6 Steps to Diagnosing Traffic Drops with Google Analytics

Every once in a while, a business can experience a drop in web traffic. Such a scenario probably wouldn’t be so troublesome if it weren’t for its negative effect on the business’s online sales, which is the whole point of having a website.

That’s why diagnosing the cause of the drop is crucial, so that the issue can be addressed and the website can get back on track.

Google periodically creates and modifies its search engine algorithm; these updates are essentially aimed at rooting out spammers, but they tend to affect the traffic of many honorable and decent websites in the process.

For this reason, web traffic drop diagnosis starts with the access to Google Analytics, which can provide an insight into the underlying problem that a website needs to resolve. Here are 6 steps you should take when you experience these unfavorable changes.

Step 1: Analyze the Traffic Drop

The first thing you need to do once you realized your traffic has dropped is to analyze closely the nature of the decline over a longer period of time.

You’ll be able to recognize whether the decline is steep and sudden (e.g. one day it was perfectly fine, and the next day it dropped by 50 percent) or it’s slow and steady (e.g. it just demonstrates consistent drop over the past month, without abrupt fluctuations).

Maybe the traffic drop only lasts for a couple of days and it begins to recover without your intervention?

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A better understanding of these possible scenarios determines whether you should panic and take action or relax and continue doing what you were doing so far.

In other words, a sudden and sharp drop that is not showing any signs of recovery might indicate your website got a Google penalty while a short drop that only lasted for a couple of days could mean that your website simply had some connectivity issues that had been fixed successfully.

Step 2: Identify Traffic Sources

Getting to the bottom of your traffic drop requires some detective work. Even though your first reaction is to try and diagnose the numbers, you should dig a bit deeper and find out where exactly you’re losing traffic.

In order to get these valuable insights, you have to consider the traffic sources.

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Simply go to the “Overview” section of Google Analytics dashboard and there you’ll get a breakdown of the main traffic source percentages.

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These generally include the following:

  • Direct traffic refers to those visitors that land on your website by typing your website’s URL directly into the search bar
  • Organic Traffic refers to the visitors who land on your site through a search engine (most notably, Google)
  • Paid traffic sums up all the visitors that had landed on your site thanks to paid advertisements (e.g. banner ads or Google AdWords)
  • Referral traffic is gained through the so-called “referral network”, i.e. visits referred to your website from another website that linked to you
  • Social traffic refers to visitors who landed on your site through social media channels

In order to locate those traffic sources that are experiencing a decline, click on the Reports tab, select “Acquisition”, then “All Traffic”, and “Channels.”

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You’ll get a list of all the sources and you’ll be able to click on each of them to view traffic levels. You can compare different traffic levels and detect which ones have suffered the decline, which could give you some idea of the underlying problem.

For example, if most traffic you usually get is Organic, and it’s suddenly dropped significantly, you might have gotten a Google Penalty.

So your next step is to check your Google Webmaster Tools account for a penalty notification. If, on the other hand, you’ve detected a decline in Social traffic, you might need to rethink your social media strategy.

Step 3: Consider the Types of Users

Diagnosing you audience’s behavior might be crucial to figuring out the reasons for the traffic drop. Just go to “Audience”, click on “Behavior” and then “New vs Returning” to get an overview of the numbers of new and returning visitors.

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If the number of new users has dropped, your visibility on Google might be compromised for some reason so you need to address your SEO (most notably, those areas related to keywords).

On the other hand, if the number of returning visitors is suddenly lower, there might be some issues with your site structure or technical difficulties that are affecting user experience.

Step 4: Identify Individual Areas that Suffered Most

If you’ve detected some issues in the previous steps, you should analyze the Site Content section more closely. It will give you an insight into the areas of your site that suffered the most damage. Go to “Behavior” section and then click on “Site Content.”

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Paying attention only to organic traffic (not the overall numbers), start by analyzing your most popular content first, continuing through the list, so you can single out those specific pages that experienced the most significant decline in a given time frame.

Step 5: Check Visits from Mobile Devices

Given that smartphones are increasingly used to browse the web, you might want to check whether your site is experiencing issues with mobile-friendliness.

Go to “Audience” section, click on “Mobile” and then “Devices” to get the overview of the traffic you’re getting from that specific platform.

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The numbers could discover that your website has lost its visibility because of the lack of traffic from mobile devices.

To analyze the issue further, you need to check the site’s mobile-friendliness, which can easily be done using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test:

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Type in the URLs from your website you’re suspicious about (due to some Google Analytics signals) so you can get to the bottom of the issue and adjust whatever is wrong.

Step 6: Put Things into Perspective

As we’ve mentioned at the beginning, traffic drops happen occasionally, due to different reasons.

While diagnosing a specific time frame when the decline actually took place is the first thing you need to do, you should also take a moment to put this sudden change into wider perspective.

In other words, consider the wider time frame (six months or a year) to get a clearer insight into the trends. Just go to the Google Analytics calendar and change the date range you want to analyze.

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You can also check the “Compare to” section to get a diagram that compares the metrics of the same date range in the previous period of your choice.

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You will be able to see the trends or certain conspicuous differences that might signal the reasons for concern.

On the other hand, you could recognize that the traffic drop occurs in the same date range every year, which simply indicates that the drop is related to your audience’s seasonal needs and habits.

Wrapping it Up

Even though you might be doing your best to follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines to the very last detail, you need to be aware that Google’s algorithm is susceptible to change and these updates happen often enough. One of the areas these changes can affect negatively is your website traffic.

Traffic drops are no picnic, so whenever they happen you must make sure to inspect the issue further in order to determine whether it’s time to panic or just false alarm.

Google Analytics is a reliable and thorough tool that helps you diagnose the underlying problem and take the necessary actions to recover your traffic.

Try not to make the same mistake twice, so keep monitoring your website traffic data on a regular basis. Consider the metrics we’ve listed through these six steps and track them to always keep your site’s “health” in check.