Google’s algorithm considers hundreds of ranking factors when deciding where to place a website in the search results. Many of these factors have been widely known and capitalized on by the SEO community for well over a decade (like relevance, keywords, backlinks and outbound links), but one factor that is a bit more shrouded in mystery is clickthrough rate (CTR).
For years, the SEO community debated CTR’s impact on rankings. In one camp, CTR didn’t affect rankings whatsoever. The other camp believed CTR must have at least some effect on rankings. On an intuitive level, it makes sense. Why would a service designed to fetch the most relevant search results overlook something as important as how often a link is clicked?
CTR’s status as a ranking factor was more or less confirmed by Google engineer Paul Haahr in 2016. In fact, Google updated their user CTR patent earlier this year. Back in 2016, Moz’s Larry Kim performed his own study on CTR and search rankings and concluded that getting more clicks indeed helps a website climb up the rankings ladder.
Five years and over a dozen algorithm updates later, we still don’t know a whole lot about the relationship between CTR and search rankings. We can say with reasonable certainty that CTR is a factor in determining a page’s position in search results…but to what degree a substantial increase in CTR influences a page’s performance is anyone’s guess.
We decided to run our own study. Specifically, we wanted to learn how much influence an increase in CTR has on personal injury lawyer pages. Our goal was to see if a CTR boost had any effect at all, and if it did, how much of an effect it had.
60 websites. 30 days. 30x organic clicks.
To get meaningful results from this study, we focused on a particular niche: personal injury lawyers. We randomly selected 3 personal injury lawyer websites from 20 different cities: one on page 1, another on page 2 and another on page 3.
Once we had our list of websites, we needed to boost their traffic. Simply flooding each website with the same amount of visits every day wouldn’t work—we wanted to simulate a natural increase in traffic.
For each website, we took the average number of daily visits and multiplied by 30 to get our daily click number. A website with 0.25 daily clicks would get 8 clicks per day. A different site with 6 daily clicks would get 180 clicks per day.
We performed the study over a period of 30 days and recorded the SERP position for each website daily.
After 30 days of traffic manipulation and data collection, we started making sense of the data. The first noticeable (and expected) result was that rankings jumped up and down repeatedly throughout the experiment. Rankings fluctuations are common on Google, even at a daily level. What we were really looking for was a trend.
Above, you can see the peaks and valleys each of the 60 websites experienced over the 30-day study. The pink line represents a smooth average for all performances.
Each website was a different story. Some saw their ranking increase while others ended the study at a lower position.
One website, based in Queens, went on a wild ride before ending up in the exact same position that it started. A Boston website jumped 11 positions while a Los Angeles firm dropped by 12. Here is a visual representation of each site’s performance with each site starting at zero:
Taken together, the 60 websites gained an average of 2 positions in the SERPS over the 30-day period. A statistical test confirmed that the gain was positive.
As mentioned above, the websites used in this study were divided equally between page 1, page 2, and page 3 on the first day of the study. Looking at the results among these three categories, we see a difference in performance.
Websites that started on page 1 moved up in the rankings by exactly one position on average. Websites on page 2 did a little better, gaining an average of 1.5 positions. It was the personal injury firms on page 3 that benefited the most, gaining an average of 3.1 positions by the end of the study.
Making Sense of the Numbers
Looking at the results of this study might lead one to feeling a bit underwhelmed. At first glance, gaining an average of 2 positions doesn’t seem like much of a win…but to use an oft-repeated cliche, SEO is a marathon, not a sprint. The average gain of 2 positions happened in 30 days. What would the picture look like after 6 months? After a year?
In the real world, websites don’t get a 30x organic CTR for 30 days. It happens gradually, by optimizing titles and meta descriptions and creating a more enticing link for users to click on in the search results. If the efforts are successful, that increase in CTR will likely sustain itself.
Another key consideration is the compounding nature of search engine rankings and traffic. Back in 2019, Brian Dean analyzed 5 million search engine results and discovered that moving up just one position in Google will net you 30.8% more organic clicks.
By making an effort to increase your organic CTR, you improve your chances of moving up in the rankings, which in turn provides you with even more organic clicks. Each rung of the ladder means more visibility, more traffic, and more leads.
- An increase of organic CTR has a noticeable positive effect, with websites gaining an average of 2 positions after 30 days.
- Website performance was highly variable throughout the study.
- Websites on page 1 experienced an average increase of 1 position after 30 days.
- Websites on page 2 experienced an average increase of 1.5 positions after 30 days.
- Websites on page 3 experienced an average increase of 3.1 positions after 30 days.
Organic CTR has a noticeable, positive effect on page rankings for personal injury lawyers.
While it might not have the one-time impact of securing a backlink from a high-authority directory, making an effort to improve your organic CTR will help you achieve gradual and sustained success over time.
Did you find this study interesting? If you have any questions about our methodology, findings or data, ask us in the comments.