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…And Reaffirms Importance of Page One Visibility

Ever wondered how much traffic you would get if you reached that elusive number one spot? Or what would happen if you let some of your organic rankings slip to page two? Questions like these have afflicted most of us at some time or other – and recently, a study of organic CTR by position in the search engine results pages (SERPs) attempted to shed some light on the matter. As you will no doubt be aware, achieving page one visibility is no mean feat. As for the top spot… well, unless you’re trying to rank for a term like ‘one man band in Ripon with Russian dancing troupe’, you’re going to have some serious work on your hands. (And how many people are likely to seek out such a niche venture, as wonderful as it sounds?) In other words: is it all worth it?

Average Click Through Rates in Organic Search

Broadly speaking, yes. Having been tormented by this same level of uncertainty for some time, Philip Petrescu of Caphyon conducted an in-depth analysis of organic CTR by position using Google Webmaster Tools. He arrived at a steep curve, suggesting an abrupt decline in click through rate from position one to two, and a headlong plummet from page one to two.

Organic CTR by position in the SERPs

Reference chart for the click-through rate (CTR) of organic desktop searches in Google for July, 2014. Read the full report at www.moz.com

In Philip’s study, an average 71 percent of searches resulted in an organic page one click. The volume of clicks that were delivered to results in the number one position (31 percent) was over twice that delivered to results in position number two (14 percent). While the precise numbers might vary, this trend is nothing new. Several previous studies have uncovered notable declines in CTR from position one to two, and also from page one to two. And while organic CTRs appear to have decreased in general since many of the earlier studies, this can be attributed, at least in part, to changes occuring in the SERPs. For example, the increased use of ads, the evolution of Google shopping and the introduction of answer boxes are all likely to have had an effect on organic click through rates.

Other Factors Contributing to CTR in Organic Search

The new study offers greater insight than its predecessors. With Google’s algorithms reaching mindboggling new heights of sophistication, many more variables must be considered in order to account for different types of searches. And with an increasing number of people using mobiles and tablets to perform searches, a comparison across different devices was long overdue. To get a clearer picture of the additional factors contributing to organic click through rate, search queries were segmented by industry, search intent and number of words (long vs. short tail), and branded terms were compared with unbranded terms. Searches coming from desktops were also compared with those coming from mobiles. Here is a sample of their findings. The full report can be found here. Mobile Surprisingly, CTRs were slightly lower on page one than they were for desktop users, and there was even a slight increase from page one to two. Ian Lurie of Portent suggested that mobile users might be more ‘scroll-happy’ than desktop users. Branded vs. unbranded searches As might be expected, CTRs in position one were higher in searches for branded terms than they were for unbranded terms. Search intent It is thought that people performing a search for specific reasons (e.g. commercial; ‘buy sofa online’) behave much differently from those searching for other reasons (e.g. informational; ‘how to reupholster a sofa’). The findings of the study support this assumption: searches made with specific intent resulted in higher position one CTR than searches made for other, more informational purposes.

Discussion and Conclusions

Before we leap to any conclusions, it’s worth noting a few limitations of this study.

  • The data was collected over the course of just one month (July). Would the same patterns have emerged if the study had been carried out in December?
  • The results are not necessarily representative of the population. For example, the data set may have contained a disproportionate number of websites relating to a particular industry.
  • The study does not fully account for the personalisation of searches. (Granted, this is virtually impossible to achieve.)
  • Even if you are ranking at number one for a given keyword, your CTR is still likely to be poor if the title tag and meta description are putting people off. This is not taken into account.
  • The study tells us nothing about revenue or conversion rate in relation to position in the SERPs, which would have more practical applications. If you get lots of clicks but people are disappointed by what they find when they arrive on the page, your efforts to get to number one will have been wasted.

In spite of its limitations, Philip’s CTR study offers some very helpful insights for anyone who is curious about the relationship between organic rank and CTR. It reaffirms the importance of ranking high for your best search terms – even with the ongoing growth of paid advertising – and highlights the stand-out quality of the top spot in the SERPs. But more than that, it gives us a unique glimpse into the psychology behind search. Philip and his team have promised to keep building on this study, introducing further ways to segment the data and exploring different features of the SERPs that might affect click through rate. They have created a Google CTR History tool and shared their methodology on Moz to help others who would like to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon and carry out tests on their own websites and audiences. So now, over to you. Do you think the recent study of organic CTR by position in the SERPs adds value to the research carried out by SEOs? Can you see any glaring omissions that I have failed to spot? Would you be interested in hearing more about the study as it progresses? Please let us know what you think in the comments box below, or via Twitter or Facebook.