Value of a #1 Google Ranking Down 37% in Two Years?

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SEO is hard, y’all.

It can take a while to start working, and then, once you get used to seeing double-digit growth in organic traffic year over year – suddenly you hit the dreaded plateau. It’s harder and harder to make serious gains.

seo growth

WordStream's traffic growth since 2009

See how the slope of growth is less steep toward the end?

I remember the days where there were lots of spammy tricks you could use to get mediocre content to rank. (Not that I myself would ever create mediocre content. Nope. No way.) That’s not so easy anymore – in part because Google’s algorithms have gotten a lot smarter, and in part because the competition is simply greater. There are more sites and businesses, but the first page of results hasn’t gotten bigger. Not that it would matter if it did – few people scroll to the bottom or click to page 2.

second page of google results

Recently, doing my SEO reporting, I’ve noticed a few cases where a page on our site has seen a dip in organic traffic. However, when I check to see if we’ve lost our ranking, we’re still on the first page, or even ranking at #1. So what gives?

I suspected that changes to the Google SERP, such as the introduction of fancy new SERP features, were lowering our organic click-through rate (CTR), so I did a little digging to find out what exactly was going on.

A note on study methodology

For this study, we looked at 24 keywords (from our own site) where we’ve maintained the same or very close to the same ranking for about two years (between May 2015 and April 2017) according to Search Console data. In most cases the keyword maintained a #1 ranking, but for some keywords the average ranking for the period is reported as 1.1 or 1.2 due to some ranking flux. Results were not filtered by device or country.

I would characterize the majority of these keywords as informational. Only one of them is clearly commercial (“ppc software”) and one is potentially branded or navigational (“free keyword tool” is ambiguous, since it’s both the name of our tool and a generic phrase). More on what these keyword categories mean here.

And thanks to my smarty-pants colleagues Meg Lister and Josh Brackett, who are approximately 9 million times better at Excel and statistics than me, for helping me analyze this data, and to our new designer Kate Lindsay for pretty-ing up the graphs.

The upshot: Median CTR is down by 37%

Looking at all 24 queries on our list, we had an average position change of -0.1% (not significant) and an average CTR change of -28% (a median change of -37%).

drop in ctr for number one google ranking

CTR only went up for three keywords in the set (by 3%, 4%, and 37%). For all the others, CTR went down. The biggest single change was a drop in CTR of -79%.

It’s important to note that I didn’t cherry-pick keywords to fit a narrative. These were the first 24 keywords I found where our ranking hadn’t changed significantly in two years.

How has organic impression volume changed?

Impressions for this keyword set were up overall (by a hefty 63%) – however, due to the fall in CTR, we weren’t able to capitalize on most of those impressions to drive growth. Clicks only increased by 21% in the same time period.

google organic impression share

Bummer.

How do Featured Snippets affect CTR?

google organic ctr with featured snippet

Of the 24 keywords, there were 17 queries where we own the featured snippet. For these keywords there was an average position change of 0% and a median CTR change of -39%. That means even with the coveted Featured Snippet, organic CTR for a #1 ranking is lower in 2017 than it was in 2015.

And it’s not because we’re competing with more ads – 16 of these keywords have no ads on the SERP at all.

ctr for keywords with no featured snippet

For keywords without a featured snippet (6 of the 24), median CTR change was only -32%. This suggests that the featured snippet is actually associated with a decrease in CTR(?!)

This would make sense for simple question-type keywords that can be answered right on the SERP, like “how tall was Abraham Lincoln,” “when is the Super Bowl” etc. See also the recent kerfuffle over Celebrity Net Worth – a website that has taken a major hit due to Google’s Featured Snippets making it largely unnecessary to click through to discover what a celebrity is worth.

featured snippet controversy

This is why I think it’s so important to answer COMPLEX questions if you want to drive value from Featured Snippets.

But most of the keywords I looked at weren’t simple questions, or phrased as questions at all. So there’s actually no reason to assume that people were looking for a quick answer. For example, two of the keywords were “great marketing ideas” and “keyword strategy.” To me it’s pretty clear that the intent with these is relatively deep; they’re looking for multiple ideas or a complex strategy, not just a definition.

So why has organic CTR for a #1 ranking fallen?

Here’s the tricky part: Why is this happening? It’s not immediately obvious.

Are we losing clicks to ads?

It would be easy to assume that organic CTR has fallen because Google has increasingly moved to monetize the SERP – for example, just last year Google increased the number of top ads from three to four (while simultaneously removing the right-rail ads).

google serp changes ctr

Old enough to remember when there were ads there

However, that change has minimal impact on this keyword set, since only four of the 24 keywords we looked at were triggering ads at all, and of those four, only one triggered four top ads. Two of the keywords triggered just one top ad, and one triggered no top ad but a panel of sponsored results on the right (on desktop).

Incidentally, the keyword that now triggers four ads showed exactly the median drop in CTR (-32%). It wasn’t an outlier in terms of losing clicks to ads.

Long story short, ads are definitely not the whole story here.

What about other SERP features?

There were a few cases where the keyword triggered a Featured Snippet but the Featured Snippet wasn’t ours (even though we had the #1 ranking). The Featured Snippet was introduced in 2015 and the prevalence of the feature increased a few times during 2016 (thanks to Dr. Pete for confirming). According to current MozCast data, it now appears on about 15% of queries.

mozcast serp features

10 of the keywords also triggered a “People also ask” feature (Related Questions), like the below.

related questions feature google

In a different industry, we might have seen a lot more features in the results – images, videos, knowledge panel, local packs, card-style carousels at the top, etc. That wasn’t the case in this particular keyword set.

Now, Moz recently published some fascinating data (in collaboration with Jumpshot) that reveals a full third of searches result in no clicks at all. People do a Google search and then click nothing. Says Rand Fishkin:

If we look at all search queries (not just distinct ones), those numbers shift to a straight 60%/40% split. I wouldn't be surprised to find that over time, we get closer and closer to Google solving half of search queries without a click. 

In other words, Rand predicts that CTR will continue to fall even for #1 rankings as Google releases features that make clicking any result unnecessary.

Is this a mobile problem?

One possibility for the drop in CTR is that a greater percentage of our site traffic is mobile now than it was 2 years ago – mobile devices account for about 20% of traffic now, compared to 13% in May 2015.

Here’s the May 2015 breakdown:

traffic breakdown by device

And here’s March 2017:

percentage of mobile traffic

(As mentioned, I didn’t break the above click-through rate data out by device; I download reports from Search Console monthly, but not device reports, and at this point I can’t go back and get that data from 2015.)

On mobile, organic CTR looks a little different than it does on desktop. Again, according to Moz/Jumpshot data, organic CTR is lower on mobile devices than on desktop – Rand says:

We've always suspected CTR on mobile is lower than on desktop, and now it's confirmed. For mobile devices, 40.9% of Google searches result in an organic click, 2% in a paid click, and 57.1% in no click at all. For desktop devices, 62.2% of Google searches result in an organic click, 2.8% in a paid click, and 35% in no click.

google search clicks on mobile devices

So well more than half of mobile searches don’t result in clicks.

Here’s another source – according to Advanced Web Ranking, “ranking #1 in Google has a 23.5% mobile click-through rate, down from 28.6% in 2015.”

That means it’s not just the increase in mobile search share, but that CTR’s are falling across all devices.

None of these explanations (more and larger ads, other organic features, or shifts in mobile usage/behavior) fully explain the dip in organic CTR that we’re seeing, but it could be a combination of these changes along with other, smaller factors. Heck, maybe people are just more distracted than they were two years ago, so we’re seeing a higher incidence of people doing a Google search and then dropping the task to watch a squirrel out the window…

One more caveat…

This was our own, wordstream.com account data so we’re only looking at one vertical: marketing. The results may be very different for different industries. I can actually imagine the average CTR falling much more for industries that do less content marketing than we do, meaning more of their keywords are going to be commercial vs. informational.

How to combat falling organic CTR’s?

Feeling dispirited? Me too, honestly, but your focus shouldn’t change too much:

  • Keep working to increase your organic CTR’s by aiming to meet the searcher’s true intent with exceptionally high-quality content, and by writing headlines and meta descriptions that make the value you’re offering crystal-clear upfront.
  • Scale your content marketing so you have more opportunities to rank. Consider publishing more off-topic content that reaches a wider audience and increases your brand affinity (then use remarketing to convert more of those visitors).
  • Invest in social promotion, email marketing, PPC and other channels that can offset any losses on the organic SERP.

TL;DR

In short, though our data set was limited:

  • This study suggests that a #1 ranking on Google is 37% less valuable, at least in terms of click-through rate, than it was just two years ago. That means you can't take full advantage of gains in impressions.
  • Featured Snippets are associated with a bigger decrease in CTR than SERPs without a Featured Snippet – even just looking at keywords where we own the Feature Snippet. Statistical significance on this data point is 99%.

We were surprised, to say the least.

What do you think? Have you seen similar changes in your industry?

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Comments

Nayab Khan
Apr 26, 2017

Woww that's some cool stats. #1 is no more number one.
I don't think it's "people ask for" and ads that effects the cut down on CTR as much as featured snippet does. But i have personally came across very few results where feature snippets does not belongs to #1.
Thanks for this amazing article.

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 26, 2017

Generally even when we had the featured snippet (as well as the #1 ranking) the CTR had fallen. Pretty surprising.

Monique Chabert
Apr 26, 2017

Cool data! Why only 24 keywords though? That amount of data doesn't seem enough to give a wide spread to find real trends.
Would you consider looking across multiple industries in the future? That would be an interesting study idea I think.

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 26, 2017

Thanks! It was a bit tricky to find keywords that had exactly the same ranking over 2 years, since rankings tend to fluctuate.

A company with Clickstream data would be your best bet if you were curious about data across all industries. I think Moz is working on something like this.

Arthur Gopak
Apr 27, 2017

Hi Elisa, thanks for sharing the insights, a really helpful read! With the business magazine that I am running, we have seen an increase in CTR after the featured snippet release.

I agree with you that this Google feature helps long articles (like guides or listicles) because they generate curiousity among searchers to explore your content more thoroughly.

But in your case, have you considered that ads of your competitors might have been better aligned with searchers intent than the 24 #1 keywords? Perhaps your competitors are also getting better with the PPC marketing.

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 27, 2017

Hi Arthur, thanks for reading! I think a featured snippet definitely helps in some cases -- we have pages that earned a featured snippet and then saw a huge uptick in traffic. Unfortunately, "it depends"! (It's also definitely helpful to get the snippet if you're NOT ranking at #1)

I looked at every single one of these keywords manually in an incognito browser, and most of them weren't triggering any ads. They are mostly informational keywords. So ads definitely are not the whole story here.

Buck Lawrimore
Apr 27, 2017

Another factor could be market saturation. Perhaps the number of people online that want to know this more technical stuff already know it, while those who don't know it are an increasingly smaller percentage of the whole. The short attention span of millennials and other younger searchers may also be a factor in searching but not clicking. We have found for example that an increasing number of people who visit our site and fill out an online contact form will not even respond when we try to follow up by email or phone, as if to say, "I was thinking about that last night, but today I am thinking about something else."

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 27, 2017

This is an interesting point -- and our industry definitely feels saturated to me!

Paul
Apr 27, 2017

A few possibilities:
(1) It is possible that people search for something, don't like the results (hence don't click on anything), and then refine their search by adding another word. So each search session takes up more search queries which eventually leads to a click through.
(2) Could it be that people search on their phones without clicking on anything only to repeat that search on their desktops later where they eventually click through? So one search query becomes two.

Larry Brauner
Apr 28, 2017

What I believe you're saying is that changes in how search engines are used might be an important factor. I agree.

However, what no one seems to be pointing out is the total worthlessness of these data. Over the past two years WordStream brand perceptions have changed and for all they know, that's a major factor.

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 28, 2017

Gee, thanks for weighing in.

Chris Dimmock
Apr 27, 2017

There was no mention of search volume? Is it possible that search volume for these keywords has fallen? i.e. less people are searching for these phrases today than there were 2 years ago?

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 27, 2017

Hi Chris, search volume is analogous to impressions -- since impressions have gone up by ~60% we can infer that search volume has gone up as well.

In any case, CTR rate takes search volume into account, so even if search volume had gone down, it wouldn't necessarily follow that CTR would fall too, just total clicks.

Russell
Apr 28, 2017

Are the top three positions as sacred as they are made out to be? I don't know if it holds true for all people in all industries, but I am a self taught programmer, and spend a lot of my time googling "how the hell do I..." First thing I look at is the date of the entry- I am always going to look for the newest source first, and this is not always (in fact is rarely) in the top three results. If I have to go to page 2 I will. In an ever changing industry is a researcher going to be looking for the most up to date information, regardless of position? Of course you are getting the people who want the first thing that answers their question- being #1 is preferable to being #13, but are you losing traffic to newer articles, regardless of position?

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 28, 2017

I have noticed a trend of people appending a year to their search queries in an attempt to get more recent results. (And I hate blogs that don't have a prominent publish date.)

Unfortunately we have seen a few cases where #1 rankings are getting less traffic than they used to even with more impressions.

Ziyoda Mirsaidova
Apr 28, 2017

I think it is an amazing feature of Google that I can get straight answers for my questions without entering your site. To be frank with you, I've searched a lot of PPC related questions and got straight answers from knowledge boxes and "People also ask for" boxes.

Most of the time, when I search for something in google, I want straight, immediate answers to my questions without reading 10K+ word blog article. In this term, Google is doing a great job, matching demands of searchers.

Looking at it from your side, I don't think that you want traffic from people like me. If I am just searching for the CTR formula, I will look up the formula and leave, not paying attention to any of your CTA buttons, just increasing your bounce rate and decreasing average time on site metrics.

However, if I am doing some more in-depth research like "how to decrease CPC costs", those answer boxes will not be sufficient for me, and then I will end up on Wordstream.com because this site contains most in-depth articles on that topic. I think you should be focusing on bringing more traffic from those in depth related keywords.

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 28, 2017

I totally agree that Featured Snippets are great for answering simple questions quickly. The keywords I was looking at for this study weren't clearly simple questions, as outlined above, so I was surprised that people wouldn't need to click through to get more information.

chris maddaloni
May 04, 2017

The page 2 of google joke was very funny, I will use that on my next sales call.

shreelatha
Jun 03, 2017

Thanks so much for sharing. Your points are spot on especially our sites besides doing keyword research we really need to do on-page and off-page seo. And guest blogging is great too. I also love Google plus, my articles are ranking in Google when I use Google plus.

madhushalini
Jun 03, 2017

This article helped me a lot and I’ve also realized a similar one by analyzing this article. I hope I’ve figured out in the end how do you also get ranked first in Google.

Thank you for your great content

Chas Blackford
Jun 08, 2017

Dropping one the KWs noted above (wedding photographers -which I'll assume was one of the 24 tested) into Google Trends shows a five year decline in interest - which supports the comment made about saturation (and savvy) among searchers. We have a two prong issue here - Google is trying its best to keep the user in the Google garden and users are finding answers elsewhere because of increasing sophistication, whether it be in the more users aware refining KW searches, going directly to familiar sites to do more focused searching or spending more time on Facebook or Instagram.

Elisa Gabbert
Jun 08, 2017

"Wedding photographers" isn't one of our keywords -- that was just a random example of a SERP. As shown, impression volume for the keyword set we looked at INCREASED. Where are you getting the idea that interest has declined?

Chuck Braman
Jun 08, 2017

I think the problem is the no-attention-span / scrolling-disease among young people. I have software on my website that records the behavior of visitors, and I see the same behavior there. Before the page has begun loading, they're already scrolling. They do not stop to read; they scroll to the bottom, and then back up. If they click on a video, before it's loaded or immediately after, they're already hitting the "next button." Off my site, I see the same behavior in public. It doesn't matter what is right in front of them in reality, they never take their eyes off their smart phones, and they scroll for hours. It's a phenomenon that's growing rapidly. To put it in other words, young people's behavior on the web is less and less purposeful.

shreelatha
Jun 12, 2017

Hi, I am suffering from this issue, suddenly my website rank droped from fist page of google by many keyword and found your blog post.
It’s too much beneficial and i’m sure i will gain my website ranking again with the help of your instruction.
thanks for this post

madhushalini
Jun 12, 2017

Great post!
I am currently experiencing the ups and downs of my ranking since 3rd week of January, the week before they announce the penguin update.
Anyway, my question is aside from GWT(console) do you have any free tools that you can recommend for monitoring?
Thanks!

Elisa Gabbert
Jun 12, 2017

Aside from Search Console I do think most of the best rank checking tools are paid!

Barakha
Jul 13, 2017

It's the best strategy for full-time bloggers to get organic traffic with or without SEO. I actually don’t concentrate that much on SEO other than catchy titles, giving attention to sections of quality content, and maybe it includes a header or two in the blog post itself.

All you need to notice from this kind of articles is what I & most of the others newbies focusing on the SEO link-building. Internal page structure, internal SEO, link building activities like commenting, blog post, social sharing counts or bookmarking are the essential part of the better SEO techniques. I have seen many bloggers spending time on different ways of SEO link building instead of providing the value to the content and its social promotions. You may call it ignoring the Google, but we all know that the Google bot doesn't ignore anchored dofollow or nofollow backlinks to calculate your PageRank.

With my experience, about 65% of my traffic comes from search engines, & the rest is from social sites that include referrals & direct traffic. So I don’t entirely rely on Google as I make comments on really useful blogs that have good content. It's just like going to relevant sites comes under the micro niche site to you and ultimately making you get the direct quality traffic to you. Anyhow, it will then affect our keyword ranking and PageRank according to the Google guidelines. We don’t need to mention it, the Google taking care of these things it just like a default way for Google particularly.

To get higher search rankings, you need not only focus on SEO but other factors to make you drive more attention of readers online. Thanks for this page, that will help to me a lot and for other newbies too...

Steve
Aug 05, 2017

Thanks for this article and data. What the hypothesis where the 37% of click-thru rate went? Or did you find the total number of click for the same keywords went down, i.e., to new keywords not tested?

Amanpreet Singh Bhullar
Oct 05, 2017

Very useful tips and strategy for SEO.

Serguei Kireev
Oct 26, 2017

great article. very interesting. thanks for great job done!!

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