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How Much Are Top Rankings Worth?

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How much is being in the top results of a search engine worth? Wired tries but doesn't really get an monetary answer to the question in Googling the Bottom Line. Yep, we know that top rankings can generate traffic. A Oneupweb study of 30 clients done for Wired found that getting on the second or third page of the results increases traffic five times in the first month, nine times in the second. Move to page one, and it's even better -- I think.

The study says traffic will triple in the first month, then increase six times in the second. So my traffic goes up five times if I'm on the second or third page but only three times for being on the first page. Yes, that's exactly right, according to the study. Here are the figures:

Traffic Increase 1st Page 2nd/3rd Page
First Month 337% 517%
Second Month 627% 942%

So when the report concludes:

Oneupweb performed this study hypothesizing that being in the top 10 results is better than being in the top 30?and being below the top 30 is like being invisible. Clearly, the study establishes that trend.

The figures seemingly say the opposite. Want more traffic? Get on the second or third page of results!

That flies completely against what every search marketer knows from seeing their own stats. Fall from the top ten, and your traffic falls off as surely as gravity pulls things to earth. So I called Oneupweb to try and better understand what is going on. Here are the caveats.

First, traffic is based solely off of natural search generated referrals. They looked at how much traffic a site got from non-paid Google search results one month, then compared to the next month.

Sites coming into the second and third page of results started out with less traffic. So when they arrived, the increase was more dramatic. That's the reason Oneupweb says the 2nd/3rd page results are higher.

Specifically:

  • Sites entering the 2nd/3rd page started at 7 visitors per keyword on average, then rose to 36 visitors per keyword.
  • Sites entering the 1st page started at 14 visitors per keyword on average, then rose to 46 visitors.
  • Since the 1st page sites already started with more traffic, the gain on a percentage basis was less dramatic.

But here's another confusing aspect. The report also says:

When Oneupweb reviewed the list of sites achieving a top-10 position for a particular search term, we noted that more than 75 percent debuted there, without previous listings on Google pages 2 or 3.

and:

In keeping with the industry?s rule of thumb, Oneupweb confirmed that websites falling below page three don't sell. In our research, not one sale was recorded for a site below Google page three for the time period.

So...

  • More than three-quarters of the sites that hit the first page of results "debuted" there...
  • Which means they were originally buried below the first three pages of results where no traffic is generated...
  • So how did that group of sites end up having more natural search traffic to begin with than the 2nd/3rd page group?

One more thing to complicate matters. Say you were a site that debuted on the 2nd or 3rd page of results. The next month, you move to the first page (as anecdotally can often be the case). The gain you get is still recorded as part of being in the 2nd or 3rd page of results -- even though you really were on the first page.

Given that, it seems no wonder you have a nine time increase in the second months. A number of sites making the jump onto the first page of results probably fueled this.

One more excerpt from the study I had to pull out:

Oneupweb's study demonstrates a clear benefit to being listed on the first three pages of Google results and may even prompt online retailers to target Google?s first page.

I don't know anyone period, retailer or not, who doesn't already want to be on the first page of Google's results. They don't need a study to prompt them :)

Back to the Wired article. Can this traffic a make-or-break an online business? Depends on the business. If you've built your business around getting only free search traffic, yes, it can be make or break, as many found during the big Google Florida Update in late 2003. If you do a mix of paid and unpaid listings, the unpaid listings save you money -- but they probably won't break you if they go away.

For another look at page position and visibility, see the iProspect study from last year. It found:

  • 22.6 percent of search engine users end their search after viewing the first few results returned
  • an additional 18.6 percent stop after reading the entire first page of results (41.2% cumulative)
  • 25.8 percent more abandon their search after the first two pages
  • 14.7 percent (81.7% cumulative) wait until they view three pages

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