Estimating Search Traffic by Rank

Most search marketers would know that in 2006, AOL accidentally leaked users search data, which led to outrage regarding privacy, and also tonnes of analysis into what it all meant.

By crunching the numbers, analysts were able to estimate what percentage of search traffic could be gained by being at rank 1, 2, etc. Some results were obvious, showing rank 1 to be way out in front,  and some not so, like the fact that rank 9 brought slightly less traffic than rank 10. (Rank 10, with white space underneath, is probably more eye-catching than rank 9).

This data has since been used to try and estimate the relative merit in ranking at different positions, in different search engines, for different terms.

Of course, this is inaccurate. Google is different to AOL. Commercial terms would react differently to non-commercial. It depends on your brand strength, the presence of ads, who is ranking around you and even your ad copy.

However, like many other search marketers and web analysts, I went about compiling my own database of data, based on client rankings and traffic, to compare against the AOL ratios, and see how accurate it was. It turned out that, for some terms, these ratios are remarkably accurate.

My tests have shown that it varies largely depending on brand – e.g. if you brand is stronger in one of your products than another, you will likely get a higher click through for the same rank with the different products.

The point is – if you are interested in estimating traffic by rank for different terms – whether this would be for estimating targets for clients or just your own interest, it can be done. Some steps you might want to remember when starting on this project:

  1. Collect your traffic and rank information over time (make sure to restrict traffic to the organic and only from the search engine you are studying.
  2. Compare to AOL ratios, or start from scratch with your own ratios
  3. Try to identify multipliers for things like brand strength by product
  4. Don’t forget to take into account whether there is ad bidding going on for those terms
  5. Note the competitors surrounding you in the rankings, and the influence they have on your market share
  6. Remember to take seasonality into account, just because your traffic went down doesn’t mean you lost market share

Yes, there are a million things to take into account, and no one says it will be easy, but trying to figure it out is an interesting challenge that could keep you occupied for months…

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