Websites can go sideways. The possible reasons for a change in website performance are many, but all of them can be put into one of these categories:
Google has changed.
The needs of your audience have changed.
Your competitors have changed what they’re doing online.
Website neglect has caught up with you. Your site may be bloated or even broken. Your brand is probably inconsistent.
If you don’t have a digital marketing specialist on hand to help you work through the problems, you might be inclined to accept a lower level of performance going forward. Don’t do that. Many website issues that impact performance can be fixed! Talk to someone you trust (pick me, pick me!) to assess the current state and to understand the upside possible if you give your website a little love. Or, go the DIY route. If you’re ready to roll up your sleeves, here are seven steps to help you diagnose what’s causing your website woes.
Step 1: Address Broader Business Problems
The hardest part of diagnosing a website problem might be understanding the true nature of the problem. It’s a step we can’t skip though, because you don’t want to spend resources fixing a website when something else is actually broken. There are no easy answers here, only tough questions:
Do you have new competitors?
How does your product stack up to the competing options today?
Are your customers’ habits changing? If so, are those changes making your product less appealing?
Have prices for competing products changed?
When was the last time you surveyed customers or prospects? Do you have any way to determine if there’s been a change in the perception of your brand?
If you are fortunate enough to have another lead or sales generation channel besides your website, look at how those other channels are performing. Hopefully they are doing fine and the problems are isolated to your site. If they are also performing poorly, then look beyond your website to understand what’s happening.
Step 2: Benchmark
Before embarking on a trial-and-learn process, benchmark your key stats. These will probably be related to traffic, leads, sales and page load speeds.
Step 3: Look at the Symptoms
A change in leads or sales means one of two things. Either your traffic has changed, or the rate at which your are converting into leads or sales has changed.
Traffic changes usually signal SEO problems, but not always. Check in with your analytics to verify that your organic search traffic has decline. Also determine if Google is the issue or if all of your organic traffic is down.
Conversion rate changes
Sudden changes in conversion rate usually signal that something has broken on your site. Deploy friends, family, employees to use your site and submit test leads or orders. If they don’t find any problems, go through a service like usertesting.com to test your site with anonymous users. Fix any issues uncovered and test again. Gradual changes in conversion rate can mean:
The composition of your website visitors has changed. You’re getting fewer of the people who are more likely to buy your stuff.
The expectations of your website visitors has changed. These expectations could be related to your product, your content, or the performance and functionality of your website.
Regular design and/or content updates on your site have been less effective in recent months.
These situations are tough to diagnose. You’d have to survey website visitors to understand who they are and if their expectations have changed. Consider offering customers an entry in a gift card drawing in exchange for their feedback. As for design changes, you could try rolling back some recent changes if you’ve kept a change log. You should definitely look at the SEO performance of the new content you’re producing today relative to the new content you were producing a year ago. Has your design or content process changed? Do you have new people implementing or strategizing in these areas?
Step 4: Check Performance
Pages that load slowly or incompletely impact user experience and your SEO results. Use webpagetest.org and Google’s PageSpeed Insights to see how your site stacks up. If you have a WordPress site, read this copyblogger article for a solid, accessible walk-through on improving site performance: How to Make WordPress Sites Load 72.7% Faster.
Step 5: SEO Audit
Major and sudden changes in organic traffic volume are usually related to Google algorithm changes. See this Search Engine Land article to diagnose a Penguin or Panda problem.
You should also do an SEO audit on your site. Free SEO audit tools typically check for things like duplicate content, meta data length and alt tags. Hopefully you have access to an audit tool that also checks for bigger issues like error pages, www domain configuration, formatting errors on your robots.txt file, and broken outgoing links.
You will probably find several smaller issues that are negatively impacting user experience. Clean them up. Gradual organic traffic changes are tougher to fix. In this scenario, search engines are gradually finding less value in your site, relative to competitors. Look at the competing sites that are ranking above you, and compare their content and user experience to yours. Note your site’s shortcomings.
Step 6: Content Audit
The content audit is the most tedious step in the process, but also the most beneficial. If your site is even just a year old, it likely has old, dated or broken content. I recently delved into an 11-year-old content site to find broken links galore, plus tons of content that was no longer suitable in Google’s or the user’s eyes. All that old, broken stuff was just clutter, and it was junking up the on-site search results.
The goal of a content audit is to review the content and flag anything that needs to be rewritten or archived. You first create a content inventory spreadsheet, and then use that to check each page and document your findings. This process is do-able for most small- and medium-sized business websites, but it gets pretty messy if you have tens of thousands of pages. In that case, start with a smaller sample. Once you have the process down, you can determine how much time you can dedicate to auditing going forward. A detailed tutorial on content audits is beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few pointers to get you started.
Automate the content inventory piece with Xenu Link Sleuth or a similar tool. You’ll go batty if you try to inventory your webpages manually. Xenu is my tool of choice, because it gives you an inventory of the content, including page title, on a given URL, plus a list of broken links.
Cross-reference your content inventory with pageview data from Google Analytics. Taking this step helps you prioritize your most-viewed pages first.
Add columns in your spreadsheet to document the date you audited the page, the quality/accuracy of the content, any next steps, and anything else you’d like to record. Again, the next steps are typically: none, rewrite, or archive.
If you archive anything that has had pageviews recently, remember to redirect that URL to similar content elsewhere on your website.
Keep your broken link report handy so you can fix those as you go.
You can learn more about content audits at uxmastery.com.
Step 7: Design Test
Lastly, you’ll need to test your design. Use Google Content Experiments or a similar tool so you can run tests concurrently. I like to test high-traffic pages that have a single and prevalent call to action.
Homepages can be challenging to test, because homepage visitors have varied intentions. Landing pages tend to work better, because they attract a more consistent audience. You can proceed with a design test in one of two ways: change one thing or change everything.
If you have an old and dated site, changing one thing at a time might be more insightful — but it will take time to get to the right design. You could test a totally different design against your current page, and then test smaller changes thereafter.
Step 8. Put it Together and Get to Work
At this point, you should have a list of action items to improve your site’s performance. Now, your job is to decide what you can do, prioritize and get to work. Have you turned around a website successfully? Leave us a comment and share your success story!