The 2 User Metrics That Matter for SEO

Posted by Dr. Pete

In the wake of Google’s Panda updates, there’s been a lot of fear regarding user metrics and how they impact SEO.  Many people are afraid that “bad” signals in analytics data, especially high bounce rates and low time-on-site, could potentially harm their rankings.

I don’t think Google is tapping into analytics data directly (I’ll defend that later), and I don’t think they have to. There are two user metrics that both Google and Bing have direct access to: (1) SERP CTR, and (2) “Dwell time”, and I think those two metrics can tell them a lot about your site.

Google Analytics (GA) & SEO

The official word from Google is that analytics data is not used for ranking. Whether or not you believe that is entirely up to you, and I’m not here to argue about it. I’ll only say that it’s rare to hear Matt say something that emphatically.  I think the arguments against using analytics directly as a ranking factor are much more practical in nature…

(1) Not Everyone Uses GA

Usage stats for GA are tough to pin down, but a large 2009 study placed the adoption rate at about 28%. I’ve seen numbers as high as 40% being quoted, but it’s likely that somewhere around 2/3 of all sites don’t have GA data. It’s tough for Google to penalize or devalue a site based on a factor that only exists on 1/3 of all sites. Worse yet, some of the largest sites don’t have GA data, because those are the sites that can afford traditional, enterprise analytics (WebTrends, Omniture, etc.).

(2) GA Can Be Mis-installed

Even for sites using GA, Google can’t control how it’s installed. I can tell you from consulting and from Q&A here on SEOmoz that GA is often installed badly. This can elevate bounce rates, reduce time-on-site, and generally add a lot of noise to the system.

(3) GA Can Be Manipulated

Of course, there’s a malicious version of (2) – you can mis-install GA on purpose. There are ways to manipulate most user metrics, if you want to, and there’s no scalable way for Google to double-check everyone’s installation and setup. Once the GA tags are in your hands, they’ve lost a lot of control.

To be fair, others disagree and think that Google will use any data they can get their hands on. Some have even produced indirect evidence that bounce rate is in play. I’m going to argue a simple point – that Google and Bing don’t need analytics data or bounce rate. They have all the data they need from their own logs.

The 1 Reason I Don’t Buy

One argument you hear all the time is that Google can’t possibly use something like bounce rate as a ranking signal, because bounce rate is very site-dependent and unreliable by itself. I hear it so often that I wanted to take a moment to say that I don’t buy this argument, for one simple reason. ANY ranking signal, by itself, is unreliable. I don’t know a single SEO who would argue that TITLE tags don’t matter, for example, and yet TITLE tags are incredibly easy to manipulate. On-page factors in general can be spammed – that’s why Google added links to the mix. Links can be spammed – that’s why they’re adding social metrics and user metrics. With over 200 rankings factors (Bing claims over 1,000), no single factor has to be perfect.

Metric #1: SERP CTR

The first metric I think Google makes broad use of is direct Click-Through Rate (CTR) from the SERPs themselves. Whether or not a result gets clicked on is one of Google’s and Bing’s first clues about whether any given result is a good match to a query. We know Google and Bing both have this data, because they directly report it to us.

In Google Webmaster Tools, you can find CTR data under “Your site on the web” > “Search queries”. It looks something like this:

Google Webmaster Tools screenshot

Bing reports similar data – from the “Dashboard”, click on “Traffic Summary”:

Bing Webmaster Tools screenshot

Of course, we also know that Google factors CTR heavily into their paid search quality score, and Bing has followed suit over the past year. While the paid search algorithm is very different from organic search, it stands to reason that they value CTR. Relevant results drive more clicks.

Metric #2: Dwell Time

Last year, Bing’s Duane Forrester wrote a post called “How to Build Quality Content”, and in it he referenced something called “dwell time”:

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.  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.

Dwell time, in a sense, is an amalgam of bounce rate and time-on-site metrics – it measures how long it takes for someone to return to a SERP after clicking on a result (and it can be measured directly from the search engine’s own data).

Google hasn’t been quite so transparent, but there’s one piece of evidence that suggests strongly to me that they use dwell time as well (or something very similar). Last year, Google tested a feature where, if you clicked a listing and then quickly came back to the SERP (i.e. your dwell time was very low), you would get the option to block that site:

Screenshot of Google's block site option

This feature isn’t currently available for all users – Google has temporarily scaled back site blocking with the launch of social personalization. The fact that low dwell time triggered the ability to block a site, though, clearly shows Google is factoring in dwell time as a quality signal.

1 + 2 = A Killer Combo

Where these 2 metrics really shine is as a duo. CTR by itself can easily be manipulated – you can drive up clicks with misleading titles and META descriptions that have little relevance to your landing page. That kind of manipulation will naturally lead to low dwell time, though. If you artificially drive up CTR and then your site doesn’t fulfill the promise of the snippet, people will go back to the SERPs. The combo of CTR and dwell time is much more powerful and, with just 2 metrics, removes a lot of quality issues. If you have both high CTR and high dwell time, you’re almost always going to have a quality, relevant result.

Do Other Metrics Matter?

I’m not suggesting that bounce rate and other user metrics don’t matter. As I said, dwell time is connected (and probably well correlated) to both bounce rate and time-on-site. Glenn Gabe had a nice post on “actual bounce rate” and why dwell time may represent an improvement over bounce rate. I’m also sticking to traditional user metrics from analytics and leaving out broader metrics, like site speed and social signals, which clearly tie into user behavior.

What I want you to do is to take a broader view of these user metrics, from the search engine’s perspective, and not get obsessed with the SEO impact of your analytics data. I’ve seen people removing and even manipulating GA tags lately, for fear of SEO issues, and what they usually end up doing is just destroying the reliability of their own data. I don’t think either Google or Bing are using direct analytics data, and even if they do down the road, they’ll probably combine that data with other factors.

So, What Should You Do?

You should create search snippets that drive clicks to relevant pages and build pages that make people stay on your site. At the end of the day, it sounds pretty obvious, and it’s good for both SEO and conversion. Specifically, think about the combo – driving clicks is useless (and probably even detrimental to SEO) if most of the people clicking immediately leave your site. Work to find the balance and to target relevant keywords that drive the right clicks.

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Meet Mozzers at #SMX West 2012

Posted by jennita

Conferences are always a great way to get out and meet the SEOmoz community. Luckily we have SMX West coming up next week and quite a few Mozzers will be attending, speaking, live blogging and tweeting. We want to get a chance to meet as many of you as possible so I forced everyone to decide on a schedule so you’ll know where to find us!

Before I get into talking about where we’ll be, it’s probably best to first introduce the Mozzers so you know who to look for.

Keri MorgretKeri Morgret – @KeriMorgret

You all learned a bit about Keri a few weeks ago when we spilled the beans about the Community Team. In addition to all her great community work, she's also a freelance marketer and helps clients with both SEO and PPC. You will find her speaking on Wednesday at 3:30 pm on the Beyond the Google Adwords Tool: Advanced Keyword Research Tactics panel. She'll be talking about negative keywords and some ingenius ways to make sure you're not spending money on unnecessary keyword targeting. 

You'll also find her live blogging for Catch her live blogging schedule below.

Michael KingMichael King – @iPullRank

As an Associate for SEOmoz, Mike focuses on answering questions in Q&A and writing for the blog (you may have seen his epic post yesterday). He's also done a Whiteboard Friday (or two) and is a great contributor to the SEOmoz Community.

You'll find him all over SMX West this year! He'll be speaking on two panels: What Search Data Reveals About Customer Needs & Desires – And How To Use It and he'll be on the Link Building Clinic. Two panels you'll surely not want to miss!

One thing you may already know abut Mike is that he loves to get to know people, so if you see him walking by, say hi! I promise, he doesn't bite.

Everett Sizemore – @balibones

Another grand Associate, Everett helps out by answering Q&A and now and then I twist his arm to write for the blog. He’ll be speaking on the panel Driving Ecommerce & Retail Sales Through Search, Thursday at 1pm. If you saw his post about building deep links into e-commerce sites, then you know a bit how his mind works.

If you're working on an e-commerce or even just a really large site, I'd highly recommend not just going to this panel but also seeking Everett out in person. He's a ridiculous wealth of knowledge and we shouldn't let him keep all that inside. :)



Charlene InoncilloCharlene Inoncillo – @charcillo

As our Marketing Admin, Charlene pretty much knows everything going on at all times on the marketing team. She’s new to the industry, so reach out and say hello! (ok, not literally).

She'll be attending all of the SMX Bootcamp sessions on the first day and in general learning all about search marketing. Be sure to stop her to say hello and show her how amazing this industry is!



Justin VanningJustin Vanning – @JustinVanning

Justin does Paid Search Marketing for Moz so you’ll probably see him spending much of his time in the PPC & Retargeting sessions. He'll be looking for ways to help out the SEOmoz Marketing team in addition to meeting our community.

Want to know more about our retargeting efforts, or how we do Facebook advertising? Justin's your man. Give him a holler and ask him about his Twitter strategy. 😉




Jen Sable LopezJen Sable Lopez – @jennita

*waves hello* If you haven't met me yet, I'm the Community Manager here at SEOmoz. I’ll be live-tweeting the heck out of SMX so be sure to watch out for my tweets from @jennita.

I'm hitting up a lot of the SEO and social media panels. I love to sit in the front row and make faces at the speakers, so beware! If you're not able to make to SMX follow my tweet stream and I'll attempt to keep you up-to-date.

If you're at the conference, please say hello! I love meeting our community members and really try to make it my goal to meet as many of you as possible.

Now that you know who you should be looking for, let’s see where all you can find us! Remember some of us are speaking, others are live blogging (or tweeting) and some of us are just attending. Also, we reserve the right to change our minds and attend different sessions as necessary. 😀

Monday, February 27 – 6:00pm to 7:30pm

SMX Meet & Greet

Most of us will be attending the networking event on Monday night, so find us and say hello! We’re also planning on going for drinks after so let us know if you’d like to join us. :)

Tuesday, February 28

SMX Boot Camp: Keyword Research & Copywriting For Search Success – Charlene
Getting Personal, Part 1: How Google & Bing Personalize With Social Connections – Jen (live tweet) + Keri (live blog)
Maximizing Paid Search Campaigns With Google’s AdWords Extensions – Justin

SMX Boot Camp: Link Building Fundamentals – Charlene
Getting Personal, Part 2: How Google & Bing Personalize With Search History & Geography – Jen (live tweet)

SMX Boot Camp: Paid Search Fundamentals – Charlene
Solving Problems & Seeing Success In Google Places – Jen (live tweet)
Power Tools For The Paid Search Pro – Justin

SMX Boot Camp: Search Engine Friendly Web Design – Charlene
Don’t Panic! A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Surviving SEO Changes
– Jen (live tweet) + Keri (live blog)
Retargeting & Remarketing: The New Behavioral Ads – Justin

Wednesday, February 29

SEO For Google+ & Google Search – Charlene + Jen (live tweet)
Search Ads: Taking Your Ads From Good To Great! – Justin
Real Answers For Technical SEO Problems
– Mike (Q&A Moderating)

Building Buzz On Twitter: Getting Followed & Retweeted – Charlene + Jen (live tweet)
Best Practices For Paid Search Testing – Case Study Panel – Justin, Rel=Author & Meta Tagging Best Practices – Keri (live blog)

Building Buzz On Facebook: Getting Liked & Shared – Charlene + Jen (live tweet)
Beyond The Google AdWords Tool: Advanced Keyword Research Tactics – Justin, Keri (speaking)

Creative Facebook Ad Tactics – all of us will be there!

9pm-11pm: SMX After Dark @ Motif

Thursday, March 1

The "New" Killer Content – Charlene
Justifying The Investment: Analytics For Social Media  – Jen (live tweet)
Maximizing Enterprise PPC ROI – Justin

Enterprise SEO – Challenges & Solutions – Charlene
What Search Data Reveals About Customer Needs & Desires – And How To Use It – Jen (live tweet) + Justin + Keri (live blog) + Mike (speaking)

Driving Ecommerce & Retail Sales Through SearchEverett (speaking)
Link Building ClinicMike (speaking)

Say Hello!

I'm serious here. If I find out that you were at SMX and didn't say hello, I'm going to be sad. Just think if you find us, you may even get a lovely picture with some of us… like this:

See you at SMX!

PS. If you haven't bought your ticket yet, use the code smx10seomoz to get a discount when you register for SMX.


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