It’s happened to all of us. You wake up one morning feeling like a million bucks, you stretch and if you’re like me, you notice the eye-rolling as once again your significant other catches you with a toothbrush dangling from your mouth and a laptop or iPhone in front of you while you check rankings and emails. And then it happens – you start your browser with a search phrase already set to display and you notice that your site no longer holds it’s previous position and the move is not in the right direction. We’ve all faced it and the longer you’ve been an SEO or website owner the more times you’ve seen it happen. But still … what do you do? To quote the immortal Douglas Adams, "Don’t panic."
Believe me – I know how hard it is sometimes. It’s easy for me to say this to clients when I see an engine fluctuating or a site has dropped only a position or two and we’re working to react but it’s a completely different thing when it happens to you and (might I add) a good reminder to SEO’s as to what our clients go through. But I still haven’t answered the question have I? What do you do? What … do … you … do?
There are five basic steps one must take when their site drops (I like to keep things simple and a 5 step check-list is a great way to do that). These steps assume that to start with you had a well-optimized website with good SEO practices followed. If you don’t then the reasons you dropped are pretty clear but if you’ve got a well-optimized site and your site has fallen – then this is for you. You should:
1 – Build Links
It’s very difficult for people to not want to do something proactive when they notice their site drop. I know – I’ve been there. One of the easiest things to do to keep yourself busy while working on the other 4 steps below is to build links. Building good, solid links to your site will never hurt and will only help you out so even if one of the later steps might show you other actions you need to take (or not take) you’ll never go wrong with some solid link building and if nothing else – it’ll make you feel like you’re doing something and stop you from doing other things that might do you more harm than good.
I’m not going to go into all the different types of links you could build or what the anatomy of a good link is. Many articles, forums and blog posts have been written in the past and are easily found online. I’m sure if you monitor a few good SEO forums you’ll find more being written every day. If you can – find articles by Eric Enge. While he doesn’t give it all away (who does?) – you won’t go wrong taking his advice and even seasoned SEO’s are likely to learn a thing or two from reading his work.
2 – Relax For A Couple Days
Before you rush to your favorite site editing tool – relax. Slight tweaks in content are unlikely to make much of a difference (if any) to your rankings. If you’ve got solid, well-optimized content and suddenly your site’s fluctuating – cramming in a few more instances of your targeted phrase will likely do more harm than good.
Now – when I say relax I basically mean, don’t touch your site. There are steps (such as link building) that you can work on including the analytical work noted below. Just don’t go editing all your copy to try to chase some tweak in Google’s algorithm. Relax.
3 & 4 – Analyze The Sites That Have Out-Ranked You (Onsite And Offsite)
One of the best things you can do is to take a look at the sites that are out-ranking you to find out what they’ve done. This will tell you two things: One – are there some good tactics that you’re missing, and Two – are these rankings likely to hold or are they flawed? There are two areas you’ll want to look at and those are the onsite optimization and the backlinks.
When you’re looking at the onsite optimization you need to only briefly look at their keyword densities, H1 and title tags, internal linking structure, number of indexed pages and the amount of content on the page. Remember: I’m assuming that (as you were ranking previously) you have a solidly optimized website with some good SEO practices
and content guidelines followed. If you look at these and compare the newly ranking sites with your site and with other sites that have held their positions and dropped you’ll get a feel for whether there are trends. If there are common traits among the sites that have moved up then you may be on to something. Remember the common trends among the sites that have climbed and held and also remember what they have that the sites that have dropped do not. Remember: there may be no common trends or nothing you can find out with this small a sample. Once this step is complete it’s time to move on to backlink analysis.
Backlink analysis is a good practice to undertake every few months regardless of updates but definitely necessary now that you’re dropping. What you need to do now is to analyze the backlinks of the sites that are out-ranking you. Depending on the competition level this can be a brutal task in that it’s not just about numbers. You should use Yahoo!’s link:www.domain.com command and visit many of the sites in your comeptitors backlinks. What you’re trying to do is get a full view of what their links look like. You’ll also want to download SEO Link Analysis (A Firefox extension you’ll find at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/7505/). When you’re doing a backlink check it automatically displays the PageRank and anchor text of the backlinks though I’d still HIGHLY recommend visiting a good many of the sites to see what kind of links they are.
Once again you’re going to be looking for the architecture of the backlinks of the sites that are moving up. What tactics they’re using, what their links look like on the page, what anchor text distribution they’ve got. Once again you’re going to compare that with other sites on the rise, your site and other stable sites to see what is common between those that are climbing and holding their grown vs those that have fallen.
Once we’ve collected this data it’s time to act. Collect all the common traits that the climbing and holding sites have and …
5 – Take Action
You’re done waiting around preforming the tedious task of link building. You’ve got your data and you’re ready to launch into action and get some stuff done. But wait (oh no – did he say wait again?) is action really the best thing?
When you’ve pooled your data you need to decide what it means. Let’s take for example a situation where the newly ranking sites have very low word counts and tons of footer links (looks paid to me). Do you REALLY want to follow their lead? The question you need to ask yourself in this case is do the factors that are apparently working RIGHT NOW overall going to provide better or worse results? Is less content more or less likely to results in a satisfied visitor? Do paid footer links help Google deliver quality results over the whole of the Internet? In these cases the answer is easily "no" but your findings might be more subtle such as an extremely disproportionate use of targeted anchor text among the ranking sites or sp@mmy copy with keyword densities at 8 or 10%.
What you’re in a position to do now is figure out a moving-forward strategy. If the common trends among the top and improving sites are bad or sp@mmy then you know the algorithm will correct itself eventually and you shouldn’t chase it. If you need to do something – build some additional links and look for new phrases to rank for on other pages to help stabilize your traffic when individual phrases decline.
If you find that the factors that have created the new results are legitimate and will lead to better results overall you know you need to make some changes to what you’re doing and fortunately – with the research you’ve just done you’ve got a great starting spot in that you can probably get some great resources and tactics from the lists of backlinks and onsite optimization you’ve just collected.
It may take hours or even days to properly perform this research but then – you needed something to do while your rankings are down. It might as well be productive.
About the author:
Dave Davies is the CEO of Beanstalk Search Engine Optimization, Inc. Beanstalk’s SEO services include full-services SEO packages, consulting, training, copywriting and link building. Dave has been involved in SEO since 2001, co-authored SitePoint’s SEM Kit, has spoken at SES and SMX events and hosts a weekly radio show on WebmasterRadio.fm.