMrush organic traffic cost metric as well as Moz metrics like Domain Authority and competitors. If the company you’re auditing has had a long-running Moz account, start by looking at the keyword rankings from the initial start of the decline, compared to current keyword rankings. I exported keyword data from both SEMrush and Moz, and looked specifically at the ranking changes of core keywords. Top organic landing page changes Since the dive into keyword rankings didn’t provide the answer for the decline in traffic, the next thing I looked at were the organic landing pages. 2015 on-page metrics: 2016 on-page metrics: 2017 on-page metrics: While the overall engagement metrics changed slightly, the biggest and most interesting discrepancy I saw was in the bounce rates for the home page and Get Started page. It’s also important to look at the page authorities of your core pages. However, as a final check, I went back to internal metrics to see if the conversion data had decreased at a similar rate as the organic traffic. I went into Google Analytics to compare goal completion numbers and goal completion conversion rates over the past three years. However, this may not be the case for your company or your clients. You may start by looking at keyword rankings, and realize that you’re no longer ranking on the first page for ten of your core keywords.

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Picture this scenario. You’re a new employee that has just been brought in to a struggling marketing department (or an agency brought on to help recover lost numbers). You get access to Google Analytics, and see something like this:

(Actual screenshot of the client I audited)

This can generate two types of emotional response: excitement or fear (or both). The steady decline in organic traffic excites you because you have so many tactics and ideas that you think can save this company from spiraling downward out of control. But there’s also the fear that these tactics wont be enough to correct the course.

Regardless of whether these new tactics would work or not, it’s important to understand the history of the account and determine not only what is happening, but why.

The company may have an idea of why the traffic is declining (i.e. competitors have come in and made ranking for keywords much harder, or they did a website redesign and have never recovered).

Essentially, this boils down to two things: 1) either you’re struggling with organic optimization, or 2) something was off with your tracking in Google Analytics, has since been corrected, and hasn’t been caught.

In this article, I’ll go over an audit I did for one of my clients to help determine if the decline we saw in organic traffic was due to actual poor SEO performance, an influx in competitors, tracking issues, or a combination of these things.

I’ll be breaking it down into five different areas of investigation:

  1. Keyword ranking differences from 2015–2017
    1. Did the keywords we were ranking for in 2015 change drastically in 2017? Did we lose rankings and therefore lose organic traffic?
  2. Top organic landing pages from 2015–2017
    1. Are the top ranking organic landing pages the same currently as they were in 2015? Are we missing any pages due to a website redesign?
  3. On-page metric
    1. Did something happen to the site speed / bounce rate / page views etc.
  4. SEMrush/Moz keyword, traffic, and domain authority data
    1. Looking at the SEMrush organic traffic cost metric as well as Moz metrics like Domain Authority and competitors.
  5. Goal completions
    1. Did our conversion numbers stay consistent throughout the traffic drop? Or did the conversions drop in correlation with the traffic drop?

By the end of this post, my goal is that you’ll be able to replicate this audit to determine exactly what’s causing your organic traffic decline and how to get back on the right track.

Let’s dive in!

Keyword ranking differences from 2015–2017

This was my initial starting point for my audit. I started with this specifically because the most obvious answer, for a decline in traffic is a decline in keyword rankings.

I wanted to look at what keywords we were ranking for in 2015 to see if we significantly dropped in the rankings or if the search volume had dropped. If the company you’re auditing has had a long-running Moz account, start by looking at the keyword rankings from the initial start of the decline, compared to current keyword rankings.

I exported keyword data from both SEMrush and Moz, and looked specifically at the ranking changes of core keywords.

March was a particularly strong month across the board, so I narrowed it down and exported the keyword rankings in:

  • March 2015
  • March 2016
  • March 2017
  • December 2017 (so I could get the most current rankings)

Once the keywords were exported, I went in and highlighted in red the keywords that we were ranking for in 2015 (and driving traffic from) that we were no longer ranking for in 2017. I also highlighted in yellow the keywords we were ranking for in 2015 that were still ranking in 2017.

2015 keywords:

2017 keywords:

One thing that immediately stood out: in 2015, this company was ranking for five keywords, including the word “free.” They have since changed their offering, so it made sense that in 2017, we weren’t ranking for those keywords.

After removing the free queries, we pulled the “core” keywords to look at their differences.

March 2015 core keywords:

  • Appointment scheduling software: position 9
  • Online appointment scheduling: position 11
  • Online appointment scheduling: position 9
  • Online scheduling software: position 9
  • Online scheduler: position 9
  • Online scheduling: position 13

December 2017 core keywords:

  • Appointment scheduler: position 11
  • Appointment scheduling software: position 10
  • Online schedule: position 6
  • Online appointment scheduler: position 11
  • Online appointment scheduling: position 12
  • Online scheduling software: position 12
  • Online scheduling tool: position 10
  • Online scheduling: position 15
  • SaaS appointment scheduling: position 2

There were no particular red flags here. While some of the keywords have moved down 1–2 spots, we had new ones jump up. These small changes in movement didn’t explain the nearly 30–40% drop in organic traffic. I checked this off my list and moved on to organic landing pages.

Top organic landing page changes

Since the dive into keyword rankings didn’t provide the answer for the decline in traffic, the next thing I looked at were the organic landing pages. I knew this client had switched over CMS systems in early 2017, and had done a few small redesign projects the past three years.

After exporting our organic landing pages for 2015, 2016, and 2017, we compared the top ten (by organic sessions) and got the following results.

2015 top organic landing pages:

2016 top organic landing pages:

2017 top organic landing pages:

Because of their redesign, you can see that the subfolders changed between 2015/2016 to 2017. What really got my attention, however, is the /get-started page. In 2015/2016, the Get Started page accounted for nearly 16% of all organic traffic. In 2017, the Get Started page was nowhere to be found.

If you run into this problem and notice there are pages missing from your current top organic pages, a great way to uncover why is to use the Wayback Machine. It’s a great tool that allows you to see what a web page looked like in the past.

When we looked at the /get-started URL in the Wayback Machine, we noticed something pretty interesting:

In 2015, their /get-started page also acted as their login…

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