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How Does Google Measure Site Usability for SEO

July 3, 2018 - 4  min reading time - by Patrick O'Doherty
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Ancient are the times when the be-all and end-all of SEO was about link building. Since at least 2011 (with Google’s Panda update) Google has used website usability metrics, in addition to inbound links as a ranking signal.

As an aside, be careful not to confuse the terms ‘usability’ and ‘user experience’. Marketers often use the two terms interchangeably but they should not. Wordtracker wonderfully explains the difference between the two concepts but basically, usability refers to how easy it is to use a website and user experience refers to how the user feels when interacting with your website, taking into account things such as branding, user perception and user emotions.

This article focuses on four commonly discussed usability metrics: bounce rate, dwell time, page speed and word count.

Bounce Rate

Brian O’Connell, Founder & CEO at Asterion SEO says bounce rate is the most important usability metric Google considers for ranking websites – and up to a certain point that makes sense. If a user performs a Google search and spends very little time on the result they clicked on this might indicate that that result was not relevant to the user’s search.

But does bounce rate tell the whole story or could there be more to it? What if a user is simply trying to look up the phone number of their local doctor or pizza place, performs a search in Google, clicks on a webpage from the search results and finds the number right there on the homepage and then closes the page. This is great usability but should the site be penalized because its bounce rate looks terrible as a consequence? Obviously not.

So how does Google resolve this?

Well, because Google can track people using the Chrome browser (and who have opted in), they can resolve the above scenario by considering another metric called “dwell time” in addition to bounce rate.

Dwell Time

Dwell time is similar to bounce rate but with an additional step – it measures how long people stay on a website after clicking on a search result and then takes notice if that user returns to the search results to find another option. As the name describes, this metric measures how long a user ‘dwells’ on a specific result and if they then decide to look at another result from the same search. We can infer that a longer dwell time would suggest a more relevant result to Google and a shorter dwell time would suggest the opposite. And remember, a dwell time is only logged if the user returns to their original search to click on another result.

We can see how dwell time differs from bounce rate and how it solves the ‘I only need a phone number’ scenario described above. If a user clicks on a search result and does not return to Google to check out other results, then no dwelling by the user would occur and Google might still rank the page highly, even if its bounce rate is high and time on page is low.

Page Speed

Since at least 2010 it’s been known that Google rewards faster websites with higher rankings and given that Google even has its own, freely available tool to measure and improve website speed called Google Page Speed insights, it was always a safe bet to say that speed is something that matters to Google. But only as recently as April 2018 has it been confirmed that Google uses real-world data from Chrome Users to see how fast a page loads (as opposed to running software tests), further indicating the importance of page speed to Google.

However, a comprehensive study of thousands of search terms and websites led MOZ to believe that the speed of the backend infrastructure of the website in question was the only important part of the speed/rankings equation and that, funnily enough, front end load times (how fast sites loaded for users) had absolutely no effect on rankings. So the key takeaway from this study is – as well as improving front end load times you should upgrade your web host to something fast.

Despite any debate about which part of the speed equation is the most important, given that a fast website is so obviously beneficial to usability, it’s a no brainer to do everything you can to increase your site’s load speed – at the front and back ends.

Word Count

Perhaps the most contentious topic on usability and Google is how many words should a page of content have to rank better? The list below illustrates some of the differences in opinion on the topic.

  • Forbes suggests a 600-700 word count.
  • HubSpot found that their best performing posts had between 2,250-2,500 words.
  • Whiteboard Marketing recommends a minimum of 300 words.
  • Backlinko analysed one million Google search results and found that the average Google first page result contains 1,890 words.
  • MOZ also analysed one million articles and found that over 85% attracted no social media shares and no inbound links. The minority of content that was shared or linked to averaged more than 1000 words.

However, these studies should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. Rand Fishkin from MOZ “calls a big fat baloney” on these types of studies and suggests they’re far too simplistic to make actionable judgements from and don’t take into account what types of keywords, traffic or industries these studies analyse. Also anyone with even a slight acquaintance of statistics knows how misleading averages can be. For example, a cited blog post average of 2000 words could be calculated from a set of blog posts with 20 posts of 200 words each and one post with 38,000 words – giving an average which is hardly indicative of the nature of the set.

The jury is still out on whether Google cares about word count length – a better guess would be that they care more about other factors, e.g. if your content attracts inbound links, has a low bounce rate, dwell time etc.

Patrick O'Doherty See all their articles
Patrick O’Doherty is founder and Managing Director at Yarra Web, a digital agency who has proudly been supporting digital and bricks and mortar businesses since 2008. Find out more at Yarra Web. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin.
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