For many years, the SEO industry has debated the effect of click-through rate (CTR) on search rankings. And there’s been no shortage of research on the topic.

For example, in 2019, Backlinko did a CTR study that found on the first page alone, the top listing earns 10x more traffic than the bottom listing. It’s clear that searchers click through top results at a higher rate. But is that proof CTR boosts search rankings, or is it that higher search rankings lead to more click-throughs?

Today, we explore this and more regarding the importance of CTR for SEO.

What is organic click-through rate?

Organic click-through rate (CTR) refers to the number of people who see your search listing on a search engine results page (SERP) compared to the number of people who click through it to your web page. Let’s use an example to see how it’s measured.

Say you’re an online business with a web page that ranks for the term “streetwear clothing.”

  • The total search volume for “streetwear clothing” was 100 users in the month of May.
  • Of those 100 users, 2 people clicked on your listing.
  • The CTR for your page on “streetwear clothing” was 2% (2/100 = 0.02) in the month of May.

CTR can fluctuate frequently, but you can increase it by implementing SEO practices that are designed to enhance the user experience.

How CTR is related to SEO

Website performance comes down to the conversion rate of the organic traffic you receive. And the only way to convert visitors into buyers is to get them to your website. If you implement an SEO strategy but have a low CTR, no one will see what your website has to offer.

Because the top listings on average have the highest CTRs, it’s unclear whether SEO techniques impact CTR (as in, do top-ranking pages have a higher CTR because they rank higher?) or whether CTR impacts a website’s performance in the SERPs (do pages get a boost in ranking for having a higher CTR?). It’s still unclear.

What we do know for sure is that there is a correlation between CTR and SEO. Now, is it a correlation strong enough to say that CTR is a ranking factor?

Is CTR a ranking factor?

While Google’s Gary Illyes, a Webmaster Trends Analyst, has repeatedly stated that CTR is not a Google ranking factor, the debate is still as strong as ever.

In 2019, Britney Mueller, the former Senior SEO Scientist at Moz, found information published in a Google Cloud developer page that implied CTR’s impact on rankings:

A Google Data Logging page that says Google considers clicks on search listings when ranking search results.
This information surely didn’t solidify the answer, although there are many in the industry who firmly advocate that CTR does not help rankings.

Dan Taylor of the TechSEO Podcast asserts that while he doesn’t believe CTR is a ranking factor, “it combines with other determinations and efforts from Google” and “is used as part of the wider algorithm assessment.”

Even so, there is data to suggest that no matter where the impact originates, there is a strong correlation between SEO and CTR performance.

Larry Kim at Wordstream did a CTR study where he analyzed the performance of more than 1,000 listings in the same niche.

Wordstream chart showing the relationship between CTR and SEO.

His research found that when web pages outperformed their expected CTR, they ranked higher. The opposite was true. When web pages underperformed their expected CTR, they ranked lower.

Similarly, Backlinko’s CTR study found that the top-ranking pages have higher click-through rates:

A chart from a Backlinko CTR SEO study which shows that top results have higher click-through rates.

What seems to be the major source of contention is which comes first: CTR or ranking? In other words:

Do listings rank highly because they have high CTRs or do listings have high CTRs because they rank highly?

Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz and current CEO of Sparktoro, did a similar CTR data analysis that revealed a downward trend in the overall organic CTR of desktop and mobile sites:

Chart from a Sparktoro study showing that organic CTR has gone down on both desktop and mobile.
While acknowledging this shift, he asserted that SEO techniques and tools like long-tail keyword optimization, branded keywords, and social media outreach still positively impact CTR performance.

Despite mixed opinions on CTR’s effect on SEO, evidence collected within the SEO community demonstrates that it does play some type of role in how websites perform in search engine results.

Perhaps most importantly, that CTR wouldn’t be a ranking factor seems to defy common sense. If someone arrives at a SERP and clicks the second listing instead of the first, why wouldn’t Google take this information into account when their algorithm measures so many other pieces of user data? All marketers consider CTR a valuable metric. So why wouldn’t Google?

How to improve organic CTR for SEO

Improving your overall SEO visibility is the fastest way to improve your CTR, as a higher ranking means that more people will see your page when they search and potentially click on it.

When it comes to earning more of the total number of clicks, however, not all tactics will have the same impact. There are several SEO best practices that you can follow to make your listings more clickable on SERPs.

Spice up your page titles

Title tags are perhaps the most important element to optimize for CTR because they are the content that users will click on to visit your site.

Some tactics that marketers use to spice up their page titles include:

  • Adding numbers (ex. “32 Streetwear Clothing Items You Need [Video]”)
  • Using brackets (ex. “32 Streetwear Clothing Items You Need [Video]”)
  • Incorporating keywords (ex. “32 Streetwear Clothing Items You Need [Video]”)
  • Appealing to emotion (ex. “32 Streetwear Clothing Items You Need [Video]”)

Numbers draw users’ attention because they make your content seem more specific and thorough. Consider if the above example was written without “32” in the title:

“Streetwear Clothing Items You Need [Video]”

This title seems more vague, and it doesn’t tell the reader exactly how much information they will be getting. Here are two examples of how we use numbers in our title tags:

meta titlemeta title meta desciptionTitle tags should also be able to hook the readers’ emotions. Consider using Optinmonster’s list of power words which includes more than 700 descriptive words to appeal to emotional concepts like greed, curiosity, trust, and anger.

If you are already using PPC ads to promote your business, they can help you find the best title tags. All you have to do is run the same ad using multiple titles. This is an inexpensive way to try several title options and get actual data on their effectiveness, which you can use to inform your listing title.

Another effective way to stand out is simply to view the organic search results for your keyword, assess the top-ranking title tags, and find a way to make yours unique from the others on the page.

When it comes to CTR, you are trying to steal and command user attention. The best way to do this is to offer them something they can’t find elsewhere in the results.

Improve your meta descriptions

Optimizing your meta descriptions is important for CTR improvement because it provides additional information that searchers will use to decide if they want to visit your site.

You can approach the language from multiple angles depending on what type of business or information you’re providing.

For example, an ecommerce site might write a description that highlights their free returns policy. On the other hand, a science research foundation may include something that speaks to its credentials.

Well-written meta descriptions should include:

  • Maximum of 160 characters (130 for mobile optimization)
  • Target keywords or phrases
  • Clear explanation of focus topic
  • Distinct information for each webpage

You may even consider drawing attention to your focus keywords by making them bold.

meta descriptionThis will draw users’ eyes to their search term and give your site a sense of credibility on the subject.

Make your URLs SEO-friendly

It’s a simple fact: Users don’t want to click on what they don’t understand. One website formatting issue that negatively impacts CTR is the URL structure.

Automatically-generated URLs provide no context clues that users can read to determine what the web page is about. They might look something like this:

Instead of settling for the default, write an SEO-friendly URL like this one: 

Before users click on the link, they’ll know exactly what information to expect on the page. This instills trust with potential users and makes it easier for search engine crawlers to index your page (as an added bonus).

Here are a couple of ways to write awesome, SEO-friendly URLs that boost your CTR:

  • Eliminate special characters.
  • Avoid using numbers.
  • Include your target keyword.
  • Use lowercase letters.
  • Keep it short (between 50 and 60 characters).

A Backlinko SEO analysis of more than 11 million search results found that URLs in the 1st position have 9.2 less characters on average than URLs in the 10th position.

A Backlinko chart showing that the highest-ranking pages have the shortest average URLs.The best part about URL optimization is that it is an easy but effective CTR SEO technique. Not only that, but it will help you keep your page URLs simple and organized.

Implementing some of these URL strategies can help you move up in the search rankings, increasing your overall visibility and the chance that users will click on your content.

Improve user engagement metrics

User experience is the bedrock for CTR SEO techniques. There are plenty of user engagement SEO metrics that you should track and strive to improve, including (but not limited to):

  • Dwell Time: amount of time that users spend on your page before they leave
  • Page Speed: time (in seconds) it takes for your page to load
  • Bounce Rate: percentage of users who leave your site after viewing just one page

Good performance on these user engagement metrics shows Google that people like what you have to offer once they find it. This will make your expected CTR increase, and if the Backlinko and Wordstream research is accurate, your rankings may also improve.

You can improve user engagement by:

  • Creating interactive site elements
  • Optimizing images
  • Reducing pop-ups and sidebar animations
  • Adding search and filtering features
  • Using multimedia content
  • Making contact information easily accessible
  • Implementing mobile SEO tactics
  • Organizing content using headers
  • Providing a navigation menu

Making user engagement the center of your content creation strategy will ultimately help you provide more value to users. If your website consistently performs well on these metrics, you will most likely see improvements in your rankings.

Use schema markup

Most of the code on your website tells the search engine how to display your content. Schema markup, however, is code that tells the search engine what your content means.

When you add this coding element, the crawlers will have more context for displaying information.

For example, if you are a concert venue with event information (date, performer, time, location, etc.) on your site, you can add schema markup to tell the search engine that the content is about upcoming events.

Then, the search engine can use that context to create a more appealing, user-friendly SERP listing called a rich snippet. It looks like this:

rich snippet example 1

Schema markup can do this with plenty of other pieces of content like:

  • Movies
  • How-to content
  • Quotes
  • Maps
  • Reviews
  • FAQs
  • Menu

Labeling data like this will help the search engine create a listing for your web page that gives even more important information upfront. Because this makes your link more appealing to users, this will increase your expected CTR. It can also improve the likelihood you generate a featured snippet – a type of even higher-visibility listing at the very top of select SERPs.

Fix keyword cannibalization

The last thing you want to do is weaken your CTR impact with your own content. But this happens frequently when you have too many landing pages trying to satisfy user intent for the same keywords.

Because the Google algorithm doesn’t know which of your pages would best help the user for the given query, the rankings for all of the pages may suffer for the given search terms. Fix this phenomenon, known as “keyword cannibalization,” by:

  • Using Google Search Console for SEO performance tracking (see image below)
  • Improving your site structure
  • Turning one of the competing pages into a landing page for a given topic
  • Adding canonical tags to duplicate content pages
  • Consolidating repetitive pages into one authoritative, high-value web page
  • Putting noindex tags on the “weaker” content

By keeping tabs on your Google Analytics performance you can troubleshoot your CTR and decide what is and isn’t working. Fixing keyword cannibalization is all about giving search engine crawlers a clearer picture of why each web page for a given keyword is unique.

Get a complimentary SEO audit

The very essence of focusing on CTR for SEO is that you create listings with desirable SERP features. Rich snippets, descriptive titles, and appealing content all play a role in the overall digital marketing strategy that gets users to click on your page.

Because you need people to click on the page in order to convert them into customers, there is no argument for why you shouldn’t pursue strategies to improve organic CTR.

Want to see how you’re doing with SEO? Get an instant SEO audit below. Or, schedule a free consultation to see how intent SEO can boost search traffic revenue by 700%.