Why CTR Is Not a Direct Ranking Factor - Here's Why #77 | Perficient Digital

Why CTR Is Not a Direct Ranking Factor – Here’s Why #77

Some people believe that click behavior, such as click-through rate (CTR), influences Google search rankings. Does it? Find out in this episode!

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Mark: Okay, Eric, let’s go right to the main question. Is click-through rate, CTR, a ranking factor for Google? 
 
Eric: No and yes.
 
Mark: What? Wait, how can the answer be both no and yes?
 
Eric: Because I think we can establish that CTR is not a direct ranking signal for Google. At the same time, it can have an indirect effect.
 
Mark: Maybe we should back up a bit before we dive into that more deeply. So, what is CTR first of all?
 
Eric: Well, as you said a moment ago, CTR stands for click-through rate, the rate at which people click on something, in this case a particular search result. So if a hundred people are exposed to a certain result, and 10% of them click on it, that’s a 10% CTR.
 
Mark: And why would people think that might be a ranking signal?
 
Eric: Well, think about it. Lots of people clicking on a certain result might indicate a real interest in it, and that might mean it’s a better result than the result above it. Notice I said might there. That will be important later. Anyway, many people have assumed that search engines like Google would use such a signal, of course, bouncing it off against other signals that it uses in ranking. 
 
Mark: That all makes sense. So why are you so certain that Google does not use it as a direct ranking signal?
 
Eric: Well, primarily because Google has told us they don’t. You and I both attended the excellent presentation at SMX West this year by Google engineer Paul Haahr called, “How Google Works: A Ranking Engineer’s Perspective.” Paul told us that Google uses click behavior as one factor it looks at, but only in what he called live experiments.

Google's Paul Haahr on CTR in ranking  
These are time limited tests run with a limited group of Google users. Paul went on to explain that even in those tests, the results aren’t used to influence a particular result being tested, but instead are used in overall evaluation of the quality of Google’s results. You can find a link to Paul Haahr’s slide deck from SMX West, along with a link to another relevant conversation I had with Andre Lapaz of Google, in my article on CTR as a ranking factor.

Mark: So let’s get to the crux of the matter. Why wouldn’t Google use CTR as a ranking signal?
 
Eric: I can answer that in one sentence. Because it’s a signal that is way too easy to game. And even when it’s not gamed, it’s too hard to use effectively. 
 
Mark: Explain the first part of that. “The CTR is easily gaimed,” you said.
 
Eric: Yeah, sure. Ever since people first discovered that ranking high in Google can mean income for their businesses, incentive to try to game the search results has been high. If people believe that getting more clicks on a result could raise its ranking, it would not be hard for them to employ armies of low paid workers, or even cheaper bots to click their results. So Google can’t really be sure they can trust large number of clicks on a result as indicating anything real. 

Why CTR is not a ranking factor  
Mark: But what about pogo sticking, you know, where a user clicks one result, then quickly returns to results page and clicks a different one? Isn’t that a clear indicator that the user didn’t find the first result satisfactory?

pogosticking in search results 
Eric: Not always. What if the user is doing comparison shopping, just wanting to see who has the best price for an item? Or, if they are doing research and want to click multiple opinions on the matter. In both those scenarios, and many others, the user was actually satisfied with the first result. So pogo sticking would not be a negative indication of quality.
 
Mark: Well, thanks, Eric. That makes a lot of sense. Now there is a lot more to this issue, so you’ll want to read Eric’s article on CTR as a ranking factor. In that article, Eric deals with some famous tests that seem to show that CTR affects search results and offers some useful thoughts about quality factors that more likely actually do affect your search rankings.
 
Eric: And before we go, if you have any SEO digital marketing questions you would like us to address in these “Here’s Why” videos, let us know in the comments below. If we use your question for a future video, we’ll give you a shout out.
 
Mark: And you be sure to join us every Monday for a new episode of “Here’s Why.”

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4 responses to “Why CTR Is Not a Direct Ranking Factor – Here’s Why #77”

  1. Okay, I completely understand that at a high-level Google wouldn’t want to use CTR as a ranking signal. Yes, it’s easy to game with robots or human manipulation. However, Google has gotten pretty good at detecting clicks like this. It’s one of the reasons you’re reimbursed for illegitimate ad clicks in AdWords.
    I have to imagine that CTR is used in some capacity. You mention indirect methods above via some forms of limited tests run by Google but it has to be more than just that.
    We know that Google doesn’t use meta descriptions shown below the title for search engine rankings, right? It’s too easy to manipulate this information, too. However, this information does help the user decide which link to click. If link #1 has less relevant meta description than link #2, you would expect link #2 to be clicked more. Eventually Google would want to increase link #2 position to #1 at some point, right? Wouldn’t Google want to use this information?
    You’re article focuses mainly on using CTR to raise search engine rank. However, is it possible that Google would use CTR to lower search engine rank? Google knows what the expected click through rate is of every link at every position on the first page of results. If a result, doesn’t meet the expected CTR, and assuming others are, wouldn’t they take that into account?

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. You’ve pretty much listed the reasons that most of us used to believe that CTR “must” affect rankings. We have to remember, though, that search is always more complicated than our view of it. In Eric’s and my discussions with Google search people over the years (both public and private), we’ve been struck by how consistently they tell us two things:
    1) What they see from their side is always more complex (and often less clear) than what we see on our side.
    2) They have to ignore a lot of signals that might seem “useful” to us, either because they are messier than they appear or they just don’t have the resources (yes, even Google doesn’t have unlimited resources!)
    As far as their ability to sniff out manipulated clicks, Gary has told us they actually do find a lot of that, but even with that the data from CTR is still too difficult to interpret to be useful. It’s one thing to sort out false clicks. It’s quite another to successfully discern why users click (or don’t click) a result.
    Take the case of pogosticking, which we show in our video. Most SEOs have assumed that pogosticking (a user clicking one result, then in a short time coming back to the SERP and clicking another) is clearly indicating the first result clicked is unsatisfying. But there could be any number of scenarios in which it’s not (such as a user doing quick price comparisons, for one). So even this isn’t as clear a signal as you might assume.
    Add to that the testing done by Rand Fishkin, in which I’ve participated. We did numerous tests in which a large number of users were asked to click a certain lower result for a query in a short period of time. Sometimes, especially in the early test, the ranking did jump up quickly. But even in those cases, it only worked for very localized results, and the jump fell off over a few days. In later tests, even those carefully hidden from Google, it became harder to produce even those results.
    All that is not to say that Google doesn’t use click behavior at all. In addition to the limited tests mentioned by Paul Haahr, other Googlers have mentioned that it is sometimes used in personal results (i.e., a site you have clicked on in the past may rank higher for your personalized, logged in results). But these are limited cases where they feel they can be relatively sure of the meaning of the signal.

  3. Abel Pardo says:

    So, the answer is: it could be but not always.

  4. It’s a bit more complex than that. If you read the more detailed post we link to from the video, you’ll see that top Google engineers have emphatically, clearly, and repeatedly stated that they do not use CTR as a direct ranking factor. They do, however, use it in limited test of search results quality. Then they take what they learned from those tests and refine the search algorithms. So over time, it is natural that on the whole, sites that draw higher CTR will rank higher, but it is not because a direct ranking factor is being applied to those sites. Does that make sense?

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