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Indirect Evidence that CTR May Be a Google Ranking Factor

     
4:17 pm on Mar 21, 2018 (gmt 0)

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There's an old theory that big brands climbed to the top of google's search results because they consistently got more clicks than the sites above them in the rankings.

Of course the idea that CTR affects rankings has been around since the very early days of google. On the other hand, in past discussions here some members have categorically denied that google uses any kind of user behavior as a ranking factor. {Supposedly Matt Cutts essentially said this about 10 years ago.]

But I've always had doubts about this. It seems to me that data on user behavior would be a gold mine of useful information about how users perceive the value of a webpage. In fact, according to some reports at the time, google mainly created its Chrome browser in order to be able to collect detailed data on user behavior.

At any rate, I've noticed a recent change in rankings that could support the argument that google's algorithm actually does take account of data on user behavior. Specifically, for years a certain blog post from 2010 has ranked number 1 in google for a particular search term that I watch. But when I checked about two weeks ago it had fallen to number 2, and I also noticed that the date of the blog post {March 9, 2010) was shown in the search results, whereas previously it wasn't shown.

I checked again today, and this post has now fallen to number 3 in the rankings, with the date still being shown.

So this blog post had ranked number 1 for years, but when google started showing its date in the search results, it began falling.

This suggests to me that it began getting less clicks when searchers could see how old it is. And when it began getting fewer clicks, it started falling in the rankings.
5:11 pm on Mar 21, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Or maybe freshness got a boost (at least for blog posts, or blog posts with datelines). There's no way to know.
6:04 pm on Mar 21, 2018 (gmt 0)

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There's no way to know.

I'd be careful to avoid that mindset. If you are creative you can devise tests, collect data from a wide enough net, and collaborate with other smart people to figure out a good understanding of Google's ranking algo.

You are all free to do your own research and make your own decision. Personally, I came to the conclusion that Google does reward user metrics. As for precise measurements, I don't know nor do I care. Because once I improved user metrics, my Google performance also improved and it is repeatable. I'm not talking about fake metrics. I'm talking about real improvements. Improving the user experience tends to improve all metrics so it doesn't matter if Google is looking at CTR, time on site, return visits, something else, or a combination - the improved site still generates the quality signals Google wants to see.

I would also be very careful listening to anyone that is blindly following 10 year old SEO advice. The SEO landscape is constantly evolving and it is wise to also update your strategy & tactics. With regular testing & research you can boost your understanding and profits. You should always ask yourself why you are doing something. If you don't have recent data to back up your actions, you might want to keep an open mind and rethink your approach for a more profitable idea.
6:19 pm on Mar 21, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Personally, I came to the conclusion that Google does reward user metrics.

I believe that, too. (Martinibuster has made that case pretty convincingly.) But I'd be reluctant to draw a broad conclusion from one incident or example when there are so many other variables in play.
6:30 pm on Mar 21, 2018 (gmt 0)

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collect data from a wide enough net

I'd be careful to avoid that mindset. The amount of data collected does not in any way directly impact the testability of a theory or a claim. While it is true that not enough data may prevent you from carrying out a test, having any more data than the amount required to ensure statistical significance will not help you prove your theory more. Testing a theory, requires that the theory be shown to be False (null hypothesis). Once a theory is falsified, no amount of non-falsifying observation will make it un-false, so more data do no contribute anything.

Whereas I understand where you are coming from in suggesting to Editorial Guy that simply giving up trying to know is not the best strategy, I would argue that believing that being able to collect reams of data will somehow allow you to uncover the secret sauce is equally if not more misguided.

I do agree however, with your final statements. Regardless of whether or not user metrics are used, building a website that improves those metrics is probably a great strategy, as it will improve the user's experience overall and that should lead to indirect ranking signals that will ultimately benefit you.

@aristotle it is unlikely that one could draw any reliable inferences from just one anecdote.
7:00 pm on Mar 21, 2018 (gmt 0)

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I think you might have misread my statement. I never claimed that reams of data by itself is the answer. My statement was about combining creative testing AND varied data collection AND wise collaboration can help one better understand what is happening.
7:10 pm on Mar 21, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Google's algorithm is biased toward satisfying user intent.
The recent algorithm update affected how Google ranks sites in order to give a boost to sites that in Google's opinion should have been up there. Why would Google want those pages ranking? Because they best satisfy user intent.

Danny Sullivan explicitly warned against trying to figure out what's wrong with sites that lost ranking. He said that to give a hint that what was changed is not designed to spot what's wrong with any site. So your focus on what's wrong with the blog post is likely misplaced. Do NOT focus on the losers. Focus on the winners.

Your evidence is no evidence. Go back and review the SERPs from the viewpoint of what the winners did right. Not what the losers did wrong.

You're not alone in that approach of focusing on the losers. The entire industry consistently scrambles to understand what the losers did wrong, to identify what "wrong" Google was targeting.

It's a foolish habit of the SEO industry to figure out what "low quality issues" Google was targeting. I have no idea why they don't ever lift a finger to figure out what the winners did right. SEOs are consistent about studying the losers. Foolish and narrow minded.

I realize those are strong words but I believe the industry needs a good slap in the face to wake it up from that approach which has spawned such foolish ideas as the Phantom Update nonsense.
9:36 pm on Mar 21, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Well I'm not part of the "SEO industry". I make my own observations and reach my own conclusions. And so far it has worked out very well for my sites

Also, it's a fact that changes in google's algorithm can cause particular sites to fall in the rankings. When those sites fall, other sites move up.

The opposite can also happen: Changes in google's algorithm can cause particular sites to rise. When those sites rise, other sites get pushed down.

So both scenarios can, and do, happen.
7:25 am on Mar 22, 2018 (gmt 0)

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So both scenarios can, and do, happen.


Yes! :)

So my question is, why do YOU and the entire search industry consistently proceed as if only the ONE scenario of Google targeting losers occurs?

I am saying, look at the winners as well as the losers.

The search industry and you only look at the losers.
11:12 am on Mar 22, 2018 (gmt 0)

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So my question is, why do YOU and the entire search industry consistently proceed as if only the ONE scenario of Google targeting losers occurs?

I can understand why you would have that impression, since there are so many posts here by people wondering why their sites have suffered major losses in rankings and traffic. But I've never made such a post myself.
12:37 pm on Mar 22, 2018 (gmt 0)

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The answer is...
Because we have no idea which factors are causing any site to rise or fall. Add to that our biased belief that what we created is good, high quality, the best and the bar to beat. Then when we look at other sites, objectively there is often little difference in what is presented. Thus, we attribute high importance to the things that are of lesser quality then our own site, less content, fewer links, more spammy links. As result our tendency is to focus on the negatives. This even applies to looking at sites that out rank us. Checkout the Google Serps thread, it is full of posts complaining of sites that are out performing despite these "negative" factors.
1:25 pm on Mar 22, 2018 (gmt 0)

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So my question is, why do YOU and the entire search industry consistently proceed as if only the ONE scenario of Google targeting losers occurs?

Obviously a good SEO (and webmasters) should look at both why sites rise and fall. I think the SEO industry appears to proceed as if only the ONE scenario of Google is targeting losers occurs because:

1) The majority of the SEO Industry clients are made up of sites that probably have run into ranking issues, not to prevent ranking issues.
2) When something negative happens to your rankings, people are much more likely to visit sites like this and talk about it than when a positive change happens
1:44 pm on Mar 22, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Well this discussion has strayed from the original topic.

Actually, if you look at the title of this thread, it says that CTR may be a ranking factor, but it doesn't say that it's always a negative ranking factor. And in the very first sentence of my original post I mentioned a theory which suggests that it can sometimes be a positive ranking factor.
9:35 am on Mar 23, 2018 (gmt 0)

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CTR is not influencing ranking directly, however past search history and current search behavior does and they both are linked to CTR but more like a discrete value, rather than order derivative. So in your example, past search history shows the blog article is an evergreen and thus it deserves its higher ranking that in turn generates a certain benchmark CTR for the top position slot.

Google changes the algo and shows the date of the article. The same users decide that this is now old and search for something else entirely or choose an article on page 2. This in turn lowers the CTR of the evergreen article below the benchmark of the topic and as such the algo reacts to show results that match user intent - newer version of the article or if many users made a specific secondary search, an alternative information that gets "promoted" for this keyword query because it meets the benchmark CTR and serves the purpose of the search intent.

Why does that happen? Easy.
1) Google does not want you to search excessively as this is a clear sign of the search engine not doing its work. So the fewer steps you take till you hit what you want the better.
2) Google takes into consideration your behavior which is passively linked to the CTR rate of a search result.
3) If your site goes down for a bit, your page CTR falls but that does not affect your ranking immediately because the search algo is not tied to it. It merely takes it into consideration when adjusting what is viewed as a benchmark for a good search result for the query, providing consistency in the search results and fewer ranking swings. If for whatever reason (in our case showing that the article was from 2010) the users stop trusting this information source, they start doing what they would always do in this situation - make another search, or click on another result, deviating from the benchmark to the point where another result covers all the requirements.

So, in short - yes, your CTR does affect your rankings, however, if you improve your CTR does not guarantee better rankings.
10:25 pm on Mar 23, 2018 (gmt 0)

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I have always believed that CTR is a pre-requisite and leading indicator of better ranking, but itself is not a "factor", it is more of a "requirement". I would see it more like a "benchmark tool" or "A/B test indicator". The factor signal is "confirmed" when Google confirms subsequent Click-through at a given result mix/position satisfies user intent and query. Because of such feedback loop, it can further stabilize a given query either upward or downward, producing either winners or losers, rinse and repeat. Because of feedback loop, higher CTR will usually rise to even higher CTR and better ranking, and the reverse is true, lower CTR usually decline to even lower CTR and worse ranking. I see it as correlation, but CTR is a a core part of the system design. So I think Google and many others is right in saying that CTR itself is NOT a factor, it is just very intertwined in the feedback loop :).

I believe CTR is very important, because it is the prerequisite to having any traffic at all, but without the good "value" that fulfills user needs, ranks would not hold. Since any manipulated ranking will be very likely to be short lived. This can sort of explain short term jumps after snippet or major content changes, artificial yet temporal CTR is boosted so that A/B quality test is done to see if the suspected content change better serves users. And there appears to be a increasingly longer cool down period if content changes too often, I believe this is Google's way of discouraging manipulators who alter content often to get that temporal boost.

So yeah...if there's no CTR, there's no rank, no traffic, and there is nothing to SEO for without traffic. If users don't find a specific site useful to click through and get value, there's no reason for Google to rank it.

I pay good attention and "compare" the top winners to the losers, and try to figure out their relative strengths and weaknesses. And I spend more time to emulate the winners. This strategy has worked out well for me. Proper SEO is very important to get that initial CTR and traffic, but value is the "factor" that makes the SERP stick.