Understanding the SEO Impact of Organic Click-Through-Rate (CTR)

3 December, 2018

Search remains one of the most important marketing channels in the modern marketers digital repertoire. A 2018 Nielsen study cited 73% of CMOs consider search a ‘very important’ media channel for driving website traffic.

CMO's Most Important Media Channels as of June 2018

However, when it comes to actually implementing a search engine optimisation strategy, too many marketers are still focusing purely on achieving top rankings. There’s a pervasive misconception in the search industry that by reaching coveted top positions (or at least the first page), great traffic will naturally follow.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case… well, kind of.

Anyone even slightly initiated with SEO will know that the higher the ranking, the higher the traffic volumes you’re likely to receive, right? Otherwise, there’d be no point and I’d be out of a job.

To a great extent this is absolutely true. But consider this: is achieving high ranks in the SERPs the most important focus if no one clicks on our result? Suddenly that result is worth a lot less, and is essentially just another vanity metric.

The other side of SEO is optimising for the click.

One Does Not Simply Optimise For Rankings

Additionally, search ranks and CTR are closely interconnected. Whilst Google have ‘denied’ metrics like click-through-rate being a ranking factor (Bing outright said they use it), multiple talks and experiments have shown a fairly clear correlation.

Rand Fishkin Tweet on Google Refuting Their Use Of Query/Click Data in Rankings

So, we know search marketers need to be optimising for ranks and clicks, but how exactly do we identify pages suffering due to poor CTR, and what strategies can we implement to improve organic CTR?

Well, that’s why we’re here isn’t it?

What is Organic Click-Through-Rate?

Organic click-through-rate measures the percentage of searchers who click through to our website from the total number who saw our search result, calculated as: clicks / impressions = CTR. However instead of a single metric tied to an action (e.g., a CTA button in an email), organic CTR can vary hugely for the same page, dependent on the search query providing the impression.

Average Organic CTR Benchmarks

Multiple studies have been conducted to measure and benchmark organic CTRs, each using different measurement methodologies (see this 2014 article from Moz for more), but in my opinion the best open source data to understand organic CTR benchmarks is via the Advanced Web Ranking CTR Study tool.

The below chart, taken from the CTR Study, demonstrates benchmark organic CTRs across all types of search during October 2018, using data from 2,284,262 keywords for 41,914 websites.

Benchmark Organic Click Through Rates (CTRs) Per SERP Position

I won’t go into detail on these figures, but it’s clear to see how quickly CTR drops past the first few positions.

Measuring Your Own Organic CTR

When measuring organic CTRs against the provided benchmarks, I would always recommend using data for the website exported from Google Search Console.

Performance reports from search console will allow us to assess over- or under-performing CTRs across all of our indexed pages, for the many different queries they’ve received impressions for.

Using Search Console to Measure Organic Click Through Rate

Other studies have used data taken from Google Analytics and Keyword Planner, however this data can be inaccurate1, 2 and doesn’t provide enough detail to allow us to measure our CTRs at a granular level.

1. https://www.crazyegg.com/blog/why-is-google-analytics-inaccurate/
2. https://moz.com/blog/unreliable-google-adwords-keyword-volume

How Does Click-Through-Rate Influence SEO?

Websites with organic CTRs higher than the expected benchmark for the position they’re in are rewarded with a higher position, whilst those with lower CTRs than expected either remain in place or are shifted lower in the SERP.

Google are still mute about whether this is by design or not, despite clues already mentioned earlier in this post as well as independent research pretty much proving the SEO impact of CTR.

However, let’s look at this objectively:

Google are in the business of trying to provide the most relevant result for any given search, and many factors influence perceived relevancy. But what do they do when a website in a lower position is receiving way more attention than the site they thought was most relevant?

Moz Whiteboard Friday CTR Influence on SERP Positions Explanation

Image source: Moz

The obvious answer would be to switch them around, after all, if searchers are dictating the alternative result is more useful it benefits Google to show that instead.

Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and Sparktoro, explains this in context in an episode of Whiteboard Friday:

I’ve seen first-hand evidence of improved click-through-rates leading to improved rankings with no additional SEO activity for the websites of clients I’ve worked with. I’d also wager CTR is more important than most people would believe, which may also explain why the big-G has kept quiet on the matter all these years...

Why is it important to Improve Organic Click-Through-Rate?

As well as being closely correlated with rankings, improving the organic CTR for our pages allows us to achieve greater traffic volumes on the occasions when it is more difficult to move further up the SERPs, or when a searcher is going to want to review multiple sites.

Making the Most of Lower Positions

Picture the SERP below - Smokey Barn are currently sitting in fourth position for a highly competitive, high purchase intent search term. Unfortunately, their result whilst enough to earn them a good position, doesn’t really encourage me to click, I’d much rather buy Rave Coffee fresh roasted, speciality blend beans.

Example SERP - 'Buy Coffee Beans'

With a bit of work to optimise for the click, Smokey Barn could entice me to check out their coffee beans despite being in position four, improving their CTR, and with enough people like me clicking through, perhaps even boosting their rankings too.

Take Advantage of Long-Tail Search Behaviour

A focus on click-through-rate optimisation also greatly benefits all of the long-tail search queries for which our site appears. As the chart below demonstrates, benchmark CTRs for search queries with four or more words drop-off at a much slower rate.

Benchmark Long-Tail Keyword Organic Click Through Rates (CTRs)

One explanation for this might be that for more complex queries, searchers prefer to view multiple results to gather more information, leading to lower ranked results to still receive good click-through-rates.

Whatever the reason for their behaviour, the benefits are clear: optimise for click-through-rate on your long-tail results and reap an even greater reward over their already, higher than average, benchmark CTR.

It wouldn’t be impossible for a result in position three to be receiving a 15%+ organic click-through-rate, that’s 1.5x the expected CTR for a one-word or two-word query search result in the same position!

So, How Can We Get Started?

So far we’ve covered the basics of organic click-through-rate, it’s multiple influences on search engine optimisation processes and the importance of focussing our efforts to improve CTRs to drive more traffic.

Now that we have this understanding, we can begin to implement optimisations targeted at driving higher CTRs from our search results.

Part 2 of this series on click-through-rates will introduce a series of actionable click-through-rate-optimisation (CTRO) tips that can be used to immediate effect, whilst part 3 will provide a detailed guide on identifying which of our pages have underperforming CTRs and where our CTRO efforts should be focussed first.

Written by Giorgio

Experienced Technical SEO Specialist Giorgio enjoys getting stuck into data analysis to uncover user behaviours. He possesses a strong understanding of development practices and enjoys testing and pushing ideas to the limits of possibility.

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