CTR manipulation: why you can’t fake engagement

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  • January 30, 2015
Stuart Long

Stuart Long

Search Strategist

With natural links being harder to obtain and audience engagement more important than ever for helping your website rank high in search engines, it is imperative to build your website with the user’s experience at the forefront of your strategy, as this is what Google always looks for.

Link manipulation is dead

As low-quality, easy to obtain link manipulation has finally been quashed by Google’s almighty Penguin algorithm, Black Hatters now have to turn to new tactics and strategies to get the websites they work on to rank high in search engines. This means that they’ve started to heavily target other ranking signals. In this post, I’m going to talk about a couple of these tactics.

Introducing CTR Manipulation

If you haven’t heard of this before or know what it is, CTR Manipulation (Click-Through Rate) is basically a tactic where a high number of people are paid to visit a Google search result for a particular keyword. Then, they are asked to click on the listing of the website they are trying to increase the ranking of (you may have heard of ‘Crowdsourcing’; this tactic is known as ‘Crowd Searching’). For example, if your website currently ranks in 8th position for a particular search query then, by using CTR manipulation, it is possible that you could increase the ranking of that webpage.

Why does this happen? This happens because Google treats CTR as an important ranking factor. How do we know this? User engagement with a SERP listing is one of the many things Google is looking for. If a lot of users are clicking on a result lower down in the SERP listing instead of the result higher up then, logically, Google will want to give its users the more popular SERP listing and will place the result lower down in a more prominent position. This signal tells Google’s algorithms that this webpage is more useful to its users.

Every year, Search Metrics produces a list of ranking factors based on a correlation of the data they have and, although they are not Google, they have a lot of data! In 2014, CTR made it to the top of their list so we know that, based on the large amount of keywords and websites Search Metrics tracks, CTR manipulation is likely to work.

ranking Factors 2014

There are also people who have tested this and shared their results. However, I generally take anything with screenshots like this with a pinch of salt, as they can be easily created via tools like Photoshop. These types of posts generally lead to the promotion of a product or affiliate link that benefits the site owner.

There appears to be a number of services been created that offer CTR manipulation, but I’m not going to share them in this post as here at Branded3, we recommend that nobody uses tactics like this and that you should focus on a natural campaign that creates an overall better experience for your users.

Dwell time

The second reason why CTR manipulation works and wouldn’t work properly without is ‘Dwell Time’ (aka time on-site), which is basically how long users spend on a webpage once they visit after finding the page via a particular search query within Google. Once users have clicked on the link in Google via CTR manipulation, they would then spend various amounts of time on the webpage or click further into the website depending on the instructions they’ve been given.

Without a varying amount of dwell time, CTR manipulation wouldn’t positively affect a webpage’s performance in Google’s SERPs; this is because of another signal Google tracks called ‘Return To Search’ (aka bounce rate). This is Google’s way of measuring how long it takes a user to search again after landing on the last webpage they visited from a particular set of results. It also tells them if the result the user clicked on is useful and relevant for the search query they used to find the page.

bounce rate

It’s worth noting that a high bounce rate will negatively affect your website’s performance, which is why it is important that your webpage provides the best possible result for search queries you’re trying to target.

It’s all Rand’s fault!

Back in May 2014 Rand Fishkin of Moz sent out this tweet:

Rand Fishkin

He basically asked his followers to visit Google, search for the term “IMEC Lab” and click on his listing which was sitting in 7th position, as he had a hunch that this may increase the position of the page in Google for that particular search term. People who did this reported back on where they saw the webpage sitting and he documented his test and the results of how ‘Queries & Clicks May Influence Google’s Results’, which was successful and is quite an interesting read.

Negative SEO

Oh, oh not negative SEO again… Unfortunately, that’s correct. CTR manipulation could be used as a negative SEO attack too.

Well, that’s our theory anyway in that where CTR manipulation, coupled with a varying dwell time, can be used to positively affect a website’s ranking. It could also be used to have an adverse effect on a webpage’s performance in Google SERPs too.

Logically thinking, the way someone would use this for negative SEO is basically the opposite in that they would use the crowd to visit Google, search for the target keyword they’re trying to rank for and then ask them to click on all the other results except the page they’ve targeted for negative SEO. Or they could ask the crowd to visit the targeted page and then return back to Google immediately whilst visiting the other pages and spending more time on those webpages instead.

Google would see CTR and the dwell time of all the other SERP listings increase. However, the targeted page would remain stagnant or decrease. Therefore, Google’s algorithm may see this as a bad page and could reduce its position based on these two metrics. Well, this is the theory anyway and seeing that people have posted results of positive CTR manipulation working for them, it only stands to reason that the opposite could work too.

Avoid negative tactics

Here at Branded3, we advocate against using tactics like this, whether it be positively or negatively. My personal thoughts on this and manipulation of Google in general is that, basically, any signal Google uses which can be manipulated in what looks to be in a natural way, you will find there will be people trying to manipulate them either to positively promote a website or to negatively affect a competitive webpage.

You’ll also find the smart people who try to do this will make this look as natural as possible so that they go undetected by Google’s algorithms and web spam team for as long as possible. Unless things are obvious, as we all know only too well, it could take Google a while to rectify things if you do get hit by this or any other form of negative SEO.

TL;DR

CTR manipulation and dwell time can be used to both positively and negatively affect a webpage’s ranking for a particular keyword phrase.

This is done by creating positive or negative signals, depending on the campaign, in an unnatural way around a target webpage; this sends signals to Google’s algorithm which they use in conjunction with many other signals to determine what pages should rank where in its SERPs. Now that link manipulation is harder to generate and user engagement is more difficult to create, Black Hatters will turn their attention to other easier ways to rank in Google; there are plenty of methods for them to go after.

At Branded3, we highly recommend you don’t use this tactic to either promote one of your own websites or to try and de-rank one of your competitor websites. You should focus on creating the best website possible for the keywords you want to rank for.

Get in touch! We’d love to hear your thoughts on CTR and dwell time manipulation in the comments below or, if you feel you might be under an attack from this or any other form of negative SEO, we’d be more than happy to talk to you.

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