How can you recover from a sudden ranking drop? I'm going to walk you through the things that I've seen in my career as an SEO that typically cause or lead to these sudden rankings shifts so that you can quickly run through this checklist and mitigate the problem.
Before we get into the actual checklist, I just want to remind you to take a deep breath. Don't panic. I know it's easy for me to say when it's not my site, but I've dealt with a lot of people in a lot of these situations and I can't tell you how many times I've gotten an email or a call two or three days later saying "this cleared itself up, pretty much on its own", that it was just a random blip.
Step 1: Review Recent Site Changes (Navigation or Redirects)
Pretty obvious, but if you've changed the navigation or if you've redirected pages, go back and check those redirects.
Or maybe you redirected something a month ago, go back and check. You want to double-check all of those changes that you've recently made and make sure that they're still in place and not causing any issues.
Step 2: Check for Algorithm Changes
The next thing you want to do is to refer to some third-party algorithm change monitors, and I have three of them that are pretty good.
The first one is from MozCast. Moz has had this kind of weather report for a long time, if you see it and it's really hot and stormy (like it was on Thursday, August 10th), then you know some changes are afoot.
Advanced Web Ranking is another one. What you want to look for is correlating patterns. See, on the 10th, they're showing changes as well. Kind of high activity right in that range.
SEMrush is a new entry into this field, and their sensor tool is quite good. I really like it because it also offers categories - so you can see in this example that sports and news are being more affected than other categories. You can actually enter your own site and get a personal score for your own rankings, which is really nice, and you can flip between mobile and desktop.
Using these all together can give you a better idea of ranking changes as they're being rolled out.
Step 3: Look for Messages in Search Console
Google Search Console used to be Webmaster Tools, but Google recently changed the name. If you don't have an account, get one - it's free and easy to activate with tools like Yoast if you're on WordPress.
The first thing you want to check is messages to see if Google has left you a message telling you you have some issues. You'd be surprised, a lot of times if they're having issues crawling something, they'll leave a message right there for you detailing exactly what the problem is.
Step 4: Check for Manual Actions
After you check your Messages, then you're going to go down the list and you are going to check for 'Manual Actions', under 'Search Traffic'.
People often think that if there are no manual actions, that they've not been penalized. It is rare to get a Manual Action - it means someone at Google literally reviewed this and manually applied a penalty to you. A lot of times, that doesn't mean you didn't also get an algorithmic penalty or some algorithmic action that the algorithm itself, without human intervention, just did to your site. Those types of penalties wouldn't show up here in Manual Actions.
Step 5: Investigate Crawl Errors & Sitemap Issues
You're also going to want to go down to crawl errors. Check all of these for big errors and crawl stats.
Step 6: Fetch & Render as Google
Pick out some of your pages and fetch and render them as Google. Make sure you're not seeing anything crazy.
Step 7: Robots.txt Tester
Use the Robots.txt Tester to make sure that you're not seeing any errors or warnings blocking.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen a new website go up and they forget to update robots.txt because they were blocking Google on their staging. Then they update the new site with the blocked robots.txt and they lose all their rankings.
Step 8: Security Issues
Check for any security issues. This is if your site maybe got hacked and it is displaying malware.
Checking these will give you a really good idea - mainly, you're looking at your index, your crawl stats, is Google okay with your site map? That kind of stuff. If you go in here and you see tons of sitemap errors, that could be an issue.
Step 9: Technical Issues (Hosting, SSL, CDN & Cache)
The next is to go look at technical issues. Now this is a little bit harder to cover in a single post, but this would be hosting issues. Let's say you are using HTTPS, make sure you don't have any issues with your SSL certificates. Or are you using a content delivery network like MaxCDN to speed up your site? Make sure everything is rosy there and not causing problems.
Many people use cache. I use WordPress Fastest Cache on my WordPress site. If that's not setup properly or something went squirrelly, caching can cause a lot of problems if it's not working right.
Step 10: Real-Time Penguin or Panda Penalty
Lastly, a lot of people will fall into the bucket of there being a real time kind of penalty applied to them - and that penalty is usually a Penguin or a Panda penalty. These used to be manually run very infrequently by Google, but they've been moved into the real time algorithm. And I'm going to be very broad here - Penguin, is about your backlinks and Panda is about the quality of your content. These are now running in Google's core algorithm, so what you're going to want to do for Penguin is check and see if you have a lot of keyword-rich backlinks to our site. If you do, and you're seeing a big ranking drop, it could be a really good sign that you've been infected by a Penguin.
For Panda, you're going to want to look at the quality and depth of your content. You're going to look at how long people are scrolling and staying on the site. If they just leave right away, it could be signaling that your content quality is thin. Thin content that doesn't provide a lot of value is usually the issue with Panda.
Let me give you a free tool to use to check your backlinks. Obviously, I'm a big fan of Moz, SEMrush, Ahrefs for checking backlinks, but this is free right now, and that's Open Link Profiler.
What you're focused on are your anchor texts. - if you see things like your name (in my case 'Ghergich and company', 'Ghergich', 'Ghergich', 'A.J. Ghergich') - if that's the majority of your links you are good to go.
If you're seeing something like 'SEO agency', 'SEO consultant' and there are tons of links in here, you could be at risk for a Penguin penalty, because you're using too many keyword-rich, non-natural links to your site. Most people are going to link to you by your brand name or someone's name there at your company or a tool that you have - something branded to you. If Google's not seeing that, it's going to think you're manipulating, so you would need to clean that up.
Let me know down in the comments if this kind of sudden rankings drops has ever happened to you and maybe how you got out of the problem or what the problem actually ended up being.