I'm obsessed with the presentation of organic listings in search engines. An area that gets so much attention and scientific testing in paid search -- the copy presented to the searcher in search engine result pages (SERPs) -- gets relatively little attention in search engine optimization (SEO).
While PPC marketers focus on the type of creative used, the terms that will be highlighted or bolded, on placing calls-to-action prominently and deftly, and building in a value proposition, SEO marketers focus solely on where their listing appears (the rank).
Most SEO work goes into technical on-page areas, keyword research and application to a site, and on social media and backlink development, not in maximizing the potential clicks all that work can generate.
Now granted, SEO is a complicated discipline. There's a lot of stuff to do, so it's understandable why something like maximizing the presentation in search engine result pages (SERPs) is left behind in favor of other strategies and tactics. But it's more important than most realize.
CTR of Organic Positions
Using various data sets we can approximate an average click-through rate (CTR) for positions 1-10 in organic results. This data is available in a few ways, either through the (now outdated) Overture leak, or by viewing CTR data for many clients across industries through the Google Webmaster Tools search query report (one of the benefits agencies have working with many types of sites).
Approximations of CTR are just that -- approximate. They aren't scientific, since CTR can vary significantly based on the query, the brand, the SERP itself, and the quality of the listing.
No matter how they vary, however, they follow a similar pattern to the below chart, with clicks dramatically decreasing as their positioning decreases on the page:
Data such as this is helpful for SEOs when creating projections for their work. If we know existing rank positions, search volume, and can estimate new ranking positions, we can create an approximate forecast of the SEO work.
This exercise helps rationalize budgets, resources, and time commitments. An example of this type of work is displayed below:
While this isn't perfect by any means, it can give a reasonable picture of what opportunity exists.
One of the problems with creating forecasts like the above lies in the fact that maximizing the CTR of the organic listings is rarely (if ever) taken into consideration. So while SEOs strive to provide opportunity projections based on CTR, they are often leaving out the key element of improving the potential click yield of their ranking pages in search results.
Maximizing Presentation in Organic Results
Consider the SERP below for [clothing online”, a high-value keyword search:
Note the first result. While there are strengths to the listing, including a large footprint (note the third line for snippet text) and sitelinks, there are glaring weaknesses as well.
I'm not sure how effective yelling in all caps is to users; likewise the practice of repeating keywords numerous times. Is that listing maximizing clicks and its number one positioning?
There are literally endless examples of similarly poor presentations.
Here's an example of Braun's USA site, using site searches to show the "raw" ranking candidates before any augmentation by Google when they appear in searches (Google will change title tags, snippet text, breadcrumbs, and sitelinks). It's apparent that these aren't ideal presentations:
While the below example is well-optimized, it doesn't make use of all the available real estate on the page, thereby leading with a smaller footprint than competing listings. Notice the single line of snippet text:
The idea isn't to pick on SEOs and companies -- I know and understand how hard teams are working out there. There are many things out of an SEO's control, so it's not always their fault. Challenges abound!
Controlling SERP display poses problems. For one thing, SEO at scale means leveraging formulae and templates, and that doesn't always lead to an ideal presentation in SERPs.
But additionally, Google can (and does) change the presentation, increasingly of late. Including changing the title, snippet text, and sitelinks that are presented.
Here are some factors that can contribute to increased CTR of organic results:
- Brand recognition
- Keywords in titles
- Snippet text with calls to action
- Search terms highlighted in snippet text
- Rich snippets
Click and User Behavior Data as Ranking Factors
While maximizing clicks in organic search results is enough of a reason to care about this, it becomes even more important when we consider the search engine algorithms. Bing uses CTR as a ranking factor in organic search results, and there's every reason to believe Google also does. Consider the words of Edmond Lau, a former member of the Google search quality team (bolding is mine):"... using click and visit data to rank results is a very reasonable and logical thing to do, and ignoring the data would have been silly.
"It's pretty clear that any reasonable search engine would use click data on their own results to feed back into ranking to improve the quality of search results. Infrequently clicked results should drop toward the bottom because they're less relevant, and frequently clicked results bubble toward the top. Building a feedback loop is a fairly obvious step forward in quality for both search and recommendations systems, and a smart search engine would incorporate the data. The actual mechanics of how click data is used is often proprietary, but Google makes it obvious that it uses click data with its patents on systems like "Rank-adjusted content items."
Google has never admitted to using CTR in ranking results. But there's no reason not to believe the words of one of their former search quality team members.
Rand Fishkin pointed out at Searchfest 2011 that Google could call their usage of click data by different nomenclature, thereby factually answering correctly that they "do not use CTR" as a ranking factor in organic results while gathering the same types of data points.
Beyond simply using click data, they are likely using impression data and user behavior metrics such as bounce rate and time on site, as well as toolbar data, which Google confirmed is a ranking signal.
While it is only speculation, the evidence and my instincts point to the likelihood that Google (and "any reasonable search engine," for that matter) are using metrics similar to CTR to help calculate the rankings of organic results.
In the context of the above argument about presentation, it becomes patently clear that SERP presentation isn't just about maximizing clicks and catering to users. It's also catering to search engine algorithms.
The next time you work hard to get on-page work completed, build a sophisticated content strategy, and push a link development campaign, ensure you're also mindful of the way your organic listings will appear. Listings designed to maximize CTR will have a ranking advantage.
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