Correlation is not causation.
First I want to say that I’m not here to show you guys graphs and screenshots which can easily be manipulated. I’m here to get everyone thinking logically. I’m seeing sheep and not wolves, and it’s killing me. Stop being sheep! Be a freakin’ wolf! Be a skeptic! Do your own research, and see what works for you.
Now that I got that off my chest, you’re going to read a short story which might not make any sense at first... but you’ll just have to trust me. ;)
Once upon a time, there was an actor...
This actor was fresh out of acting school and looking for work. He was a great actor, but he never cared about what looked like. After about two months of auditions and two months of continuous rejections, he finally got what everyone in the casting auditions told him to get: a makeover. (Yes, guys can also get makeovers. Don’t be sexist; it’s 2015 for God’s sake!)
Anyway, the actor landed a role in his first audition post-makeover. It was only a small part, but at least it was a paying gig. A buzz became to swarm around him, as they were so surprised that it was the same actor that went in for auditions a few month before. This transformation created some real hype in the industry, and slowly but surely everyone in the biz knew who he was.
“You remember that guy? A good actor, but looked like he has homeless? Well he started taking care of himself, and it actually improved him as an actor.” (He didn’t really get better as an actor; people were just projecting because of how he looked).
In the end, this homeless looking actor became an A-lister.
Philip Seriously... how the H-E-double hockey sticks is this story connected to CTR and SEO?
Before I get to that I want to talk about what we’re all really here for.
CTR, Bounce Rate and Time On Site don’t matter. Well they do, but not for SEO... well, kinda.
Huh, CTR doesn't matter? So you’re saying All the SEO Blogs in the interwebs don't know what they are talking about?
Oh they do!... I have learned a lot from all the top guns such as Search Engine Land, SEW, MOZ, Neil Patel I can go on, they really helped me when I was a baby in SEO, but now that I have grown my wings I need to fly away from the nest and start checking things out for myself, like everyone reading this article should. That said, I’m not really contradicting what they are saying I don’t really agree them.
CTR doesn't improve SEO. SEO and Marketing improves CTR. What I feel that the big boys have ‘proven’ is that high CTR, low bounce rate, and long time on site stats are correlated to high rankings.
Anybody remember the first sentence in this article? It's okay you don't have to scroll up: Correlation is not causation!
Wait a second… Bounce Rate doesn't do anything for SEO, as well?
As I’m sure many of my colleagues on the interweb can show you results of sites with low bounce rate and high organic traffic, they can also show you sites that have high bounce rates with a lot of organic traffic, as well as low bounce rate sites with very little organic traffic and so on... These results also vary from niche sites with 100 visitors a day to enormous mainstream sites with over 100,000 visitors a day.
As I’m sure most of you know what bounce rate is, I want to make sure you know what affects bounce rate:
a) What your site looks like. Before anybody reads your site, they feel it as a thing, and not just text and pictures. If they like the overall feel of the site then you are one step closer to reducing your bounce rate.
b) Your actual content. Once the user has gone past the first superficial scan of the site, the next step is the actual information that you give your user: text, pictures, videos, and basically all the content and how it is set up on the page.
c) Reasons to continue surfing your site. This point is the big one that matters most. If you captured the user’s interest in exploring other possible pages, then your bounce rate will go way down.
So how come after explaining this do I still believe it doesn't matter? Low bounce rate stats are correlated to high rankings. Correlated, yes, but again: correlation is not causation!
Lower bounce rate is a factor of great user experience. Great user experience affects SEO factors, including (1) natural link building, and (2) social sharing on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. These factors cause higher ranks. Do you see the difference? Do you see what I am getting at?
Saying that bounce rate is an SEO factor, as many of my colleagues do, is basically like saying that a football player performs better if he has a lot of fans. Having a lot of fans can surely help to motivate a player, but it doesn’t directly make him a better player. He might want to improve to not let down his fans, but a cheering fan can’t undoubtedly make a player stronger - just as a low bounce rate can’t improve SEO.
Philip you’re killing me. What about time on site? This must be a factor, right?
Sorry buddy that I-have-made-up-to-ask-me-questions-on-this-post, but it just can’t. I’m sure Google thought about all these factors, like bounce rate and CTR for organic search, way before we even knew it was possible for them to analyze that kind of data. I’m sure that they also thought about the fact that if this was a factor, then it would be so easy to manipulate. Just yesterday I met someone who has a web-bot that increases the overall time on site and improves bounce rate. You see what sheeps create: wolves. Not the ones that I like (bot-creating wolves), but sheep-eating wolves nonetheless.
Think about all the results that are in the second, third, and succeeding pages. How the heck can they compete with the big guns on the first page?
What about top ten results?
In this case, we go back to my bounce rate explanation. If your site has a solid user experience, you’ll get more SEO factors that we all know and love, like natural links and social shares. Bounce rate, time on site and CTR are just benefactors of great SEO and an awesome user experience.
So back to our actor friend -- do you see how he’s relevant to this post? Having a solid base is great, and having a site that is SEO-sound is very important, but if you don’t integrate user experience into the mix, you might as well get used to rejection all your life, based on physicality alone. This actor’s CTR, or landing the gig, is due to his marketing value and not the other way around.
Okay, Okay I think I'm getting it... so what does effect SEO that most people aren't sure about?
Well this isn't really a post about that fake buddy, but there is something that I have seen again and again and other SEO colleagues should be aware of it if they don't already.
This is something that I am sure is a factor but one with a very small window of opportunity. I have seen this a lot because we mainly work with start ups that have no idea what their keywords are and the site itself is pretty much right out of the box. I heartily believe that Google gives sites a chance, gives the the benefit of the doubt in the first few months of existence. I believe that Google tests new pages more than it does older ones, and that’s why if you improve your site when you’re new, you’ll see quicker ranking changes, both good and bad.
Overall there are so many other factors that are way more important for SEO that will directly affect your rankings.
What are they? Well I’ll make it easy for you. I’m sure many of you have seen this:
If you haven’t, be sure to take a look, as it can really help you prioritize your efforts. There’s just one thing that I’m not going to agree with. Here’s what the graph should look like:
Do you see what I did there? ;)
Bottom line: I’m not saying that all these UX/UI factors don’t affect SEO, but I’m also not saying that they do. What I am saying is that before everyone reads an article about SEO or similar fields, test the observations for yourself. Discover firsthand the real reason behind your organic traffic rise or decline.
Now that we have reached the end I would like to come back to out actor friend from the beginning of the post. Do you now see how this is connected? The actor was always a good actor, the base was there, he was an SEO optimized site, but there is only so much you can do when you look like a bum, leaving the CRO/User signals out of the picture.
Here’s what I’d like you to take from this post:
1. SEO and marketing/copy writing have merged, and you can’t really have one without the other. Today, showing a client that they are getting more traffic than their competitors is so 2005. Wouldn't it be better if they had less traffic but with a lot more potential value?
2. Read about and listen to the perspectives of thought leaders and fellow voices in the industry, but never trust anything at face value. See for yourself what makes or breaks your SEO efforts.
Now think about it. Don’t just agree with me.
...What is that? Did I hear a little growl? I’m proud of you!