The problem: “dwell time” is a confusing (and generally misunderstood) metric.
I mean, what the heck does “dwell time” actually mean anyway, and what’s all this business about it being a ranking factor?
Even if we assume that “dwell time” is indeed a “ranking factor”, it still begs the question: is it really that important, and should you actually be optimising for it?
In this post, we’ll be answering all these questions (and more) once and for all.
Oh, and we also reached out to some of the biggest names in the SEO industry to get their take on the matter.
Let’s get started!
What is “Dwell Time”?
“Dwell time” is the amount of time that elapses between you clicking a search result and returning back to the SERPs.
For example, let’s assume I do a search for “whitehat link building”:
Naturally, I click the first result and I spend a few minutes reading the content on that page (5 minutes 14 seconds, to be exact):
Because I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with learning, I then decide I want to know even more, so I head back to the SERPs (via the “back’ button in my browser) to look for more content.
My “dwell time” on that page, then, was roughly 5 minutes 14 seconds (i.e. the amount of time that elapsed between the moment I clicked through to that page in the SERPs and the moment I returned)
OK, so we understand what “dwell time” is, but why does this matter for SEO?
A Brief History of “Dwell Time”
“Dwell time” was first mentioned by Duane Forrester (Senior Project Manager for Bing) in his 2011 post on the Bing webmaster blog:
Here’s what he said:
[“dwell time” is] the time between when a user clicks on our search result and when they come back from your website tells a potential story.
A minute or two is good as it can easily indicate the visitor consumed your content. Less than a couple of seconds can be viewed as a poor result.
But still, why does this really matter to a search engine?
Here’s what Duane 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.
OK, makes sense.
He’s basically saying the longer a user spends on your website (after clicking through from the SERPs), the more likely it is that they found your content useful.
After all, Google’s primary goal (along with Bing and other search engines) is to provide users with the most appropriate, relevant and useful search result, so it’s easy to see how looking at “dwell time” could provide some insight into whether or not a page fits the bill.
Here are a few “dwell time” examples and how they could be interpreted:
- 2 second “dwell time”: The user probably didn’t find what they wanted/expected from your site (more on this later) and went back to the SERPs pretty sharpish looking for better content.
- 2 minute “dwell time”: The user found your content pretty useful and stuck around a couple of minutes to read it.
- 15 minute “dwell time”: The user found your content super-useful and was heavily-invested in what you had to say.
It’s not too far-fetched, then, to imagine that search engines could be using this information to help determine whether or not your page fulfils searcher intent for a particular query, and therefore should rank higher for said query.
We’ll talk more about “dwell time as a ranking factor” later in this guide but first, let’s clear something up:
‘Dwell Time’ vs. ‘Bounce Rate’ + ‘Time on Page’: What’s the Difference?
If there’s one word that embodies these three metrics as a whole, it’s this:
I’ve actually seen a few SEOs using these metrics somewhat interchangeably (important: these three metrics are not interchangeable), and it seems that even some of the smartest and respectable SEO’s can’t help but get mixed-up from time-to-time:
For example, here’s what Brian Dean has to say about “dwell time”:
Google pays very close attention to “dwell time”: how long people spend on your page when coming from a Google search. This is also sometimes referred to as ‘long clicks vs short clicks’. If people spend a lot of time on your site, that may be used as a quality signal.
I’m genuinely in awe of Brian’s work and while this definition isn’t entirely wrong (in fact, it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen), unfortunately, he doesn’t mention the part about the user returning to the search results, which is actually super-important.
He also directly follows this definition with a video about reducing bounce rate:
This could be perceived as somewhat confusing.
So — in the interest of clearing up any potential confusion — here’s what these metrics mean (in plain English):
- “Dwell time”: the amount of time that elapses between the moment a user clicks a particular result in the search results and subsequently returns back to them.
- “Bounce rate”: the percentage of single-page sessions (source) — i.e. visitors who chose only to visit one page on your website before leaving (important: these people may have returned to the SERPs or simply closed the page, it doesn’t matter which. It also makes no difference whether they stuck around for 2 seconds or 2 hours, it’s still technically a “bounce’).
- “Time on Page”: the amount of time a visitor spent on your page before going anywhere else (this could be back to the SERPs, to another page on your website, to a bookmarked page; literally anywhere)
It’s also worth noting that while “time on page” and “bounce rate” are easily accessible metrics in Google Analytics:
You won’t find any such metric for “dwell time”.
If Google (or any other search engine for that matter) is actually using some kind of “dwell time” metric into their algorithm, they’re certainly not sharing this fact (or any of the data) with us.
Because of this, SEO’s can only speculate as to how Google may be calculating “dwell time” and how they may be using it in their algorithm.
Is “Dwell Time” a Google Ranking Factor?
Right now, there’s no official statement from Google regarding whether-or-not “dwell time” is a ranking factor (although I personally believe this would make sense — more on this in a minute) but either way, there’s one incredibly important point you should understand:
“Dwell time” would only kick-in as a (possible) ranking factor once you rank in the top 10.
Here’s why: if you’re not on the first page, you’ll be getting very little (if any) traffic as it is, which means there’ll be hardly anyone “dwelling” on your page — not even for a couple seconds.
So, no matter how much you “optimise for ‘dwell time’”, you’re not going to get any additional traffic (or see any other benefits whatsoever).
The bottom-line is this: if you’re not already on the first page, don’t worry about “dwell time” — worry about other (more important) factors that will get you to the top 10.
OK, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why it could potentially make sense for Google to use “dwell time” as a ranking factor:
It’s a Good Indicator of Relevance (User Intent)
Let’s take the search term “paleo diet for beginners”:
It’s clear from this query that we’re new to the concept of the “paleo diet’ and we’re looking for a definitive “beginners guide” to get us started.
Now, ranking in position #1, we have NerdFitness:
If you’ve ever read this guide, you’ll know it’s insanely extensive and covers pretty much everything you could ever want to know about the paleo diet (a fact backed up by the insane number of comments it has):
I spent roughly 15+ minutes reading through this (this would be my dwell time) when I first found it before returning to the SERPs; it was:
- Incredibly extensive
- All on one page (no need to visit more pages really)
Or, to put it simply: it fulfilled the search intent perfectly, as it truly is the definitive “paleo diet for beginners”.
In contrast, let’s take a look at this page (currently ranking #6 for the same query):
It doesn’t take long to realise that the content is nowhere near as extensive as the guide from NerdFitness (and nor is the overall UX particularly great).
Here are just a few of the issues:
- Content is relatively thin at around 500 words (not really the in-depth “beginners guide” we were looking for)
- Information is pretty basic
- It’s plastered with ads (this is usually enough for me to close a page immediately)
To put it simply: although it’s semi-relevant from a topical perspective, it doesn’t actually fulfil the intent of the user (as we were looking for something a lot more in-depth, not just a basic overview).
Because of this, I doubt my “dwell time” was any longer than 30 seconds on this page as honestly — as soon as I realised it offered very little value and the ads started to annoy me — I headed back to the SERPs in search of better content.
Here’s an overview of my “dwell time” + overall experience for these two sites:
NerdFitness: I stayed 15+ minutes before returning to the SERPs (so a 15-minute “dwell time”) because I found the content super-useful and was heavily invested in what it had to say (i.e. it perfectly matched user intent).
FitnessMagazine.com: I stayed <30 seconds before returning to the SERPs (so a <30-second “dwell time”) because I didn’t find what I really wanted (i.e. it didn’t really fulfil user intent and was only semi-relevant)
In theory, then, “dwell time” does appear to be a good indicator of whether-or-not a result is both relevant and serves the overall intent of the query.
It (Potentially) Trumps Bounce Rate as a Ranking Signal
I’m still not saying that “dwell time” is a ranking signal but if it was, it would make a lot more sense than looking at “bounce rate” (in my opinion).
Why? Because “bounce rate” is pretty sketchy as a “ranking signal” to say the least.
Here are two reasons why it’s a poor “signal”:
- Users often “bounce” for any number of reasons and therefore, this metric alone doesn’t offer any truly definitive insight as to whether or not the user had a good or bad experience on your site.
- There’s no real way to determine whether or not the information on a page fulfilled the overall intent of the query solely from looking at “bounce rate”.
To illustrate this, let’s go back to our previous example (the “paleo” one).
Because I only visited one page on each of the sites, I technically “bounced” on both (even though my experience on each was completely different).
Not a good start for “bounce rate”, then, and it gets even worse when you consider how these visits would look in GA:
Here’s my 15+ minute visit to NerdFitness:
And here’s my <30-second visit to FitnessMagazine.com:
Not only do these two (in reality, very different) visits appear to be 100% identical, they also both state that my “time on page” was exactly 0 seconds.
Clearly, this isn’t true, so what’s going on here?
In order for GA to calculate the “time on page”, it needs two clicks: an entrance click and an exit click. If there’s no exit click (e.g. the user clicking through to another page on your website), GA can’t calculate the “time on page”.
Here’s a great explanation from AnalyticsEdge.com:
For sessions where the user only looked at one page (a “bounce”), the Time on Page and the Session Duration is 0. This isn’t because Google knows they left right away — it is because they didn’t have any indication of when the user left so they couldn’t calculate the Time on Page, and they consider the lack of a value means 0.
They go on to say:
It [“time on page”] could have been 10 seconds or 10 minutes; they don’t know, so they say 0. Did the user read your web page? They don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. All we know is that they didn’t look at another page on your site within the next 30 minutes (that’s how long a default session lasts).
And that’s not the only potential issue with using bounce rate as a ranking factor either as in order for Google to do so, they would actually need to mine Google Analytics data (as there’s literally no other way to figure out the “bounce rate” of a page).
But, Google’s official stance is that they don’t use any GA data in the algorithm:
So, by Google’s own admission, “bounce rate” is not a ranking factor.
Here are two good reasons why:
- Not everyone uses GA: It was reported in 2012 that 10+ million websites had Google Analytics installed. If we assume that figure has grown ten-fold over the last 4 years (which it probably hasn’t), it still means that only around 10% of all websites have GA installed (according to current estimates from InternetLiveStats.com).Would Google really be able to decipher anything of true value from analysing “bounce rate” on just 1/10th of the world’s websites? Maybe, but I suspect the data would be predominantly useless.
- GA is often incorrectly installed: If you’ve ever done an SEO audit, you’ll know how important it is to check that GA is installed correctly. Mis-installations are more common than you might think, which can lead to inflated “bounce rates” (amongst other metrics).This would be inaccurate data for Google.
The bottom-line is this: even if Google was secretly using “bounce rate” data from GA in their algorithm, it’s highly probable that they would be able to decipher almost nothing of value from these “bounced” visits.
IMO, this is where “dwell time” (potentially) trumps bounce rate as a ranking signal, as it would be super-easy for search engines to both collect and incorporate “dwell time” data into their respective algorithms.
For example, let’s assume you Google “iPhone 7 review” and click one of the first few results:
Google can simply start a virtual stopwatch the moment you click your chosen search result.
If and when you return back to the SERPs, Google could click the hypothetical “stop” button on their virtual stopwatch and, hey presto, they know exactly how long you spent on that site (i.e. your “dwell time”).
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “how does Google know I’ve gone back to the search results?”; here are two possible methods:
- Chrome browser data: According to the latest figures from W3Schools, 72.4% of people now use Chrome. Being Google’s own browser, they probably know when you click the “back” button and return to the SERPs.
- “Next click” analysis: If you go back to the SERPs, it’ll probably only be a couple seconds before you click-through to another result. Google could wait for this click and thus, decipher a rough “dwell time” for your previous click.
It’s clear then that with a bit of data mining, Google could almost certainly uncover some useful information from these methods and potentially use anything they learn in the algorithm.
Google’s has (Possibly) Experimented with “Dwell Time” Before
Some of you may remember that back in 2011, Google experimented with adding the option “block all example.com results” to the SERPs:
It was speculated in the SEO community at the time that Google was primarily using “dwell time” as a means to show this option.
Here’s how it worked: if you clicked through to a page and stayed for a few seconds (i.e. a short “dwell time”), you would see the addition of “block all example.com results” on that result upon returning to the SERPs.
Note: This post also states that Google showed a “plus” option when “dwell time” (supposedly) was high; I can’t find any screenshots of this, though, so here’s a mockup:
Google also experimented with the “more by [AUTHOR NAME]” feature in the SERPs back in 2012, which looked like this:
Here’s a more detailed overview of how it worked:
- User clicks through to an authorship-enhanced result in the SERPs
- User spends a good chunk of time on the page (~15 minutes)
- User clicks the “back’ button to go back to the SERPs
- User is greeted with a “more by [AUTHOR NAME] button under the same search result they previously clicked.
Right now, it looks as though nothing became of these experiments (as authorship is pretty much completely gone), although I personally have a hunch this isn’t the case (keep reading!)
(Potential) Caveats for “Dwell Time” as a Ranking Factor
So at a first glance then, the idea that Google may be using “dwell time” as a ranking factor not only seems pretty logical but also quite likely.
But, as the saying goes: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Here are a few (potential) issues with using “dwell time” as a ranking factor:
It doesn’t work well for simple question queries
Let’s take the search query “when did robot wars stop airing?”, for example:
Right now, this doesn’t bring up a knowledge graph result and thus, you have to click through to one of the results to find your answer.
If you click through to the top result (from Wikipedia), you find your answer in the first sentence:
Following this, you’ll probably then return to the search results quite fast (meaning “dwell time” will be pretty low — likely <10 seconds).
However, this doesn’t correlate to a bad UX; you found the information you were looking for (and more) pretty sharpish.
Here’s what Eric Enge had to say on the matter:
There are many scenarios where SHORTER dwell time is an indication of quality. For example, anytime someone is looking for a quick piece of reference information, such as a zip code or phone number for a business. For informational searches like these, you want to design your pages so users find what they want pretty much immediately.
So, in this example, although the “dwell time” was pretty low (which may theoretically indicate a potential problem), this was almost certainly the most appropriate and relevant result for the #1 spot.
It doesn’t work well when you’re searching for a specific page
A couple of months ago, I listened to a great interview with Richard Branson.
Last week, I decided I wanted to listen to it again but couldn’t remember exactly which one it was.
All I remembered was that it was a pretty long podcast about Virgin (obviously), so I went ahead and Googled “Richard Branson podcast virgin”.
The result: many results!
I clicked the #1 result (naturally), but after a few seconds on the page, I realised this wasn’t the one I was looking for; I head back to the SERPs and click the next result.
Nope, not that one either.
Finally, after sifting through a few results, I find the one I was looking for.
But, here’s the thing: because my “dwell time” was extremely low on the first few pages I clicked, this could have potentially had a negative effect on the page/site itself (assuming Google uses “dwell time” in their algorithm).
However, there was nothing wrong with the first few results I click; they simply weren’t what I was looking for.
It’s highly likely that most others searching for this phrase are simply looking for any interview with Richard Branson, not a specific one.
It doesn’t work well for “AFA” (Accidental False Advertising) pages
“AFA” results are those that — at first glance — appear to offer exactly the solution/information you were looking for but, upon further inspection (which takes time and thus potentially increases “dwell time”), you realise this isn’t the case.
Here’s an example:
I was recently looking for a Google Sheets template that could scrape Google search results from within Google Sheets itself.
I searched for “google results scraper google sheets” and clicked the first result, which happened to be from SEER Interactive:
At first glance, this looked perfect:
I clicked the link to the included Google Sheets template, (which opened in a new tab, so I never left the SEER website), made a copy of it, and tried it out.
But, after a couple of minutes, I realised the spreadsheet no longer worked and was giving an error.
I clicked back to the SEER tab (I never closed this btw) and scrolled to the comments section to check if others were having the same issue; they were:
I went back to the search results and tried the next few results.
So, although my “dwell time” on the page was quite high (>5 minutes), it didn’t actually fulfil my needs at all and — in its current stage — doesn’t really deserve to rank anywhere in the top 10.
It is easy to manipulate for Black Hat SEOs
Even if we assume that Google genuinely does use “dwell time” as a ranking factor, we’re still in the dark about exactly how they calculate this.
However — and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert here — I get the feeling it probably isn’t that difficult to figure out.
Here’s my best guess:
If this happens to be anywhere near accurate (which it probably is), you could quite easily use bots that mimic human behaviour to artificially inflate “dwell time” and thus, rank higher.
This means that — should Google be using “dwell time” as a ranking factor — they’re going to have to be super-careful not to give it too much weight.
So, while the die-hard “white hat” view may be that simply not knowing the exact algorithm (for calculating “dwell time”) could theoretically make it more efficient as a ranking factor, this isn’t actually true and who knows, we could end up seeing a post like this a couple of years from now (like we did with guest posting):
Should You Be Trying to Improve “Dwell Time”? (and if so, how?)
So, assuming “dwell time” actually exists (by this, I mean assuming Google uses it somewhere in their algorithm), there’s no 1–2 punch tactic you can use to magically improve your “dwell time” overnight.
Google is most likely looking at a lot of different user engagement metrics (“dwell time”, CTR, etc.), so my advice would be this: don’t get obsessed over these metrics.
Instead, focus on creating great content and offering a great UX.
If you can do this, you’ll almost certainly improve your “dwell time” indirectly without really trying.
I reached out to Danny Sullivan (founder of SEL, MarketingLand.com, etc.) to ask his opinion on all this and here’s what he had to say:
I think Google probably tries to measure and use engagement as part of its ranking algorithm. I think precisely how it does this isn’t known, I think too many SEOs obsess that it must be clickthrough rate. It largely doesn’t matter. As marketers, you want people engaging with your content first and foremost. So focus on that, and you’ll probably align with what Google wants
So, instead of listing a bunch of ways to “improve your ‘dwell time’”, here are a bunch of ways you can improve your overall UX and, as Danny suggested, get people engaging with your content:
#1 — Create better content
Pretty obvious, right?
However, I should stress that this doesn’t necessarily mean creating longer content; sometimes the most deserving result for the #1 spot is the most succinct.
Here’s Erics take:
I bet if you ran an experiment to measure the average dwell time on millions of websites and their ranking positions in the SERPs that you would see a strong correlation between dwell time and ranking. Does that mean that I think dwell time is a ranking factor? NO. It just means that there are more searches where a long dwell time means a user is happy than there are searches where a short dwell time does. There are also likely many searches where dwell time is irrelevant as a measure of quality too.
For example, Google the question “is it Christmas?” and you’ll see isitchristmas.com ranking #1.
If you click through to the page, you’ll soon see that it’s a one-word, one-page website:
Now, your “dwell time” on that page is likely to be no more than a few seconds but as Eric pointed out, “dwell time” isn’t always a good measure of quality.
It’s clear that this content is by far the most worthy of the #1 position.
#2 — Make sure to target the right keywords (and don’t ‘clickbait’)
Sometimes keywords may seemingly make sense to target, but if you don’t fully understand your target audience, you may be making errors.
For example, let’s assume that I put together a post entitled “the advanced guide to SEO” and in it, I write about putting keywords in your title tags, meta descriptions, and building links from directories.
Clearly, these aspects of SEO are far from advanced and thus, don’t belong in an advanced SEO guide.
Anyone coming across that page by googling something like ‘advanced SEO guide’ may very well be enticed by the title, but as soon as they click through to the page and see the (poor) content, they’ll most likely head back to the SERPs within seconds.
Here’s what Eric had to say:
In the long run, what Google wants to see is who are the types of people that represent the very best match for your site. It’s obvious who those are – your prospects. Serve them extremely well, and you align your goals and those of Google in the best way possible.
#3 — Improve page load time
According to this infographic by KISSmetrics, 47% of people expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less.
If your website is too slow, people are going to click back to the SERPs and they will never get a chance to see or engage with your content (if this happens, “dwell time” will be zero).
#4 — Make use of a value-adding internal linking structure
A good internal linking structure isn’t just “good for SEO”, or “increasing dwell time”, or “reducing your bounce rate”, it also improves things for your users.
Why? Because a good internal linking structure will direct visitors to pages they genuinely might want to read.
For example, if a visitor reads a post entitled “how to build muscle” on your website, it’s not too farfetched to imagine that they may also be interested in your post about “10 best protein powders”.
#5 — Make sure you have a clear layout
There’s nothing worse than clicking through to a website and feeling confused, bewildered or simply overwhelmed.
Therefore, you should make every effort to ensure that your layout is simple, your content easily digestible, and that all important elements are in prominent positions.
Remember, people are always one click away from thousands of other results; they’re not going to bother reading your post if it’s written in yellow Times New Roman text on a white background, no matter how good it is.
#6 — Remove overly-obtrusive ads/pop-ups
Nobody likes ads; it as simple as that.
By removing any obtrusive ads from your site, you’ll improve your overall UX and trust me, your visitors will be much happier (and yes, this means no “welcome mats” loading the second someone visits your page, no broken links, etc.)
Oh, and please, stop it with the “content gates”.
#7 — Keep your content updated
Some content will benefit more than others from this one, but you should strive to update things every few months (as a minimum).
Because people are probably more likely to trust advice given by a page clearly stating that it was “last updated: 2 weeks ago” over a page showing “last updated: 3rd March 2011” (especially for time-sensitive queries in ever-changing industries, such as “SEO”)
#8 — Implement pageless scrolling
People are lazy; many can’t even be bothered to click the “next page” button these days.
If you have a lot of multi-page content, introducing a pageless scrolling design (like Facebook/Twitter) will do wonders for your overall UX.
#9 — Use responsive design
Believe it or not, I still visit pages on my phone that have no responsive design.
The result: I go straight back to the SERPs (“dwell time”: zero) and look for another result (if I’m on my mobile, I mean; it doesn’t affect my desktop searches).
I know, this isn’t going to be news to most Ahrefs readers, but I really recommend double-checking that this is actually working properly for any sites you’re involved with. I see a lot of issues with plugins blocking on-page content, weird font styling, and other similar stuff, so get it fixed!
My (Probably Way-Off) “hunch”: Could Google Be Using ‘Dwell Time’ for “Private” Results?
Before I wrap this up, I want to mention one last thing that popped into my head while writing this post.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that these days, Google search results are personalised by default.
Note: You can verify you’re looking at “private” results by looking for this icon in the SERPs:
If you also have this turned on, you may have noticed that Google has started adding a “You visited this page” message to any results in the SERPs that you’ve visited before:
There’s also the “You visited this page on XX/XX/XX” one:
And the “You’ve visited this page X times. Last visit: XX/XX/XX” variation:
From my casual browsing observations, it seems that Google ranks these pages higher when you return to the same SERP at a later date (only for you, though).
My hunch (and it really is nothing more than a hunch — I’ve done no testing here) is that Google may well be using “dwell time” data to decipher whether or not it should show these previously visited results higher in your personalised SERPs.
However, just because you’ve visited a page, it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s the best result; here’s why:
- You might have only stuck around for a few seconds before returning to the SERPs (due to the page not offering the information you were looking for).
- You may have visited another page on the same SERP page and preferred that result.
It would, therefore, make little sense for google to blindly favour the pages you’ve visited before in your personalised search without taking into account certain metrics, one of which is almost certainly “dwell time”.
OK; Let’s Wrap This Up!
“Dwell time” is clearly generating a lot of hype in the SEO world these days but hopefully, this post helped you to understand it isn’t some kind of individual ranking factor you should obsess over.
Instead, focus on providing your users with the best possible experience; this means making your content a delight to read and your website a pleasure to visit (i.e. things that most SEOs and marketers have been advocating for years).
At the end of the day, “Dwell time” is just another possible way for Google to determine whether or not your page deserves to rank, so give them what they (probably) want: happy users.