The Relationship Between Organic Rankings & Click-Through Rate (CTR): It's Complicated

October 13, 2016

There were a couple of interesting posts in ye olde blogosphere this week about click-through rate (CTR) – specifically, organic CTR from the Google SERP. We all know CTR is an important metric to track in PPC, since it’s a huge component in your Quality Score and therefore affects your ad rankings and costs per click. But on the SEO side of the equation, how important is CTR? Is it a ranking factor? And, similarly, can you extrapolate CTR and traffic predictions from Google rankings? What's the relationship between these two tricky metrics?

CTR and Organic Rankings

David Harry tackles some of these questions in a post on Search News Central called “Are Click-Through Rates a Viable Ranking Factor?” I have always wondered if they might be – as Dave notes, “it just seems logical” that behavioral data like this could influence rankings. But there are other factors to consider, namely:

  • Spammability: One could certainly leverage bots or, say, an intern to try to bloat your own click-through rates (though one would hope Google is smart enough to discount a huge number of clicks from one location).
  • Click Bias: According to Dave, "click-through rates are noisy at best" – due to "click bias," people tend to click the first result just because it’s first. We wouldn’t want that to turn into a self-reinforcing loop, with high CTRs further cementing the top ranking. (But that’s an open question – is the ranking algorithm circular/recursive/re-entrant?)
  • Caffeine: The Caffeine update supposedly massively upgraded Google’s processing power. Perhaps this boost gave them the ability to consider behavioral data in a meaningful way?
  • Personalization: “Will personalization make behavioural metrics more valuable in search? Most certainly,” writes Dave, but the question is, have we gotten to that point yet, where metrics are actually influencing rankings?
  • Non-ranking signals: CTR could be one of those metrics that Google uses to improve user experience even if it doesn’t affect rankings per se: “Have you ever wondered where query refinements, recommendations and suggestions (like Google suggest) come from? Most of them are from query data that they glean from users. It doesn't play into the rankings of documents per se, but does give insight into how successful/satisfied the user may or may not be with the results.”

So does Dave think CTR is a ranking factor? His definitive answers is, “I don't bloody know ok?” In other words, it’s really too difficult to determine at this juncture. So we’ll just have to keep speculating. I personally think Google has the capacity and ability to draw useful conclusions from CTR. For example, Google can probably tell with some degree of accuracy if clicks are “real” or spam (I think this would be easier to determine than the viability of a link, because Google could see if the clicks are sustained over time and across locations), and if a page is getting a high CTR simply due to its high ranking in the SERPs – Google already adjusts CTR for ad ranking when it comes to PPC Quality Score, for example, which is why you can’t increase your Quality Score just by bidding to a higher position. But "capacity and ability" doesn't mean they're using the data for rankings or even that they plan to.

How Do Rankings Affect Click-Through Rate?

Branko at SEO Scientist approaches the topic from a different angle in a post called “Why Google SERP CTR studies are a waste of time.” He starts by saying that “Historically, one of the most quoted, used and abused SEO metrics was ranking,” and while we’re getting away from focusing on rankings as a major reporting metric, we still check them and attempt to make predictions based on rankings:

Another exercise that we like to engage in is predicting how much traffic ranking in the top 10 will bring to the website. It quickly became obvious that not every position in the top 10 brings the same amount of traffic. It is quite self-evident that the positions 1-3 will bring more traffic than positions 7-10 but how much more? Effort involved in pushing the site from #5 to #2 can be significantly larger than effort to bring the site from #50 to #10, so is the traffic/conversions worth the effort?

Eye Tracking Study
Branko writes that in order to make better predictions from rankings, we used eye-tracking studies and click data to determine what percentage of clicks went to the result in each ranking: “predictions varied: the first 3 positions get in the neighborhood of 60-80% of clicks, while the rest divides over the positions #4-#10.” But how reliable is this data?

All of that sounds well and good on the paper and the numbers can be transformed into pretty charts. More importantly we have numbers that we can translate into business goals and all clients like to hear that: “if we reach #3, we will get X visitors and if we put in more effort (AKA increase the SEO budget), we can get to the #1 position which will mean X+Y visitors, conversions, whatnot”. However, when one starts looking at the numbers out in the wild, the picture that emerges is significantly different.

The thing is, Branko says, any numbers we derive from such studies are bound to be highly variable, unreliable and subject to change, in part because of the ever-changing nature of the SERP. For example, he shows three possible SERP layouts and reveals that the #3 organic ranking could appear in a totally different position on the page, depending on how much real estate Google decides to give to sponsored ads as well as local, shopping and other universal results. In this case, eye-tracking data would be completely useless, because the location of the result is not stable or predictable.

Branko also points out that “it is not only where you are ranked, it is also who is ranked with you that influences your CTR percentages.” Specifically, your proximity to big brands could have a big effect on CTR. We all know Google loves brands, but consumers love them too. If you drop a spot in the rankings, and lose that coveted spot to a bigger brand, you might lose more traffic that predicted by the lower ranking alone.

Branko goes on to say that “There are many ways to make your listing more attractive to clicks” regardless of your ranking. An “optimized listing” will have a strong title and meta description and use rich snippets to maximize CTR from the SERP.

Do you pay attention to organic CTR and rankings in your metrics reports? How do these metrics influence each other?

More Web Marketing Highlights

Was anatomy your favorite class? At Search Engine Land, Aaron Bradley dissects the call to action button, from placement to contrast to button SEO.

Another goodie from SEL: Debra Mastaler asked four experts three common link-building questions. Click here to get the answers from Julie Joyce, Ross Hudgens, Eric Ward and Debra herself.

Glen at ViperChill published a big fat keyword research guide this week, full of useful tips and including sections for bloggers and affiliate marketers.

Tip-based content can be a great marketing tool. Garrett French has 17 tips for creating better tip content.

Kayla at SEO Boy caught an interesting test: Google is displaying click counts for some PPC ads. Have you seen this test in the wild?

And here's a cool tool that's worth checking out: Inspired by our keyword competition guide, Brain Opener created this updating table that tracks trending keyword phrases on Google and some key competition metrics so "you can quickly see if there are any trending searches that have low competition and are worth digging into deeper." Neato!

Have a great weekend, all!

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

Sign up to get our top tips and tricks weekly!