Starting about two weeks ago, websites of all sizes across many industries saw a troubling trend: a major drop in their search traffic from Bing. While traffic can vacillate for many reasons, as the days wore on webmasters and SEO consultants did not see it bounce back. Rumors began to spread.
So what happened, and should you be worried? Here’s the complete skinny.
The Phantom Update
Usually when there’s an unexplained drop in search traffic, it’s one of two things. If it affects only your own site, there’s a chance you’ve been hit with a penalty. But if it affects lots of sites, it could mean a new algorithm update has rolled out. (There are dozens of other factors that can affect traffic as well, from tech stuff to marketing changes, but if you’ve checked those out these are two big possibilities.)
Since lots of sites experienced the Bing drop, SEO experts suspected an algorithm change. The industry was abuzz as people tried to figure out what changed in Bing’s algorithm—what ranking signal had been dialed up, or what kind of behavior had been deemed unseemly, to cause so many sites to lose traffic.
But a couple of clear trends came out. First, no other sites had gained traffic. In SEO, in order for there to be a loser there has to be a winner. Someone has to be in the number one spot.
Secondly, although the search traffic from Bing had fallen, these sites didn’t have lower traffic overall. It was as if the lost traffic was coming from somewhere else instead.
It turns out that if you looked under “referrals” on your Google Analytics dashboard, you’d find a new referrer handing over plenty of traffic. That site is Bing.com.
What happened is that for some reason, traffic coming from the Bing search results was no longer being counted as organic search traffic. Instead it was counted as referred traffic. In SEO parlance, a “referral” is when someone gets to your site from a hyperlink on someone else’s site.
The cause for the glitch is not clear; both Google and Bing say they’re investigating. There’s no reason to believe this change was intentional on either party’s part, but it seems to have fooled a variety of traffic tracking tools—not just Google Analytics. That means the hiccup probably came from Bing’s side.
So if your Bing traffic is down, you can heave a sigh of relief. Look in your referrals and you’ll see that more or less the same amount is coming through from Bing that way.