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Important, Little-Known Factors Impacting Organic Click-Through Rates

You go out to a restaurant with your family, and the waiter suggests you try the barbecue grilled chicken breast. If you don’t have anything specific in mind, you are very likely to take the suggestion.

However, if you do have something in mind, you kindly tell the waiter “no,“ and proceed to order a medium well sirloin steak with a baked potato. Why? Because that’s what you wanted to eat. Simple as that. No matter what the waiter suggests, you simply won’t have anything else. You’ve made up your mind.

SEO food for thought

What does this have to do with SEO? Quite a lot actually. A common SEO “fact“ comes from study after study showing how the “average“ click-through rate for a website correlates to the site’s position in the search engine results page. At rank #1, each study goes, sites get the lion’s share of the traffic. Everyone else is left scrambling for the attention of the web.

This is generally true, but it is because informational searches represent more than 80% of all web searches, most information seekers don’t have a specific goal or site in mind, and they generally trust Google to provide the best answers at the top of the search results.


Click through rates and query classification

In this post, I want to introduce some valuable insights about click-through rates that I gained by classifying search queries by intent, and from studying some of our clients’ Google Webmaster Tools data. This new viewpoint will give you new strategic weapons that can be used to set you apart from your competitors in your search marketing efforts.

What intuitive factors affect organic click-through rates?

  • Position/prominence of a listing
  • Relevance and appeal of a listing to the searcher’s intention
  • Intention of the searcher (information, action, specific site/URL)
  • Precision of intent (from blurred ideas to very specific intent )

The first two factors are quite obvious. Higher listings are more visible and receive more “eyeshare.” If the listing is not high up, but speaks directly to the visitor while the listings higher up don’t, it is likely to get more clicks.

The two additional factors need a little bit more explanation. Search visitors have different types of intentions, and these intentions can affect their behavior on a search result page. Also, the clearer their goal, the less they rely on the ranking of the listings and the more they are willing to dig deeper to find what they want.

First of all, let’s get the “SEO 101” stuff out of the way.

In academic papers, search queries are classified into three groups as defined by the intention of the searcher: navigational, informational and transactional. It is known, that informational searches account for 80% of total searches, while navigational and transactional account for the remainder 20%.


User behaviour and query types

Let’s discuss each type of query and the behavior of a user when they land on a search result page.

Navigational Searcher

Someone typing a navigational term or brand search uses a very specific site, URL, product or brand. If Google does a good job of identifying the site, the searcher will expect to find their desired term as the first result and likely click on the first entry. The only reason the searcher would glance under the fold of the page is if the first few results in the search page did not reflect what the searcher wanted. If Google failed, the searcher will reformulate the query. The searcher’s intention is to get to a familiar place.

Transactional Searcher

The transaction-oriented searcher is similar with the exception that they don’t have a single site in mind. This person is open to alternatives that help achieve a very specific goal. The intention is to accomplish a specific goal.

Informational Searcher

An information searcher does not have a specific site or product in mind. They represent the vast majority of users (80%). They have a vague idea of what they need, and their intention is not yet focused. For this searcher, Google is like a trusted advisor; they see the list of results and say: “Google, you have never failed me. If you say this site at the top is the best for what I am looking, then it must be it.” They are in a discovery process.

A new type of classification

When you are searching for information, in other words, researching, you are in a discovery process. You start with broad terms so you can gather keyword suggestions, and based on these suggestions you will reformulate your specify your search. The clearer and more descriptive you are with what you expect to find, the less likely you are to depend on Google for the right answers at the top of the page. You are more likely to slow down and carefully review the results before clicking. If Google doesn’t do a good job of presenting the best results at the top of the page, listings below the fold might end up getting more clicks.

It is my thesis that the intention of the searcher and the clarity of purpose will impact the click-through rates of different listings on the page. My intuition is that if you don’t have a clue about what you want, you are likely going to leave it to Google and trust the ranking of the results. But, if you know what you want, you will scan the results more carefully , looking for clues that can indicate the site listed is the one you are looking for.


Testing the Hypothesis

I decided to validate this hypothesis using GWT (Google Webmaster Tool) data from some of our clients. Let me share the fascinating results.

My process

  1. For 10 of our clients, I accessed Your site on the web-> Search queries -> Top queries, and downloaded the full list as a CSV file.
  2. I created a Python script to load all the files into a SQLite database. In particular, I recorded the site name, query, clicks, CTR and average position.
  3. I used the database to identify the search queries that had high click-through rate (>30%) and ranked below the fold on the first page (>=5 and <= 10).
  4. I also used the database to identify the search queries that had a high click-through rate (>40%) and ranked above the fold on the first page (>= 1 and <= 4).


For the set of high click-through keywords below the fold, out of 56,385 keywords analyzed, I found 41 that matched my strict criteria. The vast majority of the keywords were transactional. Finding keywords with this unusual high CTR rate below the fold and the fact that they are transactional keywords (with high precision of purpose) confirms my hypothesis.

For the set of high click-through keywords above the fold, out of 56,385 keywords analyzed, 641 matched the criteria. The vast majority of keywords were navigational keywords that express clear intent and obvious clarity of purpose. The searcher knows what they want, and where to find it. This is what you expect to happen if Google is doing a good job of presenting the best URLs at the top for navigational queries.

I guess you would say that navigational and transactional searchers represent a small portion of total searches. Why optimize their titles and meta descriptions to increase their click-through rate regardless of where they rank? Because transactional and navigational queries generally enjoy higher conversion rates! If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Searchers with clear, precise intent and that get matched with the correct page, are more likely to take action.

My recommendation is to classify your keywords and carefully optimize your meta data for improved click-through rates. Pay special attention to navigational and transactional queries. In the E-commerce sector, where product pages titles and descriptions simply follow a formulaic approach, there is a lot of money to be made 



  1. Adam Humphreys October 10, 2011

    There’s been a lot of studies on this and 2-3 Kw’s or more with clear intent have been demonstrated to have a higher CTR/Conversion.

    Good article!

  2. Rvll October 12, 2011

    Hey Hamlet, really interesting post. I work within E-commerce and so I’m always looking for ways to improve click through rates. Do you think that the addition of prices/numbers available would influence click through rates?

  3. Mike van der Heijden October 19, 2011

    Great article Hamlet,

    We have been playing with a similar theory to yours and have had great success in identifying keywords which were below the fold but had good CTR and bringing those above the fold and are now doing extremely well.

    Would be interesting to see, like Rvll mentioned, if prices would have a great impact as well.

    great post!

  4. Joel October 22, 2011

    The placement is very important.

Comments are closed.

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