“My traffic dropped! What should I do?”
This is a panicked question I get at least once a month from colleagues, students & folks who book consulting calls.
Most times, people come to me because they got an email from Analytics or Search Console that says their traffic is down, or a widget in a marketing dashboard pointed it out … and the fear sets in. What if they’ve worked super hard to grow their traffic and suddenly it’s disappearing?! But they don’t know where to start to figure out what went wrong.
So I’m sharing the step-by-step process I use to figure out what happened and how to fix it:
Step 1: evaluate the decrease
Take a look at the initial data that alerted you to the drop-off. If you’re looking at less than a month, this might just be a typical dip – not indicative of major problems.
Then look up that same period of time in your Google Analytics dashboard, under Acquisition > Overview.
Make sure the dates match by using the time selector in the upper right-hand corner – you may need to shift around the “compare” dates to get the same dates that your initial report is using.
And ask yourself:
Is this a drop, or regulation after a spike?
I launched a new product in February and had a surge in people visiting my website. I didn’t launch in March, so the reports would look like there was a fall in traffic, but really it’s just traffic normalizing. The spike is the outlier, not the drop.
is this a cyclical or seasonal trend?
If you specialize in Halloween costumes — even if you have the best content in the world — you’ll see a dropoff in November. Fitness sites see a boost in January and a decrease by March. Gardening sites are more popular in spring and summer and go dormant in winter. Know your industry and seasonal trends to decrease panic!
did anything unusual happen in the previous period?
If your site got hit by a spam bot, you’ll see a giant shift in referral traffic for a day or two (then usually your software or security plugin will recognize the problem and block the blot).
This client averaged 100 people a day, then one day got a spambot hit of 1470 users … so the next month looked like a 40% drop when everything was completely normal.
step 2: find out where the behavior changed
If there isn’t an obvious answer yet, let’s dig a little deeper and ask two more questions: which landing pages saw a drop? And from whence did the traffic drop? (Yes, I seriously just said “from whence.” I’m a grammar badass.)
Which source decreased?
Let’s start by looking at a more detailed report: Go to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels:
Scroll down to the table area, and you can review which of your traffic channels had a drastic drop. This client had a 50% drop in both direct & social traffic:
There’s not a whole lot we can deduce about direct traffic — by its nature of being just “whoever typed the website into the browser,” we don’t know how those people know us! — but we can dive deeper into that 50% drop in social traffic by clicking on the word “social” and looking at the next report:
This table shows that most of the change came from drops in Facebook and Instagram traffic. It’s possible that this client either (a) didn’t post as much on those platforms in April as they did in March (thus leading to fewer click-throughs) OR (b) their April posts were more interesting.
Let’s assume that the client behavior was consistent, and take a look at when the users were visiting from these platforms. I’m gonna click on the little buttons next to Facebook and Instagram and click the “Plot Rows” button right above the table:
And then the line graph will show you not just your overall social traffic, but also plot out your specific social traffic for every day:
This client had 93 Facebook clicks on March 30th, so now we can look at what they posted on Facebook that day to determine what’s working for their content.
Where aren’t they going?
Another good way to slice up this data is not only to look at where your users are coming from but also what their point of entry is. Go to Behavior > Site Content > Landing pages (which is the first page that people are visiting on your website):
And you can see at a glance which pages people are visiting on your site over a month, and how that’s changed over the previous time period:
Once you figure out which pages are seeing a decrease in traffic, you can then cross-reference this information with the acquisition data to see where these two tables overlap! Right above the words landing page, there’s a button that says “Secondary dimension.” Click on that and scroll/type “Default Channel Grouping“:
And then your table will display not only your landing page but also where those people were coming from!
So in the original landing page report, this client’s homepage had a 29.87% decrease, from 673 sessions in March to 472 in April. Why the drop?
Well, fewer people came directly, but more people came from Google!
What if you see a decrease in organic traffic? How can we trace that back to the root cause?
Ooooh, now we get to use my favorite tool: Google Search Console!
Search Console is like a step-child to Google Analytics: While Analytics tells you what happens after people land on your website, Search Console tells you what happens before — including every phrase that people have searched for (even the ones where they didn’t click on your website in the search results).
Unfortunately, Google Search Console doesn’t have the time comparison reports like Google Analytics to make this easier for us, so instead we have to do some digging. The good news is that Google Analytics has already told us which landing page has less organic traffic, so we can narrow it down by page.
Head into your Search Console, then go to the Performance Report. Along the top, the default filter is “Date: Last 3 months” → set this date range to include both time periods over which the drop is displayed. So if the drop is reported for March compared to April, set the date range to a time period that includes both March and April.
Once the date range has been set, click the + button and add a filter to only look at search traffic to the specific page your Google Analytics identified as seeing a drop. You can either copy-paste the URL and choose “exact,” or just include one word/phrase from the URL and choose “contains.” In this case, I’m going to look at all the pages on this site that include the word “budget” in the URL. You should now see a chart that shows both the clicks in blue (the people who clicked through to your website) and the impressions in purple (people who saw your website in their search results):
Click the button next to the boxes for “Average position” until it turns orange → this will add the average position for every single keyword in the charge below
Then scroll down to the table below the chart and you can see every single search that your website has shown up in search results, where your website ranked, and how many people saw vs. clicked on your website:
Once you have this info, you can go into that page and optimize it for the keywords where you have a good position but not a great click-through rate … so I’d advise this client to update to include the phrases where she’s in position 1.5 or 1.8, since she’s getting <20% of the clicks. (This might mean changing the SEO title of the page to include those specific pages, or updating the post content to integrate these queries).
what if there’s no obvious cause for the drop in traffic?
If you’re seeing a drop in traffic overall — especially from search — but don’t see any particular red flags as you work through this process, here are two things to consider:
Maybe the drop is an industry trend, not specific to your website.
Take a look at Google Trends and see if people are less interested in your topic than they used to be. (Here’s my full tutorial about using Trends.) It can be a big letdown if there’s a turndown in traffic, but at least you have an answer that isn’t directly tied to your website performance.
Hire a consultant to look into the drop.
Still not seeing a clear pattern? Or don’t want to go through all these steps yourself? Book a call with our team and we can look through your traffic to figure it out together and come up with some solutions to get you back on track!