One metric that is often talked about in articles, on social media, and at conferences is dwell time. Some people in the SEO community still don’t understand it very well, though.
How does dwell time work? Does it really get used by search engines? Is it used to rank things? If so, what can you do to change it?
This post should help you understand anything you don’t understand.
History of Dwell Time
When I look up the meaning of the word “dwell,” I find the following:
- stay or live in a certain place.
- (dwell on/upon)
- (think, talk, or write for a long time about) (a particular subject, especially one that is a source of unhappiness, anxiety, or dissatisfaction).
linger over means to think about something for a long time.
- a regular, small break in the movement of a machine
For our purposes, we’re going to pay more attention to the synonyms and change the idea to the phrase “dwell time.”
You may have heard this phrase before, since I’ve been using it since I was in charge of Webmaster Tools at Bing. It was the first time I mentioned it in this post about making good content:
I spent time with the search engineers and the Spam team, among other people, when I was inside the engine. As a professional in SEO, you can imagine how interesting it was to get answers that made sense and sometimes didn’t.
Dwell time was one of those ideas that made perfect sense once it was explained, and it was clear right away that this could be a very important metric for figuring out how happy searchers are.
What Is Dwell Time?
Dwell time is the amount of time a person spends looking at a page after clicking a link on a SERP page but before clicking back to the SERP results.
You’ve probably done this a lot of times before. It’s the short time you take to think about the website you just clicked on. Either it gave you the answer right away, or it was such a clear mistake that you hit the back button right away.
This metric should be useful to a search engine because the more time you spend reading the content of a page you clicked to visit, the more likely it is that that page met your needs.
That’s a generalization, since we could find flaws in that theory in a number of edge-case situations, but in the broadest sense, it’s true. And the opposite is also mostly true: the less time you spend on that page, the less likely you are to be happy with it.
But if you want to know what the weather is like, a quick look at the page may be enough. In situations like that, a metric based on dwell time would have to take that into account: a short time means satisfaction.
So you can see that it’s not as simple as just applying a general idea.
But it is a metric that is used and would have some value if it were used to rank things.
How important it is as a metric depends on a lot of different things, so chasing dwell time is not a good way to spend your time.
Still, it’s a good idea for a website that wants to keep people interested to work on bigger changes. This might make people stay there longer, but that shouldn’t be the only thing you think about or reason you do something.
What Dwell Time is Not
There is a startling quantity of inaccurate information on dwell time available. Dwell time is frequently misunderstood and grouped with other very unrelated measures.
So let me make a few points about what dwell time is not before we move on.
Please keep in mind that the search engine uses dwell time as a metric. This article focuses on how long users stay on results after clicking them and how long they stay there before returning to the SERP.
Dwell Time is Not Bounce Rate
When someone visits one page on your website before leaving, this is known as a bounce.
Therefore, your website’s bounce rate is calculated as the proportion of single-page sessions to all other sessions (or an individual page).
Individuals who bounce? Not all of them originate from a SERP.
Additionally, just because some of the bouncers came to your site via a SERP doesn’t guarantee they went back to it. They have the option of exiting the page or going straight to another one.
Average Time on Page is Not Dwell Time.
Some people have also used “dwell time” and “average time on page” in the same way.
But average time on page is just what it sounds like: the average amount of time someone spends on one of your pages.
This user may have found that page through social media, a link on another website, an email, or some other way.
Dwell Time is Not Session Duration
How about the length of the session? Also not dwell time.
The session duration metric tells you how long someone was on your site.
A user’s session can’t end on the same search results page if it didn’t start with a search.
Click-through Rate is Not the Same as Dwell Time
The number of people who clicked on the link to your website out of all the people who saw that SERP is your organic search click-through rate.
This is often mixed up with dwell time or grouped with it. It shouldn’t, though.
Dwell time only looks at what happens after someone clicks, not how many people click.
Dwell Time is Not Rankbrain
This is a big mistake and one of the most surprising ones I still read and hear.
Here, you can learn everything about RankBrain. Gary Illyes from Google recently went over how RankBrain works again.
Illyes said that RankBrain uses past search data to make predictions about queries it has never seen before. RankBrain gets information about how people use search results, not how they use a piece of content.
That sounds like the opposite of “dwell time,” doesn’t it? It should, that’s why.
How Does Dwell Time Turn Into a Visit?
Technically, each click is the same as a visit. But let’s be honest: not every visit is the same.
Only you will know which version of a metric is most important to your 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, it’s safe to say that every business wants their customers to stay with them longer.
Now, your analytics package may track this in a different way, but it’s a good idea to sort your visits by how long a visitor spent on your site.
If you’ve optimised your conversion path, you’ll know how long a transaction takes on average, which will make it easy to map out what a valuable visit usually looks like.
There are many ways to do this kind of exercise, but no matter how you do it, you should do it.
How Can You Impact Dwell Time?
There is no one thing that will make people stay longer. There may be times, though, when doing one thing does make a difference.
What I’m talking about here is putting your attention on improving the overall user experience and making sure your pages have useful content.
Still have videos that play automatically when a user goes to your website? Users don’t like that, that’s true.
Don’t put answers to questions way down at the bottom of a page, under a big image at the top.
Make sure content is easy to find and easy to see, so it’s the first thing people see when they go to your page.
Did you ever wonder why Google and Bing told you to keep things “above the fold” and not have pop-ups, etc.?
One reason for the instructions was to make the user’s experience better.
The search engines know that if a person clicks on a search result page and then goes back to the search results almost right away, they are more likely to blame the search engine.
If that pattern happens more than once, it just makes the searcher more upset with the engine, so search engines try to avoid it as much as possible.
Don’t Think About Dwell Time.
Dwell time is basically a measure you should be aware of, but you’re already doing everything right to have the best effect on it. If your site is hard to make mobile-friendly, you should fix that.
Still slow to load pages? Change that.
Work on conversion optimization if you’re worried that customers will leave your site as soon as they find the one piece of information they think they need.
In short, you need to work on “being sticky,” which is an old idea.