The “point of diminishing returns” is often used in economics to describe a point at which the rate of returns declines, even though input stays the same. In other words, you get less bang for your buck.
This phenomena can also be observed in SEO. I’ve seen it over and over again in my career. A startup creates a product with SEO in mind; a business decides to get serious about SEO. Growth is great for the first 6 to 12 months. But then, the growth rate suddenly shrinks and ultimately, organic traffic plateaus. How should you react?
I identified 12 core issues that cause organic traffic plateaus and will tell you how to solve them. Before we get started, let me preface by saying writing that many issues in SEO have become multi-factorial. Seldomly is the problem a single thing, such as backlinks or a technical error. So, when you roll out changes and don’t see a quick recovery, look at other issues that might be at play at the same time.
1. Not enough input
The single biggest reason I see for organic traffic plateaus is not enough input. Your input, links or content, needs to be steady or increase. If you don’t build at least as many new links or content over time as you did when growth came easy, it’s no wonder you don’t see the same output.
ClickToTweet: “The single biggest reason I see for organic traffic plateaus is not enough input.”
Every site is like a machine. You want a certain output, say organic traffic, then you need to provide an input. The 3 biggest inputs are content, link velocity (see next chapter), and technical optimization.
Twitter quote: “Every site is like a machine. You want a certain output, say organic traffic, then you need to provide an input.”
According to the law of diminishing returns, your input probably even has to increase in order to keep the same growth rate after an inflection point (the point of diminishing returns). Why? Because you usually start out targeting queries that are easy to rank for and then tackle the ones that are more competitive. At some point, you have to invest more to rank for more competitive keywords (exceptions apply) and compete with stronger sites in the SERPs.
A simple metric to gage site growth is the number of indexed pages.
If it looks like this...
… expect to see this: no growth.
Creating new content regularly has benefits aside of search traffic, too. It keeps the number of returning visitors steady to growing because visitors get in the habit of expecting new content from your site. They might even follow you on social media or subscribe to your RSS feed. Returning visitors can increase the chance to get backlinks, higher click-rates in the SERPs through brand recognition, and social shares. By the way, “new content” depends on the type of business. For marketplaces or social networks, it can mean more UGC or inventory. In either case, it often means plain and simple “more pages”, given a certain quality standard is met.
The same accounts for links: they don’t just give your site “more popularity”, they also provide referral traffic. This can become really important in times of Google’s transformation to an answer engine.
How to fix:
- Compare the growth of your number of pages with your top competitor(s). If you want to keep up, you probably need to grow at a similar rate.
- Set a target for a realistic rate of new content (CCG or UGC) per week and be consistent.
- Monitor the quality of your content. New content is only smart when you can build links at a similar rate and keep the quality above a certain standard.
- Look at your link velocity and make sure it’s constant.
- Try to assess links not just by quantity but also quality. One way to do that is to filter out links that come from noindexed URLs, or spammy looking sites. Most SEO Tools have predefined filters for that.
2. Content grows faster than link velocity
When your site grows in number of pages, whether through content you created yourself (company-created) or user-generated content, it needs to be somewhat in line with the rate of (quality) links you get, also called link velocity.
The reason is PageRank. Every page and site needs a certain amount of what as Google refers to as popularity to rank for certain queries. Since it’s often faster to build new content than new links, many sites outpace their link profile.
An alternative to building links when growing a site is optimizing the internal link structure, but it can only compensate so much for missing backlinks. At some point, even the cleanest internal linking structure needs more links to distribute more PageRank.
How to fix:
- Compare the rate of new indexed URLs in search console with the rate of new (quality) links to your site. If it’s completely out of proportion, you have an issue.
- If you have mediocre to poor content, invest in improving its quality.
- If you have great content, invest more in promotion to build links.
- Look for patterns of underlinked but important pages by correlating PageRank and CheiRank with the ranking of your money maker pages. Optimize your site accordingly.
3. Site growth exceeds crawl budget
Google assigns every site a certain crawl budget, which really only starts to become relevant after ~500-1,000 pages (Google). It’s measured in how often Google crawls a URL, if at all. Exceeding crawl budget means a URLs is not crawled often enough, which often correlates strongly with rankings. That’s because the strongest factor to drive crawl budget is popularity, which is very tied to backlinks. Thus, a low crawl rate often means that a URL is not popular enough and that often points back at rankings.
Growing quickly means the number of URLs can exceed your crawl budget, especially for business models like marketplaces, social networks, news, or ecommerce sites.
How to fix:
- Pull the monthly or weekly rate from your log files, and look for patterns of page types. A pattern could be that all pages within a certain crawl depth are crawled at a lower rate than others.
- If you find patterns, you have a couple of choices:
- Reduce the rate at which you publish new pages (if possible)
- Add more internal links to pages that are undercrawled
- Build more deep-links, meaning backlinks to pages that have a higher crawl depth (clicks it takes to get there from the homepage)
4. Site is too slow
It’s hard to keep all quality signals satisfied when you ramp up SEO efforts. You might invest in good content and links, but your user experience is subpar. Or you invest in great user experience and content, but don’t build enough links. Most of the time, I see the former.
Site speed is the main factor of user experience. It’s no secret that if a site is slow, it doesn’t matter how many links it has or how good its content is. As a site develops and grows, it often becomes slower. There seems to be a certain threshold for when a page is too slow or fast enough that doesn't seem universal for all sites and verticals.
How to fix:
- Use Lighthouse and google Page Speed Test to assess your site’s speed.
- Oftentimes, site speed issues have to do with either compression, caching, lazy loading, and DOM rendering.
- Make sure to use a CDN.
- Compare your Lighthouse score with your strongest competitors. Oftentimes, the benchmark is set by the leading players of a vertical.
5. Under-developed brand
The brand bonus in SEO is real. It’s most visible when you search for a brand combination query, which is a brand query followed by a generic query like “g2 crm software reviews”.
That brand bonus seems to have gotten stronger over time. When Google started considering entities more in search, it also seemed to have started assigning topical relevance to brands. Amazon, for example, is highly relevant for online retail-related queries, whereas Tripadvisor has a certain relevance for travel-related queries. A way for you to get a feeling for this is what comes up in Google Suggest when you look for your brands and how many brand combination queries, e.g. “Tripadvisor Paris”, you have.
Brand links play an important role for the brand factor in Search. Links with a brand anchor text or a brand combination are strong signals for Google that your brand is important for certain topics.
Some also speculate that Google looks at what assets and attributes brands typically own, like brand bidding on Google Ads, having social media accounts, reaching a certain search volume for their brand, etc.
How to fix:
- Assess you your brand links in the backlink tool of your choice.
- Compare the strength of your brand links to the strongest players in the field by looking at an accrued metric like domain authority (Moz), Page Score (SEMrush) or URL Rating (AHREFs).
- Assess how deeply you cover relevant topic in your content.
- Analyze user behavior signals like bounce rate, time on site, CTR, pages/visit, and long vs. short clicks (especially segmented per topic/category)
- If you find weaknesses, build more brand or brand combination links.
- Understand what topics Google associates you with by checking Google Suggest results for your brand and brand combination rankings.
- If you find that Google doesn’t associate you with important topics, build more content around them.
- Assess the taxonomy of your site and see if it is coherent to the topics you cover.
Focus on fewer topics but better content, build out content silos, and establish your site as expert for certain topics.
6. Too much outdated content
Fresh content is important - for some verticals more, for others less. But it’s not enough to keep publishing fresh content, you also need to keep content fresh.
Content can become outdated because:
- data and facts covered in an article become outdated
- the topic isn’t searched for as often anymore
- the topic has developed and needs additional information
Certain sites lose overall traffic when they carry too many pieces that are outdated or stop publishing content. There seems to be a sitewide freshness factor at play for sites that want to rank for certain topics.
How to fix:
- Look for pages that once had a lot of traffic and then started to decline.
- See if the articles contain outdated or incomplete information and update accordingly.
- Look for pages with a certain age and see if a pattern of declining rankings emerges.
There are algorithmic and manual penalties. The latter is still easy to spot. Just check your Search Console for “manual actions”. The former is much more difficult because they often roll out slowly over time, instead of suddenly. That makes it really hard to find the reason. We can’t correlate certain actions or changes with algorithmic penalties anymore.
It also seems that Google demotes sites for a lot more reasons than it used to. However, Google is also clear in what it seems as problematic:
- User-generated spam
- Spammy free host
- Structured data issue
- Unnatural links to your site
- Unnatural links from your site
- Thin content
- Cloaking or sneaky redirects
- Pure spam
- Cloaked images
- Hidden text or keyword stuffing
- AMP content mismatch
- Sneaky mobile redirects
How to fix:
- Check your search console for “manual actions”.
- Assess your site for unnatural looking links, thin/duplicate content, and user-generated spam.
- Disavow spammy backlinks.
- Noindex thin/duplicate content,
- Delete user-generated spam.
- See if one of the reasons for penalties listed above applies to your site.
- Fix accordingly.
8. Too many (aggressive) ads
Google is clearly not a fan of aggressive ads (on sites it ranks). Whether that’s really because of bad user experience or because it wants to monetize traffic itself, it can hurt you. Especially problematic are popups, mobile interstitials, and self-playing audio/video content.
How to fix:
- If you see a traffic or ranking decline, assess your site for aggressive ads and popups.
- If popups or ads are important for your revenue, try to decrease ad-load in 10% steps, until you see recovery.
- Consider other income streams, as purely ad-driven business models are becoming hard to sustain.
- Compare the traffic decline and ad-load on desktop with mobile. Mobile traffic is more sensitive to aggressive ads and popups, as they’re harder to close.
9. Low degree of mobile-friendliness
Since Google started to transfer sites to mobile-first indexing, mobile-friendliness has become a stronger ranking signal. Google even marks sites in the SERPs that don’t fulfill the criteria.
What’s often overlooked is that Google also crawls with mobile Googlebot a lot more. That means it doesn’t matter if mobile traffic is important to you business/site or not - you need to optimize your mobile site.
How to fix:
- Look at your log files and check whether Google started crawling your site more often with the mobile Googlebot user agent.
- Check Search Console notifications for a message saying your site has been transferred to mobile-first indexing.
- Assess your site with Google’s Mobile Friendliness tool and check Google Search Console for mobile UX suggestions under Mobile Usability.
- Use the URL Inspection tool in search console to see if there are problems with the mobile-friendliness of a page.
10. Too many technical issues
Technical issues scale with a site. When they’re ignored, they start to cause severe problems. Typical offenders are 404 errors, which, if unfixed, provide a poor user experience and will lead Google to crawl your site less often when you hit a certain threshold.
How to fix:
- Check your site for common technical issues, such as 5xx errors, 4xx errors, soft 404s, 302-redirects, redirect-chains and loops, duplicate content, faulty (client-side) rendering, and indexed parameter URLs.
- For 5xx errors, check your server configuration and look for the cause of server outages. Speak to your hoster about the problem.
- For 4xx errors, really only 403,404, and soft 404s are problematic. Use 410, instead of 403/404 if the page/product/profile isn’t going to be available again. Noindex soft 404 pages.
- Exchange 302 for 301-redirects. Exceptions apply, but 302 should never exist for a long time.
- Clean up redirect chains/loops by redirecting to the final address.
- Exclude parameter URLs from being indexed through robots.txt or in Search Console (or use a canonical-tag).
- Canonicalize duplicate content.
- Aim for server-side rendering over client-side rendering.
11. Changed User-Intent
User-intent can actually change quite often, especially for short-head to mid-tail queries. The reason is that they’re hard to find out and often have a news or transactional relation. I’ve recently seen lots of queries change from information to transactional and I assume it’s because Google wants to monetize search more.
Thus, a decline or plateau in organic traffic can also be due to short-head keywords changing in user-intent, which leads your site to drop in rankings if it doesn’t match.
How to fix:
- Look in-depth at the queries that your site lost traffic or plateaued for by analyzing the search results for user intent. Look at the pages/sites that gained in rankings when you lost to get an understand what Google is looking for.
- There’s not that much you can do to regain rankings for queries that changed in user intent other than changing the content/your pages so that they match the new intent.
12. Competition from Google
Google is turning into a answer machine. That’s most visible through more integration of local packs/maps, shopping ads, and the knowledge graph in form of cards, featured snippets, and PPAs ("people also asked" boxes). Google answers more searches itself and sends less traffic to sites.
Especially simple queries, such as “what is the capital of Lithuania?” or “how many ounces are in one pound?”, are affected.
How to fix:
- Look at the queries your site lost traffic for.
- Specifically search for queries that have a steady average ranking and impressions but a decline in clicks.
- Asses whether the amount of SERP features has increased.
- If you’re affected, either try to rank in the featured snippet by adjusting your content and ranking in the top 5.
- Target more sophisticated queries that can’t be answered in a simple way.
Turning a large ship around takes time
Even when you react quickly, sometimes it takes Google time to reevaluate a site and make the change visible. We all want more traffic and plateaus are nerve-wracking. But, if you’ve made adjustments and can’t find any other problems for your site, it might just need a bit of time. Google’s updates roll out more fluidly and faster than ever, but even nowadays it can take a while.
The most important thing to do in any case you lose traffic or plateau is to look at the data before and after the drop. Often, a certain type of queries or a page template declined. In the worst case, always go back to the 10 ranking factors we know to be true.