Does Google Use Click-Through-Rate as an Organic Ranking Factor? Answer: Maybe.

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Google Gnomes Measuring Click-Through-Rate in Teslas?

In the Paid Search end of its business, Google uses Click-Through-Rate (CTR) as a major determining factor in its “Quality Score” calculation, which is a key factor in its Adwords ad auctions.  This is because CTR is a proxy for relevance; if enough users click on an ad after performing a keyword search, then it’s reasonable to assume that the ad must be pretty relevant to the keyword.  When it finds so, Google’s auction system rewards relevant creative-keyword combinations and penalizes less relevant ones.  This ensures a satisfying user experience and keeps the auctions from getting out of hand – users in most cases will not see a barbecue grill ad in response to a search for [justin bieber].

Think about organic search – how is it different from paid search?

The answer is – not much – there is an ordered list of items for the user to click on, and users like relevance.  Since Google uses CTR on the paid side to evaluate and score pages, it’s reasonable to assume they would do the same with organic rankings.  Anyone familiar with the paid search world knows of the importance of establishing a good quality score (i.e. CTR)  “history” as soon as possible, and preserving that history when making changes in the structure of the Adwords account later – in fact, these are the kinds of things that PPC experts obsess about.  It seems reasonable that similar issues might be involved in establishing an initial baseline CTR in the Organic world.

If this were the case, Google would perhaps be observing where a page is ranking in its Search Engine Results Pages, then note whether it’s clicked on more or less often than would be expected for a result in that position, for that query, and use that information to further adjust its ranking.

Don’t get me wrong – I still believe in PageRank and all the other factors we all know and love – I just think CTR is the biggest factor Google is probably using that is all but ignored by the SEO community.

However, if Google does use CTR, that poses a problem; what position, or zone, should they initially choose to rank a result in, to accumulate a CTR history baseline?

If a page initially ranks organically with a low position, say, position 100, it would take an extremely long time to accumulate enough impressions and clicks in order to know if the result is clicked on more often than would be expected.   CTR drops by roughly 60% with each organic position on average (40%, 18%, and so on) – position 100 gets very few clicks indeed, it would take an extremely long time to accumulate enough observations to make a determination.

This would argue for allowing pages to rank highly for a short time, simply to establish a baseline.

This is in fact, precisely what I have been observing with new pages – Google appears to rank them very highly for a few days (say in the position 3-8 range), then the pages seem to settle down to some longer-term ranking positions – most much lower – presumably based upon their initial performance.

Is anyone else noticing this effect?

If this turns out to be true (comments please!), this has numerous implications.

7 Comments

  1. Grant says:

    Ted

    Definitely believe CTR is *a* factor for organic, coupled with additional user behavior data points to provide relevancy keys.

    CTR however (I believe) only *supports* other key ranking factors, doesn’t drive the bus but does contribute.

    Cheers

  2. Asif Anwar says:

    The SEO CTR (Not the PPC CTR) does have influence and it is one of the scores that count as votes from users. You can now actually see your SEO CTR for each search query in Google Webmaster. Google put that up for quite a long time, so I presume the influence has been around for long time. But, since has less influence, no one could recognize it. I think, it is not about ranking, rather it is about wiping out bad contents and understanding search behavior. Just because you like iPhone related sites when you search for “Apple”, that does not mean a Apple Pie Recipe site does not have any good contents.

  3. David Sewell says:

    I too believe that CTR is used to determine organic rankings. In my experience, taking the time and effort to improve snippets, URLs and CTAs in search results improves CTR and then over time this translates to improved rank.
    I have just created a post on the importance of CTR and its impact on PPC campaigns from an SEO perspective:

    http://www.seoeditors.com/intermediate-seo/seo-bounded-by-ppc-paradox

    The upshot is whether good or bad, can harm SEO.

  4. Ted Ives says:

    David, your article poses a *very* interesting question (paraphrasing here for other readers): if there is a honeymoon phase, can your paid search ads mess up your organic honeymoon, leading to damaged organic rankings after the honeymoon phase is over?

    You would think Google would correct for that effect, but perhaps not – why would they care to bother – their incentive in fact is completely opposite to correcting for it!. A very perceptive question!

    I will keep this in mind, probably very difficult to verify. I’ve been planning to put something together on Google’s PPC/SEO cannibalization study they put out last year and updated recently, will think on it as I do that. Thanks.

  5. Kathy Long says:

    Coincidentally, Ted, a window washer called me the other day, scared because 3 of his competitors all jumped to positions 1, 2, and 3 in one day. I suspected perhaps an algorithm change, but then he said to me these were new sites and they did not exist before. Interesting ALL THREE have fallen to positions 7 and below, now about 4 or 5 days later.

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