SEO: Dwelling on Dwell Time (The Hidden Analytics Metric)

Dwell Time or “dwellz” as the young SEO’s in our office like to call it (ok , no one really calls it that) is a really hot topic in the SEO world right now. Some folks call it a ranking signal, citing Google patents and other references, while other people just consider it an important part of SEO. Either way dwell time is a huge buzz word being used in SEO blogs, conferences, and every SEO report from here to Poughkeepsie!

Also a brief note, and I had to check with a few colleagues about this but some folks refer to dwell time as a “long click.” I’m not sure of the origin of this, it might be regional but it is definitely a word people use to describe dwell time.

I’ll admit, up until a few months ago I had the definition of dwell time a little twisted. I was kind of merging the terms dwell time + time on site (they are really close) but eventually got it straightened out after reading about it a bit more in a few studies.

My Definition of Dwell Time: Dwell time is the time it takes starting when a user clicks on a Google search result, visit the website, and ends when the user clicks ‘back’ to the search results.

Another definition of dwell time¹: Dwell time” is the amount of time that elapses between you clicking a search result and returning back to the SERPs.

Dwell time is not something most analytics measure, or really have the ability to measure. Unlike most analytic metrics and measurements this is a metric that Google measures, rather than webmasters measure.

Example dwell times can be anywhere from a few seconds, to several hours theoretically. Again, its tough to really measure because we don’t have access to all the data we need to calculate it.

If you want a really confusing definition, check out the definition on Wikipedia which sounds a lot more like “time on site” than dwell time.

For you visual learners, dwell time is the time it takes for me to Google “funny cat pics” find my favorite website, click buzfeed.com in Google search results, look at some cat pics, and then head back to Google:

The last part is key…navigate “back” to Google. That last part (“navigates back to Google”) is the key difference between time on site and dwell time.

Today, I’m not here to argue with anyone, like I usually am. I’m not here to tell Joshua Hardwick¹ that his post on Ahrefs about dwell time is whack (its really quite good) or that Hristo Hristov’s post stating it is a Google Ranking factor is wrong (albeit bold.)

What I’m here to talk about today is that dwell time doesn’t happen nearly as often as we think it does, because people are browsing the web much differently than they used to.

Dwell Time Disrupted!

It may sound cliche, but people are browsing the web and using search engines a lot differently than they used to even 3 years ago. People are using web browsers differently, they are using devices differently, and they are using search engines differently.

There are so many different configurations of devices, browsers, apps, and habits. They use apps, they use voice, they use non-default browsers.  If you peruse our office, most of the web browsers you see have 5-20 tabs open and quite often more than one window or browser open at a time. I personally keep 1 regular window open, and 1 incognito window open at all times.

People use proxies, they use VPN’s, they use Tor, they log into VPS’s, they remote desktop into their work computers. Some people “double fist” their Googlez. They search using their phone or iPad, and navigate the web using a PC or laptop.

We don’t always click “back” to the search results. We open new search results. Some of us have dedicated search results tabs.

All of these modern day browsing behaviors are now becoming the norm. This isn’t just directed towards power users. What was once considered a power user can now be equated to the average 14 year old girl or boy.

Let’s take a look at another common Google navigation habit:

Does anyone else do this?

I’ve seen many people do this, not just high functioning power users. After they open a group of websites from Google search engine, they’ll close out that tab, not return to it, or return to it after browsing all of the opened tabs and perform a new search, or navigate somewhere else on Google.

Another popular habit of Google users: I’ve seen a lot of people rapidly:

go to a result A > click back > go to result B > click back > go back to result A > click back…

This happens a lot for people:

I’m getting a bit off track here, but my point is that some webpages inherently have shorter dwell times than others.

This doesn’t throw dwell time completely out with the bathwater, but it does add a huge wrench into the mix. In the above scenario, the user never heads “back” to Google because they’ve opened their 3 choices in a new tab concurrently. In most cases the original “search tab” will be closed out completely because all the tabs are already open.

Mobile browsing habits are very similar. Android users are all over the place. Most of them use the Google Now app to search (or voice search which is a totally different subject.) Google Now for Android actually opens a new instance for each search regardless if you use voice or text. While there is a way to go back, most people don’t even realize it is there.

iOS users can really vary, some use Siri, others use Google.com on a web browser and I suppose a few of them use Google Now app as well. I can say this confidently: most browsing habits of iOS users I’ve seen don’t use the “back” button nearly as much as they used to. I’m seeing more and more people “open in new window” or even copying links and pasting into a new browser tab.

Just let me reiterate, I’m not saying people don’t click “back” to go to the SERPs…I’m just saying it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to, or in the same manner as it used to.

Google knows all of this, and they are always looking for new ways to understand our behaviors to try to give us the best search results possible.

Improving Your Dwell Time

This wouldn’t be an SEO blog post if it didn’t have a few quick tips. Here are a few tips on how to improve your “dwell time” which are pretty much synonymous with improving your bounce rate or time on site:

There are tons of more ways to improve the dwell time of the users on your site. Some of them are really straightforward such as adding a “related posts” type of addon, while others can take days/weeks to accomplish such as improving your site speed.

Black Hat Dwell Time

Coombe’s Law states: “show me an SEO method, and I’ll show you a blackhat way to do it.” Ok, I just made that up, but it is pretty much true.

You might be wondering, “how on Earth can you find a blackhat way to mess with dwell time.” Where there is a will, there is a way.

There are dozens of ways and like many SEO methods, none of them are 100% proven, but many people have made some correlations.

A few years ago our dear friend Rand Fishkin ran an interesting experiment (we’ll call this grey hat) asking folks:

Basically he got a few hundred people to search for a keyword, find a particular result, “dwell” on that website for a period of time, then click back.

Other blackhat dwell time methods are a bit more evil. There are several software applications that utilize proxies, IP addresses and/or end user PC’s to mimic behaviors of real users. I’ve tested several of these applications (for research purposes only, of course) and they mostly seem buggy at best. I think if there was a good solution out there more people would be using it but for the most part they seem shoddy.

There are other websites such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk where you can hire droves of people to perform “micro” tasks such as liking a facebook post, voting for something online or, you guessed it: searching for something online. The bad part about this is you are essentially putting yourself out there for Google to see and potentially open yourself to some sort of “action” from Google, although I’ve never heard of this happening.

SEO: Business as usual

The fact that dwell time might not be as big of a factor as we probably thought shouldn’t change the way you “SEO” at all. You should still be trying to keep people on your site any way.

Google makes correlations about the way we browse, just like we make correlations about the way Google’s algorithm works.

Keep making good websites, writing good content, making good images, making engaging videos and people will dwell for days. In the mean time, don’t dwell on the negative! 🙂

 

Patrick Coombe
Patrick Coombe is the founder and CEO of Elite Strategies Llc. Patrick takes a hands on approach to managing Elite Strategies and loves to get involved with technical projects relating to clients inbound marketing needs.
Patrick Coombe
Patrick Coombe
  1 COMMENT
Analytics Blog Search SEO
  • Written by: Grace

    definitely agree about your “back button” theory although I think search engines such as Google are taking this into account with, possibly ex. device/browser/user identifiers.

    For example as you stated there is no back button in Google Now, but Google surely has a way to measure users that search for a site, visit it, and then initiate a new search.

    Either way interesting theories thanks for sharing!

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