How Blog Headlines Affect Dwell Time and Why it’s Super Important for Your Site’s SEO

When people search for something on Google, most of them don’t browse beyond the first few SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), so if you’ve written a blog post precisely on that search topic but it isn’t ranked highly enough to make it into those first few pages, it won’t get as many clicks. Promoting the crap out of it in the ‘usual’ channels can only do so much (unless it miraculously goes viral), so inevitably, it ends up at the mercy of Google’s algorithm, which is designed to favour websites that deliver “a great user experience”. That means that if you want to get as many eyeballs on your blog posts as possible, they need to be utterly kick-ass, and optimized to ‘signal’ to Google that they are worthy of a high rank.
One of the signals Google considers when ranking search results is dwell time (the amount of time a searcher spends on a page before returning back to the SERPs), so you need to think about how to maximize engagement on your blog posts even before people arrive at the destination page, and that’s why nailing your headline – which is the only part of your post that’s visible in search results – is absolutely key.
There are more than 200 ranking signals used to determine a page’s SERP ranking, and although the folks at Google are notoriously vague about which signals are the ‘most’ important – and have yet to definitively confirm whether dwell time is a ‘key’ ranking signal – there is a general consensus among leading industry SEO experts that RankBrain (a component of Google’s core algorithm which uses machine learning to determine the most relevant results to search engine queries) prioritizes “great-quality content”, because Google cares about delivering a great user experience to the people using their search engine, and the more relevant and satisfying the content they recommend – the better the user experience. It makes sense, therefore, that the longer people spend (or ‘dwell’) on a specific page, it’s most likely because they’ve found the content to be both relevant and engaging.

But dwell time isn’t the only indicator of how time spent on a specific page or in a particular website affects search ranking, so let’s get a few other metric definitions out of the way before I get on to explaining the relationship between blog headlines and dwell time and how this relationship can affect your page’s ranking in SERPs.
What is “Bounce Rate”?
In the context of online page views, the Bounce Rate measures the percentage of single-page sessions in your website. Or in other words, the percentage of visitors who only view one page in your website and then leave without clicking through to any other pages in the website, whether they only view that one page for a couple of seconds or a couple of hours. In practice, it means that if someone spends 20 minutes reading an entire blog post and then leaves, it still counts as a bounce even though the content was obviously very interesting and engaging to that visitor.

There’s a difference between an “actual” bounce, where someone arrives on a page and leaves almost immediately (indicating that the quality of the content on the page is either poor or irrelevant), and a “standard” bounce which may apply even when a visitor spends a great deal of time on the page:

This is why some pages that rank highly and have excellent content may seem to have high bounce rates. They don’t have high actual bounce rates, but high standard bounce rates.

There are conflicting opinions as to whether bounce rate is still even a factor in Google’s ranking considerations, because while some argue that a high bounce rate is generally an indicator of poor relevance or quality of the content on the page, others point out that in some cases bouncing quickly implies just the opposite, that the content satisfied the reader’s purpose for visiting so quickly (i.e. they found an answer to a simple question within seconds of landing on the page) – that in fact it did its job brilliantly, so there was no need for the reader to linger (or ‘dwell’) on the page.

This is especially true of websites that don’t focus on long-form content but rather on fast delivery of precise information, and apparently Google is highly adept at figuring out whether low session duration in conjunction with a high bounce rate makes sense for the type of site it’s assessing. For example you wouldn’t expect people to linger on pages in a dictionary website that provides word definitions, or an e-commerce website with many product pages – if their original search query was for something very specific, like the current temperature in a particular city or the price/availability of a product.

So, since the bounce rate is not always an accurate indicator of the quality of the content on the page, Google can’t (and therefore doesn’t) rely on bounce rate alone to determine whether the content on a page is “good” or “bad”.
If bounce rate alone isn’t necessarily a 100% accurate indicator of content quality and relevance, then what is?
Duane Forrester suggested during his tenure at Bing, that the answer might be dwell time, because it takes into consideration both the bounce rate and the session duration of the visitors on the page.

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… And while that’s not the only factor we review when helping to determine quality, it’s a signal we watch.

Source: Duane Forrester
What is “Average Session Duration”?
Average Session Duration is the total duration of all sessions (in seconds) divided by the number of sessions, which is basically an indication of how long people spend interacting with your site (on average) before exiting. In other words, it measures how engaged they are not only with the content on the page they first arrive at, but also how effective it is in encouraging users to explore other pages during their visit to your website.
The longer someone spends interacting with your content or the further they get through your ‘content funnel’ by browsing other areas in your site, the more likely it is that your content is super relevant to them.
But a session is only tracked if there is a user interaction, also known as an “engagement hit” or “interaction event” on the last page of the session, like watching a video, filling out a form, clicking on something, etc. Interaction events can be measured if you have events set up in Google Analytics, which register the timestamp for when that engagement takes place and can be tracked independently from a web page or a screen load.

If there is no interaction other than just reading the page, or if you don’t have events set up in Google Analytics to record interaction events, then the time spent on the last page of the session isn’t counted towards the total session duration, even if that’s the only page the user sees during that visit to the website.

If your avg. session duration is low, it could be because –
  • Your content isn’t interesting enough for the people arriving at your website
  • The site is poorly designed so people can’t easily find what they’re looking for
  • Your content isn’t engaging enough for users to want to explore more content in other areas of your website.
So as with bounce rate, although a low Average Session Duration may not necessarily be a bad thing depending on the goals of the site, if your site offers mainly long-form content and the session duration is consistently low, you would be wise to review the quality of your content, the user experience in the website and the level of engagement or interaction from users – to make sure that those things aren’t the culprits for users spending such a short time in your site. If they are, you need to improve on all fronts.

Another effective way to increase session duration is to link from a page in your site about a particular topic, to other relevant content in your website. If a user finds your content relevant and engaging, and is presented with other content in the site they may want to check out on the same visit, it will increase their session duration. The more consistently your users are compelled to check out more than one page in your site on the same visit, the higher your average session duration will be, which will indicate to Google that your site is interesting to all those people who were interested in the same or related search query, and help towards boosting your site’s SERP ranking.
What is “Average Time on Page”?
In Google Analytics, the “Average Time on Page” metric is the average amount of time all users spend on a single page, which it tracks by recording the timestamps between hits. If the visit is a bounce (i.e. the visitor leaves after viewing just one page), then no time is recorded at all, which means that only visits that did not include a bounce are taken into consideration towards calculating this metric.

But Google Analytics can’t tell if you’ve moved on to a different open tab in your browser and are not technically still viewing the page it’s measuring, nor can it measure the time users spend on the last page of their visit to your site, if they exit your site by closing the window, closing the tab, or typing another website into the URL bar.

This means that neither average session duration nor average time on page are statistically significant representations of the real time a user spends on your site, so both metrics should be considered together with other key Google Analytics metrics to get a more accurate understanding of user behavior.
What’s the difference between Time On Page and Session Duration?
Average Time on Page is usually higher than Average Session Duration because Google only takes into account the non-exits and non-bounces to calculate average time on page. Most sites have bounce rates higher than 50%, so the average time on page is taken from the other half of users who don’t bounce.

As a rule of thumb, a bounce rate in the range of 26 to 40 percent is excellent. 41 to 55 percent is roughly average. 56 to 70 percent is higher than average, but may not be cause for alarm depending on the website. Anything over 70 percent is disappointing for everything outside of blogs, news, events, etc.

Which brings us to…
The super-important relationship between blog headlines and dwell time
One way to get people to spend more time reading your blog posts, is to make sure that the content is highly relevant to the topics they searched for, because the moment they sense they’ve been duped into viewing content that’s either really mediocre or totally irrelevant, the faster they’ll bounce off your site. And the more frequently that happens, the more likely it is that Google will deem your content as irrelevant and/or crappy, and not only ‘punish’ that mediocrity with poor SERP rankings but also devalue your site for the search term or phrase that led searchers to your site in the first place.

So logically, this means that mismatched blog headlines can damage dwell time, because if a headline implies readers will get content that satisfies a particular search term or phrase but in reality once they’ve clicked through to the page, the content is not at all what the headline implied – they’ll bounce right off.
Writing effective headlines has become both an art form and a science, but rather than work hard to write appealing headlines with integrity and wit, it seems that all too often, many writers opt for headlines that are heavy on hype, or over-promise on the value of the post’s true content to entice people to click ‘at all costs’. Predictably – vague, dishonest or sensationalist headlines tend to mislead readers about the content that’s actually waiting for them once they’ve clicked through to it, reducing dwell time, increasing bounce rates, and damaging the chance for your page to rank respectably on Google’s SERPs.

As it turns out, positive user experiences aren’t just a priority for Google.
In 2014 Facebook introduced an update to their Newsfeed designed to demote poor-quality posts and weed out stories with clickbait-style headlines, which they define as headlines “that encourage people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see”, or “Headlines that withhold information intentionally, leave out crucial details or mislead people”, forcing them to click to find out the answer, or “Headlines that exaggerate the details of a story with sensational language and tend to make the story seem like a bigger deal than it really is”.
In a post on Facebook’s Newsroom blog, they explained that since posts with clickbait headlines tend to attract many clicks when in reality readers spend very little time on the pages they link to, it falsely suggests that those posts are popular, earning them better exposure on newsfeeds at the expense of “content from friends and pages that people really care about”. To combat this, one of the things they do to weed out posts that most likely to contain poor or irrelevant content, is to factor the time spent on pages linked to from Facebook:

If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted.

In 2016 Facebook improved the update further, by applying a system that identifies phrases that are commonly used in clickbait headlines. So if Business Page owners want to avoid the demotion of their marketing posts on their followers News Feeds, Facebook recommends that they “avoid headlines that withhold information required to understand what the content of the article is and headlines that exaggerate the article to create misleading expectations.” And apparently Facebook is committed to “continue to work on reducing clickbait so that the News Feed is a place for authentic communication.”
To sum up:
Dwell time certainly isn’t the only factor that Google takes into account when ranking content for SERPs. Other important factors include referring domains and domain authority, mobile usability, backlinks and on-page SEO. But since dwell time is generally a reflection of user satisfaction with content on a web page, then actively working towards achieving longer dwell time can only help your content’s chances of ranking better in SERPs.

If you write headlines that are not a true reflection of what your blog posts actually contain, or if you resort to misleading click-bait tactics just to get more pageviews, people will catch on to this tactic very quickly and consequently spend very little time on the page, which will in turn impact badly on your overall blogging efforts: Not only will your online credibility be ruined the more your readers recognize you as a repeat click-bait offender, but you will also be penalized by the likes of Google and Facebook.

That’s why it’s so important to perfect each headline so that it’s not only as appealing as it can possibly be to the target audience for that particular post, but also so that it’s bang-on accurate in terms of what visitors will actually see on the destination page.

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Noya Lizor - I'm all about creating standout content that helps businesses grow

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