Ian Schneider

This article covers some intermediate level keyword and traffic analysis. If you’re still learning the ropes, some of it might be confusing or out of scope for your current experience.

But don’t run for the hills just yet. There’s an old saying that if you want to be fast, you have to run with the swift. So, give it a shot. I bet you’ll be able to pull out several things that will immediately benefit your site.

If you want a quick primer on the basics of keyword research before jumping in, we’ve got you covered.

Read More: Beginner’s Guide to Free Keyword Research

The Ahrefs Question

The team over at Ahrefs posts some great videos. In one, they discuss the benefits – or lack of benefits? – that come with ranking #1 for any particular search query. The discussion they raise is interesting, and they conclude that the benefits of ranking #1 are probably overstated.

Ahrefs has a lot of data at their fingertips. Having access to all that data lets them run some killer evidence-based investigations and answer complex questions.

For this investigation, they tested about 100,000 unique, non-branded searches to figure out what value could be assigned to ranking #1 in the SERPs. In their analysis, they conclude that the number 1 result gets the most traffic just 49% of the time. 51% of the time, a page that ranks somewhere in the #2 to #10 spot actually gets more traffic than the #1 result. Sometimes a lot more.

Here’s our homeboy Sam Oh breaking things down. Sweet lamp, Sam.

What Does Being #1 Get You?

Alright, so according to the data magicians at Ahrefs, the#1 search result gets the most traffic only 49% of the time. Well, that sounds kind of lame. Like it might not be worth it to rank in the top spot. Or maybe it’s better to say that “the data would suggest that the exponentially increased effort required to reach spot #1 in the SERPs may not be offset by the magnitude of the end result.”

Here’s a boring table that summarizes the not-boring findings from the Ahrefs data-dive:

Position in Search ResultsHow often this position gets the most traffic
#149%
#222%
#312%
#47%
#5-1010%

So, if the number 1 spot gets the most traffic less than half the time, is it worth the enormous effort required to get your page to that spot?

I mean, pages don’t just pop into the #1 spot by themselves.

You need a great topic, which means a significant amount of time spent doing keyword research. You need good on-page optimization, which means not only hours of research and writing, but a big chunk of time for editing, rewording, and correctly seoifying your page.

And you need links. Lots and lots of links.

Unless you’re already Ahrefs or some similarly big fish, getting lots of links means doing lots (and lots) of outreach. Which, come on, is totally the worst.

But hold on a second. Twist your brain the other way and think about what 49% actually means. 49% isn’t a bad number, it’s a phenomenal number.

Instead of saying “the #1 search result only gets the most traffic 49% of the time,” let’s flip the script. It’s just as valid to say that the #1 spot is more than twice as likely to get the most traffic compared to the #2 spot – its closest competitor at 22%.

Or, if you want to put it a third way – if your goal is to get the most traffic, being ranked in the #2 spot is only half as likely to work as being ranked #1.

Even worse, if you’re not ranked #1 or #2, your chances of success plummet to single-digit probabilities along an exponential decay curve.


What The Ahrefs Search Data Actually Tells Us

On the surface, the Ahrefs video sure seems to say what this article’s title implies – that the benefits of ranking in the number one position are overrated, and you might be able to get more traffic if you rank in one of the other first page results.

Is that true? No, probably not.

And to be fair, Sam does clearly state that he’s not advising people stop trying to rank number 1.

Here’s the problem – this video never clearly states why the sites that aren’t ranking number one get more traffic than the site that does rank number one.

Here, look at this screenshot from the video.

This screenshot shows you several important things:

  1. It shows the top eight search results for the term “keyword research”
  2. It shows the total traffic each of these top eight results gets AND specifically highlights the total traffic for the pages ranked #1, #2, and #3 (circled)
  3. It shows how many total keywords each of these pages ranks for
  4. It shows the top keyword for each of these pages
  5. It shows much search volume exists for that top keyword.

Right away, you can see what Sam is talking about in his genie lamp video – the page that ranks #3 for “keyword research” gets way more total traffic than the page that ranks #1. Which seems to prove the point that ranking number one might not be worth it.

Except, let’s stop and ask – Why? Why does the page ranked third get more traffic than the page ranked number one?

Well, to start, the “total traffic” metric describes just what it says – the total traffic a page gets, not just traffic from the single keyword search being examined.

The page that ranks number one for “keyword research” gets 4,939 total visitors, but we don’t know how many of those visitors are actually coming from the “keyword research” search that’s being used as the example. Because this page also shows up in the search results for 92 other keywords, some of the “total traffic” has to be coming from searches related to those other 92 keywords.

Similarly, the page that ranks number two for the “keyword research” search gets 2,962 total visitors, but who knows how many of those visitors are coming from this particular search? This page also ranks for 459 other searches.

This explains why the page that ranks number 3 for “keyword research” gets so much more traffic than the page that ranks number 1 – most of its traffic is coming from the other 1,976 keywords.

In fact, the screenshot straight up tells you that “keyword research” isn’t even the best performing keyword for the number-three-ranked page. Rather, the best performing keyword is “keyword search.”

Examining the Not-Number-One Page a Little More Carefully

Because I actually have an ahrefs account, I was able to pull a more complete traffic analysis for this third-ranked page.

Here it is:

First, you can see that things have changed a little bit since the video was made. Now, the top traffic driving keyword for this page actually is “keyword research,” which wasn’t the case when the video was made (it was “keyword search,” remember?)

More importantly, you can see that this page is generating tons of traffic from other keywords and searches. About 1,000 visitors from “free keyword tool,” 681 visitors from “keyword tool” and so on.

This is only a snapshot of the top 13 keywords that drive traffic to this page. There are almost 2,000 other keywords to consider.

I think we’ve figured it out – the page in the number 3 spot for a search on “keyword research” gets more traffic than the page in the number 1 spot for because almost all of that traffic is coming from different searches. It’s not related to search positioning for this particular search at all, and no direct conclusions about search positioning and traffic flow can be derived from this specific analysis.

Building Better Blog Posts

Well, that was fun, but how do we use the knowledge in this ahrefs video to actually improve our traffic? Sam does talk about this in the video, but here’s the big, actionable, take-home message:

Diversify your keyword rankings, son.

It’s clear from this data that breadth of coverage – covering more of the potential total keyword space – tends to be a much stronger traffic driver than just ranking well for a single keyword or keyword phrase. And this is a key takeaway from the video – improving your reach lets you target long tail keywords and rank for a larger cross section of the total related search space.

Overall, even when you rank well for a keyword that gets lots of search attention, you’ll probably get a lot more traffic by ranking “ok” for lots of keywords than you will by just ranking well for that one high traffic keyword.

How Many Clicks Do Search Results Get?

So, I think we can conclude that the video from ahrefs isn’t really talking about the value of ranking number one for a given search.

But, since we’re already here and already crunching some numbers, can we figure out what the value of the top spot really is?

Sure. With science.

A while back, the Ivy League cats at Cornell did a study about search engine results and how people interact with search engine results. In this nerdy study for nerds, the researchers explicitly set out to measure how much attention people pay to each position in an ordered list of search results.

Now this data tells us something about the relative power of different search result positions.

This Cornell study clearly suggests that the top-ranking site is going to get most of the attention – i.e. clicks – from searchers. That’s kind of obvious. What isn’t so obvious is how searchers treat the other positions in the search results. While the top spot gets most of the clicks, positions 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10 are all pretty close to each other.

This suggests that even though there’s a huge bump when you get to position number one, just being on the first page of results is pretty powerful by itself.

Rankings in the Era of Googlefication

As the swirling whirling forces of internet evolution coalesce into new and interesting user experiences, it’s likely that ranking #1 will become even more important as time goes on.

A little while back, some big names in the European news and journalism world got together and sued the heck out of Google. This was followed by a similar attack from the big press agencies in Brazil.

At issue was Google’s news service, and understanding why these companies took Google to lé-Court is critical in understanding why search rankings are going to matter even more in the future than they do right now

The Google News service operates as a big aggregator. It sends all of its little spiders out to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Whatever and they bring back a bunch of headlines and snippets from all those different news sources.

Google then displays all those headlines and snippets on one conveniently organized and browsable page.

Google argues that all they’re doing is curating this content – making it discoverable and browsable for readers by gathering it all together in one place. Indeed, Google does not display entire articles, or even significant portions of articles, via its news service. For that, you have to click on the displayed summary and visit the originating site itself.

That all sounds fine. Except, think about how you actually browse a website. When you go to the New York Times, do you methodically click on every link and then read every story? Of course not. Instead, you skim the various headlines and only click on the ones that interest you. Sometimes you don’t click on anything at all.

The news organizations argue that Google’s aggregation function changes this behavior – instead of visiting the New York Times website and browsing for interesting articles to click on, you go to Google News instead. When you do that, three things happen:

  1. You stop using The New York Times website as your “browse for something interesting” resource, which means you visit less often
  2. You start using Google News as your “browse for something interesting” resource, which gains Google an extra viewer
  3. Even when you click a link on Google News and end up at The New York Times, you ultimately spend a lot less total time on The Times’ website

The net result of all these behavior changes is fewer visitors plus less time-on-site for the New York Times but more visitors and time-on-site for Google. So, when the New York Times goes out looking for advertisers, they can’t charge as much, and they end up making less money. Google, on the other hand, has lots of new viewers for their ads and they make more money.

Remember, this net transfer of revenue from The Times to Google happens despite the fact that it’s The Times’ own content that’s being used to drive the change in viewer behavior.

Kind of a raw deal.

The crazy thing is, Google is starting to do this to everyone.

Take a look at how Google used to display their search results. On the left were all of the “organic” results – actual websites run by actual people who aren’t Google. On the right was a column of paid ads. The two were clearly separated.

An old-timey example of how Google’s results used to look. Organic content on the left, paid content on the right. Clearly separate from one another.

Over time, the appearance and function of Google’s search results changed, increasingly integrating paid ad content into the area formerly used for “real” – i.e., organic – search results. This started in a big way in 2014, when Google began placing paid ads above the first organic results, and has continued through a process of refinement and expansion to the present day.

Today, approximately equal page space is dedicated to paid ads and organic content, with paid ads appearing above organic results.

A representative Google search result from ~2014, showing an early implementation of Google’s strategy to integrate paid ad placements into the area previously reserved for organic results.

More insidious than ad placement is Google’s ongoing drive to pack the search results with all kinds of “features” that end up making people less likely to leave Google and visit one of the pages actually providing the data Google is displaying.

As an example, look at all the data that appears on the search results page when I run a simple search for Avengers: Endgame

By typing one simple search into google I bring up a single page that tells me

  • All the key details about the movie
  • Local showtimes
  • A selection of critics’ reviews and the current IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes ratings
  • A collection of feedback from people who’ve already seen the movie

None of that content came from Google. It was spidered, aggregated, and “curated” for viewer consumption. Honestly, unless you needed some really specific piece of information, how likely would you be to even leave this main search page? You’ve found all the information you needed and Google didn’t have to share you with any of the websites actually creating and supplying the content.

All of this “curating” has a large negative effect on people’s click behavior. In opposition to both the ahrefs and Cornell data, Google’s ongoing efforts to place more information on their result pages tends to disadvantage everyone except the number one ranked site.

Courtesy of Moz.com

The data crunchers over at Moz have attached some hard numbers to this phenomenon and found that “rich” search results drive down the number of clicks on the “real” search results and distort the distribution of those clicks to strongly favor the #1 ranked site, which rakes in a whopping 80% of all clicks. In fact, if you’re #2 you barely get anything – low single-digit percentages.

Clearly, claiming the top spot is becoming more valuable over time, with fewer and fewer clicks going to spot 2 and beyond.

How Much Money Is Being the Top Search Result Worth?

If I’ve managed to convince you that there is enormous and growing value to ranking number one, we can take the question a half step further by trying to convert rankings to dollars. That is, how much money are the various search result positions potentially worth?

Let’s construct a fake search situation to see how our position in the search results affects how much traffic Google would send to us, and how much money that traffic might be worth.

Pretend that we write a page on Green Hairy Monsters, and that we use some basic keyword research to figure out that the search term “Green Hairy Monsters” gets 20,000 searches a month.

We also know that “Green Hairy Monsters” gets some repeat search volume (thanks ahrefs), so the total number of expected clicks for this search is about 33,000. Cool. Well, how many clicks could we expect based on our position in the results?

Let’s juice it up a bit and also pretend that we can convince 2% of our traffic to buy our awesome Green Hairy Monster dolls, which cost $25 each.

Yowsers! Ranking #1 for “Green Hairy Monsters” is worth over $9,000 a month (of course I set up the numbers to be “over 9000,” fool) and ranking #9 is worth $200. That’s a pretty big difference. But, it’s not really surprising, and there’s no real actionable information in there except to say “Rank Better!”

However, it is interesting to know that just getting to the first page is probably enough to make some money with our Green Hairy Monster dolls. It makes the whole problem much more approachable – while it might be really hard to get to the number one spot, it’s probably much easier to just get on the first page.

When you’re running a business, that’s pretty important.

Your ultimate goal, obviously, is to make it to number one and thus collect that sweet $9,000 every month. But getting to number one is likely to be a long process. During that time, you’ll need to keep your business afloat, so it’s good to know that the much easier goal of getting to the first page of the search results will at least generate revenue to keep your train rolling while you optimize your content, build backlinks and grow your ranking to the top.

Interested in Marketing? Check out this cool article about Hacking the Sneaky Science Behind Blog Income Reports to Build Your Own Crazy Effective Marketing

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