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Mission ImposSERPble 2: User Intent and Click Through Rates


Posted by CatalystSEM

This post was originally in YouMoz, and was promoted to the main blog because it provides great value and interest to our community. The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of Moz, Inc.

It’s been quite a while since I first read (and bookmarked) Slingshot SEO’s YouMoz blog post, Mission ImposSERPble: Establishing Click-through Rates, which showcased their study examining organic click-through rates (CTR) across search engine result pages. The Slingshot study is an excellent example of how one can use data to uncover trends and insights. However, that study is over two and a half years old now, and the Google search results have evolved significantly since then.

Using the Slingshot CTR study (and a few others) as inspiration, Catalyst thought it would be beneficial to take a fresh look at some of our own click-through rate data and dive into the mindset of searchers and their proclivity for clicking on the different types of modern organic Google search results.

Swing on over to Catalyst’s website and download the free Google CTR Study: How User Intent Impacts Google Click-Through Rates

**TANGENT: I’m really hoping that the Moz community’s reception of this ‘sequel’ post follows the path of some of the all-time great movie sequels (think Terminator 2, The Godfather: Part II) and not that of Jaws 2.

How is the 2013 Catalyst CTR study unique?

  • RECENT DATA: This CTR study is the most current large-scale US study available. It contains data ranging from Oct. 2012 – June 2013. Google is constantly tweaking its SERP UI, which can influence organic CTR behavior.
  • MORE DATA: This study contains more keyword data, too. The keyword set for this study spans 17,500 unique queries across 59 different websites. More data can lead to more accurate representations of the true population.
  • MORE SEGMENTS: This study segments queries into categories not covered in previous studies which allows us to compared CTR behavior attributed to different keyword types. For example, branded v. unbranded queries, and question v. non-question based queries.

How have organic CTRs changed over time?

The most significant changes since the 2011 Slingshot study is the higher CTRs for positions 3, 4, and 5.

Ranking on the first page of search results is great for achieving visibility; however, the search result for your website must be compelling enough to make searchers want to click through to your website. In fact, this study shows that having the most compelling listing in the SERPs could be more important than “ranking #1� (provided you are still ranking within the top five listings, anyway).

Read on to learn more.

Catalyst 2013 CTRs vs. Slingshot SEO 2011 CTRs

data table of Catalyst CTRs compared to Slingshot SEO CTRs

Since Slingshot’s 2011 study, click-through rates have not dramatically shifted, with the total average CTR for first page organic results dropping by just 4%.

While seemingly minor, these downward shifts could be a result of Google’s ever-evolving user interface. For example, with elements such as Product Listing Ads, Knowledge Graph information, G+ authorship snippets, and other microdata becoming more and more common in a Google SERP, users’ eyes may tend to stray further from the historical “F shape� pattern, impacting the CTR by ranking position.

Positions 3-5 showed slightly higher average CTRs than what Slingshot presented in 2011. A possible explanation for this shift is that users could be more aware of Paid Search listing located at the top of the results page, so in an attempt to “bypass� these results, they may have modified their browsing behavior to quickly scan/wheel-scroll past a few listings down the page.

What is the distribution of clicks across a Google SERP?

example Google search engine result page click distributions

Business owners need to understand that even if your website ranks in the first organic position for your target keyword, your site will almost certainly never receive traffic from every one of those users/searchers.

On average, the top organic SERP listing (#1) drives visits from around 17% of Google searches.

The top four positions, or typical rankings “above the fold� for many desktop users, receive 83% of first page organic clicks.

The Catalyst data also reveals that only 48% of Google searches result in a page one organic click (meaning any click on listings ranging 1-10). So what is the other 52% doing? Two things, the user either clicks on a Paid Search listing, or they “abandon� the search, which we define as:

  • Query Refinement – based on the displayed results, the user alters their search
  • Instant Satisfaction – based on the displayed results, the user gets the answer they were interested in without having to click
  • 2nd Page Organic SERP – the user navigates to other SERPs
  • Leave Search Engine – the user exits the Google search engine

How do branded query CTRs differ from unbranded queries?

Branded CTRs for top ranking terms are lower than unbranded CTRs, likely due to both user intent and the way Google presents results.

branded query CTRs vs. unbranded query CTRs

data table of branded and unbranded organic CTRs

These numbers shocked us a bit. At the surface, you might assume that listings with top rankings for branded queries would have higher CTRs than unbranded queries. But, when you take a closer look at the current Google UI and place yourself in the mindset of a searcher, our data actually seems more likely.

Consumers who search unbranded queries are often times higher in the purchasing funnel: looking for information, without a specific answer or action in mind. As a result, they may be more likely to click on the first result, particularly when the listing belongs to a strong brand that they trust.

Additionally, take a look at the example below, notice how many organic results are presented “above the foldâ€� for a unbranded query compared to an branded query (note: these SERP screenshots were taken from 1366×768 screen resolution). There are far fewer potential organic click paths for a user to take when presented with the branded query’s result page (1 organic result v. 4.5 results). It really boils down to ‘transactional’ v. ‘informational’ queries. Typically, keywords that are more transactional (e.g. purchase intent) and/or drive higher ROI are more competitive in the PPC space and as a result will have more paid search ads encroaching on valuable SERP real estate.

example branded search query v. unbranded search query result page

We all know the makeup of every search result page is different and the number of organic results above the fold can be influenced by a number of factors, including, device type, screen size/resolution, paid search competiveness, and so on.

You can use your website analytics platform to see what screen resolutions your visitors are using and predict how many organic listings your target audience would typically see for different search types and devices. In our example, you can see that my desktop visitors most commonly use screen resolutions higher than 1280×800, so I can be fairly certain that my current audience typically sees up to 5 organic results from a desktop Google search.

Google Analytics screen resolution of my audience

Does query length/word count impact organic CTR?

As a user’s query length approaches the long tail, the average CTR for page one rankings increases.

head vs long tail organic ctr

The organic click percentage totals represented in this graph suggest that as a user’s query becomes more refined they are more likely to click on a first page organic result (~56% for four+ word queries v. ~30% for one-word queries).

Furthermore, as a query approaches the long tail, click distributions across the top ten results begin to spread more evenly down the fold. Meaning, when a consumer’s search becomes more refined/specific, they likely spend more time scanning the SERPs looking for the best possible listing to answer their search inquiry. This is where compelling calls-to-action and eye-catching page titles/meta descriptions can really make or break your organic click through rates.

As previously stated, only about 30% of one-word queries result in a first page organic click. Why so low? Well, one potential reason for this is that searchers use one-word queries simply to refine their search based on their initial impression of the SERP. This means that the single word query would become a multiple word query. If the user does not find what they are looking for within the first result, they modify their search to be more specific, often resulting in the query to contain multiple words.

Additionally, one-word queries resulted in 60% of the total first page organic clicks (17.68%) being attributed to the first ranking. Maybe, by nature, one-word queries are very similar to navigational queries (as the keywords are oftentimes very broad or a specific brand name).

Potential business uses

Leveraging click-through rate data enables us to further understand user behavior on a search result and how it can differ depending on search intent. These learnings can play an integral role in defining a company’s digital strategy, as well as forecasting website traffic and even ROI. For instance:

  1. Forecasting Website Performance and Traffic Given a keyword’s monthly search volume, we can predict the number of visits a website could expect to receive by each ranking position. This becomes increasingly valuable when we have conversion rate data attributed to specific keywords.
  2. Identifying Search Keyword Targets With Google Webmaster Tools’ CTR/search query data we can easily determine the keywords that are “low-hanging fruit�. We consider low hanging fruit to be keywords that a brand ranks fairly well on, but are just outside of achieving high visibility/high organic traffic because the site currently ranks “below the fold� on page 1 of the SERPs or rank somewhere within pages 2-3 of the results.). Once targeted and integrated into the brand’s keyphrase strategy, SEOs can then work to improve the site’s rankings for that particular query.
  3. Identifying Under-performing Top Visible Keywords
    By comparing a brand’s specific search query CTR against the industry average as identified in this report, we can identify under-performing keyphrases. Next, an SEO can perform an audit to determine if the low CTR is due to factors within the brand’s control, or if it is caused by external factors.

Data set, criteria, and methodology

Some information about our data set and methodology. If you’re like me, and want to follow along using your own data, you can review our complete process in our whitepaper. All websites included in the study are Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brands. As such, the associated CTRs, and hypothesized user behaviors reflect only those brands and users.

Data was collected via each brand’s respective Google Webmaster Tools account, which was then processed and analyzed using a powerful BI and data visualization tool.

Catalyst analyzed close to 17,500 unique search queries (with an average ranking between 1–10, and a minimum of 50 search impressions per month) across 59 unique brands over a 9 month timeframe (Oct. 2012 – Jun 2013).

Here are a few definitions so we’re all on the same page (we mirrored definitions as provided by Google for their Google Webmaster Tools)…

  • Click-Through Rate (CTR) – the percentage of impressions that resulted in a click for a website.
  • Average Position – the average top position of a website on the search results page for that query. To calculate average position, Google takes into account the top ranking URL from the website for a particular query.

Final word

I have learned a great deal from the studies and blog posts shared by Moz and other industry experts throughout my career, and I felt I had an opportunity to meaningfully contribute back to the SEO community by providing an updated, more in-depth Google CTR study for SEOs to use as a resource when benchmarking and measuring their campaigns and progress.

For more data and analysis relating to coupon-based queries, question based queries, desktop v. mobile user devices, and more download our complete CTR study.

Have any questions or comments on our study? Did anyone actually enjoy Jaws 2? Please let us know and join the discussion below!

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