Searchmetrics Glossary – The Dictionary of Search Engine Optimization and Content Marketing

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User Signals

Signals a website user sends to search engines based on their positive (and negative) interactions with a website are called user signals. It is assumed that the type and quality of user signals can influence the ranking of an website. The more common user signals include time on site, click-through-rate (CTR) and bounce rate. For search engines, the return-to-SERP rate can also be an important user signal.

Which user signals are there?

There are various signals that a user can convey to a search engine. For search engines, such signals offer important reference points to determine the quality or relevance of a website following a search query.

Time on site

The time on site describes the time that a user spends on a site. The longer they stay, the more interesting the content appears to be.

Bounce rate

A bounce rate measures the percentage of visitors to website that exit after visiting a single page. A high bounce rate can be an indicator for inadequate content or technology. If the bounce rate is high, webmasters should urgently check which possible reasons there might be for the high rate. Note that a high bounce rate does not necessarily have to be a negative user signal. A high bounce rate can also be caused because a user has immediately found what they were looking for and has therefore quickly left the site again. As an example, blogs have higher bounce rates than other site types.

CTR (click-through rate)

The click-through rate, or CTR for short, describes the ratio of impressions to actual clicks. This means the CTR can give important reference points as to whether a user requirement was aroused by the appearance of an advertisement or a SERP snippet. CTR’s tend to be higher the further up the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) you go.

Return-to-SERP rate

The return-to-SERP rate describes the rate of users that return to the results page of the search engine. If, after clicking a search result, visitors frequently return to the search engine, search engines can conclude that the target site presumably does not fulfill the user requirement. This means the target site might have content that is too thin or not be technically sophisticated enough, for example.

Why user signals are important for Google and other search engines

In SEO circles, some controversy exists around how important user signals are for the ranking or generally good rankings. In fact, the quality of user signals cannot always be clearly derived using KPIs such as bounce rate or visit duration.

Nevertheless, this data gives search engines like Google clues for how websites are being experienced by visitors. A high return-to-SERP rate can uncover technical or content deficits. Search engines then must use further metrics to determine which alternative is more likely. Due to the large quantity of data that is collected by search engines, it is assumed that Google & other engines can very clearly differentiate between content and technical faults.

How can webmasters influence user signals?

To achieve as many positive user signals as possible, the following measures can help search engine optimization (SEO):

  • Optimization of content: The continuous improvement of content, the avoidance of errors and the introduction of additional material can significantly improve the user experience. If users find what they are looking for on a site, they generally stay there for longer and leave less frequently. The consequence would be positive user signals.
  • Improvement of meta descriptions: The better the meta description in a snippet matches the target site, the lower the return-to-SERP rate will be. At the same time, the content at hand also plays an important role here.
  • Optimization of loading times and technology: The faster a website loads, the more likely users are to remain there. Slow load times can, in turn, lead to high bounce rates. The same also applies to technical faults.
  • Mobile optimization: If a website is not optimized for mobile devices, bounce rates can rise significantly. For Google and other search engines this sends a negative signal and can result in lower mobile search rankings compared to desktop rankings.

How can webmasters track user behavior in order to draw conclusions on user signals?

To determine the quality of user signals of a website common web analysis tools such as Google Analytics can offer help. They show concrete data on website use, such as the bounce rate, the visit duration or the CTR. Webmasters and SEOs have the opportunity to use this data to draw conclusions on possible user signals. There are various approaches necessary to avoid negative user signals. For example, a high bounce rate can attributed to meager content. Visit duration can be equally problematic if a visitor must navigate through a complicated menu, grows frustrated and leaves.

The CTR in the SERPs can be determined with the Google Search Console. This figure shows how often a search result was displayed and how often a user actually clicked this result.

User signals via social networks

A special form of user signals are shares and likes from social media. This is no longer a case of user signals, but of “social signals”. In practice, experts cannot agree on how great the influence of social signals is on rankings, as likes and shares can be increased by social media marketing. Those who would like to send consistently positive user signals with their web offering should instead count on high-quality content, snippet optimization and a technically flawless site.

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