Reclaiming Your Google Rankings: An 8-Step Strategy

How to Recover After a Google Rankings Drop

No matter how often you work on your website, there will come a time where you’ll see fluctuations with your site’s performance — and worst comes to worst, sudden and drastic drop in Google rankings. 

I personally have seen my website go from sitting at #1 for my keywords for months with no issue, then one morning falling entirely out of the first page results. 

Experiencing this can be a daunting scenario for anyone. And if you can’t recover quick enough, expect to see a lot less organic traffic and conversions. 

However, it’s not the end of the road. With my 8-step recovery plan, you can diagnose, rectify, and bounce back stronger from this setback. 

Understanding Why Keyword Rankings Drop

SEO is a complicated, constantly changing game. You’re not only trying to meet all the requirements Google looks for, but all the content that’s pushed out by competing websites, every day. It’s why even seasoned SEOs still experience drops in their rankings. If you’re seeing it on your website, know that it can be caused by multiple factors:

  • Search Algorithm Updates: Search engines like Google constantly update their ranking algorithms to improve search results’ relevance and quality.
  • Competitive Landscape: SEO is an ongoing battle. Your competitors might also be optimizing their sites and creating high-quality content. If they outperform your efforts, their rankings might rise while yours could experience a drop.
  • Changes in User Behavior and Trends: Trends, seasonality, and shifts in user behavior can affect keyword popularity and therefore search rankings.
  • Website Modifications: Any changes you make on your website—like adding or removing content, updating backlinks or images, or restructuring your site—can impact your rankings. Even minor changes can cause temporary fluctuations.
  • Technical Issues: Redundant coding, broken links, site downtime, slow loading speed, or mobile unfriendliness can lead to ranking drops.
  • Geographical Factors: Search engine rankings also consider the searcher’s location. Different regions might see different rankings for the same keywords, which could translate to fluctuations.

Webmaster’s Note: This post is part of our advanced guides to Keyword Research and Optimization, and Content Strategy, where I cover everything you need to know about picking the right keywords for your website, and ranking for them in Google. I also cover strategies for winning SERP features, building topical authority, using long-tail keywords, and more in this series.

Step #1: Acknowledging the drop

When it comes to keyword ranking, you shouldn’t jump to conclusions at the first sign of a slight change. It’s normal to experience small fluctuations in your rankings due to the ever-changing search algorithm landscape. 

So if your rankings dropped one or two spots, I recommend keeping an eye on it, but not panicking just yet. You might see your page go back to its original spot in a few days.

However, a significant drop — think five or more spots — requires your immediate attention. 

To accurately watch your rankings, you need to use SEO tools that track the performance of your keywords over time. I go over how to track your keyword rankings in a previous post.

With a clear understanding of your situation, you can then move forward with investigating and finding the possible causes for this sudden change.

Step #2: Identifying Webmaster Guidelines Violations

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines lay out the best practices to help Google find, index, and rank your site. Violating these guidelines can negatively impact your site’s ranking in Google search results, or even lead to removal from Google’s search results. 

Below is a breakdown of how I differentiate webmaster guideline violations.

Google’s guidelines cover three main areas — content and design, technical, and quality.

  • Content and design guidelines provide recommendations for building a site with a robust information architecture that’s helpful to users.
  • Technical guidelines mainly focus on allowing search engines to crawl and index your site.
  • Quality guidelines offer advice to prevent manipulative practices, such as duplicating content from other websites, keyword stuffing, or creating tricky redirects – often known as black-hat SEO tactics.

You could use Google Search Console to look for any crawl errors, manual actions, or security issues that might affect Google’s ability to index your site. 

Many of the SEO tools I use also have audit functions, which I often use to identify any issues with my on-page, off-page, and technical SEO factors.

If your self-audit unveils any issues, it’s essential to get them fixed quickly, and following Google’s guidelines.

By aligning your website’s SEO strategy with Google’s Guidelines, you’re doing white-hat SEO, and making sure your strategy will keep from unnecessary drops in ranking in the future.

Step #3: Checking for Algorithm Updates

Google is known to frequently update its search algorithm to improve the quality, relevance, and accuracy of its search results. These updates can range from minor tweaks that go almost unnoticed to significant shake-ups that cause drastic shifts in search rankings. 

The most recent ones to date are the September 2023 Helpful Content Update and the November 2023 Core Update.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how you can stay informed about these important changes:

  • Stay updated with SEO news platforms like this blog, Search Engine Journal, and or Search Engine Roundtable. These platforms usually provide immediate news on Google algorithm updates along with expert insights and advice on how to tweak your SEO strategy in line with the changes.
  • Follow Google’s Official Communications as it often announces significant changes on its official blog or Twitter accounts. So, regularly follow Google Search Central Blog and notable members of Google’s Search Relation team like Danny Sullivan and John Mueller.
  • Use Algorithm Monitoring Tools like SEMRush’s Sensor to track Google’s search results and algorithm changes, interpreting these into easy-to-understand weather-like reports. The “hotter” and “stormier” the forecast, the more significant the changes in Google’s rankings.

Step #4: Audit your Backlinks

Backlinks, which are links from other websites pointing to yours, are a significant ranking factor in Google’s search algorithm. They essentially act like votes of trust and quality, indicating your site’s authority and relevance.

Here’s how to verify and manage lost backlinks:

  • Use Backlink Analysis Tools. Several SEO tools offer backlink tracking functionalities. One of the notable examples is Ahrefs. This tool could help in monitoring your backlink profile, keeping track of the websites linking to you, and crucially, any backlinks you’ve recently lost.
  • Identify Lost Backlinks using SEO tools that can run regular checks to identify lost backlinks. Lost backlinks can occur for various reasons – the linking page might have been removed, the link might have been deleted, or the site could have gone offline.
  • Analyzing Lost Backlinks is also crucial. Once you’ve identified the lost backlinks, it is time for you to analyze the quality and relevance of your referring domains. If they are high-quality, losing these links could have contributed to your rankings drop.

Remember, the goal of any good SEO strategy isn’t just to gain backlinks, but to gain high-quality, relevant ones, and importantly, ensure they stick around. Regularly verifying your backlinks can thus be a crucial part of your SEO health check and recovery plan.

You might have noticed I didn’t include disavowing links to this step. That’s because it’s not a recommended strategy anymore.

If you do notice links coming from very bad sites (such as hacked sites, or sites with malware or porn), then you should disavow those. Otherwise, if your links are coming from low-quality or unrelated sites, then you can ignore them. 

It used to help in the past when negative SEO was a thing. But nowadays, Google’s algorithm enables it to devalue links. In a way, they themselves have a disavow algorithm. 

Step #5: Rebuilding or Replacing Lost Backlinks

Once you’ve identified lost backlinks, especially high-quality ones, you need to mitigate their loss to recover your keyword rankings. I go over how to reclaim backlinks in another guide, but here’s a quick breakdown of that process:

  • Reach Out to Website Owners: If a valuable backlink was removed unknowingly or accidentally by a website owner, reaching out to them can be a good starting point. Politely mention the removal of the backlink and request them to consider reinstating it. Be sure to emphasize the mutual benefits the link can bring, such as a better user experience, useful resources for readers, and improved site engagement.
  • Repair Broken Pages and Links: If you lost backlinks due to pages on your site not working or moving to a different URL, fix these broken links or implement 301 redirects from your old URLs to the new ones.
  • Create High-Quality Content: If your request to reinstate backlinks is unsuccessful or if the website has closed, focus on attracting new high-quality backlinks. The foundation of earning quality backlinks is truly outstanding content—craft resourceful, unique, and engaging content that others can’t help but link to.
  • Guest Posting: Guest blogging on respected industry websites can be a great way to gain high-quality, relevant backlinks.
  • Monitor Your Backlinks: Lastly, remember to routinely monitor new and existing backlinks to promptly identify any changes. This ensures you can respond quickly to misplaced or lost backlinks in the future.

Step #6: Conduct a Website Audit

A website audit involves a full analysis of factors that could be affecting your website’s visibility in search engines. This comprehensive examination allows you to gain insights about your website, individual pages, and overall traffic, helping you shape a robust SEO strategy.

Here’s how I go about conducting a website audit:

  • Identify Technical Issues as these problems can negatively impact your site’s ranking. Check for issues like slow page load times, errors on your robots.txt file, and sitemap errors. Tools like Google’s Search Console and SEMrush Site Audit tool can be particularly useful.
  • Check Content Relevance and Quality to ensure that it is engaging, relevant to your audience, and unique. Duplicate or thin content can significantly harm your rankings. There are many copywriting tools to help you identify possible content duplication in your website.
  • Ensure Mobile Optimization as Google uses mobile-first indexing, which means it primarily considers the mobile version of a site for indexing and ranking. Therefore, ensuring your website is optimized for mobile users is crucial. Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool is free and that can help with this.
  • Evaluate Page/URL Structure as these should be SEO-friendly – concise, descriptive, and include keywords. Each page should have a unique URL. Additionally, check that your site structure is understandable and logical, both for users and search engines.
  • Review Metadata of your website. Check all titles, meta descriptions, and alt text to ensure they include targeted keywords. They should accurately describe the page’s content.
  • Assess Site Navigation as all websites that are easy for all users to navigate not only enhance the user experience but also improve your SEO. Broken or complex navigation can lead to a high bounce rate, which will negatively affect your rankings.

Conducting a comprehensive sweep over your website is a must if you’re seeing widespread, drastic drops in your Google rankings. I have a longer guide on how to perform an SEO audit you can follow for this step. 

Step #7: Cleaning Up Your Content

I always say thatContent is King” as it is a crucial part of SEO. High-quality, relevant, and engaging content attracts users, keeps them on your site longer, and encourages other websites to link back to your site.

Here’s how to effectively clean up and optimize your content:

  • Update Out-of-Date Content. The world moves faster than you think, and what was relevant three years ago may no longer be accurate. Regularly review your content and update any of the old or outdated information. This could involve updating facts and figures, adding new sections, or even rewriting entire posts.
  • Eliminate ‘Thin’ Content or pages with little relevant content, which can relatively impact your rankings. Enhance such pages by adding more valuable information, or consider consolidating them with similar content, if applicable.
  • Improve Content Quality. High-quality, engaging content is rewarded by search engines. Make sure your content provides valuable insights, is well-written, and appeals to your target audience.
  • Add or Refresh Internal Links. Updating your content also provides an opportunity to refresh your internal linking strategy. Make sure your content links to other relevant pages on your site to enhance navigation and user experience.

Cleaning up your content not only enhances the value of your existing pages but can also have the added benefit of increasing user engagement. 

Remember, your content is the foundation of your website, and keeping it clean and well-maintained is key to success.

Step #8: Look for Manual Penalties

Checking for manual penalties involves verifying whether your website has been penalized by a human reviewer at Google. Google issues manual penalties when it finds that a site doesn’t comply with its quality guidelines.

Here’s how to check for and deal with such penalties:

  • Use Google Search Console to investigate. Under the “Security & Manual Actions” category in the left-side menu, click on “Manual Actions”. If Google has taken any manual action against your site, it will be listed here as the reasons for the action.
  • Understand the Type of Penalty given. The manual action report will describe the nature of the penalty. Common examples include “Unnatural links to your site” or “Thin content with little or no added value”. The report will often provide examples or identify pages where the violation occurred.
  • Take Corrective Actions once you figure out the penalty – then the next step is to correct violations. If it’s related to unnatural links, you might need to remove or disavow these links. If it’s thin content, improving the quality and uniqueness of the content might be necessary.
  • Re-submit Your Site for Indexing. After you have rectified the issues causing the manual penalty, you can file a reconsideration request through Google Search Console. In this request, explain the steps you’ve taken to correct the violations. Google will review your website and the penalty will be lifted if they’re satisfied with the changes made.

Bear in mind that just because your site has experienced a drop in rankings doesn’t necessarily mean it has been hit with a manual penalty. This step should be considered if you have exhausted other possibilities and haven’t seen any improvements or if you directly receive a notification from Google. Manual penalties are generally infrequent, but serious, and quick action is necessary if you receive one.

Key Takeaway

If you’ve seen a sudden drop in your SEO keyword rankings, it’s a call to action. Recovering from a Google rankings drop requires a strategic approach. Through these steps, you can regain (or even improve) your standings in the SERPs, up the quality of your site, and better your SEO strategy for future algorithm updates.

Remember, recovery may take time, but with patience, consistent monitoring, and methodical effort, your rankings can return to their first-page ranking. SEO is a marathon, not a sprint, so keep striving for quality and relevance, as these are always rewarded in the long term.

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Sean Si

About Sean

is a Filipino motivational speaker and a Leadership Speaker in the Philippines. He is the head honcho and editor-in-chief of SEO Hacker. He does SEO Services for companies in the Philippines and Abroad. Connect with him at Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Check out his new project, Aquascape Philippines.