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Four Data Driven Alarm Signals for SEO and How to Respond

There are some things about your website you simply can’t ignore — manual penalties, negative SEO, stuff like that. There are other problems that can come up, too. They aren’t quite as obvious, but they are just as damaging.

In this article, I share with you four of these data-driven alarm signals. I want to you to know exactly what metrics to watch, how to find out if you’re in danger, and what you should do about it.

1. Loss of Indexed Pages

What It Is

Google’s algorithm crawls your site and puts these pages into their vast index to be returned in search results for relevant queries. As a courtesy to you, they tell you in Google Webmaster Tools exactly how many pages of your site are in their index.

If you are consistently adding new content and maintaining a valid sitemap.xml, this number should rise. Of course, if you intentionally remove certain pages, then the number will go down. However, if the number of indexed pages drops suddenly or declines gradually over time, then you have a problem on your hands.

Why would this happen? Google removes pages from its index for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, pages just drop off the index because of age or lack of visitors. This is normal. Other times, however, Google penalizes pages, i.e., deindexes them because of spam or unnatural backlinks.

When a page is removed from Google’s index, it will no longer be returned in search results. The fewer pages you have indexed, the less likely it is that your site will rank for certain keywords.

Where to Get the Data

Go to GWT → Google Index → Index Status. This will show you a graph of the total indexed pages over the past twelve months. Make sure that you’ve left the “removed” box unchecked.

The image below shows a site that experienced a severe loss of indexed pages. In this case, the indexation loss coincided with a manual penalty.

index status

What to Do

If possible, find out what pages might be deindexed. If you have a site with just a few pages, indexation loss could be a major blow to traffic. If the deindexed pages are landing pages, this is even worse. You can find out if a page has been deindexed by searching Google for “site:[your page URL]”

google neil testimonial

In this case, I checked to see if my page was still indexed by Google. (Thankfully, it is.)

On large sites with tens of thousands of pages, it’s unrealistic to search every page for deindexing in this way. However, you can still fix the problem by conducting a backlink audit.

It’s a good time to audit your entire link profile for spammy links, and to remove them. I’ve often seen Google start to deindex pages, and a month or two later hit the site with a manual penalty. You can thwart such total deindexation by conducting a thorough audit, link removal, and disavowal.

2. Duplicate Content

What It Is

Duplicate content — when your content is displayed on multiple on- or off-site locations — can erode your rankings and put you at risk for algorithmic penalization. Often, the fault of duplicate content is oversight in the development stage of a website (i.e. misuse of session IDs or URL parameters). Other times, duplicate content is a result of scrapers or content syndication without a rel=canonical tag.

Where to Get the Data

There are plenty of tools that can help you target and fix duplicate content. Screaming Frog is one of my favorites. However, you can access duplicate content information easily and accurately within GWT.

Go to Google Webmaster Tools → Search Appearance → HTML Improvements

The site below has just a few duplicate content issues. These probably aren’t enough to warrant any serious traffic loss or penalization.

3 half shark alligator man

What to Do

The fix for duplicate content listed in GWT is very easy. Simply go to the pages that are listed as containing duplicate content, and change them.

3. Lost Links

What It Is

A great link profile is at the core of a great site. You simply can’t have a strong web presence unless you’ve got plenty of healthy links pointing back to your site.

But what if those links start disappearing? It can happen, and when it does, you will have a problem on your hands. Lost linkbacks mean lost ranking, lost traffic, and lost revenue.

Though spammy linkbuilding is a relic of a bygone SEO era, it is still important to work hard at creating high-quality backlinks. You do so through content marketing and careful guest blogging.

But links don’t last forever. Moz’s research shows that that 75% of the web disappears within less than a year. As Nick Garner pointed out, “Most of the web is short lived.” The reality of the disappearing web — also known as “churn rate” — means that you will experience lost links.

Where to Get the Data

There are plenty of tools for analyzing your link data. I’ve probably used every one on the market — Majestic, Moz, LinkResearchTools, SEMrush, etc. I’ve also developed tools — Kissmetrics and Crazy Egg — that help you understand your metrics and visitor behavior.

You can get backlink counts for free from the Backlink Checker tool, or by using Google Webmaster Tools.

I recommend that you keep a close eye on this number, and on this page in Google Webmaster Tools. Go to Search Traffic → Links to Your Site.

links to your site

  • Total links: If this number declines gradually or sharply, it indicates a loss of linkbacks and the potential for site decline. Remedial action: Content marketing improvements.
  • Who links the most: Most of your links should be coming from other niche sites, blogs, industry websites, etc. If you see an alarming amount of off-niche, porn, gambling, or spam sites, you have a problem. Remedial action: Conduct a link profile audit.
  • Your most linked content: Links should be pointing at your landing pages, content pages, or other significant pages. If you discover old, irrelevant, or undesirable pages being linked to, it’s a sign that you need to make some improvements in your content marketing. Remedial action: Content audit. Target the most linked to pages for improvement. Continue content marketing.
  • How your data is linked: This is the anchor text used to create the links. If the anchors contain irrelevant, spammy, or over-optimized anchors, you could have a problem. Remedial action: Link profile audit.

4. Organic Traffic Decline

What It Is

When your organic traffic goes down, you need to deal with the issue as soon as possible. Every site faces fluctuation, but if a fluctuation turns into a trend, it’s an alarm signal.

Where to Get the Data

In Google Analytics, go to Acquisition → Keywords → Organic. It doesn’t matter that the specific results are (not provided). What does matter is whether your organic keyword traffic is up or down. The graph below indicates a problem:

google warning and penalty

For this site, the “warning” point was the first symptom that the site was experiencing a problem. Their organic keyword traffic customarily experiences peaks and troughs, but there was a sudden dip that was lower than usual. This was a warning sign. The next peak did not rebound to previous traffic average levels. Then, one month later, they received a manual penalty.

Manual penalties do not always come with warning signs like this one. Regardless, the change in keyword traffic usually indicates some level of problem — be it a spammy link profile, deindexed pages, etc.

What to Do

Just as the causes for organic traffic loss are legion, the treatments are many. First, you need to find out exactly why traffic declined. Ask questions, and get data answers:

  • What changes happened in the backlink profile?
  • What other traffic sources changed?
  • Was there an algorithmic change?

Ask as many questions as you can until you’re able to form a hypothesis — a possible reason for the traffic decline.

Some of the best big-picture solutions are also some of the most basic — reevaluating keywords, improving content marketing, removing toxic backlinks, etc. There aren’t any stock answers to solve this problem. It must be solved on a case-by-case basis.


The SEO’s job is not merely to optimize title tags and create keyword-rich content. The SEO’s job is to study the numbers, to identify problems, and to develop strategic solutions. If you take a look at each of the data points I’ve described in this article, you may be able to prevent some major disasters or simply improve your SEO.

What other data-driven alarm signals should the SEO watch?

About the Author: Neil Patel is the cofounder of Neil Patel Digital.

  1. I have fifth indicator for you – we also check SERP positions by tools like SE Ranking or Collabim.

  2. Padraig O Raghaill Jul 22, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Hi Neil nice article but not sure about the duplicate content, good way to scare many a newbie away from syndication. Could be a good idea to mention that duplicate content will cause you no problems at all, if you use the canalogical tag, when publishing give the article basic syndication. Maybe a good idea to broaden the scope of duplicate content, when it is fine and when it can cause issues.

    It’s funny how a decade ago I was mentioning the bad ideas of guest blogging and we are only just now starting to see influencers saying not such a great idea afterall. There is far too much preaching and not enough logic.

    In your conclusion Neil you put

    “The SEO’s job is not merely to optimize title tags and create keyword-rich content. ”

    In 2014 I think the last thing that should be ‘sprouted’ is the seo’s is not merely creating keyword rich content. Using the terms “keyword rich” in 2014 is sending big mixed signals. I think it could have been far more informative to be looking at how to avoid some top content pages dropping out of the indexes. That is more useful on how to avoid losing indexation on pages.

    I appreciate your knowledge & success, that can not be argued about. Oh by the way as you are like one of the worlds top corporate consultants. Why not make “sprout” a value added resource giving back to the SOHO market that you are marketing to?

    Would it not be more beneficial to be more “MOZ” give away your knowledge for the greater good of small business operators, while cementing your corporate brand and price point. I do have an issue with leveraging corporate success to market down; and I am sure you know about the marketing down psychology.

    You and your knowledge is in the top tiny percentage I am just saying it could be nice to try a little sme philanthropy.

  3. Sylvia Parker Jul 23, 2014 at 7:23 am

    This is really useful information. Understanding what to do when you get penalized is so important, especially because when it first happens the natural reaction is to panic! But the best solution is prevention. Obviously you can’t account for everything, but don’t try to get back links through unethical avenues. It’ll only end up hurting you in the long run. Good, organic links should keep you out of trouble for the most part.

    But even when you do everything right, there’s still a chance something will go wrong. So thanks for this article! The biggest step is always trying to figure out what to do after something has gone wrong.

  4. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for this article.
    Well, I am facing indexing issue with my website. The index chart has a downward slope, and it shows only 13 indexed pages status.
    Earlier there was a steady chart with around 120 indexed pages. The slope started since we revamped our website.

    So I checked the index status like you have explained here using this formula: “site:[your page URL]”
    And it shows almost all the pages, and the number is greater than 13.

    I also checked HTML Improvements, and it shows no error. “We didn’t detect any content issues with your site…” So I am confused what to do.
    My site has the same piece of content on many pages, is it causing the issue? The Same piece of content is in services pages.

    If you can help and guide it would be great :)

    Thank you in advance.


  5. Matt Spitsbergen Mar 26, 2017 at 4:20 pm


    I found your article because I’ve been seeing a steady significant drop in indexed pages over the past year. The site has thousands of pages. You mentioned under number 1 to do a backlink audit, but you don’t mention or link to any articles on how to do this, or what tool to use. I look forward to your reply.



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