How User Engagement Affects SEO in a Post-Penguin 4.0 World

4 min

Google’s Penguin algorithm first hit the SEO scene in 2012. Penguin was revolutionary in that it marked the shift towards valuing content for readers, and not for search engines. The algorithm caused low-quality inbound links to start negatively impacting a website’s SEO ranking.

Google continued to build on the algorithm by using incremental refreshes to search the web for low quality links. This forced black hat SEOs to revamp their linking strategies to avoid Google penalties.

However, some low-quality links survived between updates because penalties were only assigned at refreshes, which happened infrequently.

Google’s latest Penguin update, Penguin 4.0, runs in real time and effectively closes that loophole. As of September 2016, Google now automatically scans any new inbound links for quality.   With Real-Time Penguin, marketers must be creative in identifying ways to complement the links that will no longer support their rankings.

The most powerful way to complement link data as a ranking factor is by optimizing for user engagement metrics.  In this article, we’ll break down five metrics that marketers are using to fill the linking void.

Click through rate

Click through rate (CTR) is one metric Google shares with users, despite the extreme secretive surrounding their search algorithm.

CTR is the number of clicks on a search result, divided by the number of impressions (views of that search result). The metric is just another way to label the likelihood of someone visiting a website through a Google search.

SEO marketers care about CTR because a higher click through rate means more exposure to content. Increased exposure gives users a greater chance to engage, and this affects other SEO metrics.

To improve CTR, marketers must optimize the meta title and description to attract the click.   Marketers focus on crafting a persuasive meta title (the clickable part of a search result) and meta description (the search result description) to increase clicks.

Higher ranking equals more visibility, and a higher click through rate.

A 2016 study found that ranking in the top position on Google yields a 30 percent clickthrough rate. That number drops to 12 percent for the third position, and less than 2 percent by tenth position.

Visibility and CTR work in cyclical manner that’s easy to exploit. A high CTR increases search rank, but requires strong metadata. Strong metadata increases visibility, and thus increases CTR. By default, improving one metric will improve the other.

Time on site and bounce rate

SEO professionals use bounce rate and time on site to quantify a website’s engagement, and how long that engagement holds a reader’s attention.

Time on site is the measured time someone spends visiting a website after following a Google link. It’s a metric that Google uses to determine how useful a website is to search users.

If users leave a page after only 5 seconds, Google determines readers were not engaged and therefore gives the website a lower search rank.

SEO marketers combat this by attempting to engage visitors with strong content in an attractive layout. Amazingly, a 20 percent increase in decision simplicity results in a 115 percent increase in likelihood to recommend to a friend (positively perceived content ).

Landing pages use simplistic designs with engaging, thoughtful content, aimed at sending visitors to other pages within the website. Marketers track how successful these landing pages are with what’s called, pages visited per site.

A high time on site is usually accompanied by a large amount of pages visited per site, and indicates content and design are working to engage users. Google sees the high rate of engagement and determines the domain is authoritative and high quality.

Bounce rate works similarly to click through rate. A bounce rate measures how quickly users leave a webpage. The lower a bounce rate the better, as a high rate indicates to Google that a webpage contains low quality content.

SEO professionals use high quality content to keep readers on a webpage and tell Google the website is worthy of a strong SEO rank.

user engagement affects SEO

Site speed

A website that loads quickly allows users faster access to its content. Faster access means more engagement.

Google has declared that a 2 second load time is the threshold for e-commerce website viability.

This means that things like flash, large images, and poor coding all stand in the way of engaging users fast enough for them to care.

The quicker a page loads, the better chance of engagement, and the more Google sees the website as relevant.

Content quality

The internet has created an environment where users will only engage with high quality content. In this case, quality means readability and timeliness.

Readability refers to content balanced between authoritative and reader friendly formats. Readers don’t want to read textbook material, but they also demand a certain level of knowledge and skill behind an article.

Timeliness is related to how relevant a website’s content is in relation to current events, news sites, etc. Evergreen articles will remain relevant, regardless of what’s current or time elapsed.

Content that reads well and is relevant is the backbone that allows other metrics like time on site and bounce rate to be applied properly. Strong content leads to high engagement, which in turn tells Google a website merits a high search rank.

Google’s dismissal of low quality links as an SEO strategy is pushing marketers towards user engagement strategies to supplement for the lost “link juice.” To gain the competitive edge, it’s time to focus on user engagement signals.

Over to you

How have you sought to improve your SEO in the post-Penguin world? What strategy has the best results for you? Share your experiences in the comments below.