Does Organic CTR Effect SEO Rankings?

David Austin
22 September 2018
Comments: 0

One perennial question discussed by SEO specialists is the connection between organic click-through rate and page rankings.

rankings

This CTR’s impact on rankings is sometimes considered to be just a fiction that has nothing to do with reality. Other people believe that Google ranks pages judging from the end-user results analysis. According to Google engineer’s announcement – which apparently should be regarded as the official one, – organic CTR does impact page rankings.

Another important point discussed in Rand Fishkin's article is that in some cases, regardless of the position of a page on search results list, Google ranks a page higher when this page’s CTR exceeds the expected click through rate. Consequently, everything seems to be simple: the more people are interested in your content, the higher your page ranks.

If this impact of organic CTR isn’t a myth, we should find a way to estimate this impact on rankings and implement our knowledge on this topic in practice! And the determining factor we are looking for appears to be RankBrain.

Untangling meaning from Google RankBrain confusion

RankBrain

Nowadays, more and more people consider themselves to be RankBrain specialists – and this trend seems to grow.

Meanwhile, even many intelligent and good-minded Google representatives, not to mention self-declared search engines experts, do not fully understand RankBrain. For example, during SMX West, Google's Paul Haahr admitted that they don't quite understand what exactly RankBrain is doing. No wonder this lack of knowledge begets various contradictory rumors.

So how can we take into consideration the statements of some pseudo-experts and self-declared SEO “pros”, when even the smartest and the most prominent Google employees find it difficult to understand, what RankBrain is actually doing?

And what do Google’s Gary Illyes and John Mueller say on this point?

Gary Illyes denies the idea of RankBrain taking the leadership among ranking factors (although the tendency seems to prove seem to prove the converse). According to Greg Corrado’s official statement, RankBrain is the third most important factor that affects search results. What is more, in spite of all confusing facts, Illyes finally summarizes, that RankBrain really changes ranking.

No matter what, your content, links, as well as numerous other signals still remain ranking factors. Since RankBrain is a relatively newly-implemented technology, it had just forced out some other signal to take its third place. It simply couldn’t be the third most significant signal before its release in 2015.

As for John Mueller, he is convinced that machine learning will have more influence on SEO realm. He also notes that they need to test the system more precisely and develop an algorithm of how should Google deal with searches it has never faced before.

What do we have in the end? Currently, Google’s RankBrain, as well as other Google’s innovations, doesn’t take a very large part of Google’s ranking system. It’s not going to become an ultimate signal, replacing the rest of ranking signals, at least in the nearest future. It doesn’t replace, but simply supplements the whole large system. And if this one constituent really proves its effectiveness and provides better user experience, the developers will eventually improve RankBrain so that it will have greater influence.

John Mueller

RankBrain headaches

If you are really interested in mastering RankBrain theory, semantics, patents, word embedding and neural networks, start with the following articles:

  • David Harry’s Getting Your Head Around Google’s RankBrain
  • The "Machine Learning Ranks Relevance" section in Virginia Nussey’s post RankBrain: What Do We Know About Google’s Machine-Learning System?
  • Kristi Kellogg’s article named How Google Works: A Google Ranking Engineer's Story

Since the aim of this post is not to make reviews of Google employees’ tweets or controversial rumors, but to show you and analyze specific numbers, we won’t linger on this topic and shall proceed to concrete data.

Searching for Rankbrain

One of the most well-known tests that showed how CTR affects website ranking on Google search results list was carried out by Rand Fishkin. A number of people were asked to make a particular query and choose Rand’s blog from the results list. As a result, the blog rocketed from the seventh position to the first one – yet not for long.

However, the things are not as simple as they seem to be. Although you can raise your ranking in Google, the results are short-term and can change very soon. The same as if you would try to spam-click your own ads to score higher with Google’s AdWords. A good idea, but this won’t do.

There was another noteworthy experiment posted on Search Engine Land in 2015. According to its results, click-through rate doesn’t affect ranking at all. However, they neglected one important fact: they achieved high click through rate and increased their search volume with the help of bots, but not real users. What is more, the experiment was carried out with only one keyword. As a matter of fact, this search test was similar to click fraud, except for the fact that it concerned search results and wasn’t aimed at cheating. Google has 15 years of experience developing anti-fraud algorithms, so implementing such mechanisms in the sphere of organic search should be a piece of cake.

Note: in this article we will assume that all the CTR data below concerns RankBrain. Although it may actually refer to some other CTR signal, the point is to show how click-through rate impacts ranking in Google, so for the sake of simplicity we will tentatively call it RankBrain.

How is Google able to tell which pages should rank

According to Google, they are willing to test RankBrain on queries Google doesn’t have much, if any, information about (in fact, there’re no external links to as much as 99.9% of pages on the web).

So what allows Google to build up ranking with pages it has no data on? It analyzes relevance and engagement, and CTR is an ultimate factor in this matter.

If we take into consideration the fact that RankBrain isn’t currently dealing with head terms, the comparison of long-tail keywords CTRs and head terms CTRs reveals notable difference:

long-tail keywords CTRs

This data was acquired from 1000 keywords from the same niche in order to avoid various CTR-affecting features including Google shopping. Wordstream.com was the source of the keywords.

If we compare CTR-ranking ratio for short search queries (1-2 word keywords) and for long-tail ones (up to 10-word terms), we can see obvious difference – long-tail keywords yield way higher CTR per rank. Let’s check the specific numbers: 1st-position head term CTR is 17.5%, compared to 33% for long-tail keywords on the same position.

No wonder why the difference is so great – whenever users employ long-tail keywords in their queries, their intent is likely stronger. This fact results in higher click-through rate.

But here is the question: why do long-tail keyword results with higher CTR figures occupy first positions of organic search results lists?

In order to answer this question, the next test was conducted with paid queries. Since paid keywords were found with the help of organic search, the subject matter and the actual words are basically the same.

paid keywords

In this case the CTRs of long-tail terms appeared to exceed the respective head terms figures. However, the difference is great in lower positions, whereas it is barely visible within top 1-2 results.

As a result, the data suggests us the following:

  • Within paid search results, long-tail queries CTR and head terms CTR differ greatly at lower positions, yet in top 1-2 results they almost equal.
  • As for organic search, CTR figures for long-tail and head terms are different, but lower positions show roughly equal results.

So how can we explain the difference between organic search and paid search CTRs? We can assume that RankBrain provides ranking boosts for high-CTR pages in organic search.

Need more proof?

Which came first: the CTR or the ranking?

Ranking and CTR are obviously interconnected. It may be unclear, though, which came first, i.e. which affects what. Let’s analyze the data and try to get to the truth!

This graph shows relative organic CTR (observed CTR minus expected CTR) that defines whether a page exceeds the expected CTR for a particular position or it fails to meet this figure.

If you take into consideration the exact figure of how a keyword corresponds to the expected CTR, all side factors excepted, you will be able to observe the CTR–ranking relationship itself, and get a clear understanding of the matter.

Ranking and CTR

And what is interesting is that in case your CTR exceeds the expected one, you get much higher chances to rank higher on the organic search results list. Otherwise, if your CTR is lower than expected, your page probably won’t show up higher than the sixth position.

To sum up, the results of the experiment with long-tail keywords in organic search suggest that:

  • a page exceeding the expected CTR by 20% is likely to show up on the 1st position;
  • a page exceeding the expected CTR by 12% will probably show up on the 2nd position;
  • a page with the CTR 6% lower than expected is likely to occupy the 10th position etc.

Our data can be summarized in a concise rule:

The higher above the expected organic CTR your pages get, the more chances to top search results you have.

If you fail to reach the expected CTR, expect to see your page at the lower part of search results page.

So how can you rank higher? If you want your page to rank 1 position higher, try to raise your CTR by 3%. Every 3-percent increase will grant you another position in the search results list. Note that your page is unlikely to reach top five results till you clear the expected CTR threshold set for the particular position.

As we can see, Google grants some sort of a privilege for pages with higher CTR. Basically, Google doesn’t give any penalties to those who fail to meet the expected CTR – it’s just some other website that managed to increase its CTR to beat the expected rate and outpace your page. Consequently, in comparison with other websites that earned some privilege from Google with their CTR, your site apparently suffer performance losses.

High organic CTR

Let’s take a look at one noteworthy example: first-position result for the “email subjects that get opened” search query (from the 1000 keywords used for the experiment above) was this post. What is particular about this page is that it has a tremendous CTR in organic search – as much as 52.17%, which exceeds the expected click-through rate by more than 60%. The engagement rates of the page are impressive as well – more than 24 minutes of time on page, for instance.

engagement

Even though the page doesn’t contain the exact match from the query, such engagement figures are the defining factor for Google to assume that this content is exactly what users were looking for.

Top search ranking factors

Search ranking is defined by various factors. Even though the most important of them are links, content and RankBrain, we shouldn’t neglect the fact that Google also considers hundreds more factors.

The situation will get more understandable if you try to imagine that your website is a house.

house1

The condition of this website is simply dreadful. Its age and lack of SEO’s care affected its structure, content, markup and other aspects adversely. It has no visitors and its rank has almost hit the bottom. Even when some visitors accidentally come across it, they immediately leave it with disgust and firm decision to avoid it in the future.

house2

Here’s a rather good website. It is looks nice, its design is neat and tidy, it’s well-optimized and it’s definitely being cared for. As a result, the site ranks good enough. It seems that there’s nothing to find fault with – no wonder why quite a lot of users visit it from time to time.

house3

And this website is a true perfection. Its design is splendid with attention to all details, the optimization is well thought out and its content is very apt. It attracts lots of visitors, who keep coming every day and even recommend it to their friends.

Google judges about websites from their users’ reactions. If visitors appreciate these features, Google endows this website with higher ranking.

How do you raise your CTRs?

In some posts on the Web you may find statements that there’re no ways to optimize your website in order to rank higher with RankBrain. However, such statements are ridiculously wrong.

So what shall you do in order to attract more visitors to your website? And this is the issue of CTR increase.

In fact, RankBrain has adopted AdWords practice, as well as various different technologies to estimate the quality and pertinence of pages impartially and accurately via analyzing engagement figures. Google is improving RankBrain for it to rate relevant pages that do not provide enough data for the search engine.

All you have to do is to improve your CTR with these SEO strategies:

  1. Pages lacking for Organic Quality Scores should be optimized. Use Search Console to analyze your pages and get to know which of them fail to beat average CTR. Then just start focusing on these pages – it will never harm to optimize the pages that are obviously lagging behind. Unoptimized, such pages will only keep your ranking low.
  2. Implement emotional triggers and use keywords to make eye-catching headlines. It is a well-known fact that such emotions as disgust, anger fear and affirmation affect CTR and conversion rates positively. You seem to have optimized everything, including even title tags? Try to salt your site with a bit of emotions and make your way to top search positions!
  3. Pay attention to other user engagement signals as well. It’s great to reach high CTR but make sure you do not neglect engagement metrics and raise them above the expected figures. Your bounce rates and time on site are extremely important indicators for Google. These are defined by various factors, so make your content 10 times better to match them all!
  4. Increase your click-through rate with the help of remarketing and paid social media ads. For just $50 per day (or even less) your social and remarketing ads can yield huge CTR. If you want to gain some popularity for your brand, just attract target users with your ads in social media, since CTR and conversion rate chances double when users are brand-aware.

Conclusion

Regardless of RankBrain’s influence as a ranking factor, your website’s organic search CTR is always a crucial metric to improve. The increasing number of visitors on your site will indicate its relevance and quality for Google.

What grants you better organic search ranking in Google is raising your engagement rates for them to beat expected figures. Another great thing about this is the fact that higher ranking will be bringing you still more clicks.

When you follow the tips from the post above and reach decent click-through rates, don’t be satisfied with what has already been achieved and always aim at higher rates!

Reference information

What is organic click?

Organic clicks are the clicks to your site on the links that show up within organic search results. The term “organic” refers to the fact that these results are chosen by Google as the most relevant in regards to the query. Compared to paid search results, organic ones make the overwhelming majority of all results in Google search.

How do I increase CTR on Google?

There’re many strategies that will help you resolve this issue. First of all, you should optimize your pages. Also, try to implement emotional triggers and use keywords to make eye-catching headlines. Remarketing and paid social media ads can come in handy as well. And finally, pay attention to your other user engagement signals.

What is CTR in SEO?

The abbreviation CTR stands for “click-through rate”. Basically, CTR shows how many of those who see your ad click on it. For SEO click-through rate is one of key metrics, since it affects your ranking in organic Google search.

How can I improve my CTR?

You can improve your click-through rate in various ways. Make sure your pages (especially those with low CTR) are optimized. Consider implementing remarketing and paid social media ads, as well as some emotional triggers in your content. For more detailed information on this topic read the “How do you raise your CTRs?” subsection of the article above.

What is organic ranking?

Organic ranking means your page position on organic search results page. It is defined by various factors, including links, content and Google’s self-learning algorithm known as RankBrain. Use tips from the article above to rank higher in organic search!

What is a good CTR?

Obviously, when it comes to CTR, you can never be too good. Here is what your CTR should be for you to top the search results list: just keep your CTR above the expected organic CTR. If you fail to reach the expected CTR, expect to see your page at the lower part of search results page.

How do you calculate CTR?

CTR is the number of clicks on your ad divided by the number of times it was viewed by users. Your keywords and ads have separate click-through rates that can be viewed in your account. As for relative organic CTR, it is calculated as “observed CTR minus expected CTR”.

See also

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