Writing for People (and Search Engines): How to improve click-through rates for organic listings

Another new year has come and many of us are still analyzing the balance of successes and failures of the previous one. It is definitely a useful chore. I am happy to count this blog as one of my successes. It was humbling to see it included in SearchEngineLand’s blogroll and nominated for Best SEO Research blog—I voted for Bill’s and I am glad he won the title :-)—among other accomplishments. Thanks to everyone for the recognition!

On the other hand, last year I had more goals that I didn’t quite reach than ones that I did, although I suppose that puts me in the big crowd. 🙂 I like to start each year by revisiting the unachieved goals, the uncompleted projects, the planned-but-not-executed things I call my missed opportunities. One common one (and I am sure many of my peers experienced the same) is maximizing the number of clicks I get from organic listings. The problem, as many might be asking themselves, is how to measure the organic click-through rate in the first place! Read on to learn how….

It’s not all in the numbers

Every search marketer knows that the higher you rank on the search engine results page (SERP), the more clicks you get to your site. What is not obvious, except perhaps to paid search marketers, is that it is possible for sites ranking slightly lower to be getting more clicks than the ones at the top. Particularly, this happens when the lower-ranking site has a title and description that more closely matches what the searcher is looking for.

Take off your marketing hat and think like a searcher. Most of us do not click blindly on the first link, or even the first few links (unless we hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button). At the very least we scan the descriptions. It is that short snippet of text that tells us whether we should click or not, whether the page is relevant to our search.

Unfortunately, most SEO’d page titles and descriptions are created first for the search engines, and second—if at all—for the searcher. We’ve got to fix that.

Titles for users, Anchor texts for search engines

One of the most challenging aspects of SEO copywriting is trying to craft a message that works for both search engines and users. This is especially true for writing titles and meta descriptions. Often you see titles that are just a list of keywords separated by commas and other not-so-user-friendly messes. While it might help getting a high ranking, it won’t help much enticing users to click.

My approach is to write the titles and descriptions as if I were writing ads inviting users to my site. My focus is on providing a strong incentive to click further. But instead of stuffing my title with all the page’s targeted keywords (I prefer to target very few keywords per page), I save that sort of optimization for the external relevance profile. In other words, my keyword focus is in the anchor text. I like to target multiple keyword combinations and variations via the anchor text for a single page. This seems to work better than modifying the on-page content or the title and meta description.

Of course including a couple of the most relevant keywords in the title and description is good practice as well. Not only is it useful for ranking relevance but for click-through as well. Google and other search engines highlight the searched keywords in their results, and users are more likely to click if the content specifically matches their search.

Measuring click-through success

In order to tell if we have the best titles and descriptions (organic ads) we need a way of measuring the click-through rate of our pages in the SERPs. All major paid platforms provide this for PPC ads, allowing advertisers to change, tweak and split-test multiple ads until the “perfect” ad is found. Unfortunately, we don’t have such a luxury for organic listings. But let me share a couple of tricks that come quite close.

Indirect method. The easiest and most straightforward way to measure click-through is to setup a PPC campaign and split-test multiple ads to identify the best one(s). Then use those ads to create an expanded version for the title and description of our organic landing pages. The logic is that if the ads performed well on PPC, they should perform great on organic listings.

The drawback with this approach is that you don’t actually get the real click-through rate of the organic listing, but rather a good estimate of how the title/description combination will perform as an organic listing.

Semi-direct method. Thanks to some recent improvements with Google Webmaster Tools, we can now see a report showing the most searched terms versus the most clicked terms for a page on our site. The report is called “Top search queries” and is in the Statistics menu.

This is the first tool I know of that can be used to identify the best performing vs. the worst performing pages in the SERPs. The left column shows the rankings based on the most searched terms. And the right column shows the rankings based on which results received the most clicks. Ideally, the search terms should be listed in the same order in both columns, but that is rarely the case. The disparity is often caused by poor click-through rates from less than optimal titles and descriptions. I like to use this report to identify search terms that need improvement.

The search terms that attract a lot of searchers but not a lot of click-through traffic are the ones that I need to focus on this year. Check out your click-through rate and see what you find. And please let me know in the comments what you think about this technique!

16 replies
  1. David Hopkins
    David Hopkins says:

    It is good to see you back; was starting to have 'advanced SEO' withdrawal symptoms 😛

    Thanks for pointing out that feature in webmaster tools. One thing I have been working on lately is trying to elegantly stuff my pages full of longtails. On pretty much any page I would want traffic coming in from the SERPs I will rotate longtails in the footer, such as ‘My Product UK’ or ‘Buy My Product Online’. Another thing I am testing out is having a ‘top searches’ panel on product lists, which is meant to be the top searches for that category but is actually a load of longtails picked up from the AdSense keyword tool.

  2. vingold
    vingold says:

    Hamlet, you're definitely one of the breakout success stories of 2007. This blog came from no where – and is now a "must read" – all in the span of less than a year.

    This post is an example of why that has all happened.

    So congratulations is in order all around.

  3. Creativ Era's
    Creativ Era's says:

    Hi Hamlet.

    Well i liked your points discussed above and specially what you said "Take off your marketing hat and think like a searcher. Most of us do not click blindly on the first link, or even the first few links". That's absolutely right for all the optimizers therefore the Title and Description is what one should keep in mind which should be as attractive as well as communicative.

    Thanks for pointing and discussing about the Top search query tool in google webmaster tools, through this we can definetly keep track on the keywords and query more utilized by the online searchers.

    That's an excellent post.

  4. Sam Daams
    Sam Daams says:

    That last tip is really useful Hamlet! I had never read the report like that so will have to go and re-look at it that way 🙂 Sometimes the disparity is huge though that is usually for terms where you don't seem to even be on the top 5 pages yet are still seeing traffic. I think that comes down to a local version or something similar coming into play?

  5. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:

    Thanks, Claus.

    David – Its good to see too. I always enjoy your though provoking comments.

    Your idea of rotating long tail keywords sounds really interesting. If your rotate the keywords, how can you predict for which ones you are going to rank?

    Thanks, vingold.

    Thanks, Creativ Era's. I am glad you enjoyed the post.

    Sam – the disparity is usually due to the fact that Google displays different SERPS depending on geo ocation, personalization, etc.

  6. David Hopkins
    David Hopkins says:

    Rotating was probably not the best description. I just have a adifferent longtail in the footer of every page.

    Also one thing I have been thinking about lately is adding rel=nofollow to pages that aren't really important like privacy, terms and conditions and the contacct page. Any thoughts?

  7. David LaFerney
    David LaFerney says:

    Congratulations on all of your success this year. I've noticed you mentioned with respect in several places over the last few months.

    The WT query report is a great tool for helping to target searches that aren't quite making it. It's usually pretty easy to get a result to move up the serps once you are aware of it. I wish that same data was available for many more terms.

  8. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    Sometimes I feel like I've come up with the perfect page title for a post and it ends up being a ridiculous keyword-stuffed thing that reeks of spam.

    It might be possible to over-think these page titles.

    Some of my highest click-through rates have come from something that was really more of a direct call to action and had almost no keywords in it at all.

    Certainly a good discussion though, and something to watch and see what the trend is.

  9. WaveShoppe
    WaveShoppe says:

    “Of course including a couple of the most relevant keywords in the title and description is good practice as well. Not only is it useful for ranking relevance but for click-through as well.”

    Aloha Hamlet, just making the rounds. As always your posts are informative as well as containing actionable information. But based on my own testing, meta descriptions are not a ranking factor, at least not in the terms of quantitive measurement.


  10. Drew Stauffer
    Drew Stauffer says:

    Great write up Hamlet and congratulations on your Semmys accomplishment.

    Seems like with SEO these days people get more caught up with the SE side of things instead of the users. Way to bring it back to user focus.

    I like the new design too. Keep up the good work.


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