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Diagnosing Traffic Drops During a Crisis: Was It You, Google, or the Whole World?

Posted by Dr-Pete

We want to fix things and believe we’re in control. When your home is filling with sea, you grab a container. If there’s a loophole in your roof, the container might help. If your sag is overflowing, the pail is distracting you from the real problem. If the river is overflowing, that distraction could be deadly.

When traffic is falling, it’s easy to panic and focus on what you can control. Traffic isn’t merely a nice-to-have — it sets food on the table and the roof over your manager that keeps the water out. In the haste to solve the problem, though, we often don’t take the time to validate the problem we’re solving. Fixing the wrong problem is at best a waste of time and money, but at the worst could deepen the crisis.

In any crisis, and especially a world one, the first question you need to ask is: is it simply me, or is it the whole world? The answer won’t magically solve your problems, but it can keep you from making costly mistakes and start you on the way to a answer. Let’s start with a fundamental question πŸ˜› TAGEND (1) Did your traffic really drop-off?

My “fundamental” question might sound like a stupid question, especially given the wide impact of the COVID-1 9 pandemic, but it’s important to remember that traffic fluctuates all the time — there are still weekends and seasonality and plain, old regression to the mean. What goes up must come down, and as much as we’d like it is correct, business is not perpetually up and to the right.Using Google Analytics, let’s consider some paths we can validate a traffic lower. Here’s four weeks of GA data( March 1-28) for a site which was seriously impacted by COVID-1 9 πŸ˜› TAGEND

Given the known timeline of COVID-1 9( the WHO declared it a pandemic on March 11 ), the issue is as clean a picture of a traffic drop in the presence of a known cause as you’re going to get. Most situations are far messier. Even here, we’ve got the impact of weekends and day-to-day waverings. One quick-witted lane to get a cleaner view is to summarize the data by week( make sure your date-range coverings full weeks, or this data will be skewed ).

The trend is much clearer now. In a two week period, this website lost more than half of its traffic. I’m restricting the timeline for clarity, but as we gather more data, we can validate current trends pretty easily. The graph above handles all traffic sources. From an SEO perspective, let’s add in a traffic segment for Google traffic πŸ˜› TAGEND

This graph is just eight data points, but it tells us a lot. First, we can clearly see the trend. Second, we can see that the trend is almost identical for both Google traffic and overall traffic. Third, we can see that this site is very dependent on Google for traffic. Don’t underestimate what you can learn from small data, if it’s the privilege data.

This isn’t meant to be a GA primer, but let’s look at one last question: Is this traffic drop seasonal? Typically, your own industry experience and hunch would come into play, but one quick lane to spot this is to compare year-over-year traffic. One note: match your full weeks so that you’re handling the same amount of weekdays vs weekends. In this case, I’ve altered the 2019 assortment to the four full weeks of March 3-30 …

This isn’t the easiest graph to read, and I probably wouldn’t threw it in a report to a client, but you can see from the light-green and purple lines that both overall traffic and Google traffic for this locate was pretty flat last year during March. This really does seem to be an unusual situation. Even if we knew nothing about the context and COVID-1 9, we could tell from just a few minutes of analysis that something serious is going on here.

(1b) Did your higher-rankings lowering?

As a investigation marketer, and given that we’ve clearly evaluated a Google traffic drop-off, the next question is whether this decline were attributed to a loss of rankings( we’ll get to other explanations in a moment ). In Moz Pro, one quick style to assess overall weekly investigation visibility is to use either the main view under “Rankings” or go to the “Competition” tab. I like the competitive belief, because you can quickly see if any modifications impacted your broader industry …

I’ve simplified this view a little bit( and removed the site’s and competitors’ names for privacy reasons ), but the basic story is clear — neither the area in question nor its competitors seemed to have any drop in visibility during March.

For a richer view, go back to the “Rankings” tab and select “Rankings”( instead of “Search Visibility”) from the drop-down. You’ll read a graph that seems something like this …

This visualization takes some getting used to, but it contains a affluence of information. The barrooms represent total grading keywords/ phrases, and the coloring blocks depict you the ranking assortment( appreciate the legend ). Here we can see that overall rankings have been relatively stable, with even some small-scale gains in the #1-3 bucket.

If your report is connected to Google Analytics, you can also overlay traffic during the same period, which is shown by the dark gray line. Dual-scale graphs can get tricky, but this visualization really makes it clear that there’s a mismatch between the traffic drop for this site and their hunting rankings.

(2) Did Google do something ?!

Usually, when we ask[ requirement/ shout/ sob] this question, we mean “Did Google do something to the algorithm to build my life miserable? ” We can argue about whether Google is trying to make their own lives miserable at another time( preferably, when the bars re-open ), but the core question is valid. Did Google change the algorithmic rules in a way that’s negatively impacting your area?

For large-scale algorithm updates, you can check our own Google Algorithm History page. For smaller/ daily updates, you can check our MozCast research project. While having a gut-check against major changes can be very useful, the messy truth is that Google higher-rankings are a real-time phenomenon that’s altering minute-by-minute. In 2018 alone, Google reported 3,234 “improvements” to search.

Keep in brain that all Google algorithm tracking tools are based, to some degree, on fluctuations in higher-rankings. In our lesson scenario, we’re not encountering grading changes. Let’s pretend, though, that “were having” seen a traffic plummet with a corresponding ranking decline, and we’re trying to determine if it’s merely us or if something varied with Google.

Here’s a graph of MozCast data from my analysis of the January 2020 Core Update …

In this case, we’ve got a pretty clear three-day period of ranking fluctuations. If our traffic lowered over this period, it’s not absolute proof that an algorithm update is to blame, but it’s a solid, trained guess and a useful starting point.

Let’s look at the two weeks around when COVID-1 9 was declared a global pandemic …

I’ve stopped the same scale and 30 -day average reference( from a relatively quiet interval early this year ). Note that algorithmic activity( i.e. ranking flux) is route up compared to the period before and after the January Core Update. One period( March 18) doesn’t even fit on the scale of the original graph and came in at 104 degF on MozCast.

What does all of this mean? It’s possible that Google is changing the algorithm rapidly to address the broader changes in the world, but I strongly suspect that all countries of the world itself is impacting this flux. Areas are changing rapidly, adding and removing products and content, report informants have dramatically altered their coverage, and some business are closing totally. On top of that, we’re seeing an unprecedented switching in searcher and buyer behavior.

Algorithm flux can be a useful answer to the question “Is it simply me, or is it Google? ” during normal times, but all that it’s telling us right now is that the world has turned upside-down. While that’s an accurate rating, it’s not particularly helpful. If you’d like to hear more about the impact of COVID-1 9 on Google rankings, check out “SEOs talk COVID-1 9 search disruption” from Barry Schwartz with myself, Marie Haynes, Olga Andrienko, and Mordy Oberstein.

If traffic has plummeted, but higher-rankings haven’t, it’s likewise possible that the behaviours of searchers has changed. We are able to obtain some insights into this by employing Google Search Console. Here’s the graph of total clicks for our instance area from March 1-28( corresponding with the GA data) …

As expected, total clicks on Google ensues demonstrate roughly the same trend as Google organic traffic in GA. Total clicks are a function of two variables, though:( 1) search impressions, and( 2) click-through rate( CTR ). Let’s look at those individually. Here’s the graph of total impress for these periods …

Now we’re getting somewhere — there’s an overall drop in impress. This isn’t just about the example website, but searcher behavior before they even appreciate or click on that site. People are scouring less for the phrases that drive traffic to our instance locate. Finally, let’s look at CTR …

CTR has also declined, even a bit steeper than impressions. This is a bit harder to interpret. Knowing what we know, it’s likely that people are clicking less because of overall deficiency of interest. This is determined in accordance with the COVID-1 9 scenario. People are less likely to be looking for the service this website offers. On the other hand, it could be that something about the site or the competitive scenery has changed that’s driving down CTR.

If you find a CTR drop without a corresponding impression plunge, examine recent changes to the site, especially varies that have been able to impact what’s displayed in search results( including your TITLE tags and META descriptions ). In this case, though, it’s reasonable to assume that we’re looking at an overall drop in demand.

(3) Has the world gone mad?

Spoiler alert: yes, yes it has.

The Google Search Console data above has already suggested that we’re seeing a shift in the wider world and searcher behavior, but if you want to get outside of your own data, you can explore the world a bit with Google Trends. For example, here’s a Google Trends search for “movie tickets” for March 1-28 …

Not amazingly, searcher interest in movie tickets refused crisply after the COVID-1 9 outbreak. People who aren’t going to movies aren’t going to be searching for showtimes and ticket prices. Google Trends data can be spotty in the long-tail, and we can’t inevitably attribute current trends to an event, but non-brand trends are a good supporting data point for whether your traffic plunge is isolated to your locate or is impacting your broader industry.

One final tip-off — everything discussed in this post can also be used to explore a traffic increase. Even during COVID-1 9, traffic has been an increase for many the issues and sites. For example, here’s the Google Trends data for “how to cut hair” from the same March 1-28 time period …

Whether or not slouse your own hair is a good idea, people are emphatically demonstrating more those who are interested in the topic( I acknowledge I’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos myself ). We don’t normally dive deep into traffic increases — it’s too easy to only sit back and take the credit. I think this is a big mistake. Understanding whether a traffic increase was conducted in accordance with alters you shaped or broader market shiftings can help you understand what you’ve done right so that you can replicate that success.

The big picture is everything

Over the last few years, I’ve heard more people say things like “I don’t care about traffic, I care about conversions! ” or “I don’t care about Google rankings, as long as I’m getting traffic! ” Our gradual move toward bottom-of-funnel metrics induces sense — we’re all trying to make a living. Taken to extreme, though, we lose valued knowledge. Focusing on changeovers is certainly better than focusing on “hits” a la 1998, but no single metric tells the whole story.

Let’s say that the only thing you track is causes. Results are where the money is. Marketings are up, results are up, times are good. Great. Inevitably, catastrophe strikes( even if it’s a minor disaster ), and your leads decline. What do you do? You’ve cut off your ability to read anything but the last chapter of the narrative. You know how it purposes, but you don’t know how you got there. Without understanding the footpath from makes back to inspects back to higher-rankings back to intuitions, you’re not going to see the whole story, and you’re not going to know where things went wrong.

Even when times are good, this approach is short-sighted. Sales-focused culture establishes a propensity to celebrate the wins and not ask too many questions. If traffic is going up, why is it going up? What content or keywords are driving that traffic? What industry trends are driving that traffic? If you can answer those questions, you can replicate success. If you can’t, then you’re going to have to start from scratch as soon as the celebration ends( and the celebration always aims ).

It may be cold comfort to know that your entire industry or the whole world is suffering with you, but I hope that this process at least prevents you from securing the wrong things and constructing costly mistakes. Ideally, this process can help you uncover areas that may be trending upward or at least help you focus your time and money on what’s working.

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