Search’s Position 1 is Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be 

Executive Summary:

‘The top of the search results or bust’ has long been the driving mentality for Marketers when it comes to search.  Yet with the enormous growth of rich media in the search results—studies show up to 8 out of 10 high volume keywords now have rich media in their search results—it is time to challenge the singular focus on position 1.

A new study from Blue Nile Research shows that search results enhanced with rich media such as star reviews and author images appearing farther down the page outperform standard links in position one.  The target site received, on average, 61% of clicks when enhanced with rich media in position 2 compared to 48% of clicks to a non-rich media result in position 1, a lift of 13%.   

Is Position 1 Still the Holy Grail of Search? 

From virtually the moment online search became a reality, the elusive goal for Marketers has been to reach the top of the search results.  Given that a search engine results page presents in a “top-down” manner, this is perfectly logical—after all, the higher up a result appears on the page, the greater the percentage of overall clicks.  The top position would seem the ultimate prize, and historical research backs this up: Depending on the particular study, anywhere between a third and one half of all clicks on a search page go to position 1.  For many years, Marketers’ search strategy has reflected this philosophy, pursuing only keywords they believed gave them a good chance of reaching that top position.   

Search Sees a Shift to Rich Media 

It is impossible to ignore that search results now, more than ever before, feature rich imagery and other media.  From images to videos to news to shopping and more, search results pages have become a virtual billboard of rich media.  Now, it is common for a search result in position 1 to be a simple link, and for results further down the page to have appealing rich visual elements.    Because we as human beings are wired to respond to visuals, this shift has the potential to greatly impact the consumer’s click decision—prompting us at Blue Nile to question whether the traditional and “proven” top-down approach still holds true.


Challenging the Status Quo 

Given the shifting, increasingly visual landscape in which we now find ourselves, this study will challenge the steadfast focus on position 1 that Marketers have long had.  Using real-world examples that regularly appear in search, we will test the impact these elements have on click-through rates (CTRs).    While we would have loved to have accessed Google’s hundreds of millions of warehoused click data points for this study, we chose the next best thing: showing respondents various search results pages and asking them where they would click.  We identified three rich-media scenarios that are among the most commonly occurring in the search results: 

Scenario 1: Star Reviews

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Scenario 2: Author Image

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Scenario 3: Local Results Map Pack

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For each scenario, we created three separate search pages with a target site in one of three positions.  This gave us nine separate search results pages. The first two scenarios contain the following types of listings on each of their three search result pages : 
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In a lab environment, we asked 300 respondents to imagine conducting the search described in each scenario (‘sneakers, articles by John Smith’, and ‘coffee near me’) and showed them a search results page for each.  Respondents were then asked to choose the search result they would click on. 
By testing each scenario with the rich-media target site in position 2 and non‒rich-media in position 1, we identified the lift the rich-media result receives in position 2 over the non‒rich-media result in position 1. By further testing the click-through of the target site without  rich-media in position 2, we could identify the lift it receives over the baseline when rich-media is not present. 
Note that to avoid decision fatigue, each respondent was shown only one search result page per scenario.  Because all of the CTR studies in the public domain show only between 3%-9% of clicks taking place below the fold (position 6 or lower), our study was conducted with the top of the fold.
In order to eliminate content bias and isolate search position as the sole impetus for click, we did our best to make the actual search results as ‘“generic” as possible, including using made up retailers in the search results.  However, it may not be possible to completely eliminate these variables. 

13% Lift for Rich-Media Result in Position 2 Over Non-Rich Media in Position 1:

When we look at the overall click results across all three scenarios, we see that the rich-media‒ enhanced result in position 2 captures an average of 61% of clicks, versus 48% when the same unenhanced result is in position 1, a lift of 13%. The same unenhanced result in position 2 receives 35% of clicks, a lift of 26%.   


These findings strongly support our initial hypothesis that a search result enhanced with rich media can outperform an unenhanced search result higher on the page. Below, we will go into further detail on the three scenarios tested and extract the lessons we can take away from each.

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Scenario 1: ‘Star’ Reviews in Position 2 Captures 76% of Clicks 
In Scenario 1, we asked respondents to conduct a search for sneakers. When the retailer “Sneaker Warehouse”(made up for this study) appeared in position 2 but was media enhanced with “star reviews” (figure 5), it received enormous searcher attention, capturing more than three-quarters (76%) of clicks, compared to a mere 9% for the unenhanced retailer in position 1.   
This retailer achieved increased click-through by standing out visually against the unenhanced results around it.  In addition, the 4-star reviews for the retailer appearing directly in the search result highlights the ”Amazon-ing” of the online retail experience—one in which consumers are conditioned to expect and favor those sellers with favorable reviews. Another thing we’ve noticed is that site speed and uptime ARE important to Google and most search engines in 2016 – and if you’re planning on ranking at the top, you need a good server hosting your website. I use Hostgator for most of my stuff, you can use one of their HostGator Black Friday Deal and pick yourself up a few cheap servers.

The fact that more than three-quarters of clicks—by far the most of any scenario we tested— went to the search result featuring user reviews even when in position 2 should give retailers pause to reconsider not just the position of a search result, but its content/visuals. Retailers should understand the positive relationship between user reviews and CTR, and ensure that they capture such reviews on their website or partner with a vendor who can. 


Target Result in Position 2 with Rich-Media

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Target Result in Position 2 without Rich-Media

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 Target Result in Position 1 without Rich-Media

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Scenario 2: Author Image Captures 46% of Clicks in Position 2; 36% Lift Over Position 1 

In Scenario 2, we replicated an article search (“articles by John Smith”).  We showed a group of respondents (1) a search-results page with our target URL and author image in position 2, (2) a page with our target URL and no author image in position 2, and (3) a page with our target URL and no author image in position 1.
When the target search result was media enhanced in position 2, it captured 46% of clicks compared to 10% captured by the result in position 1.  When the target result was unenhanced in position 2, it captured 16% of clicks, a 30% lift. 
These results demonstrate the strong impact of an author image on the decision to click when conducting an article/content search; even when though the author image was not in position 1, it still received nearly one half of all clicks because of the imagery.Interestingly, in this scenario, the distribution of clicks down the search results pages tells a story about the click-decision process. 

Starting at the top, position 1 (unenhanced) received 10% of clicks as those who click at position 1 make their choice, however many users may have caught sight of the enhanced image in position 2 and thus skipped over position 1.  Position 2, enhanced with imagery, received nearly one half of all clicks as users chose to click on the richest result. Position 3 received 21% of clicks by those who were not tempted by the imagery in position 2 but chose not to progress further down the page.

Target Result in Position 2 with Rich-Media

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Target Result in Position 2 without Rich-Media

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Target Result in Position 1 without Rich-Media

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Scenario 3: The Lion’s Share of Clicks Goes to the “Three-Pack” 

Our final scenario replicated a local search (“coffee near me”) with a three-pack result at the top of the search page.  In this scenario, our goal was to test the degree to which position within the three-pack impacted CTR.  In other words, how much does being in position 1 in the three-pack affect click-through versus position 2, versus position 3? To that end, the onlydifferences among the three scenarios tested were the position of each of the three results in the three-pack. 
Our first, unintended, finding is that when it comes to a local search with a three-pack result, the three-pack captures a larger percentage of overall clicks than the same search results across the other scenarios we studied.  In the three-pack scenario, the bottom two (non‒three-pack) results captured an average of 5% of the clicks, while the other scenarios studied captured 10% of clicks—double that of the local scenario.   This may be explained by the fact that the three-pack is a dominant graphic at the top half of the search-results page, and that in a local search scenario (e.g. “coffee near me”), users have been conditioned by Google to look for a local result  in the box at the top of the page. 
The data seem to support the general conclusion that the higher in the three-pack, the greater the click rate; however, our findings were inconclusive as to the degree to which actual position impacts click rate.  The data tells us this may be because we inadvertently introduced click bias with the naming of the coffee shops that appeared in the three-pack. 
“Neighborhood Coffee Shop” consistently received higher click rates than those in the same position in the other scenarios, while “Koffee King” received a lower click rate.  This may be explained by users’ desire to support local businesses rather than the massive corporate chain.    Nevertheless, our data support the conclusion that the lion’s share of the clicks on a three-pack search page occur within the three- pack itself, and that the higher the position in the three-pack, the better.  For Marketers, this highlights the importance of appearing in the three-pack for local searches.
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 Conclusion: Expand Your Thinking Beyond Position 1 
Ever since search emerged as the dominant method to capture traffic and customers online, Marketers have aimed for the top—position 1—of the results page.  It does remain generally true that the higher up one’s brand appears in the search results, the greater the CTR. However, the results of this study are hard to ignore: Enhancement of search results with rich-media such as star reviews, map packs, author profiles and more may now challenge position 1’s long-held status.
In our research, users tell us loud and clear that they would sooner click further down the page on a search result enhanced with appealing rich media than on position 1 containing a plain, text-only link.  For Marketers seeking maximum CTR, this means a shift in the way the search results pages for relevant keywords are viewed.   

Three primary takeaways for Marketers emerge from the research:  

  • Change Your Thinking  Marketers must accept that rich media in the search results changes the “position 1 or bust” paradigm.  A laser focus on position 1 blinds Marketers to other opportunities to appeal to customers throughout the page and is a mentality that must be updated.
  • Know Your Landscape  Rich-media opportunities and results differ dramatically from one search term to the next. In order to act on and benefit from their correlations, Marketers must be well versed in where the opportunities exist within the search-results pages of individual keywords.
  • Capture the Low-Hanging Fruit  As you develop a long-term plan to capture rich-media opportunities in your search results pages, be sure to act on those elements you can immediately control. Capture reviews on your site or partner with a review vendor. Claim your business’s local registration with Google. Leverage markup on your site. Such action give you the best chance of appearing in rich media in the search results page and benefit, as a result, through increased traffic on your site.


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    • Your problem may relate to the issue I discussed in my comment. I think Google recently ended the Authorship program so some of things that used to show up on search result pages don’t anymore (e.g. Author Images). However, if you have a Google My Business account, you should be able to include things like images and other basic information that would show up in branded search. For example, if you have reviews through Google, they would show up in the right hand side of the search result page along with other info from the GMB profile.

  1. I enjoyed this article, but I was curious as to why you included Author Photos as a variable. I was under the impression that Google ended the Authorship program sometime in the past year, and that author images were no longer being shown in search results (though there may be some exceptions).

    • Hi Nathan.
      Google removed the author’s image in serps for a few months. Only results from Google+ (… mmm) are still visible with author’s pic. A shame for all time lost to connect content with G+ admin publisher page and optimise meta. Google’s seo game

  2. Interesting post, thanks! Did you find out anything about how testers react to AD results at the top of the page? I know I usually look past them, but wondering if those ad spots count as the #1 and #2 of if we’re trained to ignore them?

    • Hi Connie,

      Thanks for the comment. When reviewing the results, we did wrestle with whether the data in some of the scenarios suggested that users were avoiding position 1 because they mistook it for an ad (having gotten so used to the large ad at the top of the search results). It’s open to interpretation, but we concluded we couldn’t say so definitively.

  3. Re Authorship, I was at a SEMNE event this week and Barry Schwartz (Rusty Brick) said Gary Illyes (Google) was asked if more people used the tag might that prompt Google to bring it back. Gary replied, “That would be safe to say.”

    I not 100% sure, but I think he probably was referring to using it in the algorithm, not the display of results.

    I did some more research and learned on the Barry’s Search Engine Round Table site that Google say’s not to remove the tag, and that it was Mark Traphagen (Stone Temple Consulting) who actually got the conformation.

    So my suggestion would be keep using it if it’s not creating extra work for you, it is a sort of an id that could prove in the future who created the content, and give people of authority in specifiec topics higher rankings.

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