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The Funniest Words on the Web

June 10, 2007 | Predicting Referrals from First Results

Everybody knows that websites ranking first on Google for popular search terms get a lot of referrals, but how many referrals are "a lot"? Does the first search result drive significantly more traffic than results two through five? Last August that question got a lot easier to answer when America Online inadvertently released the search history of over 650,000 members. Within days, SEO bloggers had downloaded the data, done the math, and posted some very exact answers.

According to the AOL data, websites with the first search result received approximately 3.5 times as many referrals as the second result, 5 times as many as the third, 6.9 times as many as the fourth, and 8.6 times as many as the fifth. Something worth noticing is that the relationship between search result rankings and click-through rates isn’t linear as you might expect. It actually looks like this:

Average CTR for First Ten AOL Search Results

AOL Data

Obviously it pays to be number one.

I’ve now seen these numbers posted on several websites, but I’ve yet to see anyone test the AOL predictions against actual data or other, more influential search engines like Google. Three things now allow me to perform just such a test.

1.I track Google search referrals through Google Analytics on my website Inherently Funny.
2.Each week for the past two months I’ve been tracking the Google search result ranking of Inherently Funny for the term "funny words".
3.Last week an Inherently Funny page moved from the fourth to the first search result for "funny words" on Google.

Granted, a few weeks of data produces a very small sample size, but here’s what I found. During the week of May 20-May 26, Inherently Funny ranked fourth on Google for "funny words" and received 637 referrals. Two weeks later, Inherently Funny ranked first and received 1,328 referrals. Here’s how the two weeks compare by day:

Google Referrals for "Funny Words" by Search Result

Day 4th Result 1st Result Increase
Sun651372.1 times
Mon1022302.3 times
Tues1182281.9 times
Wed1112071.9 times
Thu1031821.8 times
Fri851952.3 times
Sat531492.8 times

According to the AOL prediction, I should have seen seven times as many referrals after moving from fourth to first in Google's search results. Instead the number only doubled. So why the discrepancy? I have a few ideas.

1.Most usability experts would agree that AOL members are less sophisticated than the typical web users, and an unsophisticated user tends to click on the first link he or she sees on a page. This could mean that click-through rates for first results are higher on AOL than on other search engines.
2.Meta description quality increases click-through rates. I’ll let you judge for yourself how enticing the Inherently Funny meta description is compared to the competition, but a well-written meta description would help close the click-through rate gap between the first and fourth result.
3.I assume most users skip indented results, so if a fourth result had an indented result above it as Inherently Funny did, the click-through rate may more closely resemble a third result.
4.Seasonality could affect some search terms (but probably not "funny words").
5.My sample size was very small.

While the last point is inarguable, I may still be able to address the sample size issue because Inherently Funny has begun moving up the Google result rankings for "funny things", an even more popular search term than "funny words". During the past eight weeks, Inherently Funny has ranked fifteenth, eleventh, tenth, ninth, and seventh for "funny things". Here’s what the numbers look like so far:

Google Referrals for "Funny Things" by Search Result


I plan to share additional data as it comes, but of course, reaching number one is not easy. That said, I’ll end this post with a shameless plug—if you found this post useful and want to see further testing, please consider adding a link on your website to the Inherently Funny funny things page using "funny things" as the text of the link. (More than anything else, a search term included in the text of an external link helps a page rank high for that term.) Your links will help Inherently Funny capture the first result, and hopefully the data recorded will be useful to everyone.

Many thanks to Jason Kreider for originally alerting me to the AOL data. Digg Furl Reddit StumbleUpon Technorati

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