The graph is showing a downward trend in organic traffic. The report to the boss is due in an hour. What’s the cause? Seasonality, changing market conditions, or are we blaming the developers this time? Often, this is the thought process purely because we don’t know how our work is impacting organic traffic to the website. It’s easy to take credit when traffic is growing. It’s simpler to blame something outside of our control when it’s not. There are so many outside influences on the levels of organic traffic to our website. Oftentimes, definitively praising our efforts or blaming ourselves is not correct.
It is critically important to the success of any SEO campaign that we properly isolate the work we are carrying out from the effect of outside factors. Without this, we cannot truly know if budget is being well spent.
Digging into the changes in traffic levels is not an easy task. On the face of it there should be a clear link between SEO effort and an increase in organic traffic. Anyone who has been working in SEO for a while will profess that this is not always the case. There will be peaks and troughs in traffic levels that take some investigating to explain.
Proving that the work we are doing as SEOs is fruitful is good for our self-esteem and for our future budgets,
SEO does not happen in a vacuum
Your website is not an island. It sits amongst millions of other websites in an environment that is ever developing and changing. Alongside this, whatever you are doing as part of your SEO work will be impacted by other colleagues and agencies.
To discern if the changes you have made are what’s causing your organic traffic to change you need to isolate it from other factors. This means identifying who else might be working on, or impacting, the website.
First up it is important to investigate if someone else in your team, or indeed outside of your team, is carrying out SEO work that you are not aware of. Unfortunately, despite having the best processes in place, it is possible that SEO tasks are being carried out that you are not aware of. For instance, large enterprise websites will often have more than one agency working on them as well as an in-house team. If there is any blurring of responsibilities then SEO activity could be carried out that you have not been privy to. Common examples include migrating pages or building backlinks. This should be considered SEO work but could fall outside of your team.
It is crucial that you work with other agencies or teams in drawing clear boundaries in the tasks you carry out. For instance, your website may have a copywriter who does not sit within the purview of the SEO team. Ensure you discuss if it is your or their responsibility to write page titles, header tags and meta descriptions when that new copy is uploaded.
Great relationships with the developers working on your website is an imperative. The development team often holds the key to making critical technical changes that will greatly improve your site’s ability to be crawled, rendered. Ultimately enabling the correct pages to be indexed. However, by the same turn, an accidental wiping of code, or a wrongly assigned directive in the robots.txt can have a devastating effect on organic traffic.
Educating the development team about how, and what, code changes may affect SEO is important to making sure changes aren’t occurring that can negatively impact your site’s traffic.
It can be a good idea to speak to your development team, or agency, about being part of their updates ahead of code deployment. Perhaps ask to be added to their task management platform so you are aware changes that are coming up. This will also let you feed in recommendations for how to keep them SEO friendly.
Outside of the possibility of blurred responsibilities, the work of other marketers can have a direct effect on the progress of your SEO.
For instance, if a PPC campaign is launched which targets brand keywords you may notice a drop in organic clicks to those landing pages. If you are unaware of the PPC campaign then it could be a shock to discover organic traffic to these pages decreasing.
Similarly, an offline campaign may increase the volume of branded searches as your organisation becomes more well-known within your industry. This can increase the volume of traffic to your home page. It could also lead to drops in traffic to your deeper pages as the brand discovery happens more offline than online.
What to check
It is important to isolate work carried out on the site as well as changes in the market. There needs to be a systematic review to separate causation from correlation. The following is a good starting point.
Is my data tracking correctly?
Your first port of call if you have seen a significant change in the levels of traffic to your site is make sure you are tracking your data correctly. Make sure no one has added or removed tracking code from the site. If your traffic across the board has dropped overnight, then a wayward analytics code is possibly the culprit.
Double the organic traffic you are used to seeing may seem like a solid win. However, if your visitor volume is twice that of usual figures you may be double counting. If you are utilising Google Analytics and have recently moved the tracking code from the header of your site to a Google Tag Manager container then check it was properly removed from the HTML. Otherwise, you could be double-counting pageviews.
What marketing channels have been impacted
It is important to isolate if the change in organic traffic has been mirrored in other channels or if it is exclusive to this channel.
If traffic has changed in more than one channel then this suggests the increase or decrease was not necessarily the result of SEO activity. However, taking each of the main channels in turn, we can see how their traffic fluctuations can allude to the wider impact of SEO.
If there is an increase in referral traffic, take a look at any new referral sources. If you have been engaging in outreach then ideally there should be growth in traffic coming from the sites you have secured links from.
PPC traffic will directly impact how successful your SEO activity is, after all, they share the same source. If there has been a decrease in PPC campaigns targeting similar terms that your pages are ranking for organically then traffic that used to be driven through the paid search ads may be clicking on your organic listing instead. Conversely, if you are noticing a drop in organic traffic look to see if there are new PPC campaigns running targeting terms that you are already ranking in 1-10 for. In particular, if a brand campaign has recently been switched on this will likely be taking traffic from your high ranking pages, like your home page.
This channel is a hard one to dig into. It is typically a mix of other traffic sources that tools like Google Analytics struggle to properly attribute traffic to. Direct traffic is supposed to be traffic that has come to a website without going through any other referral source. In truth, it usually includes traffic that has come through a source that the analytics program cannot determine. This can be because the source is encrypted, like a WhatsApp message, or the user is going from a secure website to an insecure website. As such, many genuine sources of traffic are being hidden. Your SEO work could easily be having a positive impact but it might not be possible to tell if the traffic is getting incorrectly attributed as “direct”.
An increase in social media activity can lead to greater brand awareness. In turn this can cause more organic searches for your brand. It is only because your brand is discoverable through a search engine that these clicks are occurring. Most brands will rank for their own name without much organic work, however. The increase in organic traffic is really a great side-effect of social media activity working.
In a similar vein to social media activity impacting searches for your brand, an increase in offline campaigns will likely have an impact on your organic search traffic. Check with your extended marketing team to identify if there have been recent projects which are proving successful.
What pages have seen more or less traffic
To accurately identify the effect of recent SEO work it is imperative you isolate the pages that have seen the change in traffic. Drilling down into which pages have contributed to the overall increase or decrease in organic traffic will allow you to pick out trends. For instance, are the pages ones you have recently written new copy for? Are they your top landing pages? Are they within a similar content theme?
What locations have seen more or less traffic
Another way to cut your traffic data, to dig deeper into the changes, is by location. Assessing where in the world your organic search visitors have, or have not, visited from can indicate if the issue is a problem with your whole site or the locally relevant portions.
What’s happened with the competition
What has happened to other websites within your space? Often growth in your own organic traffic may be the result of a competitor upping their own SEO game, or leaving the playing-field altogether.
Keeping an eye on the rankings of competitors can highlight if they are the cause of the fluctuation in your organic traffic.
Also keep an eye on your trade press. If a new contender has entered the market it might take them a while to rival you in the SERPs so this may be your first alert that competition is coming.
A competitor closing down may lead to more visitors on your site through organic traffic by default. Similarly, an aggregator or stockist entering or leaving the SERPs will cause fluctuations in traffic from your brand terms.
What’s happened in the industry
It may be that there is a change in your market that causes a knock-on effect in the search results. For instance, has there been a shift in the way searchers are looking for your products?
For example, in the run-up to Christmas search terms can change dramatically as searchers move through the marketing funnel. Search intent changes from awareness, to consideration, to purchasing a product. Searches may start off as “gifts for grandparents”, to “spa vouchers” as a suitable gift is identified. As the searcher begins to compare options it might change to “best spas in London”. Purchase intent terms might peak around November/December time but the consumer’s buying journey began in October. If your content is optimised around purchase intent terms you may notice that your search traffic is growing towards December but does not continue to be high all year round.
What’s happened recently on the website
It is hopeful that everyone working on SEO for the website is communicating with each other about their work. There will likely be clues in the form of project management software tickets, email communications and meeting notes. If you are the only SEO looking after a website then review your last 6 months of work. See if any of it may have had an impact on the pages, keyword topics or geographic locations you identified earlier as being responsible for the change in traffic.
It is prudent to check if there is any evidence of a change in the technical underpinning of the site. A small code alternation can have an enormous knock-on effect.
New content, or changes to existing content, can happen completely independently of an SEO. Oftentimes, content can be removed from the website without proper consideration of what to do with the existing URL. If that page received a lot of organic traffic and now 404s it may need redirecting. If it had valuable backlinks pointing to it, then this could cause a drop in rankings.
Alternatively, content could be created for the site that organically begins to gain traction in the SERPs. For instance, it is common to see articles on legal websites amongst the top trafficked pages from organic search visitors. This can be without any SEO work carried out on them. They simply answer technical but popular search queries well.
Things to consider
Sudden change in traffic
Any sudden drop in organic traffic should be investigated quickly to ensure there are no serious issues with the website. If there are no obvious problems then your rankings and traffic may have seen an anomalous blip. It may, however, be the result of a search engine update. You should look into recent announcements from the search engines. Keeping an eye on industry press will alert you to others reporting similar changes. It is important to identify if this is a downward trend that needs remedial action. If the drop is more gradual it is imperative that you begin using the above checklist to identify the cause. You can then alter your SEO strategy or fix any on-site problems if needed.
A sudden increase in organic traffic may be the result of a peak in search interest. A good way to check this is by looking at the impressions and ranking data in Google Search Console. This will give you an indication of what keywords may have driven this additional traffic.
Has this happened before
There could be a very routine reason why organic traffic has increased. Some businesses have very defined seasonal peaks and troughs. This is likely reflected in their organic traffic. Although assuming seasonality being the cause of traffic growth or decline is foolish until investigated, it is a common explanation.
You should look back over a few years traffic data, if available, and identify any trends with the organic traffic. You may notice that traffic has routinely peaked in the summer months. Traffic growth noted in the summer this year may therefore not be a result of SEO activity on the site.
The effort you put into SEO should be rewarded with great improvements in organic traffic and conversions. However, it is imperative that the causes of any fluctuations in traffic are identified. This way, you can say with certainty that your work is providing great value to the website you work on.