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How user behaviour affects organic search

January 20, 2016

Simon Fryer
Simon is CandidSky's Search Director, with strong roots in organic SEO and analytics, and a disturbing passion for spreadsheets.

SEO is about building links and writing content. Right?

Page titles and descriptions are used to comply with search engine guidelines and help a page rank. At most it needs to be optimised for keywords, even then, you have more important things to do. Get your primary keyword in there and move on to the next thing on your to-do list. Right?

Wrong. This data is much more important than you think because it affects how your site appears in the Search Engine Results Page (SERPs). Until now you’ve been thinking about how search engines interact with your web pages. What you should be thinking about is how users interact with your listings.

Why? Because how people interact with the search engine results page will affect your site’s positioning in search results.

You might have experienced personalised search, where your results are tailored to your historical behaviour. You might even know how important the appearance of your results is to get as many clicks as possible. What you probably don’t know is that how you interact with the SERP affects how it is displayed for others or – more importantly – how searchers interact with listings will affect results for other users.

I’m talking about two key metrics that Google uses to optimise the results page:

  • Click-through rate
  • Dwell time

Read on to find out how these user behaviours affect results, and how you can harness them to improve rankings without painstakingly producing content or investing time in acquiring new links.

But first, let’s become a search engine.

As a search engine you aim to provide the best possible answer for searchers. That means providing the best result in the highest position for a given search.

Pretend you’re Google. A searcher comes to you and asks you to provide 10 resources about “tying shoelaces”. You can use the data you have to find out which 10 websites receive the most links, and perhaps which have the best content about tying shoelaces. Now you’ve got a list of 10 sites that all appear to provide the answer, but which is the best? Furthermore, does the searcher even want to know how to tie shoelaces? Maybe they are trying to find out when shoelaces were invented? Or perhaps the dangers of tying shoelaces on the move?

If you take your list of 10 sites about shoelace tying and show them to 100 people who want to know about “tying shoelaces” surely they can answer the question for you? But how can you measure it?

Click-through rate

You’ve probably heard of click-through rate (CTR) before, especially in advertising. It represents how many people who saw a search result actually clicked it. Until recently it’s been an informative metric; it tells us how enticing your listing was compared with others on the page. No more. Now it has impact. Real impact.

If 90 of your “test subjects” click the listing in position 3, that tells you that the site in position 3 has the best promise of answering your searcher’s question. Maybe the site in position 2 was actually about the history of shoelaces. Perhaps the site in position 4 was about the benefits of Velcro. By looking at which results your participants click they are telling you which they think is the best result. You’d be crazy not to bump this up to position 1, right?

But what if promises are all that listing offered? By monitoring click-through rate you can see which listing was the most enticing, but how can you tell whether the page fulfilled its promise?

Dwell time

The answer is simple. If you’re out shopping for a new pair of shoes and accidentally walk into a hat shop what do you do? You turn around and walk back out (unless you’re a sucker for a good bonnet).

So can we use how many people who walk out of the shop as a metric? Not quite. Customers who bought a hat will eventually walk out. What we need to look at instead is how long people spent in the shop. Anyone who left immediately wasn’t interested in what the shop had to offer. Anyone who was interested stuck around a bit longer. Perhaps they had a browse. Maybe they even bought a nice flat cap.

This is known as dwell time; how long a user stayed on the website in question before returning to the results page (or the high-street in this metaphor).

By looking at (a) how many people click a certain result, and (b) how long they stayed on that site, search engines can optimise their listings to provide exactly what their customers are looking for. This becomes even more important as we use more colloquial (conversational) searches, or perhaps voice search.

Search engines aren’t people. They might not know exactly what you mean. But, by looking at how people interact with the options they provide they can crowdsource the understanding process.

How can you use this newly acquired knowledge? Simple.

  • Get more people to click your listing by making it as enticing and relevant to the search as possible. Try offers, promotions, promises and seduction, or some of these tips.
  • Encourage them to stay on your site longer. Provide further reading, a game, other resources, links to things they might be interested in. Maybe one of those pop-ups that stops you going back (please don’t do that).

As search engines progress and search queries change over time it’s certain that Google, in particular, will pay increasing attention to how people interact with search results. Don’t wait for your competitors to learn about CTR and Dwell time; get started now and give yourself a competitive advantage.

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