Dwell Time & SEO: Does it Matter as a Ranking Factor?
Search Engine Optimisation

Dwell Time & SEO: Does it Matter as a Ranking Factor?

12th November 2019
11 min

Dwell time has been a topic of discussion within SEO for some time. It one of those unknown factors, along with CTR%, bounce rates, and average time on page. Google has the data, yet, is it used to influence rankings?

In this post, we’ll take a look at what dwell time really is, how it is measured and how it could possibly be improved. Additionally, we’ll look at whether or not dwell time is really a ranking factor or just another tin-hat theory acting as a distraction.

What is Dwell Time?

Look up what dwell time means to SEOs and you get similar definitions:

SEJ defines it as:

“Dwell time is the length of time a person spends looking at a webpage after they’ve clicked a link on a SERP page, but before clicking back to the SERP results.”

 Head over to Ahrefs.com and you’ll see:

“Dwell time is the amount of time that passes between the moment you click a search result and subsequently return back to the SERPs.”

Even Backlinko chips in with this definition:

“Dwell Time is the amount of time that a Google searcher spends on a page from the search results before returning back to the SERPs. Many SEO professionals consider Dwell Time an important Google ranking signal.”

And what about the definition of “dwell” itself? Let’s take a look at the synonyms:

  • linger over
  • mull over
  • muse on
  • think about
  • spend time thinking about

So taking the above lightly and adapting it to search, the theory would be that content should not only be written to be of good value to the user, but, to truly meet their intent, it should be good enough to make the user think about it, and maybe even be motivated to do more. And, by do more, this could be reading more of a website’s content, guides or reviews, and even converting – the real signal that all intentions have been met.

But then does moving further into the website still meet the definition of “dwell time” if the user doesn’t return to the SERP?

OK, it doesn’t work like this in the real world, but then this could feed into the wider E-A-T model Google uses to “score” content quality. Right? You’d think there’d be some ability on Google’s part to piece this information together.

Plenty to ponder over.

 Enter Bing. Way back in 2011, Bing posted an interesting take on quality of content and time on page:

“Does the user feel the content you’ve produced is of high quality?  Are users engaging with the content?  While the answer may seem as simple as “Yes, they come to my site, I get lots of visitors”, be careful you’re not missing the telltale signs of the quality being not quite what you think.  If your visitors are staying on your website for only a few seconds, are they actually able to consume the content you have in that short period of time? While it may feel like you’ve poured your heart and soul into creating the content on the website, quality is in the eye of the visitor, and short page dwell times can indicate the content is not capturing the visitor’s interest. Something about the content is not grabbing their attention.”

 Bing also suggest its crawler is a form of visitor. It consumes the content and aims to understand the quality. Once again, I refer back to Google’s E-A-T framework – specifically its “needs met” section which ranges from “Fully Meets” to “Fails to Meet”. So, is Google considering dwell time here or is it simply a matter of much better understanding of content quality signals based on user feedback fed into the algorithms?

 If we were to put this into an example, let’s say for planning a holiday, it would look something like the below:

Dwell Time

  • 5 second dwell time: You click through to a website. It’s hard to read, ugly and/or you simply can’t find the answer to your query. You head back to the SERPs to find something better
  • 2-3 minutes’ dwell time: The content you’ll find is pretty good and seems to answer your query and give you top level tips. You give it the time of day to read through then head off to other websites to see what additional information you can gather
  • 5+ minutes dwell time: Not only did you find the content really helpful, but the website links off to other great, helpful resources that have helped you plan your holiday, choose the perfect accommodation, find hidden gems in food and entertainment and maybe saved you money too. Content was possibly assisted with great imagery, videos, reviews and other useful information

If you’ve ever found that 5+ minute content, you’ll know what I mean. It’s super helpful and you even find yourself going back to the website to see what new (or old) great content it has.

If Google was to use this information, it would indicate how useful the content is in relation to the query. Yet, it can’t be that black and white as I’m sure you agree. Remember, we have over 200 ranking factors to consider here.

What Dwell Time Isn’t

Let’s get something straight here. Dwell time can be confused for other metrics – metrics you can find in Google Analytics, for example. Remember, dwell time is the time from a user clicking an organic search result and staying on a website, to navigating back to the SERP. We’ll set a few of these straight here:

  • It’s not bounce rate: Bounce rate % is the number of single page sessions divided by the number of sessions for an individual page. Users may navigate back to the search results, another website or simply close the browser or tab down
  • It’s not average time on page: Another common misconception of dwell time is simply average time on page. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. It’s an average amount of time spent on one page before a user leaves – again, this could be back to the SERPs, to another website or closing down the browser/tab window.
  • It is not click through rate: An interesting one I still see from time to time is that CTR% impacts rankings. Whilst this is a different argument altogether, some argue a good CTR% equals a good dwell time. Not necessarily true. A good ranking or an enticing title and meta description may improve the CTR% and that in itself is not an indicator of improved dwell time – it’s simply an indicator of a good CTR%.

How could search engines possibly be using dwell time as a ranking factor?

I think in the most part, we can agree Google somehow uses engagement metrics to understand the quality of content and this therefore feeds into ranking results among the other numerous ranking factors that are out there.

It’s frustrating to me that so many people simply see this as “improve your click-through-rate %”, which leads to clickbait in the SERPs. There are many factors that feed into CTR% itself, including the way the title and description are written, valid schema mark-up, a recognised brand, the position you currently rank in, how many competitors are bidding on PPC for a specific term, and more. For me, it’s ridiculous to say “just improve your CTR and your rankings will increase”!

Back in 2017, Google’s Nick Frost said:

“Google is now integrating machine learning into [the process of figuring out what the relationship between a search and the best page for that search is]. So then training models on when someone clicks on a page and stays on that page, when they go back, or when they are trying to figure out exactly that relationship.“

A lot of SEOers interpret this as: “Yep, dwell time is a factor. Let’s improve our dwell time.” It’s when statements like this appear that we simply need to take a step back and think of the bigger picture.

Someone like Cyrus Shepard:

Cyrus Shepard Dwell Time tweet

To see the above machine learning in action, there’s something really simple you can do:

  1. Head to Google and search for something
  2. Go to one of the results
  3. Once the page has loaded, head back to the Google SERPs
  4. Notice the “People also search for” box appearing under the result you clicked? It’s now (potentially) more tailored to you (I’m a skinny guy, so I’ll click that last refinement in the list!)

Can you improve Dwell Time? If so, how? And do you need to care?

Let’s answer the last part of the question first. For dwell time specifically, no, don’t obsess over this as a key ranking factor. Work it into the wider engagement and intent as part of the E-A-T framework and you may be on to something. Not only will this improve dwell time, it’s likely to increase engagement and recommendations, possibly acquire links organically, and lead to a better conversion rate or average order value as customers are better educated.

I’m a big believer in creating content that flows well through a user’s buyer journey, no matter if they just began researching a solution to their problem or if they’re close to making a decision and converting. Get the UX and the flow correct and you’ll go a long way to improving not only dwell time, but improving the engagement metrics across the board.

So how do you do this? Let’s rephrase the question slightly – how can you improve user engagement metrics on your website?

1) Improve quality of content

It goes without saying if your content is thin/poor, doesn’t make sense or isn’t in line with the user’s search intent, you’re not only unlikely to rank well, but your engagement metrics will also be poor.

So, the obvious thing to do here is to improve your content.

Look at the top keywords for the content you are writing, consider questions users are asking and work this into your content. Then, review what the competitors are doing. Can you piece something together that improves on what is already out there, while hitting the user intent nail on the head?

2) Use the right keywords to match the intent

Following on from the previous section, think about what the user is searching for. What is their problem and how can you solve it? How do they speak and can you adapt your tone to match? Don’t think purely keyword volume either – there are always additional problems users may not be aware of at the start of their journey and education can be a key part of improving your content.

3) Don’t frustrate and annoy the user!

It’s the quickest way to get rid of your readers before they even start reading the content. You’ll know it yourself. The ugly websites, the ones to claim they have the answer but ramble about something else, the poor confusing layout of the content and/or annoying pop-ups.

Positioning UX and UI at the heart of everything you do will make everything easier for your users. Think about improving page speed across the website, reducing/removing adverts, improving the layout and structure of your content (See step 4), or simply adding more relevant imagery.

Always have one eye on the user’s next step through call to actions and internal links. If you are considering the user’s next step it will ensure those internal links and CTAs are relevant. This may be a related guide or a product/service recommendation.

Finally, the use of page surveys – those that pop-up in the bottom right. Ask your users if they found what they were looking for. Then ask them how the content could be improved. You can gain real insight into what your users need per page or category and implement those learnings in future content to continually improve.

4) Structure and break down content

In most cases (not all) better quality content will lead to an in-depth and longer article than before. As such, make sure the content is broken down into sections so it is easier to follow, read and digest. And make sure the heading titles are marked up with the correct HTML header too.

5) Use the PPT Formula

Brian Dean over at Backlinko coined the acronym of PPT – or Preview, Proof, Transition. It’s a way of introducing your content to grab the user’s attention and encouraging them to read on. Here’s how it works:

Preview: Your very first line should be a brief preview of your content that allows users to understand that the content they are about to read is what they are looking for

Proof: Your second and third lines contain a proof statement to show the material does what it says on the tin. Statistics will help you here.

Transition: This is a simple statement to nudge users into the next section of your article. It’s as simple as saying “Let’s begin” or “Let’s get started”.

There you have it. Test it out and see how it improves your engagement metrics.

 6) Embed videos

It may sound like a cheeky addition, but videos used in the correct and relevant manner belong within content.

Think of it this way: If a user watches a video to the end, you can add a minute on the dwell time or average time on page. The user has also, as a result, interacted with the page. Again, these factors in themselves are likely not enough to turn the dial, but contributing to the sum of the whole will assist rankings in the long run.

7) Community & Comments

A great identifier of quality and engaging content is engagement from the community, and the comments they provide. This will take time to build up and if the quality of the content is consistently high, the readership, engagement and comments will likely improve over time.

Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes said:

In general, if we see that there’s a healthy, thriving community on a site, that can help a lot. It feeds into general quality. Say, there’s good content – 5 points, great links from great pages – 2 points, thriving community – 1 point.”

 Gary goes on to say the above points are random and aren’t reflective of how certain elements are weighted. And there’s that word “feed” again. It may not be a direct ranking factor again, but it works in to wider quality signals that Google will use in its algorithms.

In summary

On the whole, Dwell Time is something worth considering but not obsessing over.

Google itself, through a myriad of measurements and metrics, will look at that quality of content and how likely that content is to meet users’ needs.

On Google’s own mission statement page, it says within its approach that it will focus on the user to “strive to deliver useful and relevant results”. Last year alone, it ran 595,429 search quality tests to “assess how well a website gives people who click on it what they are looking for, and evaluate the quality of results based on the expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness of the content”.

While those tests will not impact the rankings of those websites assessed, the outcomes are again fed into the algorithms to improve results over time and assess what high quality looks like.

So, your goal? Make sure your content nails the needs of your users and create it in a way that is easy to read, easy to digest and provokes engagement. Do this and that box for dwell time will be ticked every time.

Written by Mike Gomez, Head of SEO at Blueclaw

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Specialising in SEO, PPC, PR, and Content Marketing, Blueclaw have distilled over 13 years in digital into their specialised services and are united behind a single purpose – achieving fantastic ROI for each and every one of their clients.
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