How to Diagnose a Drop in Referral Traffic from Facebook
Facebook is a major source of referral traffic for millions of websites. The social media giant is, for better or for worse, a massive hub of activity for billions of people worldwide. It’s not just a place for users to engage with friends, chat with family, or keep tabs on acquaintances. It’s a content hub where millions of businesses and websites share their content, in hopes of attracting those users to visit.
If you’re a business on Facebook, you’re probably tracking your referral traffic, to keep an eye on how well your efforts are doing. If you see a drop in referral traffic, it can be cause for concern. What went wrong, and how can you fix it?
There are a bunch of possible causes for such a drop in traffic, so I’m going to list them in a vague order of likelihood. Check each one in turn and see if it applies to you, and if so, you can take steps to fix it.
Before you can diagnose the specific cause of a drop in traffic, you should look for some key characteristics for that drop.
- Is it a sharp, sudden decrease in traffic, or is it just a new low after a slow and steady decline?
- Is the drop in traffic temporary? That is, if you wait a couple of days, does it bounce back?
- If you look back in your traffic history, do you see similar drops, on any regular pattern?
- Is your drop in traffic limited to just Facebook, or does it apply to every traffic source?
- Is your drop in traffic total? That is, does it drop your referral traffic to zero?
These questions can lead you in specific directions. For example, if the drop in traffic affects all traffic sources and not just Facebook, you might look at technical causes like a broken script, broken redirect, or web host downtime. I’ll describe the key features of each cause as we go through them, so here we go!
Your Traffic Dips on a Schedule and You’re Panicking for No Reason
This is one of the most common causes of a traffic “drop” and it’s always a little embarrassing to realize you were freaking out over nothing.
There are three ways this drop can manifest.
- A weekly schedule. A lot of businesses simply see less traffic on weekends, or less traffic mid-week, or some other weekly fluctuation.
- A seasonal schedule. If your business sees a boost around holidays, the time in between major holidays can show a dip.
- An annual schedule. Some businesses just do better in the summer or in the winter, and there’s a natural tide pattern to your traffic.
The key way to identify this kind of traffic dip is to zoom out, either in time or in scale. Maybe the dip isn’t all that bad, given the scale of your traffic. Or maybe you’re looking at the past three days, when seven days ago you had a similar dip and recovered just fine.
You’re Looking at the Wrong Set of Traffic (Mobile vs All)
This one is a little more rare, and it really only happens if you’re comparing historical numbers to new numbers without just mapping it all on one chart. If you know you usually get 5,000 hits a day, and you’re only seeing 3,000 for yesterday, is something wrong?
Well, maybe you’re just looking at a narrow segment of your Facebook referral traffic. Did you click to view all of your traffic, or are you accidentally viewing, say, just your mobile referral traffic? The numbers will, in pure value, be much smaller. Comparing a subset to the full set will always look unfavorable.
Your Previous High Was a Fluke
This is another case where zooming out to get full context will help. If your traffic dropped quite a bit over the course of a few days, zoom out and see if it rose an equal amount a few days prior.
This is a traffic spike that is common when you post a piece of content that goes viral. You get a massive surge of traffic, and that traffic often lingers around for a few days while the post circulates more and more. Then, once it hits a saturation point, traffic for that post will drop off precipitously. This is the traffic drop you see.
Many businesses try to chase the high of viral content on a constant basis, and only a few achieve it. Getting a post to go viral is very difficult, after all, and it’s impossible to predict how your audience will react to any given piece of content.
Typically, with a viral surge of traffic, your traffic will drop off, but will settle at a level slightly higher than it was before. A few people who discovered you from the viral post will stick around. Just try to do it again, and don’t worry about the drop!
A Facebook Ad Campaign Ended or Was Paused
This is another of the most common causes for a drop of traffic, particularly if it’s a sudden drop, but doesn’t get rid of your referral traffic entirely. When you’re running Facebook ads, you’re paying for some metric or another, and a lot of the common metrics involve website traffic.
If your ad campaign stops for any reason, you will see a sudden and immediate decrease in referral traffic. You can easily distinguish this by separating your referral traffic into paid and organic. If organic traffic is much the same, but paid traffic is decreased, there’s your problem.
Now, normally you will know when your ad campaigns are ending and will be able to predict this drop. Sometimes you forget, and that’s fine. Sometimes, though, something happened and your ad was paused when it should be running. Look for common causes, such as an ad being reported and cancelled, a payment method being declined, or a referral link breaking.
Your Facebook Account was Suspended or Banned
This is typically characterized by a sudden, steep drop in referral traffic. You will still have some referral traffic from members of your audience posting links to your content, but any posts you made will be missing. When your account is suspended, all of your posts are hidden, and your traffic drops.
Now, why would you not know this right away? It depends on how you’re looking at your traffic. If you’re using Facebook Insights, you’ll know immediately, since Facebook has a pretty big warning when your account is taken down. If you’re used to looking at analytics from your website’s Google Analytics suite, though, you might not immediately notice that your Facebook account is gone.
Depending on the cause of and severity of the ban or suspension, you may have a few options for getting it back. Just be careful; Facebook’s moderation team is wildly inconsistent and once your account is permanently banned, you’re pretty much out of luck.
Your Domain Was Listed as Blocked
If your Facebook referral traffic drops precipitously, possibly all the way to zero, it’s possible that they have implemented a block against your domain name. You can verify whether or not this is the case in a couple of different ways. If you try to make a new post with your domain name in it, Facebook will fail to post it. If you try to send a Messenger message with the domain, it will also fail. You can also run your URL through the Facebook debugger and see what report they have.
Thankfully, you can appeal this action. Facebook uses a lot of half-calibrated automatic scans and trigger points that might cause a URL to be banned for no real reason, and they will reverse it upon appeal.
You Haven’t Been Posting Very Frequently and Traffic has Declined
Alright, so this may sound like a silly question, but are you still actively using Facebook? A Facebook account can keep going under its own momentum for a few days, maybe a few weeks, but if you aren’t actively posting, all of your post reach will decline. It’s part of how Facebook’s sorting algorithm works. The less visible your posts are, the less visible they will become. It’s a negative feedback loop and it’s pretty difficult to pull out of. If you abandon your Facebook page for more than a week or two, you’re going to encounter a pretty significant drop in traffic.
This traffic drop is hard to characterize because it depends in part on how active your audience is in terms of sharing your posts on their own. There are some brands that don’t even use Facebook, and yet get plenty of Facebook referral traffic. Still, it’s a good reminder that you should probably keep your account active to maximize your referral traffic.
Your Tracking Code Broke
If your traffic dropped suddenly and immediately to zero, there’s a chance that your Facebook pixel broke and that you’re still getting traffic, it just isn’t being tracked properly. The exact symptoms of this depends on how you’re tracking that code.
If you use, for example, UTM parameters to track your traffic and those parameters break, your traffic may not be tracked properly. However, even with UTM tracking, you’ll still see raw Facebook referrer data and should be able to view that fine.
Another occasional cause is when a website change breaks your Google Analytics code. This will typically show errors in addition to zero traffic, so check to make sure that code isn’t broken.
Your Web Host is Down
Another possible cause of lost referral traffic – and traffic as a whole – is downtime from your web host. Most hosts have uptime guarantees, and may have very minimal downtime for maintenance but not much more. Others will have more downtime and might try to hide it. This kind of traffic drop will affect all of your traffic, regardless of source, because your site as a whole will be unavailable.
To check uptime, you can use any of a number of different uptime checkers, or even simply talk to your web host and ask them if they’ve had downtime recently that might have affected your site.
A Natural Disaster Affects Your Audience
This one tends to happen more frequently with businesses that are tightly tied to a specific geographic area. For example, if your business is located in some areas of California, the annual wildfires can cause traffic to dip because those people have better things to worry about. The same goes for things like hurricanes and other major disasters.
Usually, you should know where your geographic focus is and be aware of any issues with the area, and a lot of times if your business is that hyper-local, you’ll be affected too, so it won’t be a surprise. Sometimes, though, you might not realize just how much of your traffic comes from a given area until it’s gone.
Facebook Changed Their Algorithm
I saved this one for near the end because, well, there’s not a whole lot you can actually do about it, depending on the new changes. All of the other causes for a traffic drop can be addressed, but when Facebook changes the way their whole algorithm works and it hurts your page, you just have to adapt. The drop in traffic here will generally be pretty sudden and steep, so it’s harder to differentiate from other sources. The key here is to look on marketing forums and social media blogs to see if there are reports on the phenomenon. If it affects you, it probably affects a lot of other people too, and they’ll be talking about it.
Social Media is On a Decline
If you’re zooming way, way out and, year over year, see a long and gradual drop in traffic, that might just be the facts of life. There are an increasing number of reports that social media traffic as a whole is declining. A lot of users are moving to more direct messaging apps or less marketer-friendly platforms like Snapchat, so we may simply be seeing the slow end of an era. Social media is by no means dead, and you can fight back by improving your marketing more than the gradual decline, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Facebook might not be forever.