If you know what keywords people are likely to use when they’re searching for information about your niche, then you already have a vital edge over your competitors when it comes to putting your site up there on page 1 of the SERPs.
But knowing about so-called “behavioral factors”, i.e. the way that real users actually behave when using the Internet, can help you to ensure that (a) people click on your SERPs link rather than on someone else’s, and (b) they actually engage meaningfully with your site once they’re there.
Getting The Click Is The First Part Of The Battle
Click through rate (CTR) is the percentage of people who actually click on your SERPs link as opposed to the nine others on the page (not to mention any paid-for ads that might also be there). For example, if one hundred people have done a Google search for “purple widget donglers”, and your page comes up in page 1 of the SERPs for that term, then if 35 people click through to your page, your CTR is 35%.
Most people don’t look any further down than the first few results on page 1 of the SERPs. In fact, by far the majority of searchers will go straight to the site that appears right at the top of the page, in the no. 1 spot. So your actual position in the SERPs is a big influence on CTR.
But there’s another thing that influences CTR – your “snippet”. Snippets are the bits of text that appear under the title and URL. They provide the searcher with a “snapshot” of your page’s content. Basically, the more informative and relevant your snippet, the more likely that people are to click through. You can help things along by including the title, description and main keywords in your description meta tags. You can also add a “call to action” in your meta tags, or contact info such as your phone number. Words like “discount”, “bonus” and “x% off” can also be very helpful too.
You can also use one of several HTML-based microformats to mark up your pages and thus create so-called “rich snippets” which can be tailored to show information such as:
- Contact details for businesses and people as bold text within the snippet
- Star ratings for a product (if it’s a review page)
- Information on dates etc. for a page listing forthcoming events
- Song information (title, artist and playing times) for a music page
- Star rating and cooking time for a recipe page.
You can find more information about rich snippets and microformats in Google Webmaster Tools.
On-page behavioral factors
Now that you’ve made sure that your SERPs CTR is as good as it can be, do you understand the way in which users behave once they’re actually on your page? Are they spending a reasonable amount of time there and even looking at other pages on your site? Or are they just “bouncing”, i.e. hitting the Back button without clicking through to any of your site’s other pages/links? If they’re bouncing, then by definition they won’t be clicking on your ads and they may not be buying your product/service either. Not only that, but a high bounce rate could also end up hurting your search engine rankings. SEO experts believe that bounce rate is one of the factors that affects your site’s position in the SERPs, so bounce rates are something that you ignore at your peril.
A very high bounce rate is a sign that visitors are failing to engage with your site – it shows that a large percentage of users probably aren’t getting the information/content from your site that they were looking for when they did their search; when they realize their “mistake”, they make a sharp exit. To help prevent this from happening, it makes sense to:
- Ensure that the content of your page actually matches the user’s search query. In other words, give people what they’re actually looking for! The title of your page is the “funnel” that ensures people find your page in the first place, so your content needs to match it. If you find that a particular keyword is associated with a high bounce rate, then you might consider writing a new landing page targeted to that keyword.
- Make sure that your content is well-written. You don’t have to write a literary masterpiece, but at the same time, you don’t want to put people off with obvious grammatical howlers and misspellings.
- Break up your content into easily digestible chunks. Long paragraphs are a no-no – you should ideally ensure that each paragraph is three or four sentences long at most. And use bullet points too – this helps break things up even further.
- Avoid long, rambling sentences – make your sentence structure as snappy and unambiguous as possible. You don’t want to insult your readers’ intelligence, but you don’t want to blind them with science/technospeak either. In general, you should aim to write content that can easily be understood by the average 14 year old. (Unless your site is a scholarly/academic one, in which case your readership will be much more sophisticated and you can adjust your writing style and content accordingly.)
- Use attention-grabbing (but relevant) images. This breaks up the text, keeps your readers engaged, and can even provide SEO benefits in its own right if you make sure that your image file has a relevant keyword as its name! The emergence of sites like Pinterest demonstrates that images are coming to the fore in terms of SEO.
- If you’re tempted to use sound and autoplay, think carefully. A lot of readers browse at work. They don’t want an autoplay soundtrack which alerts their boss to the fact that they’re not actually working!
It’s Not Just About Bounce Rate
Bounce rate on its own isn’t going to tell you all you need to know about user behavior – it doesn’t distinguish between users who hit Back after a couple of seconds and users who stay on your page for a number of minutes or even hours. You need to give some attention to the other metrics of user behavior, such as time on page and returning visitors.
If you use Google Analytics, you may already know that Analytics also tracks:
- How many people out of your overall number of visitors are visiting your page for the first time, and how many are returning after having visited it before. If the latter, you can drill down further in Google Analytics to find out how many visits they make overall (1-8, 9-14, 15-25, 26-50 etc.), and how many page views fall within each of these ranges.
- For multiple visits, you can even see a graph of number of visits versus days since last visit.
- How long they actually stay on your page for (Google Analytics refers to this as “engagement”). Is it 0 – 10 seconds? 11 – 30 seconds? 31 – 60 seconds? Or longer? Included in this metric is a “page depth” section which shows a distribution of how many users visit just one page on your site, how many visit two pages, how many visit three pages etc., etc.
Given that Google Analytics tracks all of this information, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the longer a visitor spends on your site and the more pages he or she views, the better. However, this is a myth. It could just mean that your visitors are getting confused and are blundering from page to page in the hope of finding the right information! This is where hiring a real human being to test the usability of your site can prove invaluable. The key motto here is “don’t make the user think”. In other words, make it as easy to read, navigate and engage with your site as possible. And avoid lengthy and complicated registration and sign-up procedures too.
A proportion of your site’s visitors may not arrive via the search engines at all – instead, they may come via social networking sites, as a result of referrals by people who have “liked” or tweeted your site. If this is the case, it’s almost certainly a sign that you’re doing something right!
But will social networking eventually overtake search engines in terms of driving traffic to the average site? The answer is “nobody really knows” – the only thing we can say with any certainty is that social networking is not going to go away any time soon. It therefore makes sense for individual webmasters to track the volume of social network-driven traffic and keep on top of trends as they develop.
The good news is that Google Analytics now allows you to do this, although they don’t necessarily make it easy for you. In the past, Google Analytics automatically tracked “+1s” generated by the now defunct Google Plus platform – in other words, if you had the latest version of Analytics enabled and you had a Google +1 button on your page, then probably got a search boost because of this.