It’s never a good feeling to log in to check your Google Analytics one day and see your traffic dropping. It’s even worse when you see a downward trend and have no idea why it’s happening. There’s only so much you can diagnose, particularly if you haven’t made any major changes, and neither has Google.
Whether or not you know what went wrong, here are a whole bunch of steps you can take to counteract the decline and recover your lost traffic. You won’t always be able to do all of them, but you should be able to do most of them, and that will give you quite a bit of search benefit even if you aren’t suffering from a decline.
1. Combine Similar Posts
Google doesn’t really like when a site has too many posts covering the same topic. It’s one thing if they’re spread out over a couple years, chronicling a changing industry. It’s another if they’re all evergreen content that largely doesn’t change. It starts to look like the content was spun, either by a sophisticated piece of software or by hand.
From a user standpoint, it’s reasonable to understand why too-similar content is unhelpful. When you’re presented with two pieces of content covering the same topic by the same writer, which one do you choose to read? The most recent one would be the best guess, but what if there’s no publication date listed? If they’re of similar length, it’s even worse. This indecision splits your traffic into less enthused segments.
One way to handle this is to pick one of the posts to make into the primary post. Read through both posts and edit the primary post to include any unique details or thoughts from the secondary post. Then remove the secondary post and redirect the URL to the primary post.
2. Expand Short Posts
Much has been written about the optimal length of content for various platforms. A tweet, obviously, has a limited amount of space. Did you know that the ideal Facebook post tends to be even shorter than a tweet? Buffer’s study up there showed that a 40-character post is ideal for Facebook engagement.
What about blogs? Google doesn’t like short posts, because they end up looking like thin content. Anything under 800 is really short and doesn’t have the space to have much value. Buffer’s study claims that the ideal blog post is closer to 1,600 words. Some successful blogs publish once per week, but their posts are closer to 5,000 words.
In any case, if your blog has a large number of posts under 1,500 words, you should consider going back and expanding them. You can typically add more content, more data, and more analysis to expand a post and give it more value. Google will see the change and give it a new lease on life.
Some short posts just don’t have anything you can do to expand them. That’s okay! You have options. You can leave them as they are. You can remove them entirely, if they’re not valuable. You can combine them with similar topics and make a larger post. The choice is yours. As long as the average length of posts on your site is going up, you’re improving.
3. Remove Copied Posts
If you have an old blog, or you purchased your content from freelancers or ghostwriters on a content mill, you might want to double check to see if any of your content is copied. You might have checked when you bought the content, or you might have trusted your writers when perhaps you shouldn’t have.
Copied content is, of course, bad for your site. There are two forms of copied content, however. The first is when another site published first, and the second is when you published first. We’ll cover the second a bit later.
When your site is not the originator of the content, Google knows. They don’t care about the upload date or publication date on your posts, because that can be changed. They only care about when they first indexed the content. If a piece of content on your site was indexed on another site first, it had better be properly syndicated if you want to avoid a penalty. Chances are you’re not a syndicator, so you should probably just remove the content.
How can you identify content that is published elsewhere on the web? There are a number of tools, but the simples is just CopyScape. CopyScape is a well known and widespread plagiarism scanner, and will see if excerpts from your site are found on other sites. This can also help you identify on-site duplicate content issues you might not know you have.
4. Remove Poorly Syndicated Content
Article syndication was a potent SEO technique for a few years, but it has grown much less effective for all but the biggest sites recently. Someone like Yahoo or a news site can get away with it; a professional blog, not so much.
There’s a right way to do article syndication. The key is to use Google’s canonical tags properly, so Google knows what the real source of the content is. If you have any content on your site that was syndicated from another source, regardless of how old it is or how broadly the text explains the original source, you need a canonical tag referencing the original source. Remember, Google is essentially a giant robot; you need to give it commands in a way it can interpret and follow.
If any of your content is syndicated externally, check in the code of the site to see if it has canonical tags implemented. If it does, leave it be. If it doesn’t, consider notifying the site owner to have them implemented. You might also consider removing the content from your site, so it looks more like a guest post than syndicated content. Which route you take is up to you.
5. Get Stolen Content Removed
I mentioned that I’d get to this later, and here it is. Any time you publish a piece of content, it can be stolen by other people online. Black hat spammers often steal content in pieces or wholesale, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. There’s no good way to protect your content from theft. You could embed it in Flash or as an image, but that prevents Google from indexing it, which is worse.
Identifying content stolen from your site is easy enough; CopyScape will do it for past posts, and setting up a Google Alert will do it for future thefts. The important thing is to realize that it’s probably not hurting you that much to have stolen content out there. The only reason removing it is on this checklist is that it’s good to do a little housekeeping. As I mentioned, Google knows you published first, and thus anyone else is probably stealing it.
The first step to removing the stolen content is to use a contact form on the offending website to notify them that it’s stolen and should be removed. Sometimes it’s an unscrupulous freelancer selling stolen content, and the site owner never knows. If that’s the case, it should be resolved easily.
If you need to take things one step further, you can contact the web host of the offending site. Usually, a web host has a clause in their terms of service explicitly banning content theft, and they will help take down the content. If all else fails, you can file a DMCA takedown.
6. Update Outdated Posts
Sometimes you have content on your site that’s perfectly fine in length and quality, it makes it through all of the other previous steps, and it’s still useless to you. It might have been valuable at one time, it might even have some traffic and links even now, but it’s out of date and it has faded from relevance.
The solution to this problem is to revamp the content. Keep the URL, keep the title, you can even keep the old content if you want. You can either add a lengthy update to the front or back of the content, or you can edit the whole thing and bring it up to date.
Make sure, if you’re updating your content, that you actually tell users you’ve updated it. A large heading at the top will serve the purpose, as will a ping to Google to let them know the content has been updated. A new wave of social shares is icing on the cake.
7. Implement Proper Redirects for Changed Content
Redirects are incredibly important if you’re changing anything dramatically enough. If you change your domain name, redirects are crucial. If you’re moving or merging posts, redirecting the old URL to the new one is very helpful to maintain link value.
8. Remove Links to Poor Sites
The first seven steps were all about content. You could consider them something of a comprehensive content audit. Now it’s time to move on, and deal with your links.
Links are the backbone of the Internet, and they’re very important to Google. You need to do them properly if you want to thrive. The first thing you should do is gather up a list of pages you link to throughout your site. You can do this with a tool like Ahrefs.
Take a look at the domains you link to throughout your site. How many of them are sites that no longer exist, sites that have changed, pages that no longer exist, or domains that have been parked? These are all valueless links. You should remove them and replace them with links to better content.
9. Remove or Change Links to Bad Content
The other thing to look for are domains that are low quality or spam. If they seem to have valuable content, maybe that content was stolen, and you can find the originator. If they don’t have valuable content, just remove the link.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether a particular site is spam or not. Honestly, most of the time you can just run with links to valid content and they won’t hurt you much. If you’re not sure you really want to keep the link, but you can’t find content to replace it, add the nofollow attribute to the link. This keeps Google from passing any link authority to the other site.
10. Remove or Disavow Bad Incoming Links
Links from your site out don’t necessarily hurt you unless you’re regularly participating in a black hat link scheme. The links that can hurt you are links coming in from poor quality sites. I’m not talking about sites with poor PageRank; I’m talking sites that are legitimately spam. This can happen because of a bad link exchange, a negative SEO attack, or stolen content with links to other pages on your site embedded in it.
Again, you’ll want to turn to a tool like Ahrefs to pull a backlink profile. This time, you’ll want to check over the links coming in to your site. Identify links coming from spam sites, parked domains, blog networks, paid posts, dead directories, and irrelevant sites. Even if some of these links are beneficial now, Google keeps updating Penguin, and they will eventually become toxic.
The process for dealing with them looks roughly like this:
- Identify which links should be removed and sort them by domain. Compile them into a list or table.
- Send a message to the owner of each domain with the explanation that you own your site, your site is under a Google penalty, and you have identified links you would like removed. Give them those links.
- Check back later and identify links that have not been removed. Compile a list of the worst, most harmful of them and submit them to Google’s Disavow tool. The rest can be largely ignored.
11. Trim Down Excess Keyword Usage
Keywords used to be in much greater focus for SEO than they are today. A lot of old posts – and I mean a ton, including basically everything written by a content mill for literal years – has a keyword density somewhere in the assignment or the mind of the person who wrote it.
Here’s the thing about keyword density: it generally doesn’t matter. There’s no magic formula, no specific density that helps you rank above the rest. However, any content more than a couple years old probably emphasized keywords more than is right to do today.
The problem that persists today, and that can escape a content audit like what we went through above, is the keyword usage in meta data. You need to analyze your meta titles, meta descriptions, and meta keywords sections.
Meta titles are okay to use one keyword in, but should be a human-readable and valuable title for the post. Typically it’s a good idea to just use the title of the blog post. Meta descriptions can have two or so keywords, so long as they don’t stand out and are valuable. Think of it as an elevator pitch for the content. Or, realistically, the Google snippet. It’s what people judge the quality of your content by.
As for the meta keywords section, blank it out. That thing hasn’t been used in a non-spam way for half a decade. Scrap it, get rid of it, out with it. Forget it exists.
12. Speed up Site Loading Times
There’s some debate today over how much a fast site affects your SEO. One thing I can tell you is that if you had a fast site, and it’s suddenly slow, your traffic will drop. Your ranking might not drop, because it’s a minor change in the algorithm, but it’s important for actual users.
I recommend auditing the plugins and scripts running on your page. Broken scripts or too many scripts are the primary offenders in a slow site. The second biggest offender is loading media content upfront. Lazy load that content, or contract a third party CDN like Akamai to do the hosting and loading for you. There are other methods you can use, as well, but they have less of an impact.
13. Update to a Responsive Design
One of Google’s recent changes, and a reason many sites lost a lot of ranking and traffic, is their renewed focus on mobile compatibility. Ostensibly, it only affects the mobile search ranking for sites, which is distinct from the desktop search. However, it’s both a search engine factor and a user experience factor, so you should get it sorted out as quickly as possible.
While you can use a dedicated mobile site, I strongly recommend a responsive mobile design. They look a lot better on larger mobile devices like small tablets and phablets. They have a smoother scaling from desktop to phone. They work better, they look better, and they’re generally easier to maintain. Plus, they’re nowhere near as costly as they once were, so you can easily hire a web developer to implement a new design for you.
14. Remove Outdated Plugin Code
I covered this briefly in the site speed section, but plugins are a blessing and a curse for webmasters. They allow you to do all kinds of things, from heatmaps to analytics to widgets and comments and spam filtering. However, every plugin slows down your site, as minor as it may be. Every plugin is also a potential vulnerability in your site, which can lead to intrusion.
At least every six months, you should audit your plugins. Check for any that you don’t use and remove them. For those that remain, check for when they were last updated. If they haven’t been updated in over a year, get rid of them and get a new replacement. If they have updates, apply them. This helps keep your site safe, as well as fast.
15. Address Any Manual Google Penalties
Many of the penalties addressed by the above steps are algorithmic penalties, like Panda and Penguin. These aren’t really penalties; they’re just changes to the way things are sorted, forcing you to adapt. It’s like having a spreadsheet with 100 columns, and sometimes Google decides to sort the data by a different column. If you’ve been focusing on one set, and Google uses another, you need to buff up those other columns to compete.
Actual penalties, in Google parlance, are Manual Actions. These show up in Google Webmaster Tools, under the Manual Actions section, under Search Traffic. There are a bunch of possible penalties, ranging from unnatural links to cloaking to a hacked site or malware warning. Google will happily lift the penalty when you fix the issue, and they provide steps at the link above to help you deal with the issue.
If you’ve done all of the previous steps and still haven’t recovered, check your Webmaster Tools, look for manual actions, and get them taken care of as soon as possible.