The role of click-through rate (CTR) in SEO has been debated for many years.
Several industry studies have confirmed that CTR is a ranking factor – a claim that many Google employees have vehemently denied.
Regardless of whether it is a direct ranking signal or not, the CTR has its place in search engine optimization.
This article examines why CTR is important for SEO, Google’s stance on this metric, and how to use it properly.
What does CTR mean for SEO?
CTR can have many meanings depending on the context. In PPC campaigns, it is used as a metric to measure advertising effectiveness.
When it comes to SEO, CTR refers to the percentage of people who click on an organic or unpaid (Google) search result leading to your website.
If five out of 100 searchers clicked from Google to your page, your CTR for that particular result would be 5%.
Google conveniently tells us the numbers via the Google Search Console (GSC):
As usual, you must consider the numbers you see as approximations or relative numbers, as Google withholds a significant percentage of searches from us for privacy reasons.
Local results often result in people revealing their whereabouts or other sensitive data. Likewise, sharing health and financial information can be too risky, which is why Google hides related keywords.
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Measuring the impact of SEO: A look at metrics and KPIs
If CTR isn’t a confirmed ranking factor, is it still a useful KPI for tracking our SEO efforts? Or is it a vanity metric for showing off?
Many SEOs still rely on metrics that don’t provide truly actionable insights, including rankings, traffic, and engagement.
They’re not entirely useless, but on their own and without context, these metrics don’t make sense.
Rankings differ based on who is searching from where, based on search history and location, and can be pointless if the user intent is wrong.
Traffic can be completely irrelevant or downright harmful. Thousands of people searching for the wrong thing that you don’t even offer just cause server load!
Engagement can be the wrong kind of engagement. When people are angry and posting comments, it might look good as a number.
Happy visitors typically leave fewer comments. Complaining is much more common than expressing gratitude.
I believe CTR is a useful SEO metric. So you can see how many people click through and how many don’t. Then you need to find out why.
Does Google use the CTR as a ranking factor?
Some SEO experts argue that Google can no longer rely on links as they can be easily “manipulated”. What else would be a useful metric they thought?
Well, considering all websites use Google Analytics and Search Console, Google has a wealth of user experience data. Some even point out that Google Chrome also collects such information.
For example, you can see if visitors came, puked, and ran away after clicking on your website (thanks to the bounce rate measured by Google Analytics). You could also see who actually clicked through.
Therefore, these SEO experts came to the conclusion that such metrics could be a perfect ranking signal for Google along backlinks. However, there is no reliable way to find out.
Then some resorted to “correlation studies”.
They tried to look at the highest-ranking content, analyze it, and then reverse-engineer the algorithmic ranking signals based on that analysis.
A famous and somewhat short-sighted connection has since become widespread: content length.
The correlation studies showed that most high-ranking content was much longer than its low-ranking counterparts.
Does that mean that just by writing 3,000 easy-going words, you can surpass 1,000 words of expertly written, highly specific content? Most likely not.
It simply means that the articles present are likely to be expertly written and comprehensive. Note that this was before AI became an important part of ranking algorithms.
Today, search engines can use highly sophisticated “machine learning” and artificial intelligence to determine the quality of websites, rather than relying on indirect metrics.
Correlation studies have therefore shown that pages with a good ranking also have a higher click-through rate.
Does this mean that Google uses the CTR as a ranking signal? Well yes, no. It’s possible, but no proof.
As we know from science, correlation is not causation.
Just because you sneezed on a sunny day doesn’t mean the sun caused the sneeze.
Let’s take a closer look at some popular correlation studies below.
What do correlation studies say about the effects of CTR?
I recall at least three widely read correlation studies looking at user experience factors like CTR (among others).
They suggested that there is indeed a significant correlation between website usage or clicks from search results and improved rankings.
- One such notable poll was conducted by Larry Kim of (then) WordStream in 2016. The dataset was relatively small, but seemed to show visible effects.
- Another CTR study was conducted in 2020 by German SEO tool provider Sistrix. This time, despite a very large data set (probably the largest so far), no claims were made that CTR is a ranking factor.
- In 2017, the SEMrush team also looked at many search queries, the respective (UX) signals and the associated rankings. They found a strong correlation between “direct website visits” and top rankings on Google.
The Semrush study caused a lot of controversy because it boldly claimed that “direct traffic is the number one ranking factor today”. However, they did not specifically refer to the CTR.
What does Google say about the CTR as a ranking factor?
After the results of this study got around, strange tricks were used to fool Google into clicking on the results.
In Asia (e.g. mainland China), huge click farms have been deployed to simulate clicks by setting up large amounts of hardware (thousands of smartphones or computers).
These click fraud machines are designed to spoof all kinds of online metrics, such as ad clicks, social media engagement, and app downloads.
Google spokespeople repeatedly and vehemently deny that there is any influence or ranking signal related to CTR or other so-called UX factors.
Most striking was the statement made by John Mueller in 2021:
“If click-through rate affected search rankings, the results would only be click-bait. I don’t think that will happen.”
Believe Mueller or not, CTR is unlikely to be an important ranking signal as it is too easy to deceive both by using click farms and by creating clickbait.
Last but not least, click studies have always shown that the results that are already at the top are clicked on the most. This would create a self-fulfilling prophecy and closed loop in the event that Google uses the CTR to determine rankings.
Results in position 1 get the highest CTR, and therefore Google should rank the results that are already ranking higher than the ones shown below.
So, unless Google had developed a fairly complex algorithm to reduce the impact of top rankings on CTR (which varies depending on numerous factors such as location, industry, SERP features, etc.), this wouldn’t make sense.
How to use CTR to improve your SEO
TL;DR: Although CTR is likely not It’s an important ranking signal and can be sort of a vanity metric without context, but it’s also quite useful. (Otherwise I wouldn’t bother writing about it so much!)
So how can organic CTR benefit your SEO efforts?
Use CTR to spot low-hanging fruit: You have a lot of impressions but no clicks (low CTR)? Bingo! This could be a page that is almost ranking for a keyword.
You can find keyword combinations that just need a little nudge to finally capitalize on the visibility you have and get some clicks.
Use CTR to find off-topic or irrelevant pages: So you have a high CTR but no conversions? There may be a discrepancy between the search query or user intent and the actual page or its content.
You may even rank high on a lucrative transaction request, but you’re wasting people’s time and energy if there’s nothing to buy (think out-of-stock products).
Use the CTR to find highly valuable long-tail requests: So for a lesser-known three-word key phrase, there are only three searches, but a CTR of 100%? Wow!
Let’s take a closer look, maybe more similar long-tail keyword combinations are possible on the same page?
Just look at this screenshot from my blog’s GSC:
Yes, CTR can be a valuable SEO metric beyond mere vanity, whether or not it’s a ranking factor.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily those of Search Engine Land. The authors of our employees are listed here.