The Click Through Rate (CTR) on the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) has always been suspicious of influencing the ranking of websites. Although Google always denies this, there are some indications that support this claim. But no matter if the CTR is a ranking factor or not – it is completely underestimated by most webmasters, although it is one of the quick wins in search engine optimization.
In this article you will learn why it makes sense to optimize the click-through rate in the organic search results and how exactly to do that.
When we talk about user signals in search engine optimization, we are undoubtedly also referring to the click-through rate. Because it indicates the ratio of impressions of a website to the number of clicks on it, the assumption is obvious that the CTR in the SERPs is a KPI that gives Google information about how well a search result is received by search engine users. The simple assumption is that the more clicks a search result gets, the better it seems to match the search intention and the more relevant it is for users.
What is Click Through Rate?
The click-through rate, or CTR in short, is a percentage figure that indicates how many people clicked on a link out of those who had the opportunity to do so. The click-through rate thus indicates the ratio of impressions to clicks.
For example, if a snippet is displayed 1,000 times on a search results page and receives a total of 19 clicks, this results in a CTR of 1.9 percent. The calculation formula is: number of clicks / number of impressions * 100 = click rate.
Is click through rate a ranking factor?
If the click through rate is now a ranking factor, websites with a high CTR would have to rise in the ranking. In fact, various tests in the past have proven exactly that. Nevertheless, Google repeatedly contradicts this thesis strongly. And this despite the fact that the search engine owns publicly accessible patents that deal with the analysis of the click rate.
What is the evidence that CTR is a ranking factor?
- A high click through rate is an indicator that the website (or at least what the snippet promises) has a high relevance for the searcher because it matches their search intention
- SEOs have repeatedly conducted tests in recent years to evaluate the impact of click-through rate on rankings. In this context, both small and large tests often showed rapid improvements if it was possible to significantly increase the CTR in a certain period of time. Such tests were conducted, for example by Rand Fishkin who asked their audience to collectively click on a specific search result
- Google owns several patents (e.g., “Modifying search result ranking based on implicit user feedback“) that address how Google uses CTR to analyze implicit user behavior and ultimately, of course, improve search results. These patents are regularly updated or extended
- In the source code of the search results pages, scripts can be identified with which Google tracks the interactions with the snippets
What is wrong with CTR being a ranking factor?
- The click rate is a relatively easy value to manipulate and is therefore very sensitive to disruption (noisy signal). With bots or purchased clicks from clickworkers, the CTR can be boosted quickly and cheaply. However, the simple manipulation of a ranking factor conflicts with Google’s self-imposed goal of always providing its users with the best search results. This goal is more altruistic than it sounds at first
- A high CTR alone says nothing about the quality of the content on the target page. Strictly speaking, it only speaks for a relevant snippet. Content, however, seems to be by far the most important ranking factor, as Google regularly emphasizes
- Other case studies, such as Bartosz Góralewicz’s, conclude that click-through rate does not influence ranking. For his test, Góralewicz made sure to exclude the influence of other factors
- Google employees have repeatedly denied in the past that the click-through rate is a direct ranking factor. Although specific questions about this have sometimes been answered ambiguously
Google makes a clear difference between different types of clicks
Given the different facts, it’s not so easy to make a clear statement about the influence of the click-through rate on the ranking. This is also due to the fact that the assessment of a click and thus the overall click through rate is not necessarily something trivial. A click is not necessarily a positive signal. It can also become a negative signal. That is why Google distinguishes between different types of clicks:
The visitor returns to the search results after a relatively short time on the target page in order to visit another search result or to refine his search query.
The visitor stays on the target page for a relatively long time and does not return to the search results right away.
The click on the website with which the user ends his search session. In other words, he no longer returns to the search results to visit other websites.
It is generally assumed that a short click is a negative user signal because the visitor obviously does not find what he is looking for straight away and therefore returns to the search results after a short period of time. A Long Click, on the other hand, is evaluated positively. The highest relevance is attributed to the website that receives the Last Click. Because here the visitor has obviously reached his goal. In further patent amendments, Google has also introduced the term Medium Click, which refers to a viewing duration between Short and Long.
Whether a click sends positive or negative signals depends on the search intention behind the search query. For example, if the user wants to compare the prices of a product, it is quite normal that several websites from the SERPs are called up within a very short time. The same applies to in-depth information searches of open and complex questions. Closed and simple questions, on the other hand, can be answered quickly and precisely – sometimes even in the search results.
What is Pogo Sticking?
Pogo sticking refers to the behavior pattern of search engine users who do not (immediately) find what they are looking for. Therefore, the user jumps from one website to another within a short time in the SERPs, as in the sport that gives it its name. Google can easily register pogo sticking because it involves the user returning to the search results again and again to go to the next website suggested to him.
The user continues this behavior until he finds the desired information in sufficient quality. While the Short Clicks send negative user signals, the Last Click is attributed the highest relevance. But the same applies to Pogo Sticking: it is not necessarily a proof of low quality websites.
Click rate analysis helps improve the algorithm
Even if the click through rate at least does not seem to be a direct ranking factor (anymore), the case studies mentioned above also showed that Google definitely reacts to a good click through rate in the SERPs. And it does so quite quickly. This shows the indirect influence of the CTR.
Because the analysis data of the click behavior is used to improve the algorithm. Like the manual website evaluations of the Search Quality Raters, CTR figures do not flow directly into the ranking. However, they are used to continuously improve the algorithm and thus also the search results. In this respect, websites with a good CTR should also enjoy rising rankings, at least in the medium to long term.
Some more background…
The patents, which hardly ever mention the word click-through rate, show that Google not only measures the click through rate in order to improve search results. Above all, it also analyzes search results that are not clicked on by search engine users.
In addition, Google sorts out users who only ever click on the first organic search result anyway during the evaluation. They blindly rely on Google’s result sorting; the snippets play no role for them in the click decision. These users are of little help in improving the SERPs.
CTR determines the quantity and quality of traffic
The fact that rankings sometimes improve very promptly with increasing click through rates is due to the fact that Google also reacts to trend developments based on the CTR, which are due to the current news situation, for example. As with the CTR tests mentioned, however, it can also be observed here that downward trend developments lead to ranking losses. If the higher click-through rate were to stabilize at a higher level without significant volatility, then it would no longer be a trend. Consequently, the ranking advantage of a short-term increase in click through rate would quickly be eliminated.
With all the discussion about the supposed ranking factor CTR, the most important thing is often simply overlooked. Because whether the ranking improves or not: a high click through rate always and without exception leads to more traffic and thus potential customers. For this reason alone, it makes sense to deal with the optimization of the click through rate. If this sooner or later also has a positive impact on the ranking – and it almost certainly will – then all the better.
Optimize your snippet for higher click through rate
The fastest, easiest and most obvious way to increase your CTR is to optimize your snippets. That is, what Google displays in the search results of a website in full or in excerpt. These are the page title, the URL and the page description. The quality of the snippet is the first and – if it is not a well-known brand – the only clue for search engine users to make a click decision.
Even if Google occasionally defines the page description itself, for example, by taking excerpts from the page content instead of the specified meta description, the content of the snippet is usually the responsibility of the website operator and can therefore be optimized without any problems. Especially since no in-depth technical understanding is required for this. The snippet is a typical quick win in search engine optimization.
These tips will help with snippet optimization
- Meta title and meta description should be informative and meaningful. They must clearly communicate what the visitor can expect on the website. They may and should attract attention and generate interest, so that the user is encouraged to click. It should be clear what the unique selling proposition is and what advantages the pages offer over the other sites
- Titles and descriptions are subject to character restrictions that must be followed. Otherwise, Google will cut off both, so that crucial information can be lost. The most important information should therefore be placed right at the front in both the title and the description
- The permitted characters in the snippet should be utilized as much as possible, so that your own snippet takes up as much space as possible in the SERPs and offers as much click area as possible. If the competitors each have a two-line page description, your own one-line one is at a distinct disadvantage
- It also helps to stand out from the crowd on the search results page to attract attention. Special characters like check marks, hearts and emojis help with this. They can also be used well to structure the snippet, because after all, the title and description do not always have to consist of complete sentences. But be careful: Google does not always display special characters. Here it is necessary to test the functionality in the search results
- The most attention can be drawn by the so-called Rich Snippets. They contain more information than the basic information. This can be the publication date of the article or the name of the author, but it can also be the rating stars that immediately catch the eye. Prices can also be placed directly in the snippet. Definitions, questions and answers, recipes, events and co. are sometimes presented in specially highlighted snippets. To get a rich snippet, structured data according to Schema.org should be used
Not all tips are suitable for every website. While colorful smileys are suitable for entertainment sites, the eye-catchers tend to give the impression of unseriousness at a law firm or management consultancy. So make sure it’s appropriate and fits your topic.
A/B testing of the snippets
The above tips show that there are various ways to make your snippet stand out on the search results page. Whether the short page title works better than the long one or emojis are accepted by the target group is best examined with A/B tests. This effort is worthwhile, because the snippet is the entrance gate to the website. If this is not optimized in such a way that it brings enough traffic, even the best landing page, perhaps also optimized with A/B tests, cannot develop its full power. Increasing conversion rates starts in the search results!
You don’t necessarily need a tool to perform A/B tests. If you still want to use one, you can use Google Optimize, for example. It is part of the Google Marketing Platform and free in the basic version.
An honest snippet is key
It is important that the promises in the snippet on the website are also fulfilled. With supposed insider tips, sensations that are not sensations at all, and unrivaled low bait prices that are no longer visible on the website, it is no great achievement to increase the click through rate within a very short time.
Nevertheless, the signal will be devastating: disappointed search engine users return to the SERPs within seconds, thus generating lots of short clicks. At the same time, this user behavior worsens the bounce rate and retention time (time on site) as further user signals. Not to mention the miserable user experience. Although the click through rate actually increases, Google will quickly adjust the ranking downwards.
If you want to invest a larger budget, you can of course use other marketing methods to boost the click rate. Classic TV and radio spots are one possibility, although the cost-benefit ratio must be questioned. It might be much more interesting to use influencers who fit your target group or you could think about using Youtube Ads.
I fundamentally believe that improving CTR leads to better rankings.
Even if the click through rate is sometimes heavily discussed among SEOs, the click rate in the SERPs is an underestimated topic for the masses. Also and especially because it is much too short-thought if it is always only about whether the CTR is a ranking factor or not.
No, it is – fortunately, because easily manipulated – not a direct ranking factor. But yes, as an indirect ranking factor, it does have an influence on the position in the search results. Be it because it points Google to a trend, contributes to algorithm improvement, shows the search engine what valuable content the website offers or promotes passive, authentic link building.
But above all, a higher click-through rate means more traffic in the first place. Exactly what the real goal of SEO is. With an honestly optimized snippet, that’s also high-quality and highly qualified traffic that will increase conversion rates and ultimately sales. The question is not so much whether the CTR is a ranking factor, but how to optimize the CTR sustainably. The ranking will then follow on its own.
You want to know more about CTR manipulation and optimization? Then sign up to our newsletter now!
All the best,