Dwell Time: Does it Really Matter?

Dwell time is a subject of constant debate amongst SEOs. It’s pretty puzzling, and also misinterpreted. 

What exactly is dwell time anyways? Does it impact rankings? If it does, how do you make it better?

The purpose of this post is to go over all these questions in detail and give you enough information to take your SEO to the next level. 

We’ve done thorough research on what a lot of top SEOs think about dwell time and you might be surprised what they all think. 

What is Dwell Time?

The definition of dwell time is this: the amount of time that goes by between the second that you click on a search result and then return back to the search results.

For example: let’s pretend that we do a search for “what is dwell time”. We click on the number one result and stay on the site for 2 minutes. 

We then click the back button in the browser and go back to read more from other sites. The dwell time for that number one result would be exactly 2 minutes. 

So what effect does this have on SEO anyways?

The History of Dwell Time

The first time that dwell time came into the spotlight was back in 2011 when Duane Forrester (then senior project manager for bing) wrote about it in a blog post

Here’s what he had to say about it:

“The time between when a user clicks on our search result and when they come back from your website tells a potential story. A minute or two is good as it can easily indicate the visitor consumed your content. Less than a couple of seconds can be viewed as a poor result.”

Duane Forrester, Senior Project Manager for Bing

You might still wonder why does this matter for search engine optimization? 

Here is what Duane has to say:

“Your goal should be that when a visitor lands on your page, the content answers all of their needs, encouraging their next action to remain with you. If your content does not encourage them to remain with you, they will leave. The search engines can get a sense of this by watching the dwell time.”

Duane Forrester, Senior Project Manager for Bing

So what he’s saying is that the longer a person stays on your site after clicking on it from the search results, the higher the odds that they liked your content. 

Here are some examples of dwell time and what they might mean:

  • 10 minute dwell time: they found the content very helpful and read everything that you had to say.
  • 3 minute dwell time: they found the content helpful enough to spend a few minutes reading it.
  • 5 second dwell time: they didn’t find what they wanted on the site so they went back to the search results to find another site. 

So it would make a lot of sense if search engines like Google were using dwell time as a ranking factor. Certainly it would be a good way to judge whether users are happy with certain results right?

First we have to go over a few crucial points.

Time on Page vs Bounce Rate vs Dwell Time

Just looking at all these terms can be a bit confusing. There are many SEOs that struggle to discern the difference between them. 

These metrics are all unique though, here is what each one means in layman’s terms:

Time on Page: this is the amount of time that a searcher spends on the page before going anywhere else. This might be to another page on your site, back to the results, or even direct to another site. 

Bounce Rate: This is the percentage of single page sessions (visitors who only visit one page on your site before leaving). These searchers could have either clicked back to the SERP or just closed their browser, it counts as a bounce no matter how long they stayed there.

Dwell Time: This is the amount of time between when a searcher clicks on a result and then returns back to the search results. 

You can find your time on page and bounce rate both in Google Analytics, although there is no metric for dwell time. So if Google is using dwell time as a ranking factor they have chosen to hide it from us. 

Is Dwell Time a Ranking Factor?

As of the time of this article, there is no official statement from Google about whether dwell time is a ranking factor or not.

In 2017 at a conference, Nick Frost (head of Google rank brain) said this:

“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 and trying to figure out exactly on that relationship.”

Nick Frost, Head of Google Brain

If we think about this statement it would appear that Google does consider dwell time a ranking factor.

On the other hand, Cyrus Shepard said on Twitter that this isn’t the case. He says that Google didn’t say that dwell time and bounce rate are ranking factors but rather that they feed machine learning. 

Google Brain is an artificial intelligence project that Google has been working on for some time.

They state that they don’t make the ranking algorithm so this doesn’t confirm that dwell time is a ranking factor, although it kind of hints that it might be. 

One important thing we need to bring up is the fact that the vast majority of people never go past the first page. This is significant because if you rank lower than page one nobody will even have the chance of “dwelling” on your result in the first place. This means that if dwell time is a ranking factor that it would only matter in the first page results. 

So in essence, if you aren’t on the first page don’t fret about dwell time. The 80/20 you should be focusing on is other factors like linkbuilding that will get you into the top 10 results. 

If you are already in the top 10 then here are a few reasons that dwell time as a ranking factor makes sense. 

Reinforces Relevance

If we look at the keyword “SEO for beginners” anyone that searches for this is definitely looking for a beginner friendly guide. In the top spot we have a site that fits this perfectly. If you read the article you can see that they cover everything that a beginner could ever want. 

So basically it is exactly what people are looking for and fulfils their intent. People will most likely spend a long time on the page reading before going back to the search results. This will increase their dwell time dramatically.

If we look further down to pages 2 and lower we start to see results that are not as high quality as the first one. Most of them don’t have as much content and are filled with ads. The average dwell time will be significantly lower due to this. 

The bottomline is that dwell time looks to be a good sign of the relevance of a result in Google.

Better Ranking Signal than Bounce Rate

There are a few problems with using bounce rate as a strong ranking signal. 

This is because of a few crucial factors:

  • Poor content: they didn’t like the content so they left.
  • Left computer idle for 30+ min: this starts a brand new session in Google Analytics.
  • Didn’t need to visit more pages: they found what they needed on just one page. 

These factors can make it hard to tell apart good and bad user experiences or if the page has fulfilled the user intent by just using bounce rate. 

Here is an example where bounce rate fails as a solid user metric. A 10+ minute visit and a <10 second visit will both register as a time on page of 0 seconds. Obviously this isn’t true so why does it state this?

The reason is that in order for Google Analytics to calculate the time on page it needs two clicks: both an entrance and an exit. If the user doesn’t exit then Google can’t make the calculation it needs. 

Here is what Anaylticsedge.com has to say about this:

For sessions where the user only looked at one page (a “bounce”), the Time on Page and the Session Duration is 0. This isn’t because Google knows they left right away — it is because they didn’t have any indication of when the user left so they couldn’t calculate the Time on Page, and they consider the lack of a value means 0.

They also say:

It [“time on page”] could have been 10 seconds or 10 minutes; they don’t know, so they say 0. Did the user read your web page? They don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. All we know is that they didn’t look at another page on your site within the next 30 minutes (that’s how long a default session lasts).

Another problem with Google using bounce rate as a ranking factor is that they would have to data mine Analytics to get the info they need. 

Google have stated that they don’t use any Analytics data in the algorithm, so according to them  bounce rate is not a ranking factor. 

However, we can’t think that Google is completely honest about everything. After all, they don’t like SEOs very much. 

We do think that they are telling the truth in this case though because of a few reasons.  

  • GA is installed incorrectly sometimes: Any agency that does SEO audits will know that GA can sometimes be installed incorrectly. This can cause bounce rates to be much higher than they should be. It’s unlikely that Google would use inaccurate data.
  • Not everyone uses GA: Even if the number of people that use GA has grown a ton since 2012 when it was 10 million websites, that’s still only a fraction of sites on the web. We don’t think Google would place a lot of weight on just 10% of the sites in the world. 
  • Ad blockers block GA:  It’s estimated that around 30% of people use some type of ad blocker. All these ad blockers default is to block GA. Therefore, if Google used GA code it would be missing 30% of its data. 

So even if Google was using bounce rate data it would be quite inaccurate. This is why we think dwell time is much better to use and easier for Google to collect data on. 

Here is our reasoning behind this:

For example, if you do a search in Google on your mobile phone and then immediately click the back button. See anything that stands out?

Under the result that you clicked Google has added a list of related searches that is scrollable. 

It makes perfect sense that they do this. You didn’t find what you were looking for on the result that you clicked. So you returned and they offer you some help with other searches. 

This definitely proves that Google at least monitors “pogo sticking” (on mobile at least). We think that if they monitor this there’s a chance that they also monitor dwell time. 

We have to note though, that this doesn’t prove that Google use dwell time as a ranking factor, they could be using it solely to improve the user experience. 

Problems with Using Dwell Time as a Ranking Factor

So it seems to make a lot of sense that Google might use dwell time as a ranking factor, but wait one second.

Here are some problems that could occur with dwell time being a ranking factor:

Doesn’t Work With Easy Question Searches

Let’s say that you search for a simple question of the date of a specific event. If there is no knowledge graph then you will most likely click through to one of the top results. 

From there you will find the answer to your question within a few seconds. Because of this dwell time will be quite low. This doesn’t mean that the user experience was bad though, just that you found what you needed quite quickly. 

Here is a quote from Eric Enge on this:

There are many scenarios where SHORTER dwell time is an indication of quality. For example, anytime someone is looking for a quick piece of reference information, such as a zip code or phone number for a business. For informational searches like these, you want to design your pages, so users find what they want pretty much immediately.

Eric Enge, Founder of Stone Temple Consulting – stonetemple.com

There are many examples where a very short dwell time doesn’t correlate with bad user experience. The top result can still be the most relevant and best result for the keyword. 

Doesn’t Work with Accidental False Advertising Pages

An AFA or “accidental false advertising” page is basically a result that you think has what you need but after further inspection doesn’t. 

An example would be if you searched for a certain software download. You click on the first result and try downloading the software. The download fails after 5 minutes and you find out in the comments that others have this same problem. You then go back to the SERP to find another site.

Your dwell time on the site was pretty long even though you didn’t find what you were looking for. Even though the page didn’t deserve to rank in the top 10 it still did.

Doesn’t Work for Shopping Queries

Here is a quote from Mark Traphagen that illustrates what we are talking about here.

One more scenario in which dwell time might be a false flag for content quality and user satisfaction: shopping. Often when I’m shopping, I may click back and forth rather rapidly among multiple results because I’m just at a stage where I’m comparison shopping, maybe for price or certain features.

Mark Traphagen, Senior Director of Brand Evangelism — Stone Temple Consulting

It’s no secret that people like to price shop. They go to a site, check the result and then go right back to check another. 

They pogo stick around to different sites which makes it very difficult to use dwell time as a signal of quality or relevance.

But does this mean that dwell time can’t be used as a ranking factor? Not necessarily.

Google is very smart and able to discern between different types of queries like shopping queries vs informational. If you look at the result for “best way to take magnesium” vs “best magnesium” you’ll see what we mean.

What we’re getting at here is that if Google is smart enough to know that a query is shopping related then they are smart enough to ignore pogo sticking for these queries.

Should You Optimize for Dwell Time and How?

The best way to improve dwell time is simply to create top quality content for user experience and let the dwell time take care of itself.

Here is what Danny Sullivan had to say about dwell time:

I think Google probably tries to measure and use engagement as part of its ranking algorithm. I think precisely how it does this isn’t known, I think too many SEOs obsess that it must be clickthrough rate. It largely doesn’t matter. As marketers, you want people engaging with your content first and foremost. So focus on that, and you’ll probably align with what Google wants

Danny Sullivan, Founder of SearchEngineLand

So here is how you can make this happen:

Create Superior Content

This might seem obvious but it doesn’t always have to be longer content. Sometimes the user wants the content short and concise.

Here is what Eric says:

I bet if you ran an experiment to measure the average dwell time on millions of websites and their ranking positions in the SERPs that you would see a strong correlation between dwell time and ranking. Does that mean that I think dwell time is a ranking factor? NO. It just means that there are more searches where a long dwell time means a user is happy than there are searches where a short dwell time does. There are also likely many searches where dwell time is irrelevant as a measure of quality too. 

Eric Enge, Founder of Stone Temple Consulting

He makes a valid point that there are many different searches where dwell time is a poor measure of a pages quality.

If you search for “is is raining” the website at the top just uses your location to give you a simple one word answer. This website answers the users query very well and probably has a terrible dwell time.

Target the Proper Keywords

Making sure that your content and keywords match is critical. If you wrote an article about advanced SEO tactics, but in the content talked about filling out titles and metas it would decrease your dwell time. People searching for advanced tactics would be disappointed and go back to find another result.

Here is Eric’s opinion on this:

 In the long run, what Google wants to see is who are the types of people that represent the very best match for your site. It’s obvious who those are – your prospects. Serve them extremely well, and you align your goals and those of Google in the best way possible.

Eric Enge, Founder of Stone Temple Consulting

Focus on User Experience

How many times have you visited a site and had an annoying popup cover your whole screen? This causes many people to instantly hit the back button which means that their dwell time will be very low. This is why it’s critical to have ads that are not too intrusive on your site.

Another critical thing to focus on is page speed. People have short attention spans these days and 47% of people expect a page to load in less than 2 seconds according to this article.

While having a super fast site won’t necessarily boost rankings, if the site is too slow it certainly will hurt them. If the page is slow people will click back to the SERP before the page has a chance to load. This means the dwell time will end up being zero.

Here are some other user issues to take care of:

  • Bad design: Usually, having an ugly website doesn’t make the users very confident in you. Make the design appeal to your visitors and they will stick around longer.
  • Layout: Your site should be easy to navigate and read. Having small or unreadable font will deter people from sticking around.
  • Mobile friendly: in 2019 there are still sites that are not mobile friendly. When a person lands on a site that’s not mobile optimized most of the time they won’t stay more than a few seconds.
  • Ads: People hate ads and Google knows this. In fact, Google Chrome blocks certain ads by default as of February 2018.
  • Pageless scrolling: If you have a site with lots of pages then looking at pageless scrolling is a good idea. The reason for this is that it’s easier for people to continue reading your content. Look at sites like Facebook for example, people spend hours just scrolling through their feeds.

Use Relevant Internal Links

Many SEOs think that internal linking is just about pushing link juice around their site. It’s also very important for user experience. 

If you link to related content that people might find interesting then it will increase your dwell time, as well as the overall engagement on your site.

Keep Content Up to Date

Publishing and leaving content is a major mistake SEOs make these days. Not all content is evergreen.

For example, if you published a post about a topic like SEO then there’s a good chance that the information would be out of date within just a few months.

People tend to trust recently updated results more than others. This is why in competitive niches you will see “updated XXXX) in the title tags of some sites. This increases CTR and engagement.

Conclusion

Google has definitely put some serious research into dwell time over the years but does that mean it’s a ranking factor? Not necessarily, Google always wants to show the user the query that best answers their search. You want your site to be that result.

To do this make excellent content that your target audience will love and enjoy reading. Also make your site look good and easy to get around. If you can do these things, then dwell time will take care of itself.

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