Click-through rate (CTR) is obviously an important metric to consider in various facets of your online marketing strategy.
The CTR of your social media posts could determine how much visibility future posts get; the CTR of your ads could indicate their relevance to your target audience; and the CTR of your organic search results speaks to the value proposition of your page titles and descriptions.
The higher your CTR is, the more people will visit your site (assuming visibility remains constant), so of course it’s valuable to improve it.
Additionally, CTR has long been believed to have another benefit: increased rankings. In other words, many believe that pages with higher click-through rates for certain search queries tend to rank higher for those search queries. Essentially, CTR has been considered a significant factor that influences organic search rankings — that is, up until recently.
There is extensive groundwork for the idea of CTR influencing organic search rankings. As recently as 2014, it’s been considered an important determining factor in a site’s health and perceived authority. Search Metrics even included it in their SEO rank correlations report in 2014.
A case study from Moz in May of 2014 also seemed to confirm that increased click-through rate had a positive influence on rankings. After crowdsourcing clicks to a website, the subject rose from rank seven to rank one. Rand Fishkin acknowledged that this alone was not substantive enough to prove a causal relationship, but the evidence seemed convincing.
The big problem with these reports — and with many instances of potential ranking factors — is that correlational relationships do not necessarily imply a causal relationship.
For example, if a site increases the quality of its content and improves its brand visibility, it may earn a higher domain authority and rise up in the ranks while simultaneously appealing to more customers and earning a higher CTR. In this case, CTR and rank increase proportionally, but neither has a direct effect on the other.
My interest on the subject was piqued recently when I read about an experiment carried out by Bartosz Góralewicz. In an effort to determine how much of an impact CTRs had on search rankings as a direct causal influence, Góralewicz carefully constructed a series of clicks (to avoid Google’s traffic spam filters) to a closely monitored website. Using a variety of different keywords and subjects, the experiment sent thousands of visits to the site in question, artificially (but measurably) increasing its CTR to nearly 80 percent.
With such a substantial increase, if CTRs were a ranking factor, one would expect to see at least a subtle shift upward in the search rankings. The results were the opposite — search rankings for the site remained stagnant for a few weeks, only to fall a short while later.
This suggests that click-through rate is not a ranking factor — a conclusion almost in direct opposition to Moz’s experiment back in 2014. Both experiments tried to establish a “baseline” for their respective subjects, with the only difference being CTR; one increased in rank almost immediately, while another barely moved at all.
There are three possible explanations for this data dissonance: 1) CTR stopped being a ranking factor in 2015, 2) one of the experiments was set up incorrectly (resulting in skewed results) or 3) there were other factors that affected the rankings that were not known or included in the experiments.
The Bottom Line: Is CTR A Ranking Factor Today?
You can probably already guess my answer to this question, but I want to also explain the significance of the question. Conflicting evidence is normal for almost any discipline, even in far more structured scientific experiments. It’s neither abnormal nor particularly disruptive. But in the SEO world, with so many ambiguities and so few clear details about how Google’s search algorithms work, we have to go with what we know. And because things in SEO change so fast, we have to go with what we know today.
We don’t know for sure that CTR ever had a causal relationship with organic search ranking improvement. We do know, thanks to Góralewicz’s experiment, that it doesn’t guarantee rank improvement. These two facts lead us to a safe assumption that click-through rate is not a consistent ranking factor — so even if it does have a causal influence on rank, it’s inconsistent and unpredictable.
What does that mean for you? It means it isn’t worth your time to consider CTR as a ranking factor.
Is Click-Through Rate A Useless Metric?
Absolutely not. It’s important to pay attention to your CTR — on search engine results pages, as well as any other opportunities where your customers click on your material. It’s the final gateway that stands between your potential visitors and your actual visitors.
If you find that your CTR is exceptionally low, it’s your responsibility to work to improve it:
- Be as concise as possible by using fewer words to carry your message.
- Describe your site as accurately — and as appealingly — as possible with value propositions and unambiguous wording.
- Stay up-to-date so your descriptions fall exactly in line with your vision.
- Imply a sense of urgency without resorting to petty click-bait style tactics.
- Use the power of headlines to anchor user interest.
Click-through rate is by no means a useless metric — improving the CTRs of your search engine entries, ads and posts is extremely valuable in earning you more traffic. However, it probably won’t increase your search engine rankings directly. Understanding this distinction will allow you to approach CTR appropriately and avoid wasting time pursuing a ranking strategy that simply doesn’t work.