Identifying and Resolving Traffic Declines in Google Search Console: A Step-by-Step Guide

  • June 18, 2024
  • SEO
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Google Search Console (GSC) is an indispensable resource that provides invaluable insights into the performance of your website in Google search results.

Occasionally, you may notice a significant drop in organic traffic. Understanding the underlying causes of this fluctuation is crucial, and the data within Google Search Console proves instrumental in diagnosing and comprehending these changes.

Before delving into traffic decline troubleshooting in GSC, it’s imperative to grasp how Google advises evaluating traffic graphs within GSC and its reporting methods across various metrics.

Understanding Google Search Console Metrics

Google’s documentation on debugging Search traffic drops is notably detailed compared to other areas, which helps mitigate unwarranted panic in case of data anomalies.

Despite the extensive documentation, clients and SEO newbies frequently misinterpret GSC data.

Image from Google Search Central, May 2024

Although the definitions in GSC are clear, unusual trends in clicks and impressions graphs can signify broader issues.

Search Central description It could also be a sign that…
Large drop from an algorithmic update, site-wide security, or spam issue This could also indicate a severe technical problem, such as deploying a noindex tag on a URL accidentally or returning an incorrect status code, e.g., rendering content but returning a 410 status.
Seasonality If the graph appears inverted during peak times, it might imply that Google rotates search engine results or does not rank your site highly due to a shift in search intent during these periods.
Technical issues or changing interests This graph might also represent seasonality, either as a steady decline or increase.
Reporting glitch ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Such graphs can reflect intermittent technical problems or reporting errors, akin to seasonality shifts, indicating short-term changes in SERP interpretations.

Clicks & Impressions

Google ensures the accuracy, reliability, and integrity of Click and Impression data in GSC through a combination of technical methods and policies. Common reasons include:

  • Spam and bot filtering.
  • Duplicate data removal.
  • User privacy/protection.
  • Eliminating “invalid activities.”
  • Data aggregation and sampling.

One major cause for changes in GSC data is the setting of thresholds to exclude very low-frequency queries or impressions, maintaining statistical reliability of the metrics.

Average Position

Google Search Console calculates the Average Position of a website’s URLs by averaging the ranking positions for specific queries over a defined period. For example, if a URL ranks 3rd for one query and 7th for another, these positions are logged separately. The emergence of AI Overviews may impact this metric, as John Mueller confirmed that appearing in a generative snapshot affects the average position of a query and/or URL.


Source: John Mueller via The SEO Community Slack channel

While Average Position in GSC isn’t my primary tool for rank tracking, it helps identify issues with dominant pages for specific queries by understanding data compilation.

Google Updates

A Google broad core algorithm update significantly changes the search algorithm to enhance the relevance and quality of search results. These updates don’t target specific sites or content but modify “core” systems, warranting an announcement from Google. Unannounced updates might still impact traffic if individual systems change.

For instance, the following screenshot shows a site recovering from the March 2023 core update after a decline, followed by a recovery in the November 2023 core update.

GSC: the website saw a decline from the March 2023 core update
Screenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

The subsequent screenshot portrays a traffic decline without subsequent recovery, correlating with another Google update. This particular site, primarily featuring informational content, saw a steady decline associated with the September 2023 helpful content update.

traffic decline correlating with a Google update
Screenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

How To Fix This

Websites negatively impacted by a broad core update cannot fix specific issues for immediate recovery. Instead, focus on providing high-quality content and enhancing overall site quality. Recovery may occur with the next broad core update if your site improves in relevance and quality, or if Google adjusts its systems to favor your site again. Such changes in traffic, often called an algorithmic penalty, require time to heal.

SERP Layout Updates

The introduction of AI Overviews and other SERP features like Shopping results, Map Packs, X (Twitter) carousels, People Also Ask accordions, Featured snippets, and Video thumbnails can impact organic traffic. These features not only distract users but also shift result placements, particularly affecting mobile traffic due to smaller screens and increased scroll depth.

From our SGE/AI Overviews testing, traditional results can be pushed down by 1,000 to 1,500 pixels. Although rank tracking tools may not show a decline, GSC will reflect decreased clicks.

The impact depends on the type of feature and whether users predominantly use mobile or desktop devices. Establish your primary traffic source using the device breakdown in GSC:

Device by users: clicks and impressions
Image from author’s website, May 2024

Compare the graphs using GSC UI or export data via API broken down by devices.

How To Fix This

To adjust to new SERP features, modify your content and site to become more eligible for these features, driven either by structured data or Google’s content processing. If Google introduces features resulting in zero-click searches, quantify the traffic loss first and then adjust your strategy to target similar queries still within your audience’s search journey.

Seasonality Traffic Changes

Seasonality refers to predictable fluctuations in consumer interest and purchasing behavior at specific times of the year, influenced by holidays, weather changes, and cultural events. E-commerce businesses often see peaks before Christmas and Thanksgiving, while travel companies experience surges depending on destination and vacation types.

The screenshot below illustrates a business with a seasonal peak before Christmas.

seasonal peaks as measured in GSC
Screenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

These trends are evident in GSC’s Performance Report and likely reflected in other analytics platforms. During seasonal peaks, Google might alter SERPs, shifting rankings based on changing user intent. For example, in the travel sector, the intent often shifts from research to booking during peak seasons, leading to a change in dominant query interpretation.

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