Time Signal: How to Optimize Dwell Time for Your Website
Not many people would admit this but SEO can be a pretty esoteric field of business. The lack of transparency to how an algorithm decides a ranking for a particular page is one contributing factor but as the algorithm itself grew more and more sophisticated, the sheer amount and complexity of factors (some of which have never been made abundantly clear) to be considered in ranking a page definitely isn’t helping. Some, like links and contents have been confirmed by the developers themselves to be the most prominent factors, while the rest is left to imagination of SEO services and practitioners.
Consider this, Google once proclaimed that they factor in over 200 signals for determining page rankings and that was way back in 2006, when BlackBerry was synonymous with phones and the only royal wedding we know of was of Charles and Diana and/or Camilla. With the rise of machine learning and Google’s very own RankBrain, there is actually a distinct possibility that Google themselves aren’t fully aware of what goes on behind their own search algorithm. This doesn’t mean that SEO itself is a futile endeavor though, on a scale between the exact nature of math and the metaphysical nature of theology, SEO lies somewhere in the middle. One of the currently contested issues in ranking factor right now is the question of dwell time.
All great achievements require time
Put simply, dwell time is the amount of time a visitor spend on your site (your site, not one single page) before said visitor returns to the search engine results page, or SERP for short. Generally, a dwell time is used as a metric on whether the content of a webpage is relevant to what the user was searching for. Note that I used the word relevant instead of a qualitative term because sometimes content can be excellent while still unrelated to what you were looking for. I was for example searching for reviews on the 1992 Merchant-Ivory theatrical adaptation of Howards End only to have links to the 2017 BBC miniseries pop up in the results. In cases like this, it doesn’t matter if said reviews are good or not, it’s simply not what I had in mind.
There’s no confirmation whatsoever whether dwell time is considered a ranking factor but Google have confirmed that dwell time as a metric is one of the data they use to feed their machine learning system so it does matter, if indirectly and to a still unknown degree. Still, as the practice of SEO itself is based on the idea of optimizing for users instead of an algorithm, it can’t hurt for you to figure just how to improve dwell time for your website. Some of the ways to do that include:
- First impression matters
You shouldn’t leave your users with a wrong impression and pull them in the wrong direction when all you want to do is make a connection. This means no especially intrusive popups and ads and if you’ve been using autoplay videos perhaps try and stop using that to see if it translates to better dwell time. Next up is making sure that your website is as ergonomic as it possibly can. Style over substance might work in certain cases but in optimizing for dwell time, it is not exactly a good idea to sacrifice usability. The final point concerns the actual aesthetics of your website, it is important for your aesthetic to be in keeping with the kind of message you want to send to your visitors and vice-versa. It’s called design language for a reason, because design could be used as a form of communication.
- Page optimization
This concerns two things, one of which is how quickly could your site load in less-than-ideal connection. This one is technical as the things you could do to improve this is intimately related to the underlining code behind your webpage, which includes using compression for your actual page and the images, optimizing your code to remove unnecessary lines and leveraging browser caching. If your business operates on a global level, try using content delivery networks (CDN) to better serve faraway customers. The second one deals with the mobile-friendliness of your website. Earlier this year, Google has started rolling out mobile-first indexing, a method in which the mobile version of your website is used for the purpose of indexing and ranking. If you haven’t optimized your site for mobile, take a look at the concept of responsive web design (RWD), it is widely considered to be the best practice in optimizing for both desktop and mobile.
- Internal links
As stated above, dwell time measures the time a visitor spend on your site, not just one single page, before going back to the SERP and as such, it is in your best interest to include links to other pages from within your article. If you’ve ever jumped into the Wikipedia wormhole, like the time I went from reading about Kazuo Ishiguro to being fascinated at the notorious Formula 1 six-wheeler oddity that is the Tyrell P34, then you have an idea just how absorbing links can be as long as the content is fascinating. The easiest of course is to link certain technical words to another article from your site relating to said words. The other method is to include snippets from a currently trending post to the sidebar to induce curiosity from your visitor.
What’s problematic about dwell time is that there is still no way to measure this metric. SEO services and practitioners within the industry uses time on page and bounce rate (the ratio of users who left your site after visiting only one page), both of which are available in Google Analytics, as a yardstick to measure dwell time but this is not an ideal method. This issue, coupled with Google’s relatively opaque attitude in regards to their algorithm leads to business owners and marketers to avoid this metric entirely and focus on ones that are quantifiable. This is fair but also somewhat misguided. Dwell time is an important indicator for site engagement, which is exactly what content marketing is all about.