User Engagement Metrics Aren’t a Ranking Signal, But You Should Treat Them Like One

Up until now, a lot of people within the digital marketing industry believed that user engagement and content marketing metrics were a ranking signal. Google just blew this out of the water with the announcement that, in fact, they’re not.

During a recent Hangout, Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller said, “I don’t think we even see what people are doing on your web site” and “So from my point of view, that is not something I’d really treat as a ranking factor.” This vague and sweeping statement has left a lot of people confused, as they were firm believers that user engagements were an influential signal. Others, like myself, were left fulfilled in the sense that Google has finally answered this long-standing myth.

Does this mean that webmasters should focus on pure content creation and link acquisition? No. Nothing changes. Continue to create a holistic digital strategy that encapsulates engaging content creation that answers people’s most-asked questions and educates users where necessary. Digital PR campaigns and blogger engagement campaigns should continue, as link acquisition is still a huge ranking signal.

Where this becomes blurred is Google’s recent patent acquisitions in July and August 2015. The first grants Google the right to rank websites, in part, based on user feedback to how they interact with the search results. For example, if mobile search results are given to a user and they provide local listings specific to where the user is at the time of the search, these are more likely to be well-received compared to generic results. If this is a common trend, Google can then carry this out across a wider number of SERPs.

Google is also given the right to present “linked-to” pages of authors it sees as providing good content. If an author has written authoritative and well-ranking content about a subject, other related properties of that author can begin to appear in that SERP.

However, in a SEO by the Sea post on the patent, Bill Slawski points out that recent statements from Google’s Gary Illyes somewhat dismiss this.

The main conclusion from this patent announcement was that click-through-rate data could be used to manipulate search rankings. A lot of noise has been made recently around CTR studies showing that if you clicked on a search result a few thousand times in a number of hours, that search result will increase in positioning. Contrary to Gary’s thoughts on this, I believe that it’s all around personalization.

In the post above, there’s a great example about user’s personalization around the search query Apple. How does Google know on your first search for this term, whether you’re searching for the fruit or the multi-billion dollar company? Once you’ve clicked on one and repeated this trend, personalization is built up and Google will begin to use that data to display different results to others from then on.

According to the patent, 500 queries and clicks is how many it takes to be taken into account.

rand-tweet-thresholdLast week, Google was granted a patent allowing it to begin looking into video content’s “watch times.” This makes perfect sense, as videos with very little viewership should not be ranking highly in search results, unless it’s a breaking news topic.

Interestingly, this watch time extends onto articles that contain embedded YouTube videos or audio also. This is an interesting development, as this can extend across to any type of content through average time on site and other user engagement metrics.

Our own tool, Roadmap, tracks thousands of different ranking signals across a variety of highly-competitive niches to determine which ranking signals are becoming more and less important for those that are ranking in the top 15 positions. The image below is a screenshot from Roadmap and I’ve selected user metrics to identify their trend for high rankings websites.

roadmap-user-metricsIt’s inconclusive.

The image below shows another image from Roadmap, which highlights the trending metrics that high-ranking websites in these niches have in common. All but one mentions backlinks. Because Google has announced that these are not a ranking signal, the dangerous thing to do would be to completely ignore them and focus entirely on link acquisition.

roadmap-trending-metrics

User metrics are usually defined as:

  • The number of visits a page receives
  • The number of different users that enter that page
  • The number of pages users view, once they’re on your website
  • The average number of different pages a user visits
  • The average time a user is on your website
  • The bounce rate of people entering your website, not finding what they want and leaving instantly
  • The percentage of growth in new people finding your content

I don’t believe sales and goal completions can be taken into account, as this data is much more sensitive and should not be used to rank one website over another.

Why has user engagement been on the tip of everyone’s tongue recently? I believe that as Google has gotten better at understanding the difference between a site that deserves to rank and one that doesn’t, the better user-orientated websites are ranking in the competitive positions. As a result, the websites that deliver a good user experience and have good user engagement metrics tend to rank in those top 15 positions. It’s a correlation between Google getting better, ranking the right websites in the right positions, and those websites delivering a better experience.

Conclusion

User engagement metrics are not a solid ranking signal, but you shouldn’t rule them out. They signal to Google that your website is serving the answers or solution to what your users are searching for, making them an invaluable metric, moreso than a link. The introduction of two user-centric patents in the last eight weeks shows the huge focus that Google is placing on this at the moment, and it makes complete sense that this is the new direction.

If you’re ranking competitively for terms and have great user engagement metrics, but still aren’t in the top 3, hold tight. If your competitors begin to deliver bad experiences and see surges in bounce rates or reduction in average time on site, Google may look elsewhere to test another site in those highly-important positions.

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