How Search Engine Rankings & User Behaviour Affect Website Traffic

We all want to be number 1 on Google. For most people that is the only target, but what does that actually mean in terms of results, and how do the different ranks affect traffic to your website?

There have been a number of research experiments conducted by universities over the last decade testing user behaviour on a number of search engines with many using methods unique from the others. However, one technique has been more successful than others – eye-tracking.

Simply put, eye-tracking is a type of software that records and measures eye movements. This method has been used in several experiments for measuring attention given to each site in a search engine results page.

Of these tests, only a few tracked the searchers’ click rates for each position, and of these only one was conducted using Google (‘Eye-Tracking Analysis of User Behavior in WWW Search’). And let’s face it; Google is the most popular english-language search engine around. It has even become a part of our language (have you ‘Googled’ something before?)

In the above experiment, the researchers at Cornell University used a total of 397 queries and recorded the average attention time and number of clicks given to each of the 10 search results on the first page of each query, and the first result on the second page.

Only the initial clicks were recorded (i.e. this did not measure the number of users that returned to the search results to click on another website), and the queries were cached to a local server to ensure that all users received the exact same search engine rankings. Fig A shows the recorded statistical data, and Fig B shows the results in a graph.

Position Attention (Avg time) Clicks Percentage of Total Clicks
1 0.85s 154 56.8%
2 0.76s 38 14.0%
3 0.44s 27 10.0%
4 0.27s 11 4.1%
5 0.19s 12 4.4%
6 0.11s 9 3.3%
7 0.10s 1 0.4%
8 0.11s 7 2.6%
9 0.10s 3 1.1%
10 0.09s 6 2.2%
11 0.02s 3 1.1%
Fig A – Average Results from Eye Tracking Experiment
Fig B – Clicks vs Attention for each position in the search results

One additional statistic that the above table does not mention, but that some of you may find useful, is that for the searchers that clicked on one of the search results it took an average of 7.78 seconds to make a selection.

Here is a summary of the most important deductions from the results of the experiment:

  • 68% of users clicked on one of the search results. The remaining 32% did not click on any result.
  • Of the 68% of users that clicked on a result:
    • Interestingly, position 1 received only slightly more attention than position 2, but received 4 times as many clicks.
    • The top 3 positions received over 80% of all clicks.
    • After position 5 the difference in attention and clicks between each of the rankings disappears, indicating that, once the user begins to scroll down the page of results, position becomes less of an issue.
    • 98% of all users that clicked on a website did so in the first page of results.

A number of theories can be reasonably concluded from these findings. Firstly, the number of searches done each month for a given keyword does not indicate the number of people that will click on a search result – many (approximately 32% according to the research) will refine the search to be more relevant to their own needs.

The differences between positions one and two were the biggest puzzle to me. However, after considering the statistics for a short time I realised that when a query appears most users, including myself, will initially read the top search engine ranking assuming that it is the most relevant website, then read the second position to compare to the first and see which is better. Then, the user will return to click on the first position for one of two reasons: either the second position was not as relevant as the first, or it was very similar and clicking on the top position feels more reliable simply because it is ranked higher by Google. There would obviously be other influencing factors in the statistical anomaly between number 1 and number 2, but this seems the most plausible explanation.

Once users begin scrolling they only skim the search results, as opposed to the top 5 which will appear on the initial query screen automatically. Many users may read the first few positions in slightly more detail, scan down the page briefly to see if anything stands out, and then return to the top of the page to click on the higher ranked websites. After some analysis of my own search techniques and that of my friends and colleagues, I found this to be accurate in the majority of cases.

Being on the second page of search results will only ever be significantly beneficial if the keyword in question has extremely high search volume. If there are 100,000 searches per month for a single exact keyword phrase then ranking 11 will still bring in 2,000 visits for the month for that keyword alone. But if there are only 1,000 searches and you are ranked 11 that number drops to only 10 visits for the month. So if there are only a small number searches for a given keyword then you will definitely want to be in the top 5 for that keyword phrase to see any significant results. On the upside, if there are only a small number of searches in a month then, in most cases, the phrase will not be hugely competitive.

To build a brand name online, clicks may not be as important as attention. As long as people are seeing your website or business name on a regular basis, your brand awareness is growing. This would be ideal for targeting area-based services like transport, plumbing, electricians, lock smiths, etc, and would be more effective if the service name is in the title or the URL. For example,,, or In cases like these, being number 1 for a given keyword may not be as important as being in the top 10 for 100 related keyword phrases. The idea is that if you can get your name noticed as frequently as possible then when the time comes for the user to require your services, the attention given to your company name can attract the user to your particular website, even if it is not in the top position. You could call this “online branding”.

Now if we get back to the original question, how do search engine rankings affect website traffic? Fig C shows the implied percentage of traffic received by each position in Google’s search results for a given keyword.

Fig C – Percentage of total clicks received by each position in the search results.

There will always be other factors influencing user behaviour but, looking at the chart, it is reasonable to say that being number 1 has its benefits, wouldn’t you agree? Of course I don’t think the researchers took Wikipedia into account…


  1. Forrest Bivens says:

    As a heavy user of PPC for advertising, this is very interesting & useful. The best part was learning how page 2 on a heavily trafficked keyword can still be very valuable, thus saving you money in the long run.

    Thanks for posting this!

    February 14th, 2009 at 1:00 am

  2. David Duffield says:

    We have been gradually climbing up the rankings for our targeted keywords and I can vouch for the fact that there is a big difference in traffic between ranking #1 versus #2. I thought it would be more like double rather than 4x, but there you go.

    Now I just hope it’s true what they say about it being harder to get there, than to stay there!

    February 17th, 2009 at 12:07 pm

  3. basset says:

    The best part was learning

    February 17th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

  4. Darrell Buttigieg says:

    Yes indeed my friends and fellow affiliators.
    m sure we have all been there running our Google ads trying hard to slot in the top 3 watching the money drain out of your account when you think Gee? I had over 30,000 impressions but only 150 clicks and out of that no one brought a thing??
    Well this info is important but by crikey its too darn expensive because we all compete against each other by raising our PPC rates to try to get that top spot. There is nothing wrong with the adwords concept but there is much more you need to know inorder to get the sales and its all about traffic. How do you get your traffic to your site?

    February 18th, 2009 at 6:49 pm

  5. SEO Jens says:

    wow, great one. i also read something about the bouncerate. and how it can influence your ranking. but i dont know the site anymore ^_^

    February 27th, 2009 at 7:34 am

  6. Rod@WordPress Hosting says:

    Thanks very much – I’ve been looking out for this kind of info for ages. I guess it more or less confirms what we’ve all suspected, but it’s nice to see it quantified. Really good article!

    May 21st, 2009 at 3:24 pm

  7. melbourne seo says:

    The most comprehensive explanation we have ever seen. Thank you for such great report !

    July 1st, 2009 at 5:30 pm

  8. Sydney Personal Trainer says:

    Thanks for the article, it was very useful to see it presented like this, I think it is very important to use this to really calculate the traffic you can get to your site for all the keywords.


    March 13th, 2010 at 10:16 am

  9. sydney painters says:

    I agree, getting the number one position in search engines can make a difference when it comes to traffic. Chances are, the visitors will automatically click the first site that they will see in the result.

    November 25th, 2010 at 6:11 pm