Dwell time is one of those metrics that gets referenced a lot in articles, on social media, and in conference presentations.
Sadly, though, it remains greatly misunderstood by some in the SEO community.
What is dwell time? Do search engines really use it? Is it a ranking factor? And, if so, how can you impact it?
This post will hopefully clear up any confusion you may have.
A Brief History of Dwell Time
When I look up the definition of “dwell,” I get the following information:
live in or at a specified place.
think, speak, or write at length about (a particular subject, especially one that is a source of unhappiness, anxiety, or dissatisfaction).
linger over · mull over · muse on · brood about · brood over
a slight regular pause in the motion of a machine
For our purposes, we’re going to focus more on the synonyms-side of things, and we’re going to amend the concept to the phrase dwell time.
There is a good chance you’ve heard this phrase before, as I’ve been speaking about it since I was running Webmaster Tools at Bing. I referenced it for the first time in this post on building quality content:
“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. … 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.”
Being inside the engine, I spent time with the search engineers and the Spam team, among others. As an SEO professional, you can imagine how interesting it was to get logical (and sometimes illogical) answers to my questions.
Dwell time was one of those concepts that made perfect sense once explained, and it was immediately obvious that such a metric could be very important in determining searcher satisfaction.
What Is Dwell Time?
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.
You’ve done this lots of times, most likely. It’s that brief moment when you evaluate the webpage you just clicked to visit. It either instantly provided you the answer you wanted, or was such an obvious failure that you hit the back button immediately.
The value of this metric to a search engine should be obvious – the more time you spend consuming the content of a page you clicked to visit, the higher the probability that page satisfied your needs.
That’s obviously a generalization, as we could poke any number of edge-case scenario holes in that theory, but in the broadest sense, it applies. And the opposite remains broadly true as well – the less time you spend on that page, the less satisfied you could be.
But if you’re asking for the weather, a quick glance at the page may be entirely satisfactory. In instances such as those, a metric built around dwell time would have to account for that: short time = satisfaction.
So you can see it’s not as easy as a broad application of a concept.
But it is a metric that’s used and would hold a value applied to rankings at some level.
How important it is as a metric is relative, and must be considered in a mix of many factors, so chasing dwell time is not a good use of your time.
Focusing on broader improvements for a website that increases user engagement, however, is worthy. Dwell time may increase as a result, but it shouldn’t be the only focus or reason you do something.
What Dwell Time Is NOT
There’s a stunning amount of misinformation out there about dwell time. So often, dwell time gets confused with, and lumped in with, other completely different metrics.
So before we go any further, let me clarify a few things about what dwell time is not.
Again, please remember that dwell time is a metric used inside the search engine. That’s what this article is focused on – the time when a user clicks a result, and how long they stay on the result before going back to the SERP.
Dwell Time Is NOT Bounce Rate
A bounce happens when someone views only one page and leaves your site.
So your bounce rate is the percentage of single-page sessions divided by all the sessions for your website (or an individual page).
Those people who bounce? They don’t all come from a SERP.
And even if some of the bouncers entered your site via a SERP, that doesn’t mean they clicked back to that SERP. They could have closed the page or navigated directly to another site.
Dwell Time Is NOT Average Time on Page
Dwell time also has been used somewhat interchangeably with average time on page.
But average time on page is simply that – the amount of time someone spends on one of your pages, on average.
That user may have gotten to that page from social media, a link on another webpage, an email, or some other source.
Dwell Time Is NOT Session Duration
How about session duration? Also not dwell time.
The session duration metric measures how long someone spent on your site.
If a user’s session didn’t begin with a search, it certainly can’t end back on the same search results page.
Dwell Time Is NOT Click-Through Rate
Your organic search click-through rate is the percentage of people who clicked on the link to your webpage out of the total number of users who saw that SERP.
This often gets confused with or lumped in with dwell time. But it shouldn’t.
Dwell time is only concerned what happens after the click, not the percentage of searchers who click.
Dwell Time Is NOT RankBrain
This is a huge and probably the most surprising misconception I still read and hear about.
You can read all about RankBrain here. Also, Google’s Gary Illyes recently explained how RankBrain works again.
In simplest terms, Illyes said RankBrain uses historical search data to make predictions about previously unseen queries. RankBrain gathers data from users’ interactions with search results, not how they interact with a piece of content.
Doesn’t that sound like the opposite of dwell time to you? Because it should.
All Clear Now?
One other thing dwell time is not: a publicly available metric you can measure with a third-party tool. Only the search engines have access to dwell time.
Hopefully we’re now all on the same page about what dwell time is and what it is not.
When Does Dwell Time Become a Visit?
Technically, every click is a visit. But let’s be frank… not all visits are created equal.
You alone will know what version of a metric matters most to your own business, but it’s safe to say that for most businesses, a visit of one second (or less) is less than ideal.
At the very least, we can safely say that every business would like people to engage for longer with them.
Now, your analytics package may vary in how they track these instances, but it’s worth viewing your visits sorted by the amount of time a visitor engaged with you.
If you’ve optimized your conversion path, you’ll have an idea of the average time a transaction takes and you can then easily map what a valuable visit tends to look like.
There are a bunch of ways to do such an exercise, but regardless of the method, it’s worth doing it.
How Can You Impact Dwell Time?
There is no one thing you can do to positively impact dwell time. However, there may be instances when doing one thing does have an impact.
What I’m talking about here is focusing on improving the overall user experience and the delivery of useful content on your pages.
Still doing auto-roll videos when a user visits your website? Yeah, users don’t like that.
Don’t bury answers to questions down low on a page below a giant header image.
Be sure to make content easy to find and obvious, so it’s the first thing a visitor sees when they reach your page.
Did you ever wonder why Google and Bing gave guidance on “above the fold” and not having pop-ups, etc?
Part of the reason for that guidance was to improve the user’s experience.
The search engines know that if a searcher lands on a webpage listed in search results, then goes back to the search results almost immediately, there is an increased chance that the searcher will blame the search engine.
If that pattern repeats itself several times, it simply increases a searcher’s frustration with the engine, so it’s a pattern the engines would like to avoid when possible.
Don’t Dwell on Dwell Time
Essentially, dwell time is a measure you should be aware of, but you’re already taking all the correct actions to have the most positive impact on it. If you’re struggling to make your site mobile friendly, you need to fix that.
Page load speeds still slow? Fix that.
If you’re worried that customers will bounce from your site the instant they get the one piece of information they think they need, you need to fix that – work on conversion optimization.
In short, you need to work on that age-old effort of “being sticky.”
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