3 Reliable User Signals For SEO & High Rankings
Google says that it stores information for about 30 trillion pages. That’s a lot of content to include in its search results, and while Google protects its ranking algorithm like a dinosaur watching over a princess, one component has revealed itself clearly: user signals.
In the world of SEO, user signals are how people behave when visiting websites from search engines. If you search “how to make pancakes,” scan the first few results and then click on a link that seems relevant and appealing, you just told Google that the website will probably teach you how to make pancakes. If you then stick around on that website for a decent amount of time, you just gave them even more evidence. Without measuring these user signals, search engines would find it much harder (perhaps impossible) to select suitable results from their mammoth databases of pages.
There’s plenty of user signals that search engines can measure, but while many of them are touted as ranking factors by SEO companies, there’s little evidence to back up these claims. In our experience, and based on the opinions of the reputable SEO experts in the industry, there’s only three user signals that make a difference for ranking: click-through rate (CTR), time on page, and company reviews. We cover each of these below.
The three user signals that affect SEO ranking
When selecting web pages to show for a search query, search engines are really looking for two things: how relevant the page is to the user’s search, and whether the information is of good quality. So if you make this your goal when creating content, you’ll generate plenty of positive user signals, and will have the foundation for great SEO.
These are the three main user signals for SEO, and why they’re important.
1. Click-through rate
Click-through rate is the ratio of users who click on your listing in a search engine, against the number of impressions it has had. It’s expressed as a percentage. If your web page is shown to 100 people in Google’s search results, and 50 of those people clicked it, your CTR would be 50% (a number you can only dream of).
The whole purpose of a search engine is to provide its users with results that accurately match their objective. This is known as “user intent,” and the better a search engine gets at it, the more users they will have. That’s one of the reasons Google has risen to the top of the pile: their algorithm is exceptional at understanding user intent.
One of the ways Google understands a user’s intent is through CTR, which it uses to measure the relevance of a page. A click is essentially a vote that says “this page is what I’m looking for,” which is why it’s such an important metric for Google. If a page has an extremely low CTR, there’s a strong chance it isn’t what the user is searching for, and it may quickly find itself plummeting down Google’s rankings.
Average CTRs vary by industry. A high CTR for the auto industry may not be a high CTR for technology-related content, so be sure to do a little research into CTR benchmarks before analysing your own. HubSpot provide the following breakdown in one of their blogs:
CTR by industry. Image from HubSpot
Thankfully, there’s lots you can do to boost the click-through rate of your web pages, mostly by improving the page’s title. We wrote a thorough article on it a few months back—How To Improve CTR—which we recommend reading. Here’s some of our main suggestions:
- Include relevant keywords—if you’ve recently acquired a pooch who likes nothing more than yapping at passers by, and search “how to stop dog from barking,” there’s a good chance you’ll click on a web page that uses that phrase (or a close version of it.) For this reason, you’ll need to know the primary keyword phrase you’re targeting for every page, and include it in the title to boost your CTR.
- Make the title concise—search engines cut off titles after a certain point. For Google, it’s between 50 to 60 characters, so make sure your title fits within that range, and includes simple, concise language that people can immediately understand.
- Address the curiosity gap—a curiosity gap is a desire to fill a space in our knowledge, and one of our powerful motivators. When we arouse people’s curiosity in our page titles, the CTR can soar.
- Use power words—power words are emotionally-charged words that grab our attention, like “epic,” “discover,” or “hoax.” There’s a huge list of power words that can help to boost your CTR. Here’s a great resource.
2. Time on page (dwell time)
As with CTR, the time spent on a web page tells Google how relevant the content is to their search. But it also shows the quality of the content. The longer someone spends on your page, the more likely it is that your content is useful and engaging, which is a big green tick for Google’s algorithm. On the flip side, if you write an enticing page title that generates a high CTR, but put little effort into the page’s content, people will quickly leave your page to find another, which is a big red cross for Google’s algorithm.
That’s why writing good quality content is so important. If you’re creating a blog that teaches people how to remove stains from carpets, you’ll need to cover the types of stains, types of carpets, techniques, the best equipment, and frequently asked questions. If you’re writing a page that promotes your business consultancy, you’ll want to clearly explain why someone should hire you, the services you offer, some social proof, and more. Content that is thorough, well-researched, and answers the users most pressing questions will be highly favoured by Google. And rightly so!
Reviews are one of the most prominent SEO ranking factors when searching for local businesses.3 They tell Google that your business is trustworthy, and has good authority. So you’ll want to request as many reviews from your happy customers as possible.
And of course, the better quality your products, services, and customer service, the more 5-star reviews you’ll generate. It pays to be a good business!
On the flip side, it's also crucial to respond to negative reviews. We wrote a whole article about this—How To Respond To A Negative Google Review—which provides guidelines on the best ways to reply.
User behaviour signals that do not affect SEO ranking
These are two user behaviour signals that are touted as relevant by some SEO companies, and discounted by others. We’ve personally found no evidence that these stats have any effect on SEO rankings, so we’re with the critics.
For Google, the bounce rate is the percentage of people who leave the page without completing any action, such as clicking a button.
You might have read some blogs claiming that bounce rate is a ranking factor. But various employees at Google have contradicted them. According to John Mueller—Google’s official Search Advocate—bounce rate is definitely not a ranking factor, which he explained in a YouTube video last year.1 This was previously supported by co-worker Gary IIlyes, who claimed on Twitter that “bounce rate is not a good signal.”2
When two of Google’s finest tell you to ignore bounce rate for SEO, it’s best to listen.
Google has stated that social signals do not improve a webpage’s ranking. One reason is that they’re too easy to manipulate, and are outside of Google’s control. Ranking is the very foundation of their service, so they aren’t about to give influence to the external algorithms of social platforms. They want to retain as much control over ranking as possible, and rightly so!
While there may be other user signals that affect SEO, they haven’t yet revealed themselves through studies. So until the SEO community is more certain on user signals, we’d recommend focusing on CTR, time on page, and customer reviews for now. This is plenty for you to do. When you craft great titles, produce comprehensive, relevant content, and strive to be a great business, you’ll improve your SEO chances dramatically. Good luck!