Is Organic Click through Rate A Ranking Factor?

Its been a hot topic in recent months - does Google consider Organic Click Through Rate when deciding where to rank a site?

In short, I feel reasonably sure they look at a page's click through rate in retrospect. A poorly performing page might see its position fall due to a low CTR.. but it is less clear that a high CTR will help lift a page higher in the search results (SERPS)

More to the point: If improving your page's appearance gives you a 20% lift in CTR - and thus traffic - does it even matter if it goes on to improve your rankings or not? The bottom line is that its a great way to get more traffic from your existing search positions.

When there is a simple tactic that can add a significant amount of traffic overnight we shouldn't ignore it. The increase in clicks alone is worthwhile. Any further increase in positions is the a welcome bonus!

There is no cut and dried answer here, but we will explore the answers for and against and leave you to decide

What is an organic click through rate?

In short your organic click through rate (CTR) is a mesaure of how attractive your page is. It is expressed it as a percentage: for every 100 times your page appears in the search results, how many times is it clicked?

While looking at the average CTR of a specific page can be useful, it's best to zoom in to the phrase level. Each keyword a page ranks for may achieve a higher or lower CTR, depending on how relevant your title and description are to the user's search query.

Why would Google reward a higher click through rate?

Depending on your perspective Google's goal is to organize the world's organization.. or to maximize ad sales across their platform.

Whichever feels right to you, one thing is clear. The more satisfied their searchers are, the closer they are to reaching their goal.

A site achieving a high click through rate for a keyword is a strong signal that the document is relevant to the searcher's query. Since happy searchers are likely to return and use Google again, they have fulfilled both goals.

Why wouldn't Google want to look at CTR as a ranking factor?

The biggest reasons Google may not want to consider CTR as a ranking factor are noise, lack of statistical significance and spam.

Statistical significance may be the biggest reason to discount CTR as a direct ranking factor.

Googles own statistics state that 15% of searches every day have never been made before. How can they optimize based on click through rate when a keyword gets searched less than twice a month?

To answer this it's important to look at Google's advances in understanding the way we speak - and search. Google's natural language processing skills are highly advanced. They have a much deeper understanding of connections between keywords, modifiers and synonyms than just a year or two ago. While they may not have seen a key phrase before it's clear they can group common queries together.

If a page gets great click through rates for a parent term that gets 2,000 searches a month Google could estimate a CTR for lower volume searches.

If the document seems relevant to the niche query, why wouldn't Google consider its performance elsewhere?

It might even do the inverse: Could a high CTR on a low volume term justify Google 'trialing' a page at a higher position for a head term to test its performance?

As regards gaming the system - any spammer will tell you it is harder than ever to farm Google accounts.

With so many people encouraged to search Google while logged in, they have plenty of data on who is human. It would not be hard for Google to discount CTR as a signal for anonymous users. Genuine, phone verified accounts could still provide sufficient data to track CTR.

We've seen bots sold in black hat forums that seek to game organic CTR. They use automation and a stack of proxies, but reviews have not been great. In some cases they have been blamed for rank drops, rather than increases, suggesting attempts to game the system are punished.

The only tools we've seen get decent reviews use human who are paid to click certain links via browser extensions. It seems people are happy to pay for the results they are seeing.. but its always safer to improve your site than game the system!

Links are still the primary currency of the web. Despite all the advances in NLP and machine learning it is widely agreed they are still the primary signal used to rank sites.

Links also have a long history of being subject to spam. As a signal they are exceptionally noisy. Yet Google has chosen to try and refine this signal by discounting low quality links, rather than discarding the signal altogether.

Using CTR could also be a messy, noisy source of data. But if Google is happy to persist in using links despite their drawbacks, might they not also consider other noisy signals such as CTR?

The case for Organic CTR as a ranking factor

There are definite reasons that Google might not use CTR to improve their listings. We also have no clear evidence that Google has decided to use CTR as a signal.

But if it does have the potential to be useful, would they discard it entirely? Here's some thoughts on why they might want to look at CTR after all:

Ranking based on click through rate Is already baked Into adwords

Adwords big innovation was to rank their ads not by Cost Per Click (CPC) alone, but to factor in the popularity of each ad, as measured by its CTR.

This was not entirely alturistic. In an auction between an ad at $5 CPC and 0.1% CTR vs an ad wiith $2 CPC and 5% CTR it was clear the latter would generate more revenue for Google.

It may seem obvious now, but at the time it was revolutionary. The extra revenue helped Google grow its war chest in the early days of search, helping Google pay for more partnerships and claim market share.

But does this mean CTR should also be a big part of Google's core search engine? Not necessarily. While CTR was a great indicator of which ads would make google more money, it didn't always surface the most relevant sites.

In a bid to prevent low quality advertisers Google introduced Quality Scores. These ensured the hyper relevant ads actually took the searcher to a page that actually answered their query.

If Google were to factor CTR into organic search, they would need to also consider whether the searcher was satisfied by the result. To prevent clickbait ranking higher than deserved would need an alternative score.

Metrics such as 'pogoing' back to the search results or starting new searches would be a strong signal that a page didn't deserve to rank. This way a page with high CTR that didn't deliver on its promises could be demoted.

The data is easy to come by - and is already recorded

It's been years since Google started using tracking links on their search pages. For every search, Google records which link was clicked, for both organic and paid results.

It would be trivial for them to put this to use. We know they already use this click data for personalizing web results. Is it plausible that they also use this data to reorder search results based on the CTR a site receives?

We also know Google are stingy with their data, even obscuring the search volumes their advertisers use to plan campaigns. Yet they are content to give us the organic click through rate for every single keyword our sites rank for through the Search Console. This suggests CTR is important to Google.. or a red herring!

Google's focus is on the humans, not the robots

In every action Google makes we see their priority is to return quality sites to users. A keyword stuffed title is no good to anyone. It's a clear signal the author aimed to manipulate Google, instead of thinking about the human readers.

Prioritizing pages that appeal to a human emotion, that inform and engage appears to be in line with Google's goals. Better to engage the user than to claim every last inch of keyword real estate.

Engaged users are happy users.. and a cash cow

Youtube, Twitter and Facebook - all optimize for engagement to maximize ad revenue. It seems perverse that Google would avoid considering how enaging a page is.

Whatever your opinions on 'fake' news, Buzzfeed titles and listicles, there is no doubt they perform well.

Social networks give more exposure to posts with more comments and likes. The more engaged their users are, the more time they spend on the site. This in turn increases their revenue from ads - something Google's Youtube has locked in.

Is it crazy to suggest they use the same approach for organic search? Adwords ads are Google's biggest revenue engine. They will do anything to increase revenues and defend their market leading position. Better results mean happier users, and happier users protect their revenues.

If Google thought higher organic search CTR lead to more satisfied searchers, it's likely they'd reward it.

In the end.. it doesn't matter

Whether you are swayed by the arguments in favour of CTR being a ranking factor or not is irrelevant. You should be optimizing your pages for more traffic.

SEOs want better rankings for one reason - more clicks, and more conversions. If increasing the click through rate of your page brings more traffic it doesn't matter if your rank goes up or not!

The end goal is the same - more prospects and hopefully more customers.

Click through rate optimization is one of the fastest 'quick wins' you can have in SEO. When one simple tweak could pay dividends in days you'd be a fool to neglect it. Any gains in position in subsequent weeks is just the icing on the cake.  

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