In a recent Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller discussed the potential reasons why a site might experience a gradual decrease in search engine rankings.
Mueller basically confirmed that there are at least four possible reasons that can cause your website to gradually lose its position in the SERP, they are:
1. Changes in The Search Ecosystem
This first reason generally means there are one or more factors outside the site and outside the search engine’s algorithm that might cause a gradual decrease in ranking and traffic loss.
The internet and the industry where your website is in are always evolving, and so the ecosystem is always changing. Here are some examples of ecosystem changes that might cause a gradual decrease in your search engine ranking:
- Change in the competition landscape. For example, when there’s an increase in competition and when a new (and big) competitor enters the race. When, for example, a competitor improves their SEO approach and so they rise in the SERP ranking, then your site will lose rankings as a result.
- Link rot, which is the disappearance of backlinks for various reasons. For example, a source site may go offline or the page giving your link is removed.
Ecosystem changes are something natural you can’t avoid and are the reminder that SEO is not a constant field even after you’ve ranked #1 for a certain keyword: you must always adjust your SEO strategy or fall behind.
2. Changes In User Searches
The second reason for any gradual decrease in your SERP ranking is because your audience simply changes their search preference and how they perform their search.
There are three relatively recent examples of this:
- More and more people are using mobile devices (exclusively) to search for information, which significantly changes the types of websites they click, the keywords they use, and so on. This will affect many different things, like how mobile-friendly sites are now prioritized to rank.
- The rise of voice search whether on mobile devices or on smart speakers (Amazon Alexa, Google Nest, etc). Voice queries have their own results and won’t necessarily direct the searcher to a website, which can decrease your organic traffic and your SERP ranking in the long run
- More than half of all queries now produce featured snippets as their results, and this has significantly changed how we use Google search. For example, when we use Google to search for queries like “restaurants in (city name)”, then we are now trained to only look at the Google Maps results
Remember that the objective of your SEO efforts should be to deliver the most relevant information for your target audience. So, paying attention to how changes in user searches can cause a gradual decrease in your search engine rankings is very important.
3. Changes in Google’s Search Algorithm
This one is probably the most famous reason for how your site can lose search engine ranking in general. However, in the past couple of years or so, Google has changed its focus on how they rank websites, which caused so many websites to experience a gradual decrease in search ranking.
To be exact, in August 2018 Google launched what we now call the “Medic” Core Update, which got the name because this update mainly affected sites in the medical and wellness niches. This “Medic” core update was the first update where Google increased focus on classifying different websites to fit a certain context, essentially improving how the core algorithm understands search intents and matches them with the right web pages.
Since 2018 up until the recent Google BERT update, all of Google’s major updates are mainly focused on understanding the user’s search intent, the query’s context, and understanding whether a website is actually relevant for the specific query.
These algorithm updates essentially change how Google see whether a website is relevant to a search query or not, and can gradually decrease or increase your search ranking.
4. Changes in Search Intent and Content Expectations
Think about it. Even for the past five years or even three years alone, we have significantly changed how we expect any content from Google.
For example, in the past when we search for something like “NBA scores”, we expect to get a result for a website that will list all the live scores for the games. Now, however, there’s a featured snippet for that, and so we don’t visit these websites anymore.
Similarly, there are queries where we now expect to see video results pulled from YouTube, for example when we search for “NBA highlights” or similar queries.
Large and Significant Website Issues Won’t Cause Gradual Decrease
Instead, if there’s any significant issue with your site that is especially related to the above four factors, you will rapidly lose rankings instead of gradually.
Thus, in most cases, the gradual decrease in ranking happens when there are relatively minor issues to your site that are related to the four above factors.
Summing Up and Key Takeaways
According to John Mueller of Google, there are four most common reasons causing a gradual traffic decline:
- Ecosystem changes
- User searches changes
- Google algorithm changes
- User content expectation changes
When analyzing the cause of your traffic decline, it’s important to note that backlinks-related issues and content issues aren’t always the right explanation even if they are the most obvious at first glance. Make sure to analyze your site with an open mind, and explore the four possible reasons above.
Also, keep in mind that large and very dramatic website issues generally won’t produce a gradual decrease in SERP ranking and traffic, but most likely it will be a sudden drop. Sometimes it’s better to look at the situation from the general instead of a specific point of view.
It’s well possible the issue is outside your website as the case when ecosystem changes are the reason for your gradual ranking drop.
Watch Google’s Webmaster Hangout from February 21, 2020 with John Mueller here: