Natural Search

CTR Study: post February ‘16 Google SERP changes

What is the Issue?
Google’s mid-February update was definitely one of the bigger changes to the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) in 2016. Known as ‘AdWords shake-up’, Google removed right-column ads entirely and rolled out 4-ad top blocks on many commercial search terms. While this was a paid search update, it had significant implications for CTR for both paid and organic results, especially on competitive keywords.

 iProspect has been monitoring the change carefully since the update so that we can better understand the way in which it can enhance our client’s campaigns and enable us to keep creating the most innovative  and up-to-date strategies.

 Fig. 1

Fig 1: New SERP result with 4 paid ads on top
 
Methodology

We developed a script to automate this process using Python and the Google Search Console (GSC) API. We downloaded a considerable amount of data from GSC, one month before the update and one month after. Millions of keywords were downloaded across hundreds of domains, sanitised and filtered to minimise bogus data and wrong representation of samplings during the data manipulation. Finally, they were divided into branded/unbranded.

   Fig. 2

Fig 2: GSC accounts and script developed to automatically retrieve and anonymise the data

Client data was anonymised and divided by industry/vertical. The incoming traffic from other geographical regions was filtered out and data processed only for the UK market. This removed the noise [Example: Client main market UK, incoming organic traffic from 10 other countries. The CTR for those (10) countries was higher than the UK, because paid traffic was lower or non-existent] and allowed us to paint a representative picture of the industry ACTR*. This can then be applied to each client data by also considering their specific CTR.

*Average Click Through rate: ratio of clicks to impressions on the Google SERPs (or ad campaigns)
Mobile traffic wasn’t taken into consideration because the SERP changes only affected desktop users.

What has Changed?

iProspect analysed the data available from all clients on their GSC accounts, after anonymising and filtering by region, device, branded/unbranded terms and verticals:

• Ecommerce: sells goods;
• Services: sells single/few services; 
• Travel: sells flights/holidays; 
• Brand site: doesn’t sell anything. 

Using the metrics (clicks, impressions, ranking, CTR) from millions of search terms, we were able to reconstruct the generic tableau of changes in the Average CTR (ACTR) across the markets and more so in general. 


 Fig. 3
Fig 3: ACTR for various verticals after the update, unbranded terms

We found that after the update (Fig. 3), there was a slight change in the average CTRs per industry (Fig 4), with the overall for unbranded terms dropping by 5%. The Brand and Services ACTR performed slightly better, whilst Travel and E-commerce’s ACTR were lower.

This is unsurprising since a Google spokesperson said the change “…is designed for highly commercial queries where the layout is able to provide more relevant results for people searching and better performance for advertisers.”
 

Fig. 4
Fig 4: ACTR change for various verticals after the update, unbranded terms

We didn’t find any major changes in branded terms (Overall change +1%), but we did find changes in the top 3 positions (fig 5) for both terms (branded/unbranded):

   Fig. 5
Fig 5: Change in top 3 position afer the SERP update for branded/unbranded terms

The above indicates that the 2nd position for branded terms has been adversely affected, while the 1st and 3rd positions boosted. Unfortunately we cannot share a similar view for unbranded terms, where the drop in CTR has been across all of the top 3 positions.

What is our Position and Why?

Google’s mid-February update was definitely an important one, which triggered a wave of blog posts and articles being published on many influential websites. However, these haven’t been as specific as our research, which allows for further analysis into specific areas/industries. It makes sense that for certain verticals the ACTR will be different from others, and more so in certain regions where paid traffic is higher than others. Unfortunately the studies done by other 3rd parties cannot be applied to everyone, indiscriminately.

We believe that although benefits in the Paid Search are obvious, especially with gains in the 3rd position (and obviously the 4th), organic traffic hasn’t become obsolete. Au contraire, there are even more opportunities as we drill down into the data, which can be gauged and applied to the right strategical approach. If anything, there are more challenges.

When analysing each market, we found that not all are the same. For that reason, given the high discrepancy between various regions generating traffic to a particular website (Market: UK, Incoming traffic: UK + other countries), we decided to filter out traffic from other countries and focus only on the desktop devices and the UK region. 

The results, if we were to include them all, would be far less trustworthy. For that reason, this study is applicable to the UK market only (Fig 6).

   Fig. 6
Fig 6: Changes for the UK market by branded/unbranded (all industries)

 
Final thoughts
With Google is always a zero-sum game: for everyone who wins, someone must lose. By being able to dive into the algorithm changes and understand the impact for each industry, we can be proactive and reassure our clients that the impact will be less painful if we tackle the issues further in advance than our competitors.

Long-term outlook: Our balance between PPC and SEO is going to be more important than ever: less of the above-the-fold area showing natural search results. This looks like a serious difficulty for SEO traffic. On the other hand, the PPC results are getting more expensive. Increasing CPCs will mean that your SEO has to do more work than ever before (Alistair Dent wrote a comprehensive article on this).

3 quick Takeaways:
1. It becomes even more important for Branded terms to rank in the 1st position. Paid and organic should work closely to make sure we are constantly covering that slot.
2. For the Unbranded terms it becomes even more important to rank in the first 3 positions, given that those generate most of the organic traffic. 
3. Whilst the overall organic traffic change after the update on the first page varies for each industry, the same rules remain valid for SEO, but even more challenge is added to the mix to maintain top positions.

As users get used to this new update, we expect the CTRs to change again. Accordingly, we will run this study at regular intervals and update if significant changes occur.

Piece Co-Authored by Josh Carty

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