By now, we’ve all come to realize that ranking well on Google has become a very intricate matter. Thanks to Panda and Penguin, spam has lost a lot of its power to influence the SERPs. Once Hummingbird came along and added emphasis on hard-to-fake signals that indicate good user experiences, gimmicky SEO pretty much died.
A lot of SEO experts agree that one of those signals is usage data. Usage data is the collective term used to describe metrics that indicate the quality of user behavior as they browse the pages of a site. The better the usage data looks, the more relevant the site is perceived to be. It’s now widely believed in the SEO community that usage data is a ranking factor though it’s unclear how much it impacts the calculation of the SERPs.
One of the usage metrics that webmasters constantly try to improve is average times on page. In web analytics, it’s defined as the average duration of visits on specific pages within a domain. Most web analytics platforms determine it by recording the time a visitor accesses a page, then recording the time when the same visitor visits another page on your site. The first page’s time valuie is then subtracted to the second page’s time value and the differential is considered the time that the user spent on that page. All the visit durations are then added up and divided by the number of visits.
Limitations of Average Time on Page
Average time on page isn’t a perfect metric and nobody should think that it is. As you may have noticed in the formula, there needs to be a page visited after the one you’re trying to measure for an analytics platform to tell the time differential. That’s because analytics platforms can’t actually monitor a user’s time on a page. They assume that the time in between internal page hits is the time spent on a particular page.
Hence, if the page is an exit page, the value recorded is 0 seconds. If a user visits just one page on your site but doesn’t check out other pages (bounces), it doesn’t matter how long he or she was on your page. The value recorded is still zero because there’s no succeeding page to serve as a basis for determining the time differential.
Google Analytics is aware of this and does not factor in the past page’s zero result when computing average time on page. Analytics Edge wrote a nice piece explaining this and I strongly suggest checking it to get a full grasp of this metric. It’s still possible to track user times spent on the last pages they visit, but you have to have the right event tracking configuration to monitor it.
Ultimately, we all should still care about average times on pages despite the limitations because they give us an indication of how engaged users are. What we can’t do is take this metric as hard fact especially if your pages have high exit rates. When used properly, average time on page could still give you an idea on how effective your content and UX strategies are. If misinterpreted, you’re making an analytics mistake that can misguide your digital marketing program.
How to Increase Average Times on Page
Let’s face it: regardless how you view average time on page as a metric, you still probably want to increase it. It’s still a hallmark of engagement and it can still positively affect both organic rankings and conversion rates. Here are a few ways to easily see significant improvements:
Write Comprehensive Pages
Writing comprehensive, evergreen content that answers as many questions about a topic as possible has always been good practice. Doing this allows you to address a wide range of searcher intents and makes you relevant for more search queries. What SEOs don’t usually see is that comprehensive content also takes longer to consume. Users usually stay longer on pages where there’s more to read, view or listen to.
When writing blog posts, articles and other resource-type content assets, try to add as much detail as you can. Just make sure not to drag out your content just for the sake of increasing the word count. If your readers sense that much of your content is fluff, they’ll eventually start dropping off and never come back. Make your content pieces as lengthy as necessary but as brief as possible. Follow editorial common sense and you should be fine.
Practice Internal Linking
Getting visitors to open multiple pages on your site is always a good thing. It’s an indicator of engagement and is taken as a sign that more of your content is being consumed. Statistically, this translates into better usage signals as it lowers bounce rates, increases page views and improves calculations for times spent on pages.
You can encourage better internal visitor movement by adding internal links to your content pages. Contextually relevant links attached to the right anchor text in an article body is good. Adding “Related Posts” at the end of each blog also makes sense. There are no hard and fast rules on how many links you should have per page, but I would say 2-3 links in an 800-word page is normal.
Use (Lots of) Images
Writing is good – showing is better. People online can lose interest while reading text, but very few people get tired of seeing interesting pictures. When writing articles, be sure to include relevant images pertaining to the subject matter. Use them to illustrate points and to break up text walls that induce visual fatigue.
Images that really add meaning to the content work best. That means screenshots and pictures that you took yourself are more likely to make people look longer. Stock images that serve as fillers tend not to do quite as well.
If you have a lot of pictures to share, use image galleries. These visual assets can suck people in for several minutes, ramping up time on page data for you. Jiyan Naghshineh Wei wrote a nice post on Moz a couple of years back about the positive impact that images can have on site usage. Check it out to get an idea of the kind of returns you can get from investing in images.
If a picture says a thousand words, a video probably tells a fair bit more. A lot of users find content in video form more engaging than simple text and images. Videos deliver more intimate, personable experiences while keeping interest levels high due to the combination of sights and sounds.
Whether you’re blogging, trying to opt people into a mailing list or pitching a sale, consider using videos. They not only keep users on a page for longer stretches, they’ve also been proven to be a more powerful driver of messaging and branding.
Embed SlideShare Decks
If you’re not familiar with it, SlideShare is basically YouTube for PowerPoint presentations. You can upload your decks to the service and get embed codes which can be pasted to your pages. Decks are great for teaching your audience new skills or concepts. They also keep your visitors on a page longer because they’ll be moving through the decks at their own respective paces.
Ultimately, increasing average times on pages is all about giving users more quality content to consume. The more effort you put into delighting your audience, the more they reward your site with positive engagement signals that can impact your SEO progress.