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Does CTR affect Search Engine Result Pages?

Guy Sheetrit May 26, 2016

We all know that Google favors websites that offer the most relevant content for users. It might be then logic to think that if a page receives a lot of clicks, it is because it actually has meaningful and useful content for most users. Google then might take notice and elevate its ranking on search engine result pages. However, this has been tested many times by artificially boosting the CTR of a website without yielding the expected results.

We need to know first what Click-through rate (CTR) is. It’s the relation between the people who get to see a link, and how many of them actually click on that link. Of course, those websites that appear first on the search result page will have a higher CTR when compared to, say, those that appear last. What this says to us is that more people believe that the first link will have the best answers to what they are looking for, but Google won´t say if it works both ways.

Some experiments have tried to determine whether CTR affects ranking in search results using click bots. Click bots basically mimic the behavior of a human user. They run through VPNs and change IP and user agents so they never leave tracks of a previous visit. They perform a search, visit your page and randomly explore it like any normal user would. But, as it happens with all SEO automated tools, it requires proper managing.

There have been at least three relevant experiments that have been performed to test CTR as a ranking factor, and two of them show that CTR, contrary to what Google would like us to believe, is a positive.

The first one was performed by MOZ´s own Rand Fishkin in 2014. He boosted organic traffic by creating a Twitter mini campaign that attracted hundreds of visitors curious to see what the author would find. After a hoard of clickers flooded Rand´s little site, they could observe an almost immediate positive effect in its search result page ranking. This could have settled the argument, but his results were challenged recently.

Search Engine Land´s Bartosz Góralewicz thought Google had changed after Fishkin´s experiment took place. He tried to take a more sterilized approach by isolating CTR to guarantee that no other signals that could influence the search engine result page. With the help of bots, he increased the volume search of the keyword “Negative SEO” by 592% and effectively created a Google trend. The visits to his blog were increased 3700%.

The results were somewhat disappointing. Turns out his experiment didn’t affect the ranking of the page one bit, and he concluded that CTR by itself might not significantly affect the ranking of a page. However, the page didn’t lose its ranking and it remained in the top results-. This left a question whether a different study on a lower ranked page would have different results.

On the other hand, Google tends to find out if the traffic to a page is fake. If there is a sudden 3700% increase in visits or search volume, it certainly wouldn’t look natural. If they are smart, they must have shielded their algorithm against such blatant traffic manipulation.

The third experiment worth noting used a target page in the 3-5 ranking range, and used click bots for keywords that were in positions from 30 to 50 in Google. For 6 weeks, traffic was being sent to each keyword, but instead of sending large amounts of traffic it was only 0.34% of the average monthly search volume per day. That way Google would not flag the increase as inorganic. Changes on keywords were happening almost immediately with improvements of over 20 positions. Also, organic traffic was being monitored as well, but was subtracted from the total visits to keep an eye on the bot activity. Results showed that CTR could certainly influence ranking.

This means that further experimentation was needed in order to find out exactly to what extent does CTR effectively affect search engine result pages. The team of Over The Top Seo, under the direct supervision of Guy Sheetrit, has an ambitious experiment underway in which they are trying to settle this issue for good. Apart from effectively isolating CTR as an independent variable, we are also using truly organic traffic to see if we can influence a group of websites located at various levels in ranking page results.

The findings of this clever experiment, as well as the details of how it was done, will be disclosed during the upcoming Ungagged London 2016 event. We expect to have an open and frank discussion with the best of the SEO community behind closed doors, and we hope to listen to your take on how to wisely use this information. The Ungagged events provide us with fertile ground for new ideas and we look forward to them.