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Common SEO assumptions that are actually incorrect

Erez Barak
Common SEO assumptions that are actually incorrect Erez Barak

The perils of search engine optimization (SEO) have been discussed thoroughly on the web for years now, with the persistent notion that as you rank higher on the organic results, you get more clicks and visits to your site. While this statement still holds true, no recent studies have been conducted to analyze the effect that the massive changes to the ranking algorithms and the way the search engines render their results have had on the search engine results pages(SERPs). Is ranking higher on the organic search results still as valuable as it used to be?

In order to better understand the impact that the ever-changing face of SERPs has had on the organic click-through rate (CTR) curve, we analyzed more than 250 customer websites and keyword data to derive CTR curves for organic search terms. In some cases, conventional wisdom held true -- for example, a No. 1 ranking has the highest CTR, averaging 37 percent. Other results, however, were more surprising.

While ranking at the top of page one is more valuable than ever, with nearly 60 percent of the clicks going to the top three results, ranking anywhere else might not yield such promising results. The CTR of result 11 (top of page two) is actually greater than result 10 (bottom of page one), which shows that the rank number is not as significant as what that rank means for your position on the SERP. With universal results, sponsor results, news, real time, and other result types pushing the organic results further down the SERP, the Optify study found a significant difference in CTR between different types of keyword searches.

For example, when it comes to comparing results of keywords with different cost-per-click (CPC) values, expensive CPC terms might seem like a surefire way to drive more traffic to your site, but this isn't always the case. In fact, keywords with cheaper CPC value saw better CTRs than keywords with expensive CPC value.

The research shows that, on the first page, keywords with cheap CPC value will likely see more than double the CTR of those with expensive CPC value. Moreover, potential organic traffic is nearly three times greater on keywords with cheaper CPC value. The research also reveals a negative correlation between the CTR on organic results and the CPC value of sponsored results. In other words, as CPC value goes up, marketers can expect fewer clicks on organic results for the same term.

Additionally, head-tail terms (those with more than 1,000 monthly searches) yield a 32 percent CTR on the first result, while long-tail terms (those with fewer than 100 monthly searches) yield only a 25 percent CTR on the first result. Long-tail terms, however, show better overall CTR on page one, reigning in an average of 9 percent CTR versus an average of 4.6 percent CTR for head terms.

Bottom line: In the increasingly competitive search-marketing climate, measuring your page rank and search volume isn't enough. Businesses need to not only track where they rank on search engines like Google, but they also need to track the CTR of those keywords, and decide whether to target them with paid or organic search strategies.

Here are seven takeaways that businesses of all sizes can use to streamline their organic and paid search efforts:

Actively pursue long-tail terms
They are less competitive, easier to achieve high rank on, and (based on our study results) will yield higher average CTR. They may get fewer searches per month, but your results from those terms will be better. This is especially critical for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that may not rank as high on popular head terms.

Go after low CPC value terms for SEO
Traditionally low CPCs are easier to rank for, and our study also shows that they will yield higher overall CTR.

Get to page one
For SMBs and enterprises alike, SEO can be very intimidating, so break it down to manageable steps. The benefits of ranking on page one versus page two are so significantly higher that your first step should be getting to page one; you can worry about ranking first later. While recognizing that being the 11th result (first on page two) will earn you a higher CTR than ranking 10th, there is a limit to how much you can control this minimal difference in ranking. Given the overwhelming benefits of being on page one, this should always be the focus.

Small businesses should focus on owning a page
As a small business with limited budget, if you can rank organically on those cheap terms and also bid/buy them on AdWords, you can work your way up to owning the page. This will maximize your search traffic potential. Start by making sure you win the search results for your brand name and then move to your product names.

Make a concentrated effort to rank on your targeted keywords
You don't need a lot of terms, but you need to pick them wisely. List them, identify your landing pages, optimize them, and use SEO best practices and social media to syndicate, get "likes," and gain inbound links. There are enough free tools and applications for SEO, as well as SEO professionals, so businesses of any size should have access to the tools they need to build out a successful SEO strategy.

Combine SEO and SEM tactics to increase search visibility
Marketing is a mixed bag; while each tactic has its value, combining marketing efforts will produce an effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. Use pay-per-click to go after high search volume terms, to own your brand page, or to be on the first page on terms you ultimately want to rank organically on.

Put in the time and effort to get it right
Getting to page one and getting to rank one in an ethical "white hat" manner takes time, effort, and dedication. Many companies turn to "black hat" tactics to achieve good rankings, but these practices will eventually backfire. J.C. Penney and Overstock.com are just two examples of companies that have recently been dropped significantly in Google's results for engaging in black hat tactics. With SEO, your policy should always be to do it right from the beginning and avoid repercussions later. With Google and Bing, it's a matter of when, not if.

Erez Barak is a co-founder and VP of products at Optify.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2011, July 08

"You don't need a lot of terms, but you need to pick them wisely." Very good advice. Site owners have to be realistic about the keywords they want to rank for. Chances are a small, local boutique is never going to rank on page one for "dresses." Giant corporations like Macy's have got those keywords on lock down. That's where long tail keywords become useful.