Why Dwell Time Matters for SEO And How To Improve Yours Today
The Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, and Stonehenge are some of the world’s greatest mysteries.
However, if you’re a marketer, the greatest puzzle is making sense of Google’s algorithm.
Besides Larry and Sergey (and maybe a handful others), no one can definitively guarantee every factor Google utilizes to determine page rank.
Some smart marketers over time have figured out that backlinks, page load time, and a host of other factors do matter and Google has come out and publicly acknowledged their claim.
What this means is that every marketer now optimizes for these elements.
If you want to impress Google and beat your competition, you need to do something special.
Over the years, dwell time has promised to be that X-factor.
In this post, I’ll go over exactly what dwell time is, why you need to pay close attention to it, and how you can improve your dwell time today.
What In The Heck Is Dwell Time Exactly
Basically, dwell time is the length of time a user spends on your site after a click-through from the search engine results page (SERPs).
Here are the three behaviors visitors can replicate after landing on your page from SERP:
Ideally, you want a visitor to stick around as long as possible.
As recent updates have proven, search engines are becoming exceptionally good at returning results that match the user’s exact intent.
This is because they don’t want you to leave and search somewhere else.
In this sense, measuring the dwell time acts as a good filter to determine which pages are valuable for specific keywords.
The longer someone stays on your page, the more Google (probably) likes you.
Wait, Dwell Time Sounds The Same As Time On Page and Bounce Rate
Be careful not to confuse dwell time with time on page and bounce rate.
While they are all closely related, each metric measures something very different.
For example, time on page calculates how long visitors stay on a page before going to another page on your site, a third-party website, or even back to SERPs.
The difference here is that it’s not mandatory for visitors to return to SERP.
As long as they leave, the time on page measurement ends.
This data is widely available on tools such as Google Analytics and used by marketers to find problematic pages in their funnel.
Bounce rate like its two cousins is used to determine when visitors leave your page.
The key difference here is that it’s limited to single-page sessions only.
It doesn’t matter if visitors hang around for a few seconds or hours, as long they stay on one page before leaving to go anywhere else, it counts as a bounce.
Bounce rate is a much-talked about metric in the SEO community.
With bounce data also widely available, it’s often the de-facto metric marketers try to fix to improve their SEO.
This all may sound a bit confusing but hear me out.
Dwell time effectively looks at the CTR of each link ranked on SERP and measures its resulting session length and bounce rate
This is a signal to Google as to how valuable that page really is.
How You Can Find Your Page’s Dwell Time
Unfortunately, there’s no tool yet that will measure dwell time for you.
Since dwell combines data that is easily tracked, you can analyze each individually to estimate your dwell time.
Let’s break each down:
- Session duration
Ask yourself what a session duration really means and the minimum time visitors need to spend on a page before Google considers it to be useful.
Fortunately, a study from Microsoft Research conducted a comprehensive review and found that a majority of visitors leave a page within 10 seconds.
If their stay is longer, it’s only because something has caught their eye.
The period between 10-30 seconds is when your site is assessed by visitors for usefulness.
The risk of abandonment at this stage is almost as likely as within the first 10 seconds.
However, if you are able to weather this initial storm and win over visitors, they will stick around for at least a few minutes to digest your page.
This makes the 2-minute mark effectively a ‘safe’ zone.
- Bounce rate
Since bounce rate analyzes single interactions, it factors heavily into dwell time analysis.
If more and more visitors leave your page after landing on it, your bounce rate will be high and this will negatively impact your dwell time and SEO.
Google will interpret this as a flaw with your page.
Generally, a bounce rate up to to 60% is considered decent for ranking purposes. Take a look at this average spread of bounce rates from a few websites.
Most pages have a bounce rate somewhere between 25-60%.
If you want the exact breakdown of what’s considered good and bad, check this out:
- 0-40% = excellent
- 40-60% = average
- 60-100% = bad
By looking at both time on page and bounce rate a little more analytically, you can reasonably estimate your page’s dwell time.
As a rule of thumb, make sure your session duration is at least 2 minutes and your bounce rate less than 60%.
When You Should Bother With Dwell Time (And When You Shouldn’t)
Like I said before, Google has been historically tight-lipped with its algorithm.
Unless they come out and announce dwell time as a ranking factor, spending time and money to optimize for it seems like a gamble.
With that said, there have been hints that dwell time has previously played a role in rankings.
Google experimented with a few features that had dwell time written all over it.
I – Block All Results
A few years ago, when you typed in a keyword such as “tennis,” you were shown an option to block all results from a page you didn’t find helpful.
II – The ‘More By’ Option
Another feature Google tested was giving searchers the option to see ‘more results’ from a certain site or individual directly on SERP.
While these features have long been retired, that doesn’t dwell time is history also.
Since Google and all other search engines are increasingly personalizing results, it’s a safe bet to say that dwell time still probably plays a role in determining rank.
But does that mean you should optimize your site for dwell time?
Well, that depends.
There are situations in which dwell time can make all the difference and other times where it’ll make little to no difference.
Dwell time is only significant when you’re already ranking well.
If you’re ranked outside the top 10, let’s be honest and admit that you barely receive traffic.
It’s only the first page of results where visitors can really ‘dwell’ on a page.
This means that if you’re trying to rank for a keyword, your first job is to first attract traffic to your page. Once you start breaking in the top ~10-15, then you can optimize for dwell time.
It’s at this stage when the difference between being ranked first or second can boil down to dwell time.
Speaking of keywords, not every kind of search requires a high dwell time to signal quality.
Let’s take a look at scenarios in which dwell time can’t always be relied on.
- The ‘question’ search
If a user is providing an input that is a question such as asking for a phone number, zip code, or a movie release date, a shorter dwell time is desirable.
For example, let’s say I want to find out when the new Game of Thrones season will start.
I type in my query on Google and get the following results:
And let’s see what happens when you click the first link.
The answer is literally given right at the top.
Most users will probably leave after seeing this within the first 10-15 seconds. Yet, this doesn’t mean the page isn’t useful to the searcher.
This is why it was ranked first (despite a very short dwell time).
- Very specific searches
Another situation in which dwell time doesn’t work so well is when searchers type very specific queries.
Let’s pretend I heard a small segment from a Q&A with Elon Musk but failed to catch the name of the podcast.
If I want to listen to the entire thing, I’ll turn to Google and type in a few phrases and hope for the best. What I get is a long list of results that might contain what I’m potentially looking for.
Like most people, I’ll sift through each result.
If I land on a page and it’s not what I wanted, I’ll head back almost immediately.
Though there’s probably nothing wrong with each of those results, Google may mark the site down based on your browsing behavior.
- The ‘fake’ promise
Sometimes to determine whether a page really is useful, we have to spend time on it.
If I land on a 5000-word blog post on how to double my revenues from email marketing, I’ll probably first skim the content and read the subheadings.
If they seem promising, I’ll dig in to read (while dwell time increases).
However, after 5-10 minutes of reading, I may realize that the post is bogus and go back frustrated and resume my search.
Google will not know any better.
According to the dwell time measurement, the page I read must have been great and it will continue ranking.
The Secrets To Improving Your Dwell Time
If you’ve read up until now, you probably have a well-ranked page or you simply want to be proactive and optimize your site to improve the user experience.
Regardless of the reason, there’s no magic formula to follow here.
You can take a number of steps to improve your dwell time drastically.
I – Churn out some exceptional content
Content is the engine that powers your SEO campaign.
Consistently creating high-quality content will translate into higher engagement as visitors stick around to read your stuff.
You don’t always have to spit out epic blog posts either.
You can take the visual route and create infographic and videos. Whatever you choose, just make sure to be relevant, entertaining, and follow good practices.
Just don’t try to deceive users or search engines.
This is an express ticket to enter Google’s bad books.
Brian Dean from Backlinko is a great example to follow. He constantly produces epic content that ends up becoming resource pages with exceptional dwell times.
II – Utilize internal linking
If you give visitors the opportunity to discover related content after they land on your page, you’ll keep them busy and divert attention away from the SERP page.
The longer you can keep that up, the higher your dwell time will be.
It doesn’t matter if users land on a page from the SERP page and then click-through to another page on your site and spend all their time there.
As long as they don’t return to the SERP page, your dwell time will keep increasing.
You’ll effectively kill two birds with one stone using internal linking.
An added benefit is that websites with well-structured internal links are better understood by spiders when it comes to indexing which results in massive SEO juice.
III – Follow good web design principles
When you’re designing your page, remember to do so with the KISS mantra.
I’m not talking about that hair band you’ve heard your parents talk about but rather a fundamental design principle that advises you to “keep it simple stupid.”
The belief is that if you present too much at once on your page, you’ll end up distracting visitors and tempt them to leave your page.
This is an actual psychological phenomenon as “information overload.”
A page like LingsCars is simply going to have an atrocious dwell time.
Not only is it hard to read but there are too many links that can lead visitors away.
To avoid this, try not to use annoying popups, have a clear layout, and always use responsive design on your pages.
This way the purpose of your page is immediately clear to visitors whether they access your page from a desktop or smartphone.
IV – Provide content recommendations
If a visitor lands on your page from SERP, they’re obviously looking to resolve a pain point.
Ideally, they’ll find it on your page. If they don’t, make sure you don’t give them an opportunity go back to SERP to start their search again.
Instead, provide content recommendations right from your page like Buffer does.
The closer in nature recommendations are to the topic on the page, the less likely visitors will consider returning to the search page.
V – Understand intent behind keywords
Searchers use keyword queries to signal their intent.
For example, let’s say I search for “advanced link building” and come across a blog post titled “how to build links like the pros.”
Naturally, I’d expect to find meaty content that talks about less-known link building tactics.
However, if I open the first result to find a 500-word post that talks about guest blogging and broken link building, I won’t be a happy searcher.
I’ll quickly head back to the SERP and Google will quickly demote this page.
V – Fix your page load time
The proliferation of the Internet has undoubtedly has made us an impatient bunch.
When we click-through to a page we’re interested in, we want them to load almost instantly. If it doesn’t, we won’t bother sticking around no matter how epic the content may be.
How fast do your pages need to be?
Less than half a second will get you in the safe zone. Anything longer puts your site at risk of being abandoned.
Here’s a breakdown of page load speed across the web.
If you’re not sure about your load speed, use online tools such as Pingdom and GTmetrix to analyze page performance.
With the Internet becoming competitive, you need mindful of every small detail.
Even if dwell time in itself isn’t used as a ranking factor, you should take steps to improve it as it results in better user experience which is rewarded by Google.
With success of your business riding on your maintained visibility, you stand only to gain with dwell time.