The Role of User Ranking Factors in SEO: 5 Key Metrics


Last week we published the fifth installment of our guide to google ranking factors. Click here to check out Backlinks Profiles & SEO Factors: The Role of 7 Key Link Building Metrics

By now, you’ve learned Google and other search engines evaluate many factors when determining rankings in SERPs. User behavior factors are among the most important. Quite simply, search engines want to provide users with relevant links when they conduct searches. Thus, tracking user behavior is key to determining how valuable a site’s content is.

To better understand user ranking factors, consider the following metrics.

Organic Click Through Rate for a Keyword

Your organic click through rate (CTR) for a given keyword can be defined and calculated in several ways. The term essentially refers to the number of clicks your content received over a specific period of time when it appeared in SERPs for relevant keywords. This rate can be represented as a percentage of clicks your content received by dividing the number of clicks by number of relevant searches using a particular keyword over the period of time you’re studying.

The degree to which CTR impacts rankings isn’t entirely clear. That said, experts consistently identify a relationship between a strong CTR and high rankings in SERPs. The following graph (from Ignite Visibility) depicts the relationship between CTR and Google position:

A strong CTR can also be a determining factor in whether Google boosts the rank of a page that’s already performing relatively well in SERPs. A page ranked in the four or five position may get bumped up to the three or two position if its CTR is higher than expected.

There are many ways you can improve your organic CTR for given keywords. Making sure your meta tags (including title and description) are optimized is one of the most important tactics. You want to tell users what type of content they should expect to find if they click on one of your links when it appears in SERPs, and you want to do so in a way that makes the link more “clickworthy.” Effective means of doing so include organizing content into numbered lists and titling it appropriately, using emotional words to hook potential guests, and crafting meta descriptions that are approximately 130 characters long.

Bounce Rate

A strong CTR does typically correlate with higher rankings in SERPs. That said, it is by no means the only user ranking factor Google prioritizes. There are very clear and significant reasons this is the case.

After all, as you learned in the last entry, you can take numerous steps to improve your CTR by simply optimizing the elements users see when a link to your content appears in a SERP. The right title and meta description can have a substantial impact on a CTR.

However, maybe the title and description don’t accurately represent the actual content on the page. Even if the content does relate to the title and description, if it’s weak or lacking in detail, it may not be valuable to guests.

That’s why bounce rate is also an important user ranking factor. Your bounce rate refers to the percentage of guests who arrive at a page on your site and leave the site before clicking to any other page. You may have a high bounce rate if users who click on your links when they appear in SERPs are brought to pages that don’t offer valuable content.

Thus, honesty is very important when crafting meta tags. Don’t give into the temptation to write headlines or descriptions which serve to attract clicks but fail to honestly tell users what type of content they should expect to find if they were to click the link. The high volume of clicks you attract won’t yield any long-term SEO benefits if the users providing those clicks aren’t visiting other pages on your site.

In the long run, it’s much smarter to be honest in titles and descriptions. Doing so will attract the right kind of users, improving your bounce rate as a result.

You should also explore how links to other pages on your site are displayed. It’s possible users in the past have overlooked relevant links they otherwise would have clicked on if they had been more visible. Displaying links properly is another effective way to improve your overall bounce rate.

Dwell Time

Hopefully this guide has provided you with several valuable lessons. One of those lessons is simple: numerous factors impact an SEO strategy’s strength, and thus, measuring only a small number of factors will limit your SEO potential.

Consider the idea of dwell time. Dwell time is not an official metric. Duane Forrester of Bing first introduced the concept in 2014. The idea helps to clarify how various metrics impact each other in regards to overall SEO strength. Specifically, dwell time refers to a relationship between these three factors:

Bounce Rate

Again, a bounce occurs when a user visits a single page on your site and leaves the site without visiting another page. This metric alone may not always provide search engines with an accurate picture of a content’s genuine value. Someone who arrives at a page on your site and engages with the content for half an hour is clearly someone who is deriving value from it. However, if they don’t visit another page after engaging with your content, their contribution to your bounce rate is the same as that of a user who only spent half a minute on your page. That’s why session duration (explained below)is another factor search engines evaluate when determining proper rankings.

This doesn’t mean you should accept a high bounce rate if you’re happy with your session duration measurements. Strong dwell time involves strong performance across several metrics. Instead of focusing on the role of a single metric, Google’s algorithm interprets certain factors in relationship to each other to determine the value of a piece of content. You can’t improve dwell time without also improving bounce rate, as bounce rate is one of the three essential components of dwell time.

Session Duration

Session duration is precisely what it sounds like: the average length of a user session on your website.

This is an important metric because it tells Google whether those who visit your site find valuable content. Remember, a high CTR alone is not a definite indicator of quality content. If someone is skilled at creating titles and descriptions which attract clicks, their pages may have relatively high CTRs, even if users find the content on those pages doesn’t match what was promised in the meta tags. Thus, a page with a high CTR may still yield relatively weak session durations if people who click on the link in SERPs immediately find the content is not what was promised.

It’s also worth noting that a wide variety of factors can impact session duration. Sometimes poor session duration does not guarantee poor content. For example, perhaps the content on a site’s pages tends to be relatively short. Session durations may be low because users are able to consume the content quickly. That’s a key reason (as mentioned earlier in this guide) publishing long-form content should be a major component of your SEO strategy.

Additionally, average session duration can vary from one industry to another. A session duration that’s strong for a page in an industry where content tends to be short may not be as impressive for a page featuring content that’s typically longer when other sites in that industry cover the same topics. Once more, this is why the concept of dwell time is so important. It helps to compensate for the weaknesses inherent in measuring certain metrics independently of one another. By measuring them in relation to one another, search engines get a more accurate and thorough picture of how valuable a page’s content genuinely is.


CTR’s contribution to dwell time is somewhat indirect. That said, it’s still very important.

Dwell time essentially begins when a user clicks on one of your links after finding it in a SERP. Additionally, dwell time ends if they leave your page and return to the SERP. Thus, there’s a clear relationship between organic CTR and dwell time. If you have a low CTR, you’ll have fewer opportunities to reach potential users. That means you’ll also have fewer opportunities to improve dwell time in general.

These three metrics all impact dwell time, an unofficial measure that provides Google with enough substantial user information to determine the value of a page’s content. Alone, these metrics paint an incomplete picture. Together, they tell a more dynamic story. A page which attracts a high number of clicks when it appears in SERPs, maintains the interest of users over a relatively long period of time, and gives users reason to click on other pages in the site is likely a page which offers users strong content. Dwell time incorporates these various factors to provide this information.

That said, tracking dwell time isn’t simple, as it’s based on several metrics. You need to monitor all three of these to monitor dwell time. If you’re unhappy with it, the first step should be to post stronger content. After all, dwell time is an effective and accurate measurement of the strength of your content. If your dwell time is poor, it’s probably because your content isn’t providing users with any real value.

However, you can also improve dwell time by taking steps to give users greater reason to stay on your site and explore it. That includes publishing long-form content, displaying links clearly, and learning how to boost user engagement with your content.

Direct Traffic

A popular SEO misconception is that Google and other search engines only refer to traffic as “direct traffic” when a user directly typed a URL into their browser to reach a page. This isn’t exactly the case. Often, Google refers to traffic as direct traffic when it is unable to determine where the traffic originally came from. One informal Groupon experiment indicates as much as 60 percent of “direct traffic” may actually be organic. The confusion is sometimes the mere result of a user’s browser inaccurately reporting referrals. There are several other reasons this can happen, such as a user following a link from a secure (HTTPS) page to a not-secure (HTTP) page.

There is no major consensus regarding the exact degree to which direct traffic impacts SEO and rankings. That said, high rates of direct traffic may indicate an overall marketing strategy is effective.

Consider this scenario: a marketer does a good job of building brand awareness. As a result, more people will directly visit the brand’s site by typing in the URL to their browser. Their familiarity with the brand prevents them from needing to conduct an indirect search first. Because SEO is a primary component of a digital marketing strategy, high direct traffic rates may tell you your SEO strategy is working.

Repeat Traffic

Attracting repeat visitors to your site isn’t merely important from an SEO perspective. It’s also important as a general business principle. If your page is the digital equivalent of a brick-and-mortar store or office for your brand, you want repeat visitors, the same way stores want repeat shoppers. You’re more likely to make more sales (or earn more email list followers, or earn more high-paying advertisers, etc.) if users visit your site repeatedly.

That said, as with the example above, repeat traffic’s relationship to your SEO strategy may be less causal in nature than other metrics and factors covered in this guide. As experts point out, a strong SEO strategy will drive more repeat traffic to your site. Thus, a high rate of repeat traffic may be a sign you’re applying the points in this guide correctly.

That’s a key lesson this guide should leave you with. People are simply more likely to visit your site on multiple occasions if they can rely on it to provide genuinely valuable content. While it’s absolutely important to understand how various tactics can improve your SEO, it’s also important to remember that at the end of the day, SEO is still about providing content users need or want.


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