Google just released a major update to its documentation on diagnosing website ranking drops. This revamped guide dives deeper into the reasons behind traffic dips and offers fresh insights on how to potentially recover. 

Let's break down the key changes and analyze their impact.

1. Less optimism for reversals


One striking shift is Google's tempered approach to reversing ranking drops. The previous documentation offered a glimmer of hope by suggesting most traffic dips could be resolved. The new version removes this assurance, emphasizing the complexity of pinpointing the exact cause.

Here's a before-and-after comparison of the relevant excerpt:

  • Old: "A drop in organic Search traffic can happen for several reasons, and most of them can be reversed. It may not be straightforward to understand what exactly happened to your site."
  • New: "A drop in organic Search traffic can happen for several reasons, and **it may not be straightforward to understand what exactly happened to your site."

While this might seem discouraging, it underscores the reality that SEO is an ongoing process of adaptation.

2. More precise graph labels

The updated guide also features revamped graphics with clearer labels to reflect the cause of traffic decline accurately. 

For instance, the label for a large drop previously stated "Site-level technical issue (Manual Action, strong algorithmic changes)." This has been revised to "Large drop from an algorithmic update, site-wide security or spam issue." This distinction is crucial as manual actions and algorithmic changes aren't technical glitches.

Another noteworthy change involves the label for technical issues. Previously, it read "Page-level technical issue (algorithmic changes, market disruption)." The new label, "Technical issue across your site, changing interests," offers a broader explanation encompassing various factors beyond market disruption, such as products going out of style.

New section on algorithmic changes

Perhaps the most significant addition is a brand new section dedicated to algorithmic changes. This replaces the previously separate sections on policy violations and algorithm updates. The new section boasts a significant word count increase, offering a more comprehensive analysis.

One particularly helpful element is the breakdown of algorithmic update impact into two categories:

  • Small drop in position: This refers to a minor shift within the top results (e.g., dropping from position 2 to 4).
  • Large drop in position: This signifies a significant decline out of the top results for numerous search terms (e.g., dropping from position 4 to 29).

This distinction is valuable because the strategies for recovering from each scenario differ.

Here is the relevant excerpt of the documentation if you’re interested:

“Google is always improving how it assesses content and updating its search ranking and serving algorithms accordingly; core updates and other smaller updates may change how some pages perform in Google Search results. We post about notable improvements to our systems on our list of ranking updates page; check it to see if there’s anything that’s applicable to your site.

If you suspect a drop in traffic is due to an algorithmic update, it’s important to understand that there might not be anything fundamentally wrong with your content. To determine whether you need to make a change, review your top pages in Search Console and assess how they were ranking:

  • Small drop in position? For example, dropping from position 2 to 4.
  • Large drop in position? For example, dropping from position 4 to 29.

Keep in mind that positions aren’t static or fixed in place. Google’s search results are dynamic in nature because the open web itself is constantly changing with new and updated content. This constant change can cause both gains and drops in organic Search traffic.

Small drop in position
 A small drop in position is when there’s a small shift in position in the top results (for example, dropping from position 2 to 4 for a search query). In Search Console, you might see a noticeable drop in traffic without a big change in impressions.

Small fluctuations in position can happen at any time (including moving back up in position, without you needing to do anything). In fact, we recommend avoiding making radical changes if your page is already performing well.

Large drop in position
 A large drop in position is when you see a notable drop out of the top results for a wide range of terms (for example, dropping from the top 10 results to position 29).

In cases like this, self-assess your whole website overall (not just individual pages) to make sure it’s helpful, reliable, and people-first. If you’ve made changes to your site, it may take time to see an effect: some changes can take effect in a few days, while others could take several months. For example, it may take months before our systems determine that a site is now producing helpful content in the long term. In general, you’ll likely want to wait a few weeks to analyze your site in Search Console again to see if your efforts had a beneficial effect on [your] ranking position.

Keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that changes you make to your website will result in [a] noticeable impact on search results. If there’s more deserving content, it will continue to rank well with our systems.”

4. Improved recommendations (with a caveat)

The new guidance offers revised recommendations for tackling ranking drops caused by algorithmic updates. Here's a summary of the key points:

  • Review top pages in Search Console: Analyze how these pages were previously ranking.
  • Small drops: Avoid drastic changes if your page is already performing well. Fluctuations are normal, and positions can bounce back without intervention.
  • Large drops: Conduct a comprehensive website assessment to ensure it prioritizes user experience, trustworthiness, and value. Remember, changes take time to take effect in Google's systems. Revisit your SEO efforts in a few weeks to gauge their impact.
  • No guaranteed results: Even after implementing changes, there's no guarantee of a ranking boost. Google prioritizes the most relevant content.

While these recommendations are valuable, there are reservations. The guidance for large drops — reassessing the entire website — might not be universally applicable. In certain situations, there might not be issues to fix on your website itself, and Google's previous stance acknowledging this is seen as valuable.

5. Minor tweaks

The update concludes with minor revisions for improved clarity. Headings have been adjusted for better precision, such as "You recently moved your site" being replaced with "Site moves and migrations."

Key takeaways for SEOs and online businesses

Google's revamped ranking drop documentation offers a couple of valuable takeaways for SEOs and online businesses:

  • Focus on user-centric content: Google prioritizes content that delivers value and caters to user intent. Ensure your website prioritizes user experience, trustworthiness, and informative content.
  • Embrace long-term SEO: Ranking fluctuations are normal. Develop a sustainable SEO strategy that focuses on high-quality content and ongoing website optimization.
  • Recovery may not always be possible: While Google suggests diagnosing and fixing ranking drops, it also confirms that recovery may not always be possible as Google will prioritize the most relevant content for a query.
  • Small drops vs. big drops: Small fluctuations on SERPs are normal and can normalize without intervention. Bigger drops may require a sitewide assessment.