News publishers looking to keep readers on their sites for longer can generate big gains with just a few small changes in the way they present links, research from the US shows.

A-B testing by The Center for Media Engagement in collaboration with seven local broadcast newsrooms in the Graham Media Group found that by putting links at the end of a news story, adding a compelling image, and keeping link headings simple, they could achieve click rates over 10 times the industry average.

The experiment, which took place over a week in March, showed that the boost to click-through rates was seen regardless of whether a reader was using a tablet, phone or computer. It was also consistent irrespective of the pages that had referred them to the news site in the first place.

Newsrooms in Houston, Detroit, Roanoke, San Antonio, Orlando, and two in Jacksonville were involved in the test.

Researchers studied the first recorded time each unique visitor went to the site, looking at 1.8 million observations in total, and examined who clicked on what, and where.

“Among those who first visited the site during the study period, 1.42% clicked on a link,” researchers Talia Stroud and Jessica Collier said.

“Although this appears to be a low rate of engagement, content distribution sites like Outbrain suggest that healthy clickthrough rates are between 0.10 and 0.25 percent. The results of our study show that links can be designed to generate higher clickthrough rates.”

The key take-outs of the research were:

  • Link layouts containing images generated 63% more clicks than with only text.
  • Links at the end of a page generated 55% more clicks than links in the middle of a page.
  • Using related content instead of popular content led to a 14% lift in clicks.
  • Popular content, however, generated more clicks when the referral page was Facebook.
  • Generic wording (such as “related stories”) generated slightly more clicks than more complex wording (such as “What else people can read on this topic”).

Sourced from University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement; additional content by WARC staff