page updated on October 23, 2016

Search Engine Results Placements

Many people believe that the higher any web page appears in a search engine result page, the more traffic it will receive. If you search for supporting data, you'll find estimates and rules of thumb. They won't tell you they're estimates; like almost anything in the search engine optimization (SEO) world, you have to dig useful information out of piles of outdated, cargo-cult, black magic obfuscation by people who don't know what they're talking about, don't understand statistics, or who are trying to sell you shady services.

What those rules of thumb don't tell you is that only relative position matters. They can't tell you what specific numbers to expect for any given query. The details of results and their relative ordering depend on so many other factors, like the number of possible results, the specificity of the query and matches, and even the search engine bubble of locality and previous searches affect what people see.

Sure, these results are more useful when they collect and group data from thousands or tens of thousands or millions of searches, but most of us won't have pages which rank highly for queries which get millions of searches every month anyhow.

We're interested in the specific results for specific terms.

Case Study of a Specific Query's Click Through Ratio

The most popular page on this site is, as of this writing, almost two and a half months old. It's had very little external promotion. It has a handful of links from a couple of related web pages and a couple of mentions on Twitter, but there's been no campaign of promoting the page and getting other people to link to it.

In its short lifetime, it's crawled its way up to the first page of Google search results. It's usually in the top four now, but sometimes it's as low as six or seven. (Google's always fiddling with something.) If I put much effort into optimizing its placement, it'd be solidly in the top one or two.

With that said, the sweet spot for placement isn't necessarily the one that gets the most traffic. Remember that Google's always fiddling with placement. The top link one day may be the tenth link tomorrow, or even in the next hour.

On a couple of days last week, here's how the traffic looked for What is Programming:

Position in search results Impressions Clicks CTR
6 to 10822658.00%

As you can see, the click through ratio goes up measurably as the position improves, but the most traffic has come from being on the first page at all. (There's no measurable traffic from the second page.)

If I were to spend lots of time fighting with everyone else who wants to rank highly for the query "what is programming", I could probably get the first or second position reliably—but is that worth my time?

Case Study of a Second Query

The most popular page on a family blender recipes site is a guide to making smoothies. As of this writing, it's just over nine months old. It has very few backlinks, but its popularity and SERP have improved dramatically since the middle of January 2014. Why? Mostly internal and on-page SEO.

In the past three months, its average position is at 6.5 in Google's SERP, though it's averaged 4.5 through the month of March and 3.8 in the past week, trending to 3.2. It's definitely improving and will probably stabilize around the second position. (If it had more backlinks, it's plausible to hit #1.)

Here's the table for the past 90 days:

Position in search results Impressions Clicks CTR
6 to 1044,7721,0772%

Here's the table for the past week:

Position in search results Impressions Clicks CTR
6 to 10727162%

Unlike the programming page, there's a much clearer dropoff between positions. Admittedly the sample size for the first couple of slots is low, but it's somewhat consistent between the 90 day and 7 day charts. There's no significant traffic sent to the site from the second page.

Speculation suggests that the audience for a specific keyword or query has a tremendous effect on the click-through rates. The relationship isn't yet clear, but the data suggests some sort of correlation.

Similar query strings show similar results, though the more data, the easier it is to get coherent and consistent numbers.

Analysis of Results Placement and CTR

The rule of thumb of a dramatic dropoff between SERPs holds more for smoothies than it does for programming. An audience concerned with specialized knowledge (programming) versus general interest (food) may demonstrate some instructive differences. Little evidence for the programming keyword shows that the first or second position would give a click through ratio of 50% or 30%. Certainly 24% is very high for third place—higher than I had expected—but the dropoff at fourth place isn't precipitous. Nor is fifth or sixth through tenth.

A 60% CTR for smoothies in the past week is dramatic, though that percentage might easily be skewed by the small sample size. Yet extrapolating the data points gives a curve with some smoothness, as might be expected.

None of the SEO guides that give this rule of thumb mention how much effort it is to move up a rank. With very little work, I was able to get this page on the front page of Google's search for the queries I wanted. The competition has been around a lot longer and has a lot more links. (Alright, I picked the query carefully, but the fact that it was possible shows something.) Beating pages like Wikipedia and About.com is an accomplishment, but how much effort will it take?

It seems to me that if I were optimizing an entire site around a keyword or keyword idea, it would be better to spend my time getting every page ranked on the first page of search engine results for the desirable queries than making individual pages rank more highly for specific queries. At least, that's what the data indicates here.

If the long tail idea—that around 80% of the searches are not the most popular, but the most numerous niche subjects—is true, then casting a wider net for specific but underserved queries seems more useful than jostling for position with competition for the top 20%. Sure, getting a slightly larger piece of that traffic with a higher click through ratio seems appealing, but if a page is really useful, shouldn't it gradually accumulate links anyhow?

Maybe that's a personal problem I have with people promoting aggressive search engine optimization. There are good reasons to understand how search engines work and what they look for in pages. There are good reasons to measure how your pages perform for the queries you expect, and equally good reasons to measure how they perform for the queries you didn't expect.

Yet the implicit idea that it's worthwhile to spend your time optimizing for very specific niches? I can't agree. Going from the second page to the first page is worth it. Going from the bottom half of the first page to the top half is worth it. Worrying about placement in the top three or four?

I just can't see its value.