Rankings=Traffic: A False Dichotomy

So many SEO conversations are centered on what I find to be a ranking-traffic dichotomy.

The conversation usually goes like this:

“Oh no, I lost traffic, what do I do?!”
“Your rankings must have dropped, check your rankings!”
“Did we get a penalty?”
“Umm… Did Joe remove the 1,000 words of hidden text from your homepage?”
“Mary, Call the IT Dept. NOW!”
“Maybe its Panda, duplicate content, black hat, link-farms, article spinning….”

And for some reason I picture this happening to the SEO’s head:

Ouch. Gory.

Pause. Deep Breath

No no no. Wait, hold on now a minute. Let’s back up. You’re caught in ranking-focused SEO, NOT holistic thinking SEO.

Rankings-Traffic are not mutually exclusive. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. SEO is a complex eco-system, much like the deep sea or galaxies, in which cause-result is almost never that simple. I’m not saying there’s never a simple explanation for a dip in traffic, just lots of un-obvious simple explanations. The explanations can follow a cause->result pattern but often the causes might not be what we expect.

Three Alternative Causes of Traffic Loss

The following shows three possible other places to look, for causes of a drop in traffic, and what may have caused those three things.

traffic loss seo

For SEO’s I think it is extremely important to think this way. To stop thinking in terms of just rank->traffic. Its important to think of where those rankings come from in the first place, and all the OTHER factors that affect traffic.

There’s tons of tools to check these things. I’m not (yet) an “SEO-guru-ninja-tools-guy”, so beware that these may be familiar. I’m open to more advanced tools to check for these sorts of things. But always keep in mind, at the end of the day its not the tools that matter, but your mindset and approach. This post is more for a high level analysis, to step back and get a broad look at things.


1.For Historical Search Volume Changes, and Possible Causes

Google Insight for Search

– For checking historical search volume. You can narrow down across category, location and compare multiple terms.

Google Keyword Tool

– If the brand is well known enough I like to check search volume for the brand, in variations, and also check mobile device search volume for brand search.

Google News Search

– Use queries like:

First narrow the date to around when the dip in traffic occurred.

“-site:www.mybrand.com “mybrand.com” review | bad | hate | trouble | banned”

You can play with these searches to try and dig up news stories related to the brand or category, that correlate with drops in traffic. Or:

“-site:www.mybrand.com “product keyword” banned | recall | review”

You get the idea, yes?

Google Advanced Books Search

– See if a well known author endorsed a competitor, or competing product – or wrote something negative about your brand or your brand’s product category.

Google Blog Search

– See if an influential blogger may have had an effect on brand or category reputation.

Wikipedia Extreme Weather Archive

– Maybe a severe weather event caused less queries for your brand or brand’s category. You never know.

Excel for SEOs

– I’m a huge fan of taking the raw tools and adapting to fit your needs. With the info in this excellent article on some advanced featured for Excel, you can combine and crunch your data from Analytics, Insight, Webmaster Tools and rankings reports, however you see fit to analyze the situation.


2.For Click Through Rate Changes and Possible Causes

Google Webmaster Tools

– Get Click Through Rate and Impressions for Your Site

Slingshot SEO CTR Study

– Fantastic CTR study by SlingshotSEO.

Analytics and Webmaster Tools Integration Pilot

– Sign up for the pilot integration of Webmaster Tools and Analytics

Track Rankings in Analytics

– Add a custom filter to Google Analytics to track rankings with each keyword. Of course this doesn’t work retroactively, but its a good idea to begin tracking now to have this information moving forward.


3.Errors in Traffic Reports

Tracking Error Pages in Analytics

– Google’s help documentation on tracking error pages.

Another Good Article on Tracking Broken Pages

– Set up proper tracking for 404s and broken links.

Is Google Analytics Lying to You?

– From the Seer Interactive blog, a fascinating article on the accuracy of Google Analytics. Why you should always verify the data, especially when something doesn’t fit.


An Alternative Solution: Boost Conversions

Unless your site has dried up like a Nevada desert, what about conversions? What about taking the traffic you still have and work to increase conversion, or lifetime value of customer, or repeat visits?

Google Website Optimizer

– A/B and Multivariate test your pages to optimize conversion.


– A/B test without IT.

Conversion Rate Experts

– Another fantastic resource for conversion rate optimization.

Distilled Blog, Conversion Rate Optimization Category

– Posts from Distilled’s SEO blog on conversion rate optimization.

Add a Questionnaire to Your Site

– Find out what your existing traffic thinks with this questionnaire plugin for WordPress. Or use Survery Monkey and check out this tutorial on adding a survey to your website.


En Conclusion

This is important because it effects the way in which we might seek to correct a dip in traffic (or whether we even need to), and how we might work to prevent it in the future. Its time to free ourselves from the knee-jerk assumptions that lost rankings must be the cause of lost traffic, and investigate losses in traffic in a holistic manner with an open mind.

Don’t be a ranking-focused SEO, be a holistic thinking SEO. And stop blaming the cute little cuddly bear.

About Dan Shure

Hi! I'm Dan Shure. I write all of the posts and host all of the podcast episodes you'll find on the Evolving SEO blog. Say hello on Twitter @dan_shure!

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