A dramatic shift in rankings is a primary concern for SEOs everywhere.

No one wants to land a top spot, only to see it jump down to number 5, 6, 7…

If you’re noticing a dramatic shift in your placement, it may be time to take a deeper look. In this article I’ll cover common fluctuation causes and how you can recover from them.

First, Understand a Few Things About Ranking Fluctuations

Here’s the thing about fluctuations: they’re normal, and even the big names aren’t safe from the occasional ranking demotion.

Rarely will a site claim the top spot for long; instead, they’ll bounce around the top few positions over the course of a few weeks.

So your first job is this: don’t panic. Remember it’s normal, and it’s only a problem if you notice a significant drop in rankings (we’re talking 30, 40 sports over a very short period of time.) More on that momentarily.

Next, it’s important to keep in mind that the lower your site appears in the rankings, the more volatile the position will be.

Websites that rank in the top 1 or 2 positions will experience some fluctuation. You might drop to 3 or 4, and the bounce up to 1. Though this could affect traffic, by and large you’ve claimed a pretty stable position.

But the farther down in the SERPs you get, the more your rank will fluctuate. There’s more competition down there, and something as small as a new piece of content can move your rank around. Again, not a cause for panic yet.

Along with that, a site that has only recently reached the top tier of search results will be more likely to fluctuate than one that’s claimed a top spot for a continuous period of time.

One more thing to be aware of is the content you’re ranking for. Sites that rank for temporal topics or keywords (seasonal, holiday, etc. – any content that’s likely to be temporary) are likely to see greater fluctuation, even in the first few spots.

What Causes Ranking Fluctuations?

The number one culprit? Google itself.

A lot of fluctuations, as we discussed above, are a natural part of Google. Others – often more dramatic fluctuations – are caused by changes and major updates to the Google algorithm.

The algorithm is tweaked on a nearly constant basis, meaning that some volatility is pretty much a given.

The more dramatic fluctuations are often seen after the rollout of a major update.

Take the Google Panda update. When Google decided to crack down on low-quality, content-spam sites in 2011, the change did not go unnoticed.

In fact, roughly 12% of search queries were affected, meaning that 12% of the rankings changed drastically.

That’s huge, and many sites have been unable to recover completely from the hit.

The good news is that major changes like that happen rarely, and rarely have as extreme an impact as Panda.

Other Causes of Ranking Fluctuations

Outside of Google, your rank can be affected by a few factors, including:

  1. Competition

New sites and competitors pop up every day in Google, and one more site competing for the same keywords and space can have an impact on all the sites around them.

As Google indexes and decides where each new site should rank, it’s natural to expect a little movement in the surrounding rankings.

  1. New Content

Each time your publish new content, you’ll likely see it dance around in the rankings for the first few days.

This is so common that it’s even been given its own nickname – the Google Hustle.

And as recently as last week Google’s Jon Mueller pointed out that this situation is typical and to be expected.

The reasoning here is that when Google first indexes content, it starts off with an educated guess about where it belongs in the search results.

Sometimes, the guess is off and Google over or underestimates where the content actually belongs.

Eventually, Google will find the right spot for the web page. But that process could take weeks, and can result in some dramatic ranking shifts in the time being.

  1. New or Sudden Trends

As mentioned before, temporal topics tend to fluctuate.

The same goes for any sudden emerging trends. A surge in popularity surrounding a certain keyword or content topic will have a similar effect on rankings as Google interprets and indexes the new information to see which fits best with user search queries.

4 Link Audits

I don’t think I need to tell you the importance of high-quality links when it comes to SEO.

To preserve the quality of those links, it’s necessary to periodically conduct a link audit. But in doing so, you may experience a ranking shift. Any time you adjust the links that point to your site, you can expect to see a change as your SERP position is reevaluated by Google.

Often, this will be a good thing. As you remove bad or broken links, you’ll likely experience a boost in the rankings. On the flip side, accidentally remove a good one and your position may receive a downgrade instead.

5 Search Penalties

There’s no way to sugarcoat this one.

Just like the name implies, a search penalty is bad news for your site – and your rankings.

These can come without warning if Google decides to take action specifically against your site, or as the result of an update that targets a practice your site is guilty of.

What to do When Your Rank Fluctuates

First, remember your first job: don’t panic.

If it’s a relatively minor fluctuation, it’s normal, and no drastic measures are necessary. Stick to your current SEO plan, and you’ll likely see your site bounce back.

However, a sudden drop across multiple pages of your site is cause for concern.

If you do suspect something other than a natural Google fluctuation, there are a few steps to take to diagnose – and solve – the problem.

  1. First, check your competitors sites.

If you notice frequent or drastic fluctuation, check to see how your competitors are fairing.

There are plenty of tools to help you do this – from Moz Pro to Rank Tracker – and each will help you discern if all of your competitors are feeling the flux, or if it’s just you.

If you see that your competition is also bouncing around the rankings, that’s good news. It means Google likely pushed an update, and it wasn’t caused by anything you did wrong.

If you see that you’re only one who seems to be in the weeds, then you may have a problem on your hands.

Start by checking a site like Moz for any new Google updates. If there was an update, it may mean that your site was found lacking, and needs to be investigated further. If the update occurred around the time your rankings plummeted, it’s likely the cause.

You also might want to check your Google webmaster console to make sure you didn’t incur a manual penalty from Google.

If you notice either an update or a penalty, try to find the cause of the problem and correct it. As in the case of the Panda update, it could be a change in Google’s standards that require a site audit or redesign.

Regarding a manual penalty, it’s very unlikely you’ll receive them unless you’re participating in shady practices. If that’s the case, you probably know what you did and should fix it fast.

  1. Check your site traffic.

Ranking checks aren’t foolproof.

What I mean is that various factors including devices, location, etc. could cause you to see rankings that aren’t being seen by most.

It could be the case that your search returned a result at position 9, while most searchers are seeing it at position 3 or 4.

To ward against that, check your actual page traffic. Look at the organic search traffic you’re pages are receiving – if it’s a consistent number you’re accustomed to seeing, then you likely have little to worry about regarding your rank in the SERPs.

  1. Look at Rankings Over an Extended Period of Time

Don’t measure your rankings just by days.

Instead, look at your rank – and any common fluctuations – over a period of time. This will give you a much more accurate depiction of your site’s status in the SERPs.

If you do decide to check daily, do so knowing that a fluctuation of 2 to 4 positions is again, completely normal.

  1. And lastly, always stick to solid, white-hat SEO strategies.

The best way to secure, and keep, a solid standing in the SERPs? Practice clean SEO tactics.

Specifically, it means avoiding black-hat practices such as:

  • Anchor text overuse
  • Narrow link distribution
  • Cloaking
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Negative SEO (attempting to penalize your competitors by pointing spammy links at them)

Instead, focus on white-hat SEO essentials – specifically high-quality content. Earn backlinks the right way by guest posting and producing relevant content. Incorporate a strong social media strategy to help increase links and gain traffic.   

After all, the best offense is a good defense, right? Don’t give Google a reason to be wary of your site, and you should be in the clear.

Wrapping up Drastic Ranking Fluctuations

Ranking fluctuations are a necessary evil when it comes to the SERPs.

Most of the time it’s just Google being Google, and something every site experiences on an almost daily basis.

Moving forward, always check your rank with that in mind and reserve any panic for the times when a drop seems particularly drastic – and effects multiple pages.

Otherwise, stick to your SEO plan.

Your rankings may fluctuate, but a solid SEO strategy shouldn’t.

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