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What Would You Do If Your Website Traffic Vanished Tomorrow?

If your morning office routine is anything like mine, it probably consists of something like — brew the pot of coffee, check email for urgent items, and pull up website traffic reports to check for referral links or irregularities in traffic patterns. On a good morning, this walk through is a pretty humdrum exercise as I rub the cobwebs off my mind in an effort to truly kick off my day. Now I ask you, what would happen if you pulled up your traffic reports only to discover that web traffic had suddenly vaporized? There are many reasons your traffic could suddenly fall off a cliff. Some are just a matter of picking up the phone while others can effectively shut down your web presence for some time. Let’s dive into how to diagnose and address the issues that come along with disaster pitching a tent on your doorstep.

1) Is Your Server Online?

The easiest solution by far is to kick your hosting company in the rear if your server isn’t online.

How would you know?

Try to load your website in your browser of choice, and see if it comes up. If not, pick up the phone to your hosting company of choice and light a fire under someone until your domain name is resolving again.

This is a great time to remind you to backup your website — files and database. If your server is down because a disk sector of the hard drive has failed, and if your host isn’t doing regular backups (never assume they are even if they say otherwise), you could loose everything. Think about the time, money and effort that has gone into building up your website over the years versus the five minutes to setup automatic, scheduled backups. Without a reliable backup, you could be lighting up a virtual bonfire. I don’t think you are going to be in the mood for marshmallows.

2) Have You Made Any Programming or Tracking Code Changes Recently?

I will always be a programmer at heart so when something goes wrong I automatically scroll back my mental rolodex in an attempt to pinpoint the last code change I put in. Then I try to determine if that change could have triggered the problem I’m facing.

How would you know?

Have you made any coding changes recently? Maybe you’ve updated your robots.txt file and bungled the syntax to deindex your site (tutorial). For WordPress or Joomla users, have you installed any new 3rd party plugins lately that could be keeping your pages from loading properly? Maybe you implemented a new theme for your website and in your haste to make it live you forgot to include that all important Google Analytics code (or your preferred web tracking tool) nestled in the footer.

Option number 1 & 2 are usually easy to spot because traffic would be completely absent or a fraction of 1% of your usual traffic. Google’s cached pages should still load and track for those really dedicated web searchers.

3) Has a Virus Infected Your Website?

I know you’ve scrolled through Google’s search results before and seen that ominous tag warning: “This site may be harmful to your computer.” How often do you click on those links? Just short of never I’d assume. Your potential visitors will feel that same caution if Google has detected a harmful virus is lying in wait on your site ready to infect unsuspecting users. If a user’s computer gets infected based on visiting your website, how long do you think they are going to remain your customer? Don’t get me started on the avalanche of bad PR this could potentially trigger.

Virus Infected Site

How would you know?

Plug in your brand name into Google’s search box, and you should see it warding off visitors there. Better yet, Google Webmaster Tools will alert you to harmful critters ruining your website under the Security Issues section. They’ve provided this helpful guide on how to proceed if you’ve become the victim of a hacker. If you possess the expertise or you can get your web hosting team to step up to the plate, there is no harm in tackling this virus yourself. If not, seek out a web professional to do the heavy lifting to get this virus flushed from your site as soon as humanly possible.

4) Have You Checked Your Rankings on Your Top Keywords?

Do you have a few keywords that you’ve secured a slot in the top three for a few months or even years? After a while, your web traffic just looks normal since you’ve staked out your claim on these valuable virtual outposts. So what would happen if you suddenly dropped from the one spot to the four on a few of these key search results?

Rankings Changes in Webmaster Tools

How would you know?

You can go into Google Webmaster Tools and look under Search Traffic > Search Queries. From here, click on the button towards the middle of the page marked ‘With change,’ and it will denote how far up or down you may have moved on some of your most important terms. I’d target the keywords with the most impressions and/or clicks to judge this, and don’t forget to set the date time frame to review in the top right. Alternately, you can subscribe to services like SEM Rush or Moz to track your key words and see how they fluctuate on a daily to weekly basis.

If you find you’ve dropped on critical keywords, this doesn’t necessarily reflect a Google penalty. Maybe one of your competitors figured out the secret sauce to vault their page above yours in the rankings, or perhaps an update to the search algorithm just decided that on and offsite characteristics of your competitor’s page deserved to propel it ahead of yours. If you’ve been complacent on your throne, maybe its time to look at that page and see how you can make it more valuable to readers, or perhaps put some research into discovering how you can make it a link magnet for other sites.

5) Has Your Site Been Hit by a Google Penalty?

If your traffic is still flowing in, but someone took a machete to it, a Google Penalty may be lurking behind the scenes.

How would you know?

The first stop would be to check for a manual penalty handed down by the webspam team in your Google Webmaster Tools. Under Search Traffic > Manual Actions, you’ll see a partial or sitewide manual action notice if the webspam team has targeted your site for breaching Google’s quality guidelines. That questionable behavior is usually alluded to in the verbiage of the penalty notification.

If the Manual Actions section of Webmaster Tools is clear, review your traffic percentages originating from Google. To do this, go into Acquisition > All Traffic in Google Analytics and denote your traffic percentage coming from Google over the past month. Next, alter the date range in the upper right hand corner of the report to just look at today’s traffic (or the period in question since the drop). If your monthly number is 60% and your daily number is 20% (or *gulp* less), your website has probably been visited by one of Google’s various zoo animals. “But we just checked, and there were no manual penalties?,” you frantically plead. Google penalties also come in the algorithmic variety that are levied automatically by Googlebot. These are the hairiest to deal with because you can’t just submit a reconsideration request to have the webspam team review it. You normally have to do the necessary cleanup work, and hope your cleanup is sufficient and all the pages in question have been recached by the time the next large update or refresh gets rolled out.

If it is algorithmic in nature, how do you determine if you’ve been visited by Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird or Porky Pig? That is where it becomes a little tricky. You can look at this helpful algorithm change report from Moz for some measure of clarity. If you can pinpoint the exact date of your traffic decline, you can often trace back your penalty problem based on when it rolled out. If the hit occurred today, I’d monitor websites like Search Engine Watch or Webmaster World’s forums to see if anyone is reporting a change is in the air. If you are a Twitter addict, simply follow us, and we’ll kick off an alert whenever an update is going down.

Unfortunately, the actual diagnosis and cleanup of a penalty is a complex and tricky beast that is way too extensive to dive into here, but I will be touching on these topics in two follow up articles focused on Penguin and Panda penalties over the coming weeks.

I hope your traffic problems stem from something relatively simple like a server issue or perhaps a programming oversight that can be easily rolled back. These can be quick fixes that can have you back online before you’ve had time to ponder what is for lunch. Viruses and especially Google penalties signal larger problems with your site that take time to be properly addressed.

Feel free to ask any questions, detail your traffic problems or just contribute to the conversation in the comments section below. I’ll be checking in frequently to reply to as many as I can.