Being a smart SEO is not just about geeking out on technical details. Increasingly, SEO is less of a science and more of an art — the art of understanding your users and delivering exactly the kind of content they need and want.
In this article, I discuss dwell time, which is a critical, but often overlooked facet of search optimization. Dwell time is a user-based metric that Google uses to decide how to rank your site. If you want to succeed in the SERPs, you’ve got to succeed with dwell time.
What is Dwell Time?
First, I’ll give you the definition of dwell time, then I’ll discuss how I arrived at this definition.
Definition of Dwell Time
Dwell time is a metric that calculates user engagement, session duration, and SERP CTRs. It is a data point that is not publicly available (or thoroughly understood), but is nonetheless a factor that affects a site’s search engine results.
“Dwell time” is not as straightforward a metric as you might think. Usually, people conflate “session duration” (or time on page) with “dwell time,” but, they are actually two different things. Another source of confusion is “bounce rate”, which is a different number, too. Dwell time combines these two — session duration and bounce rate.
Dwell time, as Moz’s Dr. Peter J. Meyers explains it, “is an amalgam of bounce rate and time-on-site metrics”. Since it is not an accessible metric, we can only speculate as to the precise formula used to determine the dwell time number.
Suffice it to say, an optimal bounce rate, a healthy session duration, and a strong SERP CTR are all factors that improve dwell time. More on that later.
The Three Components of Dwell Time
Dwell time, then, is a combination of two components, with one related component.
- Session duration
- Bounce rate
- Click-through rate (CTR) on the search engine results page (SERP)
To help clarify the differences and gain an understanding of dwell time, let me provide the definitions for all three of the factors which appear to affect dwell time. It’s going to be a bit of basic review at first, so bear with me.
Session duration is the average length of time that users spend on a website. You can view this number in Google analytics:
You can drill down into session duration by going to Audience → Behavior → Engagement.
A website’s bounce rate is the percentage of visitors who leave the website after viewing only one page.
What I’m calling “SERP CTRs” is how often your site appears in search results for any given query, and how many people click on your site when they see it. Simply put, it’s the click-through rate of your site in the SERPs.
You can access this data in Google Webmaster Tools → Search Traffic → Search Queries. Below, you can view a tabulation of the top query, impressions, number of clicks, click-through rate, and average SERP position.
A click-through rate is a major indicator of a site’s search worth. Google cares about giving users the best possible results. So, if users are clicking on your site more than other sites, then Google thinks your site must be pretty good. It must have value. Google will then reward you with even higher rankings.
SERP CTRs aren’t strictly a part of dwell time data factors, but they do affect it. Dwell time measures the time between when a user clicks your entry, and then returns to the SERP. The CTR is the entry point for dwell time. A low SERP CTR is tied to a loss of potential dwell time.
Are there any other factors that affect dwell time?
Though impossible to verify, it’s likely that dwell time includes issues such as exit rate, page depth, and frequency/recency. We don’t know for sure. As SEOs, we must live with the uncertainty. What we can be fairly confident of is the importance of dwell time for SEO.
How Does Dwell Time Affect SEO?
Now, let’s find out how all of this data affects SEO.
Dr. Peter Meyers wrote an authoritative article on Moz, which I cited earlier. The article is about “The 2 User Metrics That Matter for SEO.” These two metrics that matter are 1) SERP CTR and 2) Dwell Time.
His article highlights an important issue. User behavior matters for SEO, and Google actively measures such user behavior to help shape the algorithm. The better the algorithm understands and responds to user feedback, the better it will become for users.
Dwell time most definitely impacts SEO. If a user is spending time on a site, interacting with it, not bouncing, and going deeper within the content, it’s evident there is something of value on the site for that particular user. As this happens, SEO improves.
SERP CTR and dwell time converge in the nexus of SEO for this reason. A CTR is not alone an accurate presentation of user behavior. High CTRs can merely reflect a sizzling title or an appealing meta description. CTR is not an indication of the quality of the content on the page itself.
That’s where dwell time comes in. If dwell time is low, then the high SERP CTR is discounted in the algorithm’s calculation. If, on the other hand, the dwell time is high, then the CTR receives its due value.
The bottom line on dwell time and SEO is this: It matters. Better dwell time means better SEO.
What is an Ideal Dwell Time?
Since dwell time is composed of session duration and bounce rate, we will use these two metrics to understand dwell time.
Remember, even though we use the term “dwell time” to describe this concept, it’s not a minutes-and-seconds sort of time number. It’s slightly more complex.
I’m going to break the question down into two sub-questions: 1) What is a good session duration? and 2) What is a good bounce rate? Taken together, the answers to these two questions will help us to understand what an ideal dwell time looks like.
What is a Good Session Duration?
The ideal session duration varies according to industries. Complicating the issue is the fact that session duration also varies according to keyword, device used, time of day, unique vs. returning visitors, and other issues.
Based on Google’s erstwhile “block results” option, some SEOs conjecture that Google interprets a session duration less than two minutes to be undesirable. Anything over two minutes is good. Anything under two minutes is bad.
Of course, it’s likely that the algorithm is far more discerning. A less-than-two-minute session length isn’t going to be the downfall of your site. Nonetheless, it’s good to have a benchmark to target for your site’s session duration.
Drilling down into the analytics of your session duration helps to provide a more comprehensive picture of the how and why behind the numbers.
To see “average session duration,” use GA to navigate to Audience → Overview.
What is a Good Bounce Rate?
Bounce rate is the second metric associated with dwell time. Bounce rate is another one of those numbers that depends a lot on the industry, search habits, and search device of the user. In my infographic on reducing bounce rate on QuickSprout, I shared some of the average bounce rate ranges for different sites and content types.
Generally speaking here is a breakdown of the good, fair, and poor ranges for bounce rate.
- 0-40% bounce rate: Good
- 40-60% bounce rate: Fair
- 60-100% bounce rate: Poor
It’s dangerous to pass judgment upon your bounce rate exclusive of surrounding defining metrics. First, you need to find out which landing pages have the highest bounce rate, what the bounce rate is for mobile devices, how bounce rate increases or decreases with new vs. returning visitors, etc.
For example, you may see some landing pages have great bounce rates, but other pages have abysmal bounce rates. What organic keyword queries led to the difference? What landing page differences are present? Are there content or image differences? Analyze before jumping to conclusions.
So, to recap, here’s how to determine a good dwell time for improved SEO.
- Session duration should be more than one minute.
- Bounce rate should be less than sixty percent.
How do You Improve Dwell Time?
This article begs a very important question — how do you improve dwell time?
I don’t want to be simplistic, but the answer really is simple, at least from a macroscopic level. The answer is killer content marketing. You must create good content in order to get good results. Keep your user in the front of your mind, and deliver purely awesome content.
That’s the easy-to-say/hard-to-do answer. However, there are a few additional practical tips that I can provide. These four guidelines will help to both decrease your bounce rate and improve your session duration.
- Choose the right keywords. You want to attract the visitors who are actually searching for relevant content. Choose your keywords carefully.
- Create a fully functional and usable site. Using appropriate colors, the right-sized fonts, large headlines, organized content, and plenty of whitespace will all go a long way in enhancing usability. Also, make sure your site is fully responsive. With 40-70% of web visitors today accessing via mobile devices, you will ruin your bounce rate with an unoptimized mobile presence.
- Provide a clear site layout. A confusing layout causes cognitive friction, frustrating users and causing them to bounce. With simple navigation and easy-to-read content, you can engage visitors longer, and invite them to go deeper.
- Improve page load time. Sorry, but users won’t wait for a slow-loading page. Improve load time or suffer the consequences.
Improving your content marketing will have the corollary benefits of decreasing your bounce rate and increasing your session duration. To restate my case, better content marketing translates into better dwell time, which means better SEO.
What observations do you have regarding dwell time?
Featured Image: Creativa via Shutterstock