Think of dwell time as someone loitering with intent on your website… but in a good way! 

Dwell time is the amount of time your website visitors spend looking at a page on your site after they’ve clicked on your link, before returning to Search Engine Results Pages or SERPs.

The longer a visitor spends on a webpage on your site when arriving from the SERPs, the more likely it is that they value your content.

Ahrefs does a great job of explaining how dwell time can be interpreted:

  • 2-second dwell time: I didn’t find what I wanted or expected on your site. So, I quickly went back to the SERPs to find something better.
  • 2-minute dwell time: I found your content pretty useful and stuck around a couple of minutes to read it.
  • 15-minute dwell time: I found your content super-useful and was heavily-invested in what you had to say.

No doubt your website searches as a customer follow a similar pattern. 

You land on a webpage from the SERPs, do a quick scan of the content, and either it gives the answer you were looking for or it fails hopelessly, and you retreat to the SERPs.

Dwell time as a metric

You’d think that dwell time is a high-value metric to search engines. After all, the more time a visitor spends on your website consuming the on-page content, the higher the probability that the page satisfies a visitor’s needs.

However, it’s not that simple, as we could poke several holes in this theory. For example, a visitor could arrive on a site to check the weather forecast. All it takes is a quick glance, the visitor got what they needed, and they’re gone in a matter of seconds.

In this scenario, a metric based on dwell time would need to account for short time equalling satisfaction.

Despite this, surely dwell time is still a good indicator of the quality and relevancy of a given search result, right? More on this later…

… For now, let’s deal with what dwell time isn’t.

What dwell time is not

Dwell time is massively misunderstood, which means it’s often confused with completely different metrics.

So, bear in mind that dwell time is “the amount of time your website visitors spend looking at a page on your site after they’ve clicked on your link, before returning to Search Engine Results Pages or SERPs,” which means that it is not:

  • Bounce rate: This metric measures website visitors who view only one page and then exit your site. Bounce rate is simply the percentage of single-page sessions on your site divided by the total number of sessions on your site or an individual web page.

Visitors who bounce off your site don’t all arrive from the SERPs and even if they did, it doesn’t mean they returned to them. They could have closed the website page or navigated straight to another website.

  • Average time on page: Dwell time is often lumped in with average time on page, but average time on page is exactly what it says it is – the time spent on a webpage, on average.

It’s possible that a visitor to your site could have arrived from a link on social media, directly from another website, an email, a newsletter or another source, and not directly from the SERPs

  • Session duration: This metric measures how long a visitor spends on your site. If the visitor’s session didn’t begin with a search, it’s impossible for them to return to the same search results page.
  • Click-through rate (CTR): Dwell time is commonly confused with CTR. What makes them different? Well, CTR is the percentage of people who click on a link of yours in the SERPs out of the total number of people who see that SERP.

Remember, dwell time is only focused on what happens after a click and not the percentage of people who click.

On a side note, it’s worth knowing that unlike all the metrics mentioned above, dwell time is not publicly available and cannot be measured by any tool.

Dwell time is only accessible to search engines.

Is dwell time a ranking factor?

The debate over whether dwell time is a ranking factor continues to rumble on among the SEO community.

The truth is… no one knows. 

There’s plenty of speculation, but if you were to ask the search engines directly, they’re all non-committal in their response.

Google has neither confirmed nor denied that dwell time is a ranking factor, while Bing has said that search engines can ‘get a sense of visitor satisfaction based on dwell time,’ but steered clear of saying that it is a ranking factor.

A blog posted by WordStream, suggests that a change to a Google algorithm indicates that the search engine giant has considered dwell time to be a ranking factor in the past.

How did WordStream get to this conclusion? Well, it was when Google introduced a feature that gave the option to block all results from specific domains.

Apparently, Google introduced the option to block a domain based on dwell time. The ins and outs of Google’s criteria for this is, and will most likely remain, a mystery. 

However, several SEO commentators believe that a shorter dwell time would trigger the option for a visitor to block a domain.

The introduction of the ‘More by’ feature to search results also sparked suspicions that Google was focusing on dwell time as a ranking signal.

This function was linked to authorship. Verified content creators posting articles with long dwell times, were reportedly rewarded with higher SERP placements and the addition of ‘More by’ links beneath their primary search result.

However, both the ‘more by’ and domain blocking features have since been scrapped by Google. So, it remains anyone’s guess whether dwell time is a ranking factor.

In 2011, Duane Forrester, Senior Project Manager for Bing, said: “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.”

Meanwhile, in 2017, head honcho of Google Brain, Nick Frost, said this at a conference: 

“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].”

This seemingly suggested that Google does consider dwell time to be a ranking factor.

However, neither Bing, Google or any other search engine for that matter, have definitively said it’s a factor for ranking, and it’s unlikely that they ever will.

Should you care about dwell time?

If it’s not a ranking factor, there’s no need to worry. However, the silence around the subject suggests that is probably is. So, let’s work on the assumption that it is a ranking factor.

What can you do to improve it?

#1 – Produce high value content: You want people to hang around on your site, right and complete any actions that get them to buy? So, give them something to stick around for and mix up your content. Use blogs, video, infographics, slideshows and make them useful, entertaining and accessible.

#2 – Work on your internal linking: Given that dwell time is measured based on the time of arrival on a page and returning to the SERPs, it’s good practice to give visitors somewhere else to go on your site once they’ve read content on a specific page.

So, strengthen your internal linking to improve the user experience for your site visitors. A strong internal linking strategy enables search engine spiders to index your site in-depth and boost your search engine rankings.

#3 – Improve your visitor engagement tactics: Quality content is the most powerful tool for keeping site visitors engaged. To increase dwell time, add recommended articles at the end of individual blog posts. Once they’ve finished that post, direct them to an article that’s closely connected to the one they’ve read.

The opportunity for a visitor to learn more about a topic they’re interested in should deter them from returning to the SERPs.

#4 – Use ‘pageless’ scrolling design on your website: You’ll have to be careful with this one because if done badly it can seriously harm your SEO. This is down to the fact that search engines aren’t human and are unable to mimic user behaviour such as clicking and scrolling.

However, there is a solution to this problem. To help search engine crawlers index the content on a scrolling page, divide the page into paginated sections. Each section will need a similar <title> tag and the following values will need to be declared in the <head> tag:  rel=“next” and rel=“prev”.

Do everything as if dwell time is a ranking factor

We will most likely never know if dwell time is or isn’t a ranking factor. But it doesn’t matter. If you’re increasing the amount of time visitors are spending on your site and reducing the bounce rate anyway that’s only good.

Great content will cause visitors to stick around, while potentially increasing your conversion rate. If it turns out dwell time has a bearing on your ranking, as long as you’re doing all the right things, you’re all good.

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