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User Signals

signs of the times
reading time: 5 minutes

Through user signals we decide on a daily basis which sites rank on which position. As users we signal Google if we can make use of a search result or not. Google takes these signals into consideration. They are a core magnitude in ever search engine optimization.

Since it is becoming increasingly important to optimize a page not only for search engines, but primarily for the users, you should not leave user signals unattended. The seo- nerd explains, which user signals are important and how they can be measured.

Why are user signals important to Google?

The easiest and fastest answer for that is: user signals help Google continuously improve the own search results. Users should reach their goals with preferably just one click. The following are regarded the most important user signals:

  • Click Through Rate (CTR)
  • Bounce-Rate
  • Time on Site

They are only officially confirmed as ranking factors by Google for mobile searches, by the way. After all, the user friendliness of mobile sites is of central importance since the Google Mobile Friendly Update in 2015. Since Google always keeps it low regarding their ranking factors you should not give too much credit to statements like user signals don’t play a role.

At least indirectly user signals certainly play a great role for the ranking. Indirect here means that user signals have to be interpreted by Google constantly. That Google does that is obvious. The search engine monitors our clicking and surfing behaviour very closely, after all.

The famous online marketing expert Rand Fishkin has once started an interesting experiment concerning this. Via Twitter he asked his followers to search for “best grilled steak” on Google. They should click the link on position 1 first, but then jump back to the SERP straight away and then click position 4 and stay on this site for a while. What happened? Position 4 jumped up to the top after a short time. All just a coincidence? Hardly conceivable.

User Signal Click-through-rate

The CTR indicates how many users have clicked a site when they show up in a SERP. The higher the number the stronger the user signal is subsequently. Since users normally click very often on the first three search results the CTR on the first three positions is quite high respectively. It drastically declines on the following positions. The CTR is a relative significance therefore depending on the SERP position. Google and Bing have calculated this relation into their algorithms. When on position 1 you should have a CTR of at least 30% to hold this position. On the lower positions it’s sufficient to have a CTR in the one-digit area to convince Google.

Naturally the snippet is determined over the CTR, i.e. what Google shows in the SERP for the respective site. In the easiest case this snippet consists of a title (that can be determined over a “meta-title”), the URL with the link to the website, and a short description of the site that Google either chooses itself or if available just takes over the meta-description.

Infographic User Signals

For the CTR the quality of the displayed snippets is crucial. Studies and observations show that successful snippets…

  • are thought trough and designed coherently and attractive for users
  • have a easily identifiable relevance to the search word
  • have been enhanced aesthetically and by content through Rich Snippets where possible (these contain details like address, reviews and so on)
  • represent a brand trusted by users
  • directly address users (e.g. by a call of action, hinting a useful tool for a search, sales offers, etc.)

Bounce rate and visiting duration/ Time on site

The bounce rate measures the number of users that only look at a site of a domain and then quickly (within seconds) leave it again. If other subpages are clicked on, however, Google can assume that the users find the site interesting. Since some domains make do with only a few but at the same time for exciting pages Google records the visiting time. If it is high it is an indication that the site draws interest.

The most frequent reasons for a high bounce rate are long loading times, a less convincing usability of the site, lacking or irrelevant content. The visiting duration increases, however, as soon as

  • the site loads fast (pagespeed)
  • he site is designed in a clear and well-structure manner and can be understood intuitively by users
  • present contents are relevant (texts, pictures, videos)
  • internal links invite to stay on the site
  • site can be browsed by users via a built-in search function
  • even 404 sites are designed entertainingly and animates the user to look for similar results on the site.

Users also mostly look for quick information. If you offer long texts (which is always recommendable since Google more likely assumes then that the site is high-quality and also enables more keywords and keyword phrases) you should structure the text clearer and easily comprehendible, with subtitles and other elements like summaries, a conclusion, infographics, etc.

Tip: Put here and there external links onto qualitative sites (e.g. Wikipedia) on which users like to stay long. Google accounts you some of the visiting time of the links to your site. Links to such sites are therefore always recommendable. They should be always designed in a way, though, that the anchor text (the linked word or phrase) as well as the link title is short and relevant to the chosen text.

Further User Signals

A. Frequency of returning visitors
Google accompanies users on their journey through the net. The search concern records among other things how often a user returns to a site. If this is the case frequently your chance for a better ranking increases.

B. Type-in and bookmark traffic
Bonus point one obtains as well when the user types in the full address into the address bar. Short, memorable URLs have an advantage here, of course. Points are also received for sites that are made into bookmarks in the browser.

C. Log-in availability
Further ranking points are credited if you get a user to log onto the site. Here you have to ponder when users are willing to do that at all. Logins from the SEO viewpoint are only then helpful if they are accepted by the users.

Data to measure user signals

Google owns more than one instruments for that. The most important are probably cookies, that every user accepts as soon as they the search engine (the cookies can be also turned off but then the functionality suffers). Cookies identify users and their previous searching behaviour and observe what a user does in the run of their session.

Similarly informative for Google are the Google webmaster tools. They are normally to offer website offers data about user behaviour on their sites. Google reads them as well.

Another instrument is Google Chrome. The company from Mountainview keeps denying the collected data are used for the search engine. Due to lacking transparency this does not have to be believed, though. Chrome has a market share of almost 50% worldwide. It might be more than just a temptation for Google to study their users’ behaviour over the browser.

Last but not least there would be the mobile operating system Android over which Google obtains numerous data about mobile user behaviour. Which these exactly are Google also does not tell.

Summary – the most important concerning User Signals

Google has countless methods available to follow the user behaviour regarding search requests. Google denies that user signals are included as ranking factors for SERPs, however this is not credible. Tests and even some patents indicate that Google does evaluate user signals. When optimising the most important user signals the visibility in the SERPs is usually also improved.

For optimising user signals you need to do a range of Onpage SEO measurements like improving loading time, an appealing content as well as maintaining meta-data Google reads out for displaying the SERP.

SEO experts agree that user signals are getting more and more important for Google. To optimise those means to get used to a semantic-holistic search that Google has put as a target for its search engine. A semantic-holistic search aims to interpret the meaning of words in the way humans do. The searching shouldn’t have to learn with Google first how to obtain the best search results. Google’s aim is the opposite, to understand immediately what is meant.

The intention of the search requests hence moves more into the centre of concern. Since every user is different from the other website owners have to satisfy the various needs on their sites soon enough. They have to provide service for users who for instance are in a hurry and want to obtain information quickly and also for those who want in-depth information.


For user signals it can be said what is valid for SEO in general: if you want to rank well you want to keep your site interesting for users and arouse their curiosity to revisit with fresh, new offerings.

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