Audit Checklist for Dramatic Ranking Drops in Google

by | Backlinks, Guide, On-Page, SEO

Have you ever woken up in the morning, filled that mug of coffee, and then jumped straight onto your favorite rank tracker to find that your Google rankings dropped dramatically and suddenly?

Don’t fear – there is always a way to diagnose the issue and make sure that, with a well mapped out plan, you can get your site’s rankings back.

Google’s algorithm has a list of seemingly countless variables it bases site health on, but should you get a sudden drop in rankings, there are some great starting points available to you. If you start looking in the right places, the “impossible” task of repairing where your site ranks may not be as complex as you originally thought.

Here are our favorite things to audit after a site’s rankings in Google have started going down the tubes.

Manual Actions

Google has guidelines that webmasters must follow in order to keep their sites healthy and moving up in their SERPs. Sometimes these webmasters do things that are deemed tricky by Google, and the site gets slapped in the rankings.

The great thing about checking if you have this issue is that it’s very simple to diagnose.
All you have to do is open your site in Google Search Console and scroll over to the Security and Manual Actions tab.

 What you want to see here is a message that says, “No Issues Detected.”

If you happen to be one of the unfortunate people effected by a manual action, then it will read differently depending on exactly what you’ve been judged for by Google. This can range from using unnatural link practices to having duplicate content issues.

For a full list of manual actions, click here.

The good news is that Google themselves will tell you how to fix and recover from the issue. If you end up with a manual action, it’s probably a good idea to rethink the way you are doing SEO and start playing it a little bit safer (or smarter).

Algorithm Updates

Every once in a while, Google will roll out a core algorithm update that really shakes up the SERPs and updates what exactly Google wants to see top-ranking sites have (or not have). This may cause sudden ranking drops in Google.

These are easy to check for, but diagnosing exactly what happened to your site after the algo update takes a little bit of exploration.

My favorite tool for checking for algorithm updates or overall SERP volatility is Algoroo, but checking Google news for terms like “Google algorithm update” will yield results as well.

It also helps to be in trustworthy SEO groups or forums where people discuss updates and what they think has been affected.

Bouncing ideas off one another in a place like the SEO Round Table is a quicker way of getting the issue diagnosed and resolved since multiple people will be discussing niches and other variables effected in the latest updates.

Like manual actions, you can always recover from ranking drops caused by algorithm updates once you correctly diagnose and fix the problem. It might just take some time!

Site Structure and Content

At times, you might get anxious about your content, the way your site looks, your URL structure, your schema, or other on-page factors.

Every time you change these things, you alter the way your site is being crawled and understood by Google’s bots. Ask yourself:

  • Did I change the way the site structure is set up?
  • Did I alter the inner-page URLs, title tags, meta descriptions, etc?
  • Did I make changes to the site’s content that could affect things like keyword density?

These things can have serious effects on how Google ranks your site as they some of the most important factors for on-page SEO. If you made good changes, you can see positive ranking results. Bad changes, however, are going to have the opposite effect.

Depending on what you did to your site, you might just take a short-term drop and come back up naturally (if you did things properly). For this reason, it’s worthwhile to let your rankings settle over the next few weeks before freaking out and changing things back to how they were before.

Hacked Sites

So your site has gone blank, your rankings in Google fell off a cliff, and your site’s title now reads, “PwnD by MasterHx6969.”

Or maybe they were less obvious, and you just noticed a random IP has been digging around your website. Either way, you can be sure that the hackers are up to no good and you need to step up your security game a bit.

This can range from things like installing the right plugins to making sure your username and passwords are strong and unique.

If your site has been hacked, then all you really need to do is install a backup file of your site and change your password. Your hosting provider will usually have a copy for you (depending on the host, they sometimes charge a small fee).

This will reverse any changes the hackers may have made that could have caused your rankings to drop. If you/your host didn’t have your site backed up, you will need to look for these changes yourself.

You can also check Google Search Console periodically as they have a section under the Security and Manual Actions -> Security Issues tab that will give you details on malicious actions taking place on your website that you may be unaware of.


There are a couple of ways to encourage search engines to ignore a website, and it’s something worth checking for as it could be a quick fix to your Google ranking drops if they were accidentally done.

In WordPress, there is an option to do so, and a good tutorial on auditing these settings can be found here. It also goes over reviewing your Yoast settings (if you are using that plugin).

There are also a handful of plugins you can use to check the status of a page – Robots Exclusion Checker is a good one for Chrome Browser and can be downloaded here.

WordPress Updates

Maybe WordPress just updated to the latest version, or you went ahead and updated WordPress, 13 plugins, and 3 themes all at the same time. You then go to check on your site, and it’s a literal mess.

The idea is for WordPress to work cohesively with everything you attach to it, however the reality is that all these moving parts are made by different developers and they don’t always work together perfectly.

Should you update a lot of things all at once and get an issue where your site rankings start to dwindle, it’s probably best to go in and deactivate each plugin you have activated and reinstall each one while simultaneously checking that your site is working properly.

Eventually, you’ll find the culprit that’s been hurting your site and rankings.

Losing Backlinks

Maybe a year ago your site had some awesome press, but today those sites have decided you are no longer relevant. Now, they’ve taken your link away or moved it far into an inner page.

Although losing links is natural and we don’t think you lose all the juice from a lost link, losing links can still hurt your rankings if you lose too many that were propping the site up.

Google wants to see a healthy site that is continually getting spoken about (linked to) and found by users. Essentially, it needs to know that the site is relevant and popular enough for being shown in the SERPs. How many links per day or month were you adding?

You can use a backlink auditing tool like Ahrefs (or an Ahrefs alternative) to figure out if you may have recently lost some links that were packing a punch to your website’s rankings.

 Something else to consider are 301’s and other types of redirects that may have been broken or just stopped redirecting properly. This can effect your rankings as well and is worth looking into if you have ever done a redirect to the site in question.

Did you recently disavow a bunch of links through Google Search Console? You may have accidentally mistaken a link that was giving you power as a spammy one. We recommend only doing disavows as a last resort – and really only if you understand what makes a good backlink before building a disavow file on your own.

Anchor Text Over-Optimization

Have a look in Ahrefs at the “Anchors” tab and make sure your anchor profile is looking nice and natural. We typically want to see more branded, naked, and generic anchors than money anchors.

Anchors should be blended pretty naturally, and over-optimized anchors are an easy way for Google to tell if someone is gaming their system. This also seems to be growing more important as time moves forward.

If you see a decrease in rank and feel over-optimized anchors are the culprit, we recommend using more branded, naked, random, and long tail anchors to dilute your anchor profile. This is fairly simple to do if you are buying backlinks but can be done over time naturally as well.

Spammy Links

Another thing you can check for with a tool like Ahrefs is spammy links. These links can take many different forms (such as the links created when doing churn and burn SEO), and sometimes deciding what is spammy is not that easy to do.

A rule of thumb is to check the way the site looks and reads (although looks on their own aren’t enough). Does the site/page serve a purpose? Sites can serve all sorts of purposes, but you can typically tell if something looks like it doesn’t.

Maybe the link is surrounded by disjointed spun content, or maybe the site itself is just uninformative text linking out to all sorts of random low quality sites.

Spammy links can cause a rank drop, and should you find them the best way to remove them is to do a disavow (will take some time to recover). We recommend only doing this if your site is experiencing negative effects and you are 100% sure the links are indeed spam and are causing the problems.

Make sure not to disavow good links like guest posts or editorial links!

Too Many Non-Relevant Links

Link relevance is very important (though not necessary for every single backlink you get). It can seem unnatural to Google if your site gets too many non-relevant links.

If your site is about pets but almost all your links come from video game niche forums, this can hurt your rankings over time. A site that’s about pets should be getting links from other sites or pages that are somehow related to pets.

The practice of building non-relevant links may work for a while, but eventually Google won’t see your site as relevant in it’s niche and will start to devalue it in the SERPs.

If your link building practices are more about getting random juice from anywhere and any type of site, then try getting more niched-down links and see if that helps the situation.

Negative SEO

Some niches are extremely competitive, and the practice of using malicious links against competitor websites is very real.

One day you’re sitting comfortably at the top, and the next day a plethora of targeted links hit your site with over-optimized anchors from shady sites.

If this happens, you will want to submit a disavow file to Google to remove the incoming links. The frequency you will have to submit them will depend on the frequency at which you are being attacked.

DDOS attacks are also fairly prevalent as well. These attack your hosts resources in order to slow or crash your site. You can upgrade your hosting security or even use a content delivery network like Cloudflare to help protect from attacks.

Excessive 404s and Inaccessible Pages

Check your site to make sure all of your pages are accessible, loading, and responding properly.

Plugins sometimes update automatically and cause internal conflicts. These conflicts could end up causing 404s or other errors that prevent pages from displaying properly to users as well as Google’s bots.

You can check this by loading random sample of pages manually or with a tool like Ahrefs. Google Search Console will also show this information under the Crawl -> Crawl Errors tab.

Stiff Competition

Maybe you got into a good niche early on, but now the word is out and the competition is starting to catch up (or even beat you).

If you need guidance, always look at what the top sites on Google are doing and base your new ranking approach on the information you gather.

Check the quality of their content, site structure, backlinks, and anything else that might cause them to outrank you. If you’ve been slacking in any of the areas they’re beating you on, then start putting energy into revitalizing them and gaining ground on the competition.

Duplicate Content

Duplicate content is content that appears elsewhere on the internet and should be avoided at all costs. Google doesn’t like websites that appear to have copied content from others.

If you outsourced your content, then it’s important to use a tool like Copyscape to check if it was plagiarized from somewhere else. If duplicate content is found, then replacing the content with well-optimized, unique content should help get your rankings back in time.

Some sites may get away with duplicate content for a while, but it can very likely lead to a Google ranking drop.

Low-Quality Content

Look at the top pages in the SERP you are going after. If you’re targeting an American SERP, is a 5,000 word article written by a non-english speaker in the top 3? If you’re in a worthwhile niche, the answer is most likely no.

Don’t skimp on content. Using low-quality content is not only going to effect rankings, but it will affect overall user experience as well.

Your content should be well-written and unique. We advise staying away from auto generated content, spun content, and non-native content that’s packed with errors.

Natural Fluctuations

If you’ve just noticed a drop in rankings on Google and it’s only been happening over the last couple of days, you need to let time pass to really understand what is happening to your site.

Fluctuations in SERP positions are common and occur for a multitude of reasons. It’s important to stay calm, be analytical, and let things work through themselves and settle before making any extreme decisions.

Acting too quickly could just cause more uncertainty and problems!

Dramatic Google Ranking Drops Can be Fixed!

So your Google ranking dropped dramatically (maybe for natural reasons, maybe not), but if you audit your website properly you should be able to find and address the issues.

If you aren’t sure about what you’re doing, make sure to join a community such as our Facebook Group and ask questions. If you aren’t experienced in SEO, you definitely don’t want to cause more problems than you started with.

Remember that no matter how damaged your site is, there is always a way to fix the issue you are facing and keep moving forward.

Nicholas Altimore

Nicholas Altimore


Nicholas Altimore is the Founder and Director of SirLinksalot.co. He has an extensive SEO resume that spans agency building, affiliate and e-commerce development, and of course linkbuilding.  He looks forward to bringing SEO's informative resources on how to rank websites world wide.

Nicholas Altimore

Nicholas Altimore


Nicholas Altimore is the Founder and Director of SirLinksalot.co. He has an extensive SEO resume that spans agency building, affiliate and e-commerce development, and of course linkbuilding.  He looks forward to bringing SEO's informative resources on how to rank websites world wide.

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  1. Patty Toro

    I had no idea Google could tell you the issue going on if your site’s ranking get’s lowered… this had me paranoid so I just searched for my website lol to make sure it was still ranking high! I’ll have to remember the Security and Manual Actions tab to look at.

  2. Kasper

    Thanks for the heads up about malicious links!! That is really scary, but I can see people doing that. I have a niche site that’s ranking #1 in Google now, and I’m always so paranoid someone’s going to knock me out of the way, but now I will remember this if that happens.

  3. Stacy

    I’ve noticed some weird stuff going on in my ranking after a wordpress update… I’ll have to check this out further next time and look at the plugins installed.

    • Eva

      WordPress can do some screwy things I’ve noticed!

  4. Maurice

    The WP issue like updates, etc. is why I’m so paranoid about adding any extra plugin to the site. I just don’t know what it’s going to do for my ranking.

  5. Terry

    I am glad that Google cracks down on black hat SEO techniques. It’s nice of them to tell you what went wrong and how to get back to normal. I thought that once your ranking got dropped, you were pretty much done for and got put on a list. I need to look at the Ahrefs and look at my anchors, I have never even done that if you can believe it.

    I’ve had one of my wordpress sites hacked before, it was no fun! Then it got labeled as a phishing site from Google. Do you recommend any security plugins for wordpress? I have a few now, and so far they’ve done the job, but since you are the experts I thought I’d ask.

    I recently changed the name of a page title on my wordpress site from Welcome to Home. Now a different page is showing up when someone googles the business, it’s going to my blog page instead of my home page. I guess I can switch it back to see if it fixes it, but would this be something that could be instantly changed in their system? I always thought it took a little while for changes to update.

    How does someone go about doing DDOS attacks? Is this really common? Scary that malicious links can be deployed to bring down your ranking. I feel as if I’m a bit of a sitting duck right now because one of my websites has a really good ranking, it’s at the top of page 2 in Google, but it’s not exactly a small niche. There have been a few times where it popped up on the bottom of page 1. I’m afraid now that it might be targeted if I do make it to page 1. For sending the disavow files to Google, they just wipe out the links you want removed, right? Like they don’t go in there and wipe out most of your backlinks?

    It still fascinates me that Google exists and just how smart and complex it is. I mean, think about 1998 when AOL was big, how simplistic this must seem now in comparison to Google and its ever changing algorithms. I’m still in awe of the simple things it can do, like being able to tell the relevance of your backlinks.

  6. Matthew

    Getting dropped in google is like looking at the stock market crashing, lol.

  7. Leonard

    It would be easiest to hire someone to fix these issues if I were to lose my ranking, but I want to have control of this stuff myself. This was very very helpful.

  8. Torrance

    Great to have on hand, even if your site has never been dropped… you never know when it might drop though!


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