4 Causes for Search Traffic Plateaus (and How to Fix Them)
Every marketer and business owner would love to see a search engine traffic graph that never stops rising.
And if you’re an expert SEO, you can manage that in many cases.
But likely, your search traffic will plateau at some point or another.
Month after month, it’ll stay about the same, rising or dropping an insignificant amount.
Sometimes it is your fault, but sometimes, it may be out of your control—at least initially.
At that point, you have two options:
- Find additional sources of organic traffic besides the standard search result listings.
- Determine the root cause of your traffic plateau, and take corrective action.
I’d recommend using both options, but since I’ve written about the first one before, this post will focus on the second.
I’ll go over the four main reasons why search traffic plateaus and how you can get your content and business back on the right track.
Possible cause #1 – Fluctuations in keyword volume
The first thing you want to do is make sure you’re not having a knee-jerk reaction.
It’s fairly common for rankings to improve but for overall traffic to decline because of seasonal fluctuations in keyword volume.
Here’s how you check for this.
Start by heading to either your analytics or Google Search Console (former Webmaster Tools). Look for the top 5-10 keywords that send you organic search traffic, and write them down.
In Search Console, you do this by going to the search traffic, search analytics section, and sorting by clicks.
With that list, head to the AdWords Keyword Planner, and enter those keywords (you can do all at once or one at a time).
Once you click “Submit,” you’ll get the standard search volume for each keyword. Make sure you have the right country and language selected if it’s different from the default.
Next, hover over the little graph icon beside each keyword to reveal the search volume of the term over the past 12 months:
This tells you whether there are significant variations from month to month for your main keywords.
If most of the keywords indicate that search volume should be expected to be low during the previous few months, your search traffic probably hasn’t actually plateaued, and it’ll pick up in the more popular months.
What if those keywords didn’t reveal any significant fluctuations? There’s still one more possibility to consider.
Next, consider trends: If you’re getting 30% of the search traffic in your niche, what happens when your niche becomes less popular?
Even if you increase your share of the search traffic, your overall traffic may stay the same.
To check this, head over to Google Trends.
Type in a keyword that describes your niche and content. I suggest trying more than one if possible.
That will generate a graph showing whether more people or fewer people in general are searching for terms in your niche compared to previous time periods.
If the terms’ popularity is going down fast, you’re actually doing a great job if you have a plateau in traffic.
If the trends are fairly stable (not going up or down) or trending up, there is a problem that needs to be fixed if you want your traffic to start rising again.
Let’s move on to other possibilities…
Possible cause #2 – Plateaued rankings (near the top) or declining rankings
Now it’s time to examine your existing content—more specifically, your older content.
New content from the previous month, sometimes two, isn’t expected to drive a ton of traffic (it’s always a nice surprise when it does).
Instead, there’s often a 2-6 month delay, depending on a bunch of different factors.
I’m assuming you’re tracking your keyword rankings; otherwise, this is going to be difficult. If you aren’t, find a good keyword tracker, and start as soon as possible.
For all the main keywords of your older content, note whether or not rankings have increased, stayed the same, or declined over the course of the plateau plus a few extra months.
For example, if your plateau has been going on for 2 months, look at the rankings over a 4-month period.
A decline in a single keyword doesn’t mean anything, but if you see a decline in more than 25% of your keywords, that tells you that your old content is losing its rankings, and it’s a trend.
There are three common reasons that cause this type of loss.
Reason #1 – Link decay: In an ideal world, when you earn a link to some of your content, it stays there forever, and you can just build upon it.
But the Internet goes through a lot of change on a regular basis. Domains go in and out of registration, and pages are continuously created and destroyed.
Even huge websites go through big re-designs that involve merging and deleting content.
All of this leads to one thing: link decay. Links become dead or missing.
You can see this by using a tool such as Ahrefs. Enter just about any URL with links pointing to it, and you’ll see that in addition to gaining links, that URL also loses links.
That’s what my advanced guide to content marketing looks like.
And this is how you’ll check for this cause.
Enter your content URLs that have lost rank, one by one, and see which links they lost in the weeks leading up to any drops they’ve had.
If you notice that most of them lost important links, it’s likely the cause (or at least part of it) for the traffic plateau.
Reason #2 – Algorithm change: Google is constantly updating its algorithm, and these updates can cause small (or big) shifts in the search results.
Big sites aren’t usually affected by these too much, mainly because of link diversity.
One of the things that Google is constantly tweaking is ways to discern between high quality and low quality links and ways to weigh them correctly.
To speak in very general terms, forum links are low quality, while blog post links are high quality. Although there are many situations where that’s not true, accept it for this example.
So, if Google is able to detect forum links better, or at least the spam forum links, it can devalue them. As a result, content that relied on forum links will tank.
Link diversity refers to the number of different types of links you have. Ideally, you want a healthy mixture. In that case, even if Google devalues a specific type of link, it will only affect a small portion of your links.
Big sites build up a healthy diversity naturally.
However, if you’re dealing with a smaller site, you may have purposely gone after certain types of links, which leaves you vulnerable in case Google makes a tweak that targets those links.
If you’ve done that (targeted specific links) and saw consistent drops across most of your keywords, this is likely the problem.
You’ll need to expand your SEO skill set to build a more diverse and reliable SEO strategy.
Reason #3 – More competition: Sometimes, losing rankings doesn’t have anything to do with you; it has to do with someone else doing better.
If your average ranking drop was pretty small (a spot or two), there’s one final likely reason: someone created better content.
Pull up the current search rankings for each of the terms that dropped a few spots. Next, look for the date when each one was published.
If it’s not in the search results, check for the date on each page itself. If that’s not an option, enter it into the wayback machine to find the earliest recorded version.
Like I said before, it usually takes at least a month or two for a page to start ranking highly (and stay there) on any somewhat competitive term.
That’s why you’re looking for a page that was created just a month or two before your first ranking drop.
If you’re using a really good rank-tracking tool, you may be able to see the SERPs from before and determine which pages surpassed you.
If you establish that this is the issue, you need to step up your SEO. Put more effort into link building (perhaps learn more while you’re at it), or edit and improve your content so that it’s clearly better than the results above yours. Ideally, do both.
Possible cause #3 – New content is not driving traffic
The next scenario is that your old content is ranking just fine and is still driving traffic.
However, you might be able to see that your fairly recent content (1-4 months old) is not ranking well or driving much traffic at all.
That may or may not be a serious problem, and the question then becomes “why?”
Reason #1 – You’re going after more competitive terms: I highly recommend starting any SEO campaign with trying to rank for easy terms and getting quick wins.
If you do it well, you will see impressive growth in your search traffic.
However, this naturally leaves you with harder keywords to go after. These may take more link building work than before, which will, of course, take longer.
If this is the case, having plateaued traffic for a few months isn’t a big deal because if you keep up the work, you should break through and see some big spikes as you start to rank for those harder keywords.
Reason #2 – Your SEO strategy has become less effective: If you typically do the same promotion for all your content, that means you’re consistently getting the same type and quality of links.
In the past, those links may have ranked your content with no problems.
Once you were ranked highly, you naturally gained other links from people seeing your content on the first page and referencing it. That’s why your old content may still be ranking fine.
However, if those links are not sufficient anymore, in quality or quantity, you’re not going to find success.
Take this opportunity to upgrade your SEO strategy and improve your link building skill set.
Reason #3 – Have you been slacking? Quality is always an important part of SEO, but so is quantity.
If you’re not publishing as much content as you have in the past, of course your new content won’t produce the same growth that your old content did.
There’s no special solution here. Take an honest look at how much you’ve been publishing in the past few months. If it’s not enough, revise your content schedule, and start publishing more to get on the right track.
Possible cause #4 – You’re nearing a limit for your specific niche
It’s the right idea to target a very specific niche with your content marketing.
If you target one with low competition, you might be able to rank #1 or #2 for all your main keywords.
After that, most marketers start targeting long tail keywords.
This is fine, but you need to understand how it affects your search traffic.
If you’re ranking for a term that gets 4,000 searches a month with one piece of content, it would take 100 pieces of content ranking for searches that get 40 searches a month to equal the search traffic you get.
So, if you rank for bigger terms quickly, your traffic is going to explode. However, since you can’t keep targeting terms with the same level of search volume, your growth rate will decline.
Your traffic may not have even plateaued; it may just be increasing at a much slower rate.
If this is the case, you’re doing an excellent job at SEO.
However, your growth rate will continue to be slow if you target keywords only in this specific niche because there are only small ones left.
What you need to do now is branch out to a closely related niche and repeat your entire keyword research and SEO strategy.
Continually keep broadening your scope as you dominate each new niche.
A plateau in search traffic happens to all SEOs and marketers and one point or another.
What’s important is how you respond to it.
By now, you should understand the four main causes for a plateau, ways to fix them, and the next steps to take.
If you have a unique situation that you have a question about, let me know about it in a comment below, and I’ll try to clear things up.
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