Google Click Distribution – How Important is Number One?

We know that the better we rank in Google or other search engines, the more clicks we’re going to get, and the goal is to be ranked number one. This is intuitive and logical. But there’s a lot of debate about exactly how much better higher rankings are. How many people click on the number 1 Google result vs the third, or the tenth? What is the Google ranking click distribution — the percentage of users click only those top Google search results? How important is it to be number 1?

While theories are wide and plentiful, we prefer to look at research done on the topic, which suggests that those first positions are very valuable indeed.

Cornell University Study on Google Click Distribution

Cornell University conducted one of the most interesting studies I’ve seen on the topic, using eye tracking to study not just which links were clicked in Google and the click distribution and percentages based on ranking, but where users were looking, what they looked at before making their click decision, and how long they pondered each listing.

For this study they used graduate students who were instructed to search for a wide variety of terms — 397 search queries. Here’s the overview of what they found:

Here we’re seeing the percentage of users who clicked on a Google result, and the percentage of their time they spent looking at each search result — reading the title and description of the search result. This data is only showing us the click and eye distribution across the first page of Google search results, but the distribution information is a bit stunning, no?

Google top results: 56% of users clicked on the number one search result, compared with only 13% clicking on the number 2 position. Those first few positions also ate up a disproportionate amount of the users’ time.

Users read the top two listings: What’s really interesting here is that the time spend looking at the first and second position results (reading the description) was nearly the same. This implies that even though the users read the title and description of both the number 1 and number 2 search result, they felt that the site in the number 1 position was more likely to give them the information they sought. Since this was spread across hundreds of search queries and students, we can make a fair assumption that both results were probably equally relevant.

Thus users seem to feel that the first ranking by nature of being in the number 1 position has more authority than number 2.

Below the fold all results are read: Another interesting bit of data here is that once you get below the fold — to the point that you have to actually scroll down to see those last several Google results — users spend a pretty equal amount of time on every listing. This implies that by the time a user gets that far down the list, he or she is going to read the description of everything on the page before making a click decision — whereas up at the top of the Google results they seemed content to just read the first couple and click if it looked good.

Of course the alternate interpretation of the data — and the research doesn’t suggest which is right — is that a certain percentage of users are going to methodically read through every Google result on the first page before making a decision, while the majority of users are glancing at the first couple and clicking if it seems relevant.

What does Cornell’s study tell us about Google SERP rank?

We always knew that our position in Google’s search results was important, but this study really highlights just how incredibly important it is. Also, other related studies all seem to indicate the same thing — that the number one position gains a grossly disproportionate number of click throughs.

Here is what you really want to take away from this study into Google ranking click distribution:

  • The number one position in Google’s search results gains over 50% of organic click throughs
  • Number 2 drops dramatically to just over 13%
  • There is a significant jump just getting above the fold — on whatever position is required so that users do not have to scroll down to see your listing. Note that how many results are above the fold vary depending on whether adds show up, or video/shopping/local listings.
  • Remember, we’re looking at aggregate data here — don’t forget to have a compelling title, meta description and compelling content on your page (as Google often shows a snippet of your page as the description) to entice users to click on your listing. This is especially true if you’re ranked number 2 — since most people are going to at least read both the number 1 and number 2 listing, if your description sounds more compelling, you can claim those click throughs!

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