Google Explains Gradual Declines in Ranking


Staff member

In a Webmaster Hangout Google’s John Mueller answered why a site might be gradually losing traffic. Once you know the reasons you’ll be better positioned to take action to reverse a traffic decline.

Links and Content Not Always to Blame

The publisher asked if their backlinks (50% from a single subdomain) and content (auto-generated) were to blame for the gradual drop in rankings (emphasis on gradual month to month gradual drop).

Mueller’s answer:
“I don’t think that any of your changes that you’re seeing are related to this content and those particular links.
But it’s probably… a more general thing. In particular when you’re seeing kind of a gradual drop over a longer period of time then that to me points at kind of natural ranking changes where things in the ecosystem have changed, things in the algorithm are slightly changing, maybe users are searching in different ways or expecting different kinds of content in the search results.
And that generally wouldn’t be a sign that there’s this one thing that you’re doing wrong which kind of made everything blow up if you’re seeing these kinds of granular step by step changes over a longer period of time.”

According to John Mueller’s answer, there are at least five issues that can cause a site to gradually lose rankings.


Five Reasons Why Sites Gradually Lose Rankings
  1. Ecosystem changes.
  2. Algorithm has changed
  3. Users searches have changed
  4. User content expectations change
  5. Gradual changes do not come from large dramatic website issues

Ecosystem Changes

John Mueller did not elaborate on what “Ecosystem Changes” meant. However it’s clear that it’s something outside of the site that is losing traffic.

It’s uncertain what Mueller meant, but I would speculate that it could be something like Link Rot. Link rot is the constant and natural disappearance of links. Links disappear when sites go offline or web pages are updated or removed. It’s rare for a site to remain static and the same is true for links.

Another example of an ecosystem change is an increase in competition.

The effect of a competitor improving their promotional activity is their sites will rise in rankings. And that means someone else’s site is going to lose rankings.

Ranking a site is a process that is always in motion. You’re either moving forward or falling behind. There is no standing still.

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Algorithm Changes

This is something that has been a huge change to how sites are ranked, particularly since the August 2018 update.

August 2018 is when Google appears to have increased focus on classifying web sites and improving how it understands search queries and web pages.

Every major update since 2018 up to BERT seems to be about understanding what users mean when they search and also about understanding if web pages solve those questions.

These algorithm updates have redefined what it means for a web page to be relevant to a search query.

Take a Second Look

John Mueller wrapped up his answer by encouraging the site owner to take a second look at the site and try to identify things that could be improved.
This is his advice:
“So, that to me would be something where I try to take a step back and try to take a look at the website in general overall and find maybe areas where you can make significant improvements to kind of like turn the tide around a little bit and make sure that your site becomes more relevant or becomes significantly more relevant for the kinds of users you’re trying to target.”
Takeaway: Keep an Open Mind

For most anything, there will always be that one thing that stands out as an explanation for something. But just because something is obvious does not mean that it’s the explanation. It simply stands out and is more noticeable.

When diagnosing what is going wrong with a site, it’s important to keep an open mind. Don’t assume that the obvious thing that stands out is the reason. Keep looking because in the case of a gradual traffic decline, there are at least five reasons to explain why this is happening.