February 20, 2022

When it comes to measuring engagement (i.e. how interested visitors are in your site), there are several analytics tools that provide slightly different information. Bounce rate is a rough metric for determining how “deep” users dig into your website and whether landing page content is relevant to keywords, but it isn’t always an outstanding way to determine engagement.

Better measurements of engagement include dwell time (also called duration, average time on page, and time on site), click-through rates, and how many pages a user visits while on your site. Together, these metrics can tell you a lot of about how interested users are in your content. More importantly, these metrics can help you tease apart which pages are working and which are not.

A Good Dwell Time

Dwell time is the single best source of information for benchmarking the quality of your content. What dwell time is considered “good” for an average page or piece of content, however, varies based on the purpose of the page, length of the content, difficulty of the material, and so forth. For instance, scientific content that contains lots of references and consists of dense subject matter is going to have a much higher dwell time than content that has no references and consists of general subject matter. In short, context is important when determining whether a particular time on site is good or not.

While you need to determine average dwell times for your content and niche, there are still rules of thumb to be followed. Dwell times under 30 seconds are considered bad for any site. Dwell times over two minutes are considered outstanding. Anything between these two values is considered average, but remember that that is an average across a vast range of sites that cover a vast range of topics.

Dwell Time Averages

You need to have some mechanism for comparing dwell times between your site and both successful and unsuccessful sites in the same niche. While some services actually let you compare dwell time across sites, which let’s you know how you stack up against competitors, others don’t. In the latter situation, there are steps you can take to get averages on your own.

The simplest way to get average dwell times is to measure them yourself. Use a stopwatch to time how long you stay on various pages and sites that are both similar to and different from your own. Do this during your regular browsing and try to be as natural as possible in your usage. After a few days, you should have a rough idea of what good and bad average dwell times look like.

Of course, a stopwatch isn’t particularly accurate and knowing what your personal dwell times are may not allow you to generalize to the wider population. For more accurate times that include measures of all of the visitors to your site, you can use any of a variety of analytics tools, like Google Analytics. Some will even provide you with the average dwell time of competitor sites. Even if your chosen tools don’t provide averages, you can peruse the web to find such data.

Dwell Time and Search Engine Optimization

Google won’t say whether dwell time affects search engine optimization (SEO) efforts or not, but given that user behavior is the primary driving force behind rank, it stands to reason that dwell time is probably important. Users who spend time on a website and don’t bounce after the landing page are telling search engine algorithms that there is value in the content.

Further strengthening the argument that dwell time is important is the option that Google exercises to block domains from search engine results pages (SERPs) based on dwell time. Though the threshold for establishing a block is unknown, it is clear that dwell time affects not just rank, but inclusion in SERPs altogether.

Note that dwell time alone is often a moderate factor in how algorithms determine rank. When dwell time is combined with other factors, like click-through-rate (CTR) and bounce rate, then Google can better determine the quality of a particular result. A CTR indicates how attractive a title is to users, which is a good indication of which keywords are important. Once users land on the page with the tantalizing title, however, it is dwell time that kicks in to let algorithms determine how good the content is in terms of how well it addresses the interest that the keywords created. Together, these metrics tell Google a lot about a site and its content.

Improving Dwell Time

Improving dwell time should actually lead webmasters right back to the basics of SEO. To start, a site has to have good content. Good content is useful, actionable, entertaining, relevant, and answers questions. Getting users to the content is the job of the headline. Keeping users on the site is the job of the content.

Another aspect of improving dwell time is link structure. Logical, well-organized links will allow users to act on the content that brought them to the site in the first place. Good content should not only answers questions, it should ask a few as well. Links within the site should then take users to the content that answers those new questions. Having good link structure makes it easy for users to move around your site and thus improves total dwell time.

A final tip for improving dwell time is to change the structure of your content. Users should be able to easily scroll through all of the content they came to see without having to click “next” or otherwise leave the page, something referred to as pageless design. It will improve dwell time and reduce bounce rate. Remember too that search engine spiders can’t always replicate human behavior, so having a pageless design can improve the dwell time of the search spider itself.

The Dangers of Averages

Understanding average dwell times for pages on your site is an important optimization tool, but you should be wary of depending too much on averages. It is important to segment information as much as you can so that you can tease out the nuanced meanings in the data. For instance, average dwell time may differ between new and returning customers or may change based on which page users land on when visiting your site. By digging into the details and trying to segment the data as much as possible, you provide yourself with targets for optimization. Averages can tell you that something is wrong, but they can’t necessarily tell you what that something is. Dig deeper into the data to find out where changes need to be made.

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