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What to do if your eCom brands organic traffic has suddenly dropped

Sam Hurley from NovosSam Hurley in SEO

11th June, 2024

If you’ve ever experienced a sudden drop in organic traffic, it’s horrific. You’ve either lost something you worked so hard to build up, or you now place way more value on a channel you’ve neglected and just left to grow naturally.

Fear not. Every SEO in the country is there to save you with their shit capes and fire extinguishers. So, just fill out the contact page below, and we’ll help you out. We’ll only charge a 20% premium instead of 25%.

Yes, that’s not what this post is about. I’ve experienced this drop so many times and below is a very practical (hopefully!) thought process I would take to isolating the issue so you can follow similar steps to get to the route cause of the problem and take action from there.

To set expectations, you should probably still talk to at least one of the cape crusaders to get a second opinion, but at least after this post, you’ll be able to say, “This is the issue—what do you think?” instead of “help!” There’s a big difference, and SEOs have a fantastic desperation radar.

Step zero in this list is to rule out a tracking issue. I’ve seen some terrible tracking setups in the past; if you see a drop in SEO traffic, view this to Direct traffic; if Direct is correlating, this is usually a tracking issue. You can also fall back on GSC, another semi-reliable source of SEO performance. So if GA or your analytics tool has dropped but GSC is completely fine, then it could be tracking issues.

When did the hit to your organic traffic occur?

So, the first step is to isolate when the hit was. You may have noticed the decline this week, but you can use GSC to go back a wider range and figure out when the drop actually happened. I’d recommend going back as far as possible to identify trends and potential seasonality.

Using the screenshot below, you can see that something funky has been happening to the average rankings in recent weeks. You can see the slow decline that you’ve probably noticed hitting numbers, but when you take this view, you can see the initial drop happened a few weeks ago, closer to that sharp drop and mini increase.

Next, you want to isolate where the performance hit was. To do this, you’ll need to break up the website by URL or keywords to determine whether this is category-specific or domain-wide.

This is an essential step for eCommerce brands. The size of some eCommerce domains can be overwhelming, and you need to break it up to stay sane and pinpoint the trouble area.

You can do this using keyword ranking tools or GSC filters, which I’ve referenced in another post about our metrics ladder.

To achieve this, think about finding different data to support certain hypotheses, eg:

  • Is this brand or non-brand?
  • Could this just be the blog or the performance side of the website
  • Is it the PDP or PLP level
  • Could it be the X category which drives most of our performance
  • Or is this domain-wide across all keywords

Discover what caused the hit to your organic traffic

Next, you will want to identify what caused it.

I see many people struggle with this. They are only looking at one traffic line and are now gathering additional support data to build a story of support metrics.

My other post about our metric ladder highlights that if you’ve seen a traffic drop, you will want to now check the secondary metrics: SEO visibility and non-brand SEO keywords.

You now aim to dissect between a performance hit and a demand hit.

If it’s performance, you will likely see keyword or visibility declines; if you can isolate and correlate these keyword and visibility drops to a specific hypothesis outlined in the first section, you are on to a winner.

If you are not seeing a hit to keywords or visibility, then this isn’t a performance hit; instead, it is a demand hit. You should now correlate this to the other channels.

Start with paid search demand, as it’s still a search channel. You can also match up impressions in Google Search Console to see if there is an impression decline.

If impressions are dropping and it’s not search volume specifically or seasonality, then it’s worth checking the spend in other demand-generating channels. For example, historically, I’ve seen a strong correlation between meta ads and Google search, particularly for the brand + non-brand combined search terms, which are difficult to isolate in reporting. For example, we had a fashion brand that used a lot of our SEO content through meta ads, which positively impacted their “brand-names + shirts” terms, and when they cut this spend, there was a drop in SEO traffic.

If you see keyword rankings are fine, impressions are fine, yet traffic is still declining. I’d start to look at CTR and try to match up if you either got featured in a Google snippet that caused a spike in clicks OR Google may have rolled out some new UI features on the SERPs, either search-wide like they are doing for AI in early 2024 OR it could be SERP specific eg more ads, more shopping results, an introduction of a new rich result for a specific set of search terms.

How to figure out why your organic traffic has declined

Next, if you’ve pinpointed a specific section of the site and for a specific reason (performance or demand), the next step is to identify a hypothesis as to why you received this hit.

If it’s performance-related, the next step I would take would be to review the outputs across technical changes to the website, content going live (or lack thereof), and the same for backlinks.

This is why we recommend tracking outputs as part of our metric ladder outlined in this other blog post.

Now you have a set of outputs, I’d be trying to correlate the drop to 2 things:

  1. A technical ticket that went live on and around this date, usually 2-3 weeks from the drop; if there’s no tech ticket live, then I’d probably start looking at step 2 OR at a Google update. If it is a dev ticket, then it’s worth chatting to the developer to get specifics around the change. Anything around Javascript, internal linking, or content changes (including redesigns) are usually a red flag.
  2. If it’s not a technical ticket, look at the outputs of content and backlinks for the last 6-12 months. A drop off in activity from 3-4 months ago could impact performance today. This is hard to correlate and prove. How can a drop in activity from 3 months ago impact performance today? You could flip the question and ask why you still deserve to rank if outputs have dropped.SEO isn’t a set-and-forget channel; why could you achieve the outputs you were 3-4 months ago and not today?

If none of the above applies, then it’s time to start correlating the drops to recent Google updates. You can Google this and get a timeline to correlate to your traffic, or SEMrush and similar tools can do it for you.

Nowadays, Google doesn’t usually penalise websites for poor backlinks or content as they did in the Penguin and Panda days (it was bad PR for Google). Instead, they just ignore what you are doing, so you waste time and money. If there is a drop, then it’s likely that it’s related to a quality update. Usually, this happens slowly and gradually, so you see a small drop with each quality update. If your site doesn’t show improvements by the next update, you’ll see another drop – until the incremental drops are eventually noticeable.

As mentioned above, check CTR and the impact of SERP changes, e.g., Google rolling out more above-the-fold changes, pushing SEO results down further.

Finally, if all of this doesn’t add up, it’s time to look at competitors. Map a similar analysis to the above using third-party tools like SEMrush or aHrefs to see if it’s just a case of a competitor doing a better job than you and starting out ranking you. If you have the metric ladder set up, as referenced throughout this post, then you should have known about this sooner.

How do you fix a decline in your organic traffic?

The final section is how to fix this. Well, it depends on what it is. This is where you may actually need to talk to an SEO cape-crusader. Before you do that, you could ask fellow peers to see if they have seen a hit and what they have done about it. Hopefully, it is a technical or website change that can be undone and re-instated quickly, which can reverse the trend.

As mentioned at the start, if you don’t have the knowledge and experience to solve the issue yourself, then it’s best to chat with an SEO specialist. At least now, you can go to them with a specific issue and show them that you’ve done some work to figure it out, compared to leaving everything up to their opinion and conclusion.

Check out how we achieved  >200% revenue growth for our client Pooch & Mutt!

Sam Hurley from Novos
Article by Sam Hurley
Sam is the Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of NOVOS. With nearly a decade-long experience in organic search, Sam has helped many eCom brands grow. His area of expertise includes SEO strategy, Magento, international SEO, and headless CMS with Javascript.

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