Fewer Organic Clicks on First Page of Google

Your page 1 rank will generate fewer clicks this holiday season

Over the last several years, Google has been making a lot of changes to both its algorithm and to its Search Result Page (SERP) presentation.  As I’ve always said to colleagues and to clients, Google makes these changes to benefit them, not anyone else.  That’s a point that always has to be understood.  The changes to their algorithm are absolutely for the benefit of the searcher – that’s a really good business decision for Google to make.

The changes to their SERP presentation are sometimes for the benefit of the searcher, but they are also made for the benefit of the Google business model.  The lions’ share of Google’s revenue comes from users clicking on ads on the search engine.  These ads take multiple forms, from the text links that are “clearly” labelled as ads but also from product ads that typically appear at the top of the SERP.

What does this mean for the business that’s trying to move up in ranking for their own page.  Well, this means that you’re likely to get less clicks for the exact same thing that you did last holiday season.  There used to be a pretty simple chart that you could look at to guestimate what percentage of traffic you were going to get by being ranked first, second, third and so on.  It used to be a simple “half-life” style understanding with the top result getting around 30-32% of the clicks, the second ranked result getting around 16%, third got 8% and so on.

As Google got smarter about what they present to users, things began to change and in the last year, things changed quite a bit.  The table below illustrates how things break out for a typical web search, comparing Sept-16 to July-17:

Click-thru rate for the top 10 positions on a Google search result for desktop searches
Click-thru rate for the top 10 positions on a Google search result for desktop searches


Click-thru rate for the top 10 positions on a Google search result for phone searches

There is a drop in the click thru rate at every position on both of these charts.  On the chart for mobile search results, your click thru rate for being ranked first is just under 21%.  The decline in organic clicks for those of you/us that have earned first page ranking, there’s an average decline of about 12% from 78% of desktop clicks to 67% and from 74% on the phone to 62%.

This is very obviously a very broad assessment of things and the more specific you want to get the more you will find out about where your opportunities are.

There are differences from one content vertical to the next.  The hardest hit verticals are News/Media (-14.6%), Home & Garden (-14.4%), Food & Groceries (-13.7%), Dining and Nightlife (-13.6%) on the desktop.  For the phone, Food & Groceries (-11.8%) and Home & Garden (-10.8%) were the verticals with double-digit declines.

It’s not all bad news though, on the phone several verticals have improved click-thru rates for page one results: Finance +5.6% and Real Estate +2.5% both increased over last years results.

So with these disturbing data points, is there anything that can be done?  Of course, I actually wouldn’t be writing this if there wasn’t something that could be done.  The best thing that you can do is to expand the keywords that you are looking to optimize for.  I mean this by saying that you should try to optimize for more key terms, but I also mean that you should be optimizing for longer key terms.  While you may end up with fewer clicks than last year, landing on the first page of a key term that is 4 words long (or longer) gives you a very high likelihood that your link will receive a click if you land on the first page as compared to a 1-word or 2-word long term.

A 1-word long search term yields a 46% click thru rate for organic terms on the page as compared to 81% for a 4-word long (or longer) term on the desktop.   On the phone first page organic results get 35% of all clicks for 1-word long terms, but 4-word or longer terms generate nearly 75% of the clicks for the term.

There’s a lot of reasons for this and it has a lot to do with the specific nature of what I’ll call a well-defined and well-thought-out key term.  One is that there’s possibly fewer ads against the longer terms.  Another is that “the other stuff” that appears above the organic results have not been optimized as much as with shorter search terms.

Another way that you can increase your likelihood of a click is to focus on branded search terms, assuming of course that you have people that are specifically looking for you and or your products.  A branded-search (like CNET laptop reviews) currently generates 74% of clicks on the first page organic results on desktop and 62% on the phone.  For ‘intent based’ searches, the first page generates 71.5% on desktop and 68% on the phone.  An intent based search would be “deals on laptops”, where the intent of the searcher is pretty clear – they’re buying a laptop.

Sticking with the theme of buying a laptop, I’ve always found it very useful, and a big traffic driver to consider use-cases when thinking about optimization.  Rather than trying to rank for “Best Laptop” where you have to try to out-optimize sites like CNet, LaptopMag and PC Magazine, you should try to optimize against use-case key terms like “best laptop for graphic design” or “best laptop for college freshmen”.  What you optimize against will likely generate fewer searches since the term is quite specific, but you’re likely to end up with more traffic, particularly if you focus on use cases that are focused on your niche.  Ranking 8th on a term could provide better visibility in search and subsequently more traffic than ranking 60th on a more popular term.

When I first looked at this data, my inquisitive nature really wanted me to understand where the clicks were going.  I’d love to say that all of the clicks on organic results (the ones that we sweat over) just moved to other pages.  In some cases, this is what happened.  Unfortunately, based on not only my research into search behavior as well as understanding my own search behavior, beyond page 2, that’s not very likely.

Below is an illustration of what a SERP could look like with all of the “crap” that is now possibly loaded up onto a page:

A Google SERP Layout September, 2017
Google SERP Layout

The Knowledge box, PLAs, PPC Ads that now appear before the first organic links have had a significant impact on the click thru rate of the organic results.  It’s still a little cloudy as to how many of the clicks are going to paid vs. the “position 0” result of the Knowledge Box.

It’s very difficult to get an understanding of just how many of the clicks that have moved from the first 10 results went to other pages, to ads, to Knowledge Blocks, to map clicks, etc. but suffice it to say that Google benefited to a degree with an increase in adverting clicks with the elimination of ads on the right side of the page.  Google’s second quarter advertising revenue increased from $19.1B in 2016 to $22.7B in 2017, which represents growth of 21% year-over-year.  This was done in spite of a decline in the average cost-per-click declining by 23% during the same period.  In their latest earnings release they’ve stated that they experienced an increase in paid clicks of 61%.  There are too many variables in the equation for me to figure out what percentage of clicks were on paid links, but the increase has to be significant.

In my next piece, I will provide you with some tips about how to go about increasing your visibility on Search by thinking a little differently about how you go about optimization.





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