User Signals

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What are user signals?

In the field of SEO, user signals are specific behaviors that site visitors display when interacting with a given page or website. Each behavior functions as a “signal” of how well a page or site meets the user’s expectations. As such, these signals are considered an indicator of engagement and user satisfaction. Signals are quantified as a percentage or as a rate and can be measured through a variety of methods, including website cookies and site analytics applications.

The correlation between user experience and user signals

User Signals
Figure: User Signals - Author: Seobility - License: CC BY-SA 4.0

User experience essentially measures satisfaction and the quality of interactions between websites and their visitors. This is quantified with the use of certain metrics. Many user signals are in fact user experience metrics, which are considered vital components of a user experience. This is the case of:

  • Bounce rate, which reflects how many visitors left a website without taking any action. This rate is usually expressed as a percentage.
  • Organic click-through rate, also expressed as a percentage. This rate refers to how many visitors click on a particular URL listed on SERPs.
  • Dwell time, the time spent on a particular page before returning to SERPs, visiting another page, or closing the website.
  • Pogo sticking, the process through which someone visits different websites listed on SERPs until finding the most relevant to their query.

These metrics are useful to user experience and SEO professionals and while they might not influence search rankings directly, monitoring them and improving weak points might still be a good idea.

The correlation between user intent and user signals

User intent (which is also referred to as search intent) is an important SEO concept that is correlated to user signals. At its most basic, user intent is the purpose of an online search. Intent can be classified into three different types, depending on the ultimate reason why someone is performing an online search. The most common search intent types are:

  • Informational intent. Site visitors performing a search with informational intent simply want to learn or find the answer to something.
  • Navigational, where the visitor’s intention is to find a particular site that is already known to them.
  • Transactional, where conversion is likely since visitors are further along the customer journey and ready to perform a specific action (buying, subscribing, requesting a demo, etc.).

Users entering a general query such as “drone” in a search engine may expect to find informative articles, giving them an overview of the topic. An online store offering them a drone model for sale would be out of place at this point. Transactional searches usually start at a later point in time, when the user has already gathered enough information about the topic and feels ready to purchase a product. This means that content has to be designed in a way that addresses the user’s needs according to their search intent and current stage of the customer journey. When a web page satisfies search intent, this is reflected in user signals. Pages that are correlated and relevant to search intent tend to have high organic click-through rates, high dwell time, and low bounce rates.

Are user signals a ranking factor?

SEO experts and marketers are actively discussing the role that these signals play in the weighting of websites in Google’s search results. While an indirect influence of user signals on the ranking cannot be denied, a direct influence is not confirmed. In theory, there are many ways to capture and evaluate user signals - be it through Google Analytics, the return-to-SERP rate, or Google's Chrome browser. User data is collected via all these methods; the question is whether and to what extent Google uses the existing data for its search engine. After all, the added value of Google's search engine lies in offering users an optimal experience for their research. A search experience that is optimized for the individual user is therefore in Google’s best interest.

Importance for SEO

User signals might not be a direct ranking factor, but they still matter for SEO. Good user experience and user intent are important for every website and should not be ignored.

The data provided by different user signals can be used by website owners and marketers to determine their site’s shortcomings and opportunities with regards to the type of user experience they are providing. These signals are essentially data on user behavior, which can be taken into consideration for website optimization with the objective of making content more useful and relevant.

In summary: User signals FAQs

What are user signals used for?

User signals provide a way to measure how a page satisfies a user’s needs.

What are important user signals?

The most important user signals include the bounce rate, the click-through rate, and the dwell time.

Do user signals influence search rankings?

Google has not officially confirmed the direct influence of user signals on website rankings. An indirect influence is very likely though.

Are user intent and user signals connected?

Yes. User signals are a way to track how well your website meets a user’s search intent. Low bounce rates, high click-through rates, and high dwell times indicate that your site meets your visitors’ user intent.

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