Which website is the search engine likely to recommend to future searchers? Search engines want to send users to websites that fulfill their needs best - the more efficient the search engine, the likelier users are to continue using it. A website on which people regularly spend several minutes on is probably more useful than a website that most visitors click off within thirty seconds. The more useful the search engine thinks a website is, the more prominently it will feature it. The second website therefore rises in the rankings, while the first one falls.
The concept behind this is called dwell time.
Put simply, dwell time is the time elapsed between a user clicking on a web page via a search engine and returning to that search engine. The higher the dwell time, the longer the user spent looking at the page. A high average dwell time means most visitors are finding your content worthwhile.
Dwell time versus other metrics
There are a couple of other metrics that dwell time often gets confused with. The main distinction is that dwell time always starts and ends at a search engine.
Time on page is similar but refers to the time an average user spends on your page before navigating off. Unlike dwell time, this could be anywhere: back to the search engine, to a different page, or to a different website entirely. Dwell time always ends at the search engine.
Bounce rate also gets confused with dwell time but is very different. A bounce rate is the website’s percentage of single-page sessions. A single page session is when a user opens one page on the site, then leaves without going to any other pages. In general, a low bounce rate is better, but the metric can be slightly misleading. A visitor who stays for an hour reading long-form content is clearly different to someone who stays for two seconds then leaves, but both would be counted as a ‘bounce’. It’s therefore important to combine the bounce rate with the dwell time in order to get a more accurate representation of how the site is doing.
What can dwell time tell you?
For most sites, dwell time is an excellent way to gauge the quality and relevance of a web page.
A well-presented site which answers the user’s questions and offers them what they want is likely to have a higher dwell time than one which is poorly laid-out and lacking in information. A higher dwell time means that searchers find your content engaging and want to stick around to read it. A site with poor quality content is less likely to capture the reader’s attention.
Of course, your content may be excellent but not what a searcher is looking for. Users will only have a high dwell time if your content answers their initial search. Often, however, quality and relevance go hand in hand: a high-quality site is the one that answers the searcher’s questions.
It’s worth noting that dwell time isn’t always applicable. For simple information queries, a shorter dwell time could even be better. A website that allows you to check the weather in three seconds is probably more useful than a website that takes a minute to navigate before you can find out if the whether tomorrow will be sunny. In this case, increased dwell time is not a good metric of the website’s quality.
Dwell times are also probably only important for the first page of search results. Most people never go past the first page on a search, meaning that later pages do not generate enough traffic to have accurate data. While dwell time may be important for results on the first page, it probably isn’t significant for later results.
Is dwell time a ranking factor?
There is no official statement from Google or any other search engine saying whether dwell time is a ranking factor or not. However, there is good reason to believe that it does influence the algorithms behind the search results page.
Dwell time was first referenced in a blog by ex-Bing Senior Project Manager Duane Forrester, entitled How to Build Quality Content. He writes:
‘If your content does not encourage them [visitors] to remain with you, they will leave. The search engines can get a sense of this by watching the dwell time… while that’s not the only factor we review when helping to determine quality, it’s a signal we watch’.
It's not an official statement, but the blog all but confirms that dwell time is a ranking factor for Bing’s search results. If Bing use it, then it is very likely that other engines also do.
Google’s use of dwell time was hinted at by Nick Frost, head of Google Brain. When talking about Google’s use of machine learning to figure out the best page for a search, he said that one of the inputs to the model is how long a user stays on a page after clicking it. Again, this isn’t a direct confirmation that it’s a ranking factor for user search results, but it’s a strong hint.
How to calculate dwell time
Dwell time itself does not appear in Google Analytics, and there isn’t a secret formula for figuring it out. Only the search engines themselves can measure dwell time accurately by timing the click onto the site and the click off the site.
The best approximation of dwell time is ‘Average Session Duration’. This isn’t exactly the same, as it doesn’t always start and end with the search engine. It can be made closer by filtering it for organic traffic only, which means that the session will have started with a search. There is not a way to filter it at the other end, but the two metrics should be very similar.
What’s a good dwell time, then? This obviously varies by site and topic, but in general, less than two minutes is considered a ‘short’ dwell time. Between two to four minutes is a good aim. Anything beyond this is even better, but hard to achieve.
Improving dwell time
If you want to improve dwell time, focus on the two contributing factors: quality and relevancy.
The most obvious suggestion is to produce better content. People aren’t going to stick around on your site if it’s not worth reading. Prioritise longer and better content. Good content should be useful, entertaining, and accessible in order to capture the reader’s attention and keep it. It could also be the case that the content you have is good, but there simply isn’t enough of it to sustain attention.
The second half of quality is presentation. Dwell times are more likely to be higher on a well-designed website, with quick loading times, sensible UI, and easy navigation. Not only will people be more likely to read your content, but they will also want to see what else is on the site.
Dwell times can also be improved by making sure that your site appears in relevant search results. Choose the right keywords - even if your content is great, people won’t read it if it’s coming up in the wrong searches. Google and other search engines want to match searches to pages that best fulfil their needs. Make that as easy as possible by targeting the correct audience.
Check out our other blog on EAT, YMYL, SEO and beneficial purpose as it contains some great advice on how to improve your content.