Google Ranking and CTR – how clicks distribute over different rankings on Google

July 12, 2009 – 11:17 am

When beginning a new SEO campaign, a crucial first step is the keyword research. As a part of this step, one wants not only to find a comprehensive list of keywords that could serve as a potential target markets on Search Engines, but also to be able to predict amounts of traffic that each keyword will bring to his site. So we usually turn to different keyword prediction tools that provide us with this kind of information. Obviously, the most popular such tool is Google Adwords Keyword Tool, but there are others – Google Search Based Keyword Tool, SEMRush, Spyfu, Wordtracker MSN Excel based addon (check a great review and tutorial on SEOMOZ about this one), etc.

When we look at these tools, we can see only a single value for each keyword, representing a predicted monthly number of searches performed for that keyword on search engines. However, there are important issues that need to be taken into account when considering this data: what position will bring that amount of traffic ? Can the change in title (such as adding a brand name, special characters, call to action, etc.) increase the amount of traffic that the site gets from a current position ? How do Universal Search Results affect the percentage of traffic I get from the 1st page of Google SERP ? In order to be able to consider these issues, we need to be able to estimate the percentage of traffic that each position will bring.

Now, when reading about the importance of getting to the first page on Google, there is one piece of information that always gets quoted: 90+% of users do not go past the first page of SERPs ( I don’t know who was the first to come up with that statistics, so I will just link to this SEM article). While being probably true, this statement creates a misconception that if we do succeed and get our site to the first page of results, we have managed to achieve exposure to those magical 95% of users.

I am sure that many people rationally understand that this is probably not the case, that each listing in the top 10 does not get the same amount of attention and that introduction of ads on top of the SERPs and universal search results within the SERPs change the distribution of clicks among the top 10 results. That said, it is hard to find valuable and reliable data that confirms or negates these premises. In order for people to check it themselves, they need to control every site in the top 10 for a keyword that provides enough traffic for these measurements to be statistically significant. Furthermore, there would probably be need for at least another such setup from a different niche to confirm the validity of the results in the first niche. To summarize, it is close to impossible to produce such research with the means available to an average website owner.

There are two ways that such researches can be done: one is by eye-tracking studies. In these studies, a group of people is fitted with an instrument that follows their eye movement and records them against what the examiners are seeing on the screen. It also records the clicks they do on websites and correlate that data with the “heatmaps” created through the eye tracking. For some more info on those studies and on their misgivings, check out this great post from 2006 by Bill Slawski.

The second way is to get hold of the search engine log data that provides not only the identity of keywords that were searched and results that were clicked but also information about the position that a URL was located at when clicked.

Luckily, there are both kind of data available. There are quite a few people out there interested in web usability and testing those concepts through eye tracking studies. As I mentioned in my Affilicon 2009 presentation, all of the major search engines cooperated with universities and conduct academic researches in order to investigate new concepts or improve the existing ones As for the search engine data, remember AOL data dump of 2006 ? So apparently that dataset included all of the data needed for estimating the number of clicks each website would get if it was located in a different position on SERPs.

In this post I will try and summarize several such researches, spanning the time from 2005 till 2008. Only the 2006 study is based on the user data accidentally released by AOL and the remaining studies are done by the eye-tracking technology. They are all investigating the distribution of clicks each of the top 10 results on Google gets. It is interesting that one of the researchers signing on the majority of the eye tracking studies is Laura A. Granka. She did her PhD in Communications at Stanford and has been in the User Experience Team at Google since 2005.

Here are the links to the sources of data for all five studies according to the years:

Year of Publication Type of Data URL
2004 Eye Tracking http://www.seoresearcher.com/distribution-of-clicks-on-googles-serps-and-eye-tracking-analysis.htm
2005 Eye Tracking http://www.cs.cornell.edu/People/tj/publications/joachims_etal_05a.pdf
2006 AOL Data http://www.redcardinal.ie/search-engine-optimisation/12-08-2006/clickthrough-analysis-of-aol-datatgz/
2008 Eye Tracking http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/117935668/abstract

Notice that the above dates are dates of publication, not necessarily the dates when the study was done.

And here is the graph presenting the results of these studies (click to enlarge):

I have added the CTR for each location for the 2008 data

Some Conclusions:

SEO Strategy

It is obvious that the vast majority of users click on the first 3 results (60-80%) and that anything below these positions will bring low to negligent traffic. These results should make us consider the overall optimization tactics – instead of massive investment into links for the sake of promotion of a few highly searched keywords with high competition; it may be worth our while to go for the long-tail traffic with almost certain top 3 positions through concerted efforts in wide scope content creation, site architecture optimization, deep linking, etc. Obviously, the shape of the above curves will depend on the nature of the search query, nature of the target audience and the data should also be cross-compared with the expected ROI from each term.

Universal Search

There is a very clear difference between the data in 2008 and the previous years – there seems to be a sharp shift of the majority of users towards the top 3 positions, making the above described differences even sharper. There is also a spike in users that click on the bottom results in the 2008 data. This can be explained by the introduction of universal/blended search results – video, news and image results. By being visually different, these results will naturally draw more clicks than the bland organic listings. Furthermore, an additional research done by the iProspect company shows that 36%, 31% and 17% of users click on the Image, News and Video results respectively. This should point towards possibilities of inserting content into those three categories of results and thus capitalizing on more SERP real estate.

There also seems to be a pronounced difference between the 2004 data and the later studies – there seems to be a much more pronounced gravitation of users towards the #1 position than in the following years. In order to understand the reason for this we should look in the way the research was conducted (was there any difference in the methods, was there a pronounced difference in the queries that the test subjects used, etc.). However, we can speculate on some other explanations, such as possible higher quality of SERPs in those years which brought more relevant results in top position for more searches than in the later years when more users had to click to lower-ranking results since the top-ranking sites did not offer the best match to what they were searching for.

  1. 39 Responses to “Google Ranking and CTR – how clicks distribute over different rankings on Google”

  2. Thanks for sharing, great article!

    By Paw on Jul 13, 2009

  3. Hi Branko
    Just did an very similar study but with slightly different source data – see http://www.reflectionsfromtheriver.com/2009/07/meta-analysis-of-ctr-from-natural-search-results-serps/. As you will see from the article, I felt it was useful to publish the regression equation so that differences in CTR could be calculated easily in a spreadsheet to predict click-through rates from keywords with different search volumes. Also, the equation suggests how CTR should change over lower SERP positions (although this is admittedly an extrapolation beyond the original data sources). Great to see actual scientific data on SEO – keep it coming!

    By Mike Baxter on Jul 14, 2009

  4. Great stats. yes it is more likely to get lot of clicks for top 3 positions.Very well organize report.

    By lohith on Jul 14, 2009

  5. Again great post.
    The 2009 article is blocked maybe you have some other researches to share with us?
    And if you could deal with the issue of usability and on-site clickability it would be highly interesting :)
    Cheers

    By agroup on Jul 14, 2009

  6. @Mike That is a very nice article you have there. I actually also calculated a regression equation, but refrained from publishing it, since it cannot be correct over a variety of SERPs. As one of your data sources predicts, appearance of Adwords on top of the organic SERPs can decrease the CTR from about 50% (without the Adwords) to about 35% (with the Adwords). Universal Search Results would skew those CTRs furthermore so the formula could be misleading.

    @agroup you can probably find the article by searching for its title in Google Scholar. If you still don’t find it, let me know, I will shoot you the PDF file. As for other researches, I suggest reading Mike’s article linked from his comment and the studies he refers to.
    The usability issue is a completely different animal and is much more versatile than the SERP CTR. What I am hoping to start looking into is how changes in different elements in SERP listing affect the CTR.

    By Neyne on Jul 16, 2009

  7. Nice article, and thanks for the SpyFu mention. I did a bunch of research on this stuff recently — lot’s of stuff to take into account to calculate the traffic. In addition to the Universal search stuff, there’s the presence, quantity, and quality of ads.

    Anyway, we built an algorithm off of my research, and its been up on SpyFu for a couple weeks.

    To get to it, download a domain’s organic keyword list. For each keyword that a domain ranks on organically, we calculate the amount of traffic delivered to that specific domain on that specific keyword — and we also take a stab at how much all those clicks are worth.

    The value estimate is handy because it gives you something to go to your client or your boss and show them how much you’re worth to them.

    By Mike Roberts on Jul 16, 2009

  8. Interesting article and some good figures to back up the claims.

    I wonder how the figures will change over time…particularly as people seem to be searching more via long tail terms these days. Will this result in a higher percentage of clicks through to position 1? – more defined search terms may mean users are expecting Google to deliver more efficient results, and so, they may not go past the top result.

    By Zulu Digital on Jul 22, 2009

  9. Good roundup of the available data, interesting to see how closely they agree on the spread of clickthroughs from page 1.

    However my issue with all of these studies has always been that CTR surely varies greatly depending on the type of query. No doubt the vast majority of navigational queries hit the #1 result. But I’d speculate that for other types of queries people are more willing to scroll down and look for the most relevant listing, and even go to page 2 or 3, or refine their query to something more specific. A known brand name will probably also get more attention even if it’s further down. And I think people are getting more sophisticated in using search engines over the years so the blind clicking on the first few is becoming less common.

    But as I said this is all speculation, and generally these studies are a good starting point. Thanks for posting this analysis.

    By Jaamit SEO on Jul 27, 2009

  10. I think it really depends on how large of an industry and how much competition to see if someone makes it past the first page. Some industries have really great search results even all the way back to the 5th page.

    By Nick Stamoulis on Jul 31, 2009

  11. Interesting conclusion, any chance you can reload the CTR image as it doesn’t load when clicked on.

    Thanks

    By Kun on Aug 14, 2009

  12. Hi…….thanks for this informative discussion. it all depends on how much competition to face if other makes it past the first page. some industries have better result even at low page.

    Sofia Joully

    By Sofia Joully on Aug 24, 2009

  13. Very interesting matter, well made! Congratulations!

    By Otimização de Sites on Aug 25, 2009

  14. yes it is more likely to get lot of clicks for top 3 positions.Very well organize report.

    By TK Pandey on Aug 28, 2009

  15. Interesting conclusion, any chance you can reload the CTR image as it doesn’t load when clicked on. Thanks for sharing.

    By Maneesh Bhati on Aug 29, 2009

  16. Thanks for the stuff. Good roundup of the available data, interesting to see how closely they agree on the spread of clickthroughs from page 1. Really good.

    By Garry on Sep 1, 2009

  17. Interesting statistics and insight, but as also pointed out by @ Jaamit SEO the type of query will definitely effect click trough rates.

    By Michel on Sep 7, 2009

  18. By using google analytics & filtering you can actualy see the position of the ranking in google (only firefox) so for about 10% you can see the SERP the website was in when clicked on. Although it varies by site more than 90% is first position only….. :-(

    I hope the users will learn to look better… and less obvious

    By Wouter Blom on Oct 6, 2009

  19. it’so nice to find an updated article about distribution of CTR in SERPS..

    By SEO Dubai Consultant on Oct 28, 2009

  20. A lot of people in the SEO game and also clients willing to involve themselves in SEO get caught up in the dream that high positions increase site traffic and in turn increase revenue and the return on investment will be worthwhile.

    What goes forgotten is having a totally unusable/poorly designed website.

    Even if traffic find their way to your site-it’s then up to your site to convert that traffic.

    The conversion is king-a site which is designed well and usable on the 2nd page of the SERPS will do better than a badly designed site on the 1st page.

    Just something to bear in mind when in SEO Manchester.

    By SEO Manchester on Nov 20, 2009

  21. Thanks, for the well-done post.

    However, the last paragraph suggests that SERP quality has diminished over time due to gravitation of clicks to lower positions. I don’t think this is the case; search quality has almost certainly improved since 2004.

    I think this trend can actually be explained by the evolution of the browser and growth in tabbed browsing. While I don’t have hard data to back this up, my observation is that users are increasingly right-clicking several results from the SERP and queuing them up in separate browser tabs. Then, they’ll leave the SERP to scan their top choices.

    Anyone agree on this?

    -Paris

    By paris on Nov 29, 2009

  22. We used to use thumbrules that 40% of the clicks went to the #1 sponsored results and 40% of the clicks went to the #1 natural result and 8% went to the #2 natural result. Of course those numbers are ballpark and they vary based on the term and the day. We used to say no business prospect searchers would go past the first page of SERPS, only informational researches would. And the last thing was that everyone on the first page of the SERPS would get clicks. Regards – Mal

    By Mal Milligan on Dec 11, 2009

  23. Thanks for sharing, very usuful!

    By Interist on Jan 5, 2010

  24. It really amazing the percentage different between position #1 and #2.

    Given that these data go back to 2004, Do we still browse the web the same way as back in 2004, now that most people are using bigger monitors, higher screen resolution, and more computer friendly?

    So is this data still valid?

    By Ardin on Jan 6, 2010

  25. This must be one of the most helpful articles I have read lately. Clearly, even if you have a Top 3 or Top 2 ranking, you can increase your visit numbers immensely by going up just one or two spots.

    By Ex Zurück Paul on Jan 12, 2010

  26. Thanks for the information! Its good to refer to these statistics for customers

    By web design kent on Jan 28, 2010

  27. nice visuals i must say for the SERP

    By iben kramer on Mar 4, 2010

  28. Do you have any data newer in respect to personalized search and real time search?

    By Rosenstand on Apr 3, 2010

  29. Very useful and insightful. Newer data would be great. As mentioned in an earlier comment, having some insights on the impact of AdSense and other ad-related items within the SERPs would also be very useful. Thanks for the well written article.

    By Tech Tips on May 5, 2010

  30. This is a good analysis but I am not so sure on if people do actually go to the second page and click on any listing, hence Google has applied for the long tail key phrases to be listed from their May day update.

    I feel that issue with all of these studies has always been that CTR surely varies greatly depending on the type of query. CTR also varies depending on your budget, the bigger the budget the longer you list.

    By Saurav on May 27, 2010

  31. Think you have great stats. Hoping to see more soon maybe from 2009 – 2010.

    By Kim W Sorensen on Jun 28, 2010

  32. I think the ctr on position 1 is probally lower than in the diagram showed here, some recent studies shows it’s around 37% :(

    By Geld lenen on Nov 3, 2010

  33. The usability issue is a completely different animal and is much more versatile than the SERP CTR. What I am hoping to start looking into is how changes in different elements in SERP listing affect the CTR.

    By seo arizona on Jun 30, 2011

  1. 7 Trackback(s)

  2. Jul 17, 2009: The Week In Search – 17/07/09 Recap | Fusion Unlimited Digital Marketing Blog
  3. Aug 29, 2009: Google Organic Rankings Quality Score | dannytalk ™ A Danny Ng Blog
  4. Sep 17, 2009: Revue de presse | Simple Entrepreneur
  5. Sep 24, 2009: Google évolue et fait évoluer le comportement des internautes ! | Génération Trafic
  6. Oct 1, 2009: Importance of Search Optimization | Blackbird Web Marketing
  7. Jan 25, 2010: Gode ting fra mine Twitter-kontakter
  8. Nov 15, 2010: Google SERP Ranking and CTR: no prize for 4th place

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.