Does Dwell Time REALLY Mean Engagement?

Let’s talk about engagement for a bit. It is believed that the more someone engages with your content, the more likely they’ll be to remember you and listen to what you say. It seems pretty obvious.

Measuring that engagement? Not so obvious. And the measuring tools we have for engagement aren’t particularly accurate. Not for what really matters anyway. Metrics like bounce rate, dwell time, and average time on page are some of the usual measures of engagement. The assumption is that a low bounce rate, high dwell time, and high average time on page means that people are engaging with the content.

But does it really? Here are some questions to consider.

  • Can a reader leave your page quickly and still leave with a positive
    impression of your brand?
  • Can you really prove that people spending a long time on a page means
    they like that content?
  • Is it really engagement we are after, or is it leaving people with a positive
    impression no matter how long they spend on the page?

Let’s take a trip away from B2B blogs and over to the world of food blogging to talk about these matters, as well as some issues with how Google ranks things.

The Trouble With Food Blogs

The food blogger business model is pretty straightforward. Searchers come to a
food blog because they found a recipe through a search. Ads on that blog, or
perhaps the sale of a cookbook, generate the revenue.

For a few years though, there have been some corners of the net who complain loudly about modern food blogging. The recipes are buried at the bottom of a long story full of pictures, ads, and even videos.

This seems weird. Why would you bury your most attractive content at the bottom of the page? Shouldn’t the best stuff be near the top and then have more if people want to scroll down? Well, yes, but also no.

The trouble is there are 3-4 parties involved all trying to get what they want and their interests don’t always align.

The food bloggers want to make money and share their stories and recipes with other people. Many of them are writers at heart and want to share their stories, but there is pressure on them to create content that is attractive for their advertisers and for Google.

The readers, like most audiences, can be split into segments. Some foodies love those long rambling stories. Ever since the 1940s, the little blurbs above recipes called headnotes have grown longer and longer. What originally held a few tips on how to make a recipe better has now become a full-blown space to share history, context, cooking tips, and memories triggered in the writer by the recipe.

Those readers who just want a recipe hate having to wade through 1,000-2,000 more words to get what they want. Mobile users have to scroll quite a lot to get there.

Search engines want to bring up the best recipe content for a search. Obviously, they can’t taste-test every variation of a recipe and come to some scientific assessment of “best”. So they have to look for other markers. Reviews are an obvious one, but they’re also looking at those metrics we talked about before.

The theory goes that if the searcher isn’t leaping away immediately and sticks around for a long time, they must be engaging with the recipe. Maybe they’re keeping the tab open while they make it. Also, if a page has more content and people are sticking around, they may assume that this particular page has a lot of information about this kind of recipe.

All this to say that search engines are rewarding the bloggers who force their readers to stick around more by burying content and lengthening pages, even though a sizeable chunk of their audience thinks they’re wasting their time by doing it.

Add the needs of advertisers on top of this and it starts to look like there’s a serious problem with food blogging.

Not So Simple Fix

How have food bloggers responded to this? KitchenTreaty tried some experiments. They took some well-performing pages and moved the recipe up to the top. Same page length, same content. Google shouldn’t have a problem, right?

But those engagement metrics started to go down because searchers were getting what they needed quickly. Within a few months, Google punished those pages in the search results and the blog lost ad revenue.

To keep readers happy, they’ve settled on putting in a button that will skip down to the recipe even though this decreases ad revenue.

Back to B2B blogging, we have two types of engagement to consider with every piece of blog content. We are engaging with the search engines and we’re engaging with the readership. But what Google considers good content may not be what your readership thinks is good content.

That little FAQ page you wrote to answer a common question may make your readers ecstatic, but Google might think it’s too short and push it down. Google may love a long post you make but the length could turn off your readership if they don’t have the time to read it all. It’s no wonder that Medium puts in an estimated reading time at the top of their posts.

How do you balance this?

The Keys to Clever Content Creation

Ultimately, there has to be a balance between what the search engines and the readers want, as they sometimes are at cross-purposes to one another. We’re going to call the type of content that achieves both search engine love and high engagement ‘clever content.’ 

What are the components of clever content?

First, start with the standards for creating a minimum viable post.

Before your post can succeed, it must first survive. A blog post should look like a blog post. It needs to contain all the basics for readers and search engines to understand it. It needs to avoid techniques that search engines dislike (e.g. poor or paid-for links).

Second, each post needs to have a context and a goal in your overall content marketing strategy.

Let’s say you’re writing short FAQ pages for users of your product. You know those 300-words posts aren’t going to get a lot of love from Google because of their size (unless they grab it for a rich snippet). On the other hand, the context for the FAQ is that it’s meant for existing users who know all about you already.

The goal is to inform them. In this case, SEO effort is better placed on the top-level page of the FAQ, or whichever page leads to it. Reader-focused content can to go the pages.

This can be boiled down to a general rule: The higher the content is in the funnel, the more it needs to tuned for SEO. The lower the content is in the funnel, the more it needs to be tuned to SEO.

Third, clever content knows if it is successful or not.

That is, you need a standard for your metrics that’s set according to the context and goal. This gets back to the three questions we raised at the start of the article.

Yes, a reader can leave quickly and still be satisfied if you know that you built that piece of content that way. A FAQ page usually doesn’t take long to read, so a better metric would be how much traffic it gets and the ways people are finding it.

No, you can’t prove that long average page times means people like your content. It just means they’re hanging out there. But if your pieces have a CTA of some kind at the bottom and you can measure that result, that’s a much more powerful engagement metric. The reader stuck it out to the end and then took your advice to comment, share, or whatever. You can also measure if they clicked on any internal or external links within the piece. These are much better indicators for engagement than time.

Finally, we agree that leaving people with a positive impression of your brand is much better than artificially inflating engagement times by adding more words. Never forget that Google’s rankings are done by an algorithm. Algorithms do not ultimately pay your bills. People do.

A high SERP ranking means Google likes you and that you’re easy to find. That’s all. But if your content is really going to convert, it has to go a step beyond what Google thinks is good. The example with the food bloggers shows that Google’s assumptions about what we will like aren’t always accurate.

Let’s add a final rule to clever content. Clever content has just enough SEO to make it to the first organic SERP of Google. Beyond that, it’s your visitor’s signals that will push you up to the top because of the quality of the content (barring major algorithm changes).

Clever content takes both the needs of the reader and the search engines in mind. This type of content needs to be measurable, look like a blog post, and be optimized to its place in the funnel. It also needs to answer the questions for the readers.