"Dwell time" is one of those digital marketing terms that seems self-explanatory, but actually has a very precise meaning. And fully grasping that precise meaning is important, because "dwell time" is one of the most crucial metrics there is when it comes to visibility in search rankings.
So: let's venture a quick definition.
Essentially, dwell time is the amount of time a user spends looking at a webpage after clicking a URL on a search engine results page. In other words, the dwell time metric only applies if your site was discovered through Google, Bing, or another search engine.
Most websites, according to Hubspot, have an average dwell time of about 2-4 minutes—enough time for a user to click around and determine whether your site meets their specific needs.
If you're set up with Google Analytics, you can figure out what your own dwell time is, more or less instantly, by looking up your “average session duration.” This number is calculated by dividing the total duration of every session, or visit, by the total number of sessions.
Digital marketers are always eager to increase their dwell time—usually in order to generate more pageviews and sell more ads. However, as it happens, the benefits of a higher dwell time extend far beyond ads and can lead to your website receiving significantly more pageviews down the line.
How dwell time is different from bounce rate, time on-page, and session duration
Before exploring the benefits of higher dwell times, it's worth carefully distinguishing the term from three others that (on the surface) seem somewhat similar: bounce rate, time on-page, and session duration.
Let's start with bounce rate—defined by Semrush Blog as "the percentage of people who land on a page and leave without performing a specific action."
In this context, we can define a specific action as clicking a link, buying something, sticking around for any duration, etc.
Unlike dwell time, this is not a term that is specific to search engines—no matter how a user arrives at your website (social, search, email marketing, etc.), if they click away quickly they will be counted towards your bounce rate.
It's been reported that the average bounce rate is somewhere between 41% and 51%—which is to say, nearly half of the people that visit a website end up clicking away without taking action.
Unlike dwell time, “time on-page" is one of those marketing terms that actually does mean just what you think it would—namely, the average amount of time users spend viewing a single page of your site. Similar to bounce rate, time on-page isn’t correlated with search or search engine optimization (SEO). Time on-page is simply the time spent on a page, regardless of how the page was found.
Average session duration
Although Google Analytics labels dwell time as “average session duration,” these terms are actually not the same. Dwell time (as defined by Google) can only come from search engine results pages (SERPs) whereas the average session duration may also measure a user’s time on-page after they’ve arrived from another landing page, a social media post, an ad, or an email, etc.
How dwell time impacts SEO
Now, let's dig into what dwell time means for your SEO prospects.
Technically, Google has never formally admitted whether or not dwell time actually factors into a given web page's search rankings. But the vast majority of SEO experts agree that dwell time almost certainly plays a major role when it comes to SEO. As you've probably guessed: the higher the dwell time, the better your webpage is likely to fare on the relevant SERPs.
The reasons for this are fairly self-explanatory: a higher dwell time suggests a higher degree of usefulness and/or interest, thus signaling to Google, et al. that their users will be better served by your content. If you're looking to land on the first page of Google results—and you should be, because it's been estimated that only 0.63% of users make it to the second page—your pages are going to need dwell times that outpace competitors.
The target numbers here are fairly well-established. As a general rule, 30 seconds or less is considered a less-than-ideal dwell time, anything over two minutes should help you with search results, and anything over four minutes is exceptional.
If the dwell time on some of your pages is low, don't get too upset; there are a number of tried-and-true tactics to increase it. The best of these is analyzing higher-ranking search results for a given term. What are your competitors doing that you aren’t? What format are they using, and how long or short are their sections? Paying attention to things like these and then incorporating them into your own pages can help significantly with dwell time.
Why is dwell time important to video ads?
Dwell time doesn't just matter in a search context. It sends a signal to advertisers too. It tells them that people actually engage with your content. Accordingly, it increases their willingness to pay more to advertise on your site.
This–as well as session duration–is especially important for video content because video ads typically take 6 to 30 seconds to complete. If a user doesn't stay on the page for the duration of the ad (if dwell time is low) the ad won't be counted as 'complete,' and the advertiser will inevitably stop buying ads from you or decide to pay less for those ads.
And don't forget that a high dwell time helps with the number of video ads you can show per session. If a user stays on your site for just 30 seconds, or even as long as a minute, you might be able to show them a single video ad. But if they stay on your site for upwards of five minutes (or more), you can show them as many as two or three. Then a single page with a 5-minute dwell time can earn you 300% more per session than a page with a low dwell time.
Why is dwell time not as important to display ads?
Display ads operate differently: dwell time isn't critical in this arena. That's because only one display ad is typically shown per session. This is, of course, assuming the website isn’t refreshing the display ad while the user is on-page. Even if a user only spends 10 seconds on a given page, that session will still register because time spent on-page isn’t particularly relevant.
It's for this very reason that video advertisements tend to be worth more. For instance, 3 video ads will typically generate markedly higher revenue than 3 refreshed display ads. Advertisers know that consumers tend to ignore display ads. They know that a user who leaves after 5 seconds will still count as having seen their display ad.
By contrast, users actually have to choose to watch video ads. Accordingly, video ads imprint more significantly on the consumer's psyche—the consumer is much more likely to retain their messages.
Want to learn how you can increase your video dwell time across your site?