Why Organic Search Traffic Declines—and What to Do About It

It’s really difficult to gain traction in organic search, which is why it’s painfully frustrating to watch it slip away.

When traffic is trending up, it can feel like you’ve finally cracked organic search. And when it starts to decline, it can instill a helpless feeling in even the best marketers.

“Content decay” is the natural loss of relevancy experienced by nearly all well-performing posts. It’s far more common than most content marketers realize. A number of customers have come to us with questions about plateauing or eroding organic traffic. After diving into several dozen Google Analytics installs, we’ve seen content decay take shape in a few different forms.

1. An Extreme Power Curve

Most blogs are subject to the power law of content marketing, which is similar to the 80-20 rule. It states that the bulk of the traffic comes from a few posts, while most posts get very little traffic.

content marketing power law

This is problematic for a few reasons but primarily because if organic traffic to those posts declines, the effect is overstated. When those few posts are true outliers, a decline can make it seem like the entire site’s traffic is dropping, even if the rest of the content is trending in the right direction.

declining organic traffic

This can—and does—cause panic. But upon closer examination, it’s usually clear that the data isn’t quite telling the whole story. In nearly every case, outliers are top-of-funnel posts that chase short-tail keywords. Those posts may deliver traffic but are almost definitely not driving conversions. (See: Top of Funnel Content Creates All Kinds of Problems—But You Should Create It Anyway)

Content that drives outsized organic traffic is most likely to be top-of-funnel content that doesn’t convert. The more you rely on top-of-funnel traffic, the more vulnerable you are to declining organic traffic. Competition for short-tail keywords is intense and often not rewarding. If you run an email marketing company, is it really valuable to rank for “What is email marketing?”

To accurately assess how much content decay is affecting your site, filter out the posts that are declining and calculate what percentage of total traffic they account for. You may decide it’s worth trying to save those posts, but you may also consider focusing your effort somewhere else, like middle-of-funnel content that targets long-tail keywords.

2. Increased Competition

In a study of more than 1.6 million keywords, Advanced Web Ranking found that the first search result on a Google SERP was clicked 28% of the time. That’s more than double the pages that ranked second and nearly seven times more than the fifth result. More often than not, “if you ain’t first, you’re last.”

And if you ain’t first, it may mean that content decay has been accelerated by newer and better content for your target keywords.

SERP clicks by position

Source: Advanced Web Ranking

What often happens in the B2B world is that a page will rank in the first spot for a long time, typically several years. As the relevance of that page starts to decay, a competitor will recognize the opportunity and create content that better satisfies the search intent for the target keyword.

It could be that your competition has poured more resources into their content. But it could also be that they’ve embarked on a creative link-building strategy. Look closely to see what they’ve done and estimate how much work it will take for you to regain the spot before investing the time and money.

3. Loss of Interest

Trends come and go. Sometimes, you have the opportunity to ride a wave of growth. And other times, interest in the topics you cover sags. There are two things to consider here:

  1. If interest in the industry you cover is waning, you may have a real problem on your hands.
  2. If interest in specific keywords is waning, you probably just need to optimize for new keywords.

This happens most often when you hitch your wagon to someone else’s horse. If you are writing about strategies for marketing on Twitter, but interest in Twitter dips, you lose traffic. People are still interested in social media, but they have turned their attention to other platforms.

When trends rise, a lot of people jump on the bandwagon and start creating content on the topic. And when trends fall, the market is saturated with content that’s competing for a declining number of eyeballs. If you invest too much effort in creating content that isn’t evergreen, this problem is amplified. A post like “Snapchat Marketing in 2017” is, by definition, not useful in 2018. It’s okay to write the post, just don’t expect a steady stream of traffic unless you update the post often.

How to Address Content Decay

Before you address content decay, make sure the juice is worth the squeeze. As we mentioned above, chasing top-of-funnel keywords for the sake of traffic is expensive and time-consuming. If the posts that are losing traffic aren’t actually benefiting the business, you may not need to update them. But if they are, here are a few things to try:

  • Refresh the content. This can include expanding it, adding interesting visuals, including video or other rich media and redesigning the page.
  • Build new links. Even a few new links to an old page can go a long way. First, look for any broken links. Next, look at your internal links and make sure all relevant anchors are pointing to the decaying posts. And last, build new external links by writing guest posts or reaching out to audiences that could benefit from the content.
  • Update the on-page SEO. Make sure you’ve optimized the content for the target keywords. Tools like Yoast and Clearscope can help you do this.
  • Rethink your keywords. It could be that your content is great but is targeting the wrong keywords. Make sure your keywords are relevant based on current search trends.
  • Hedge your bets. Create new content targeting long-tail, middle-of-the-funnel keywords with less competition. Traffic to these posts is less volatile and more valuable to the business.

It may also be time to rethink your content marketing strategy. Even the best blogs are due for a strategy refresh every now and then. Whatever you do, don’t overreact to declining traffic until you understand the cause and the effect.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.