Google updated their guidance with five changes on how to debug ranking drops. The new version contains over 400 more words that address small and large ranking drops. There’s room to quibble about some of the changes but overall the revised version is a step up from what it replaced.

Change# 1: Downplays Fixing Traffic Drops

The opening sentence was changed so that it offers less hope for bouncing back from an algorithmic traffic drop. Google also joined two sentences into one sentence in the revised version of the documentation.

The documentation previously said that most traffic drops can be reversed and that identifying the reasons for a drop aren’t straightforward. The part about most of them can be reversed was completely removed.

Here is the original two sentences:

“A drop in organic Search traffic can happen for several reasons, and most of them can be reversed. It may not be straightforward to understand what exactly happened to your site”

Now there’s no hope offered for “most of them can be reversed” and more emphasis on understanding what happened is not straightforward.

This is the new guidance

“A drop in organic Search traffic can happen for several reasons, and it may not be straightforward to understand what exactly happened to your site.”

Change #2 Security Or Spam Issues

Google updated the traffic graph illustrations so that they precisely align with the causes for each kind of traffic decline.

The previous version of the graph was labeled:

“Site-level technical issue (Manual Action, strong algorithmic changes)”

The problem with the previous label is that manual actions and strong algorithmic changes are not technical issues and the new version fixes that issue.

The updated version now reads:

“Large drop from an algorithmic update, site-wide security or spam issue”

A line graph labeled "new version" showing a significant ranking drop following a Google update, related to a site-wide security or spam issue.

Change #3 Technical Issues

There’s one more change to a graph label, also to make it more accurate.

This is how the previous graph was labeled:

“Page-level technical issue (algorithmic changes, market disruption)”

The updated graph is now labeled:

“Technical issue across your site, changing interests”

Now the graph and label are more specific as a sitewide change and “changing interests” is more general and covers a wider range of changes than market disruption. Changing interests includes market disruption (where a new product makes a previous one obsolete or less desirable) but it also includes products that go out of style or loses their trendiness.

Graph titled "Google updates impact graph" showing a descending blue line, indicating a decrease in technical issues across a site or changing interests.

Change #4 Google Adds New Guidance For Algorithmic Changes

The biggest change by far is their brand new section for algorithmic changes which replaces two smaller sections, one about policy violations and manual actions and a second one about algorithm changes.

The old version of this one section had 108 words. The updated version contains 443 words.

A section that’s particularly helpful is where the guidance splits algorithmic update damage into two categories.

Two New Categories:

  • Small drop in position? For example, dropping from position 2 to 4.
  • Large drop in position? For example, dropping from position 4 to 29.

The two new categories are perfect and align with what I’ve seen in the search results for sites that have lost rankings. The reasons for dropping up and down within the top ten are different from the reasons why a site drops completely out of the top ten.

I don’t agree with the guidance for large drops. They recommend reviewing your site for large drops, which is good advice for some sites that have lost rankings. But in other cases there’s nothing wrong with the site and this is where less experienced SEOs tend to be unable to fix the problems because there’s nothing wrong with the site. Recommendations for improving EEAT, adding author bios or filing link disavows do not solve what’s going on because there’s nothing wrong with the site. The problem is something else in some of the cases.

Here is the new guidance for debugging search position drops:

Algorithmic update
Google is always improving how it assesses content and updating its search ranking and serving algorithms accordingly; core updates and other smaller updates may change how some pages perform in Google Search results. We post about notable improvements to our systems on our list of ranking updates page; check it to see if there’s anything that’s applicable to your site.

If you suspect a drop in traffic is due to an algorithmic update, it’s important to understand that there might not be anything fundamentally wrong with your content. To determine whether you need to make a change, review your top pages in Search Console and assess how they were ranking:

Small drop in position? For example, dropping from position 2 to 4.
Large drop in position? For example, dropping from position 4 to 29.

Keep in mind that positions aren’t static or fixed in place. Google’s search results are dynamic in nature because the open web itself is constantly changing with new and updated content. This constant change can cause both gains and drops in organic Search traffic.

Small drop in position
A small drop in position is when there’s a small shift in position in the top results (for example, dropping from position 2 to 4 for a search query). In Search Console, you might see a noticeable drop in traffic without a big change in impressions.

Small fluctuations in position can happen at any time (including moving back up in position, without you needing to do anything). In fact, we recommend avoiding making radical changes if your page is already performing well.

Large drop in position
A large drop in position is when you see a notable drop out of the top results for a wide range of terms (for example, dropping from the top 10 results to position 29).

In cases like this, self-assess your whole website overall (not just individual pages) to make sure it’s helpful, reliable and people-first. If you’ve made changes to your site, it may take time to see an effect: some changes can take effect in a few days, while others could take several months. For example, it may take months before our systems determine that a site is now producing helpful content in the long term. In general, you’ll likely want to wait a few weeks to analyze your site in Search Console again to see if your efforts had a beneficial effect on ranking position.

Keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that changes you make to your website will result in noticeable impact in search results. If there’s more deserving content, it will continue to rank well with our systems.”

Change #5 Trivial Changes

The rest of the changes are relatively trivial but nonetheless makes the documentation more precise.

For example, one of the headings was changed from this:

You recently moved your site

To this new heading:

Site moves and migrations

Google’s Updated Ranking Drops Documentation

Google’s updated documentation is a well thought out but I think that the recommendations for large algorithmic drops are helpful for some cases and not helpful for other cases. I have 25 years of SEO experience and have experienced every single Google algorithm update. There are certain updates where the problem is not solved by trying to fix things and Google’s guidance used to be that sometimes there’s nothing to fix. The documentation is better but in my opinion it can be improved even further.

Read the new documentation here:

Debugging drops in Google Search traffic

Review the previous documentation:

Internet Archive Wayback Machine: Debugging drops in Google Search traffic

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