Is there a true relation between Google RankBrain, page session duration and organic ranking?
Back in 2015 when Google started its snails pace rollout of RankBrain, a machine-learning artificial intelligence exemplar baked into the Hummingbird algorithm, many wondered how it would impact SEO rankings.
While things like link building, social signals and using the right keywords still matter, traditional SEO ranking paradigms have morphed into something a little different.
SEO Has a New Quality Control High Bar
Since June 2016, RankBrain has been in full-swing crawling and analyzing Google search queries with one prime directive: quality control.
Here’s how it works: a searcher enters the query “places in San Fernando Valley to play baseball”.
Google delivers various organic and relevant search results based on typical ranking factors.
Enter machine learning, the mediator between ranking and human intention.
By now, Google knows the pages have been indexed, the H1 and H2s are strong and backed by well-optimized content that is well-written, original and the page exists on a domain with a high authority. BUT are people clicking on the result where they engage the site racking up respected page session durations?
This last part is the quality control bar set forth by RankBrain.
You can have the greatest SEO content to appease Google RankBrain, backed by all the best data in the world.
Your schema can be clean, your backlink portfolio can be as pristine as the pearly gates and the website as a whole can be a poster child for the greatest in UX.
However, if it doesn’t translate to meet a human emotional need, all of the other content will be wasted time and talent.
RankBrain Makes Love Connections
Prior to Google RankBrain, session durations and organic SEO tactics crossed paths, but never made eye contact.
Nowadays, in order for a site to rank organically, Google needs proof human beings actually like what they click on.
Session durations and organic jumped in bed together back in June of 2016 and their union is only getting stronger.
But there are other measurables that also weigh in to gauging the human factor: pages per session, click-through rate, bounce rate, long clicks and session numbers also help Google’s machine learning capabilities determine a page’s human seal of approval.
Do you perform SEO experiments?
Or more importantly, do the people who claim that it’s impossible to find any evidence of RankBrain running rampant through the ranking factors delve into search experiments?
Well, I do, and there are two things I found in common with all client sites: (1) pages with higher organic click-through rates started moving up the SERPs in July 2016 and (2) a significant number of results with higher CTR already at the bottom of Google page one moved up above the fold, while results on pages four and five moved up to the top of page two or bottom of page one.
Still not convinced?
Okay, I get it, you aren’t looking over my shoulder at the data, so why not gather your own?
Run Your Google RankBrain Experiment with Algorithm Time-Sensitive Comparison Analysis
You will need to turn to your Google Analytics account and select the year 2015 (before RankBrain was alive and kicking).
You will then go to your content report, segmenting it for organic traffic.
From here you will need to sort via pageviews.
The next step is to launch Comparison Analysis with average time on page vs pageviews.
Look at the pages accounting for the most organically driven traffic for 2015.
Notice which ones have an above average session time, how they rank and if they really deserve to be ranking (these might be a low tier 2 page with little onsite love).
Now run the same test but this time set it for July 2016.
You will likely see that a huge majority of your pages that have above average time on page with no additional onsite love have gone up in ranking.
Go ahead and run this across multiple domains, I did, and the data on eight sites was consistent in suggesting that Google’s machine learning capabilities can gauge pages that ranked well in 2015, but had no real reason to other than the fact that humans spent greater time dwelling on them.
This translates that Google gives ranking value to higher session durations.
In fact, most of the pages I saw in my own experiment that ranked well (aside from the home page) suggested that pages with the longest session durations also had the most organic traffic.
So Does This Mean I can Create Pages Just for the Sake of Ranking?
Just make sure they aren’t doorway pages intended to lure users to a separate target page.
In order to create healthy landing pages meant to rank for their content, you will need to combine all the traditional SEO implementations while showcasing content and functionality designed to meet the psychological needs and wants of your target audience.
When you can make a deep personal connection user engagement will deepen with higher CTR and longer session durations.
Once you have determined and implemented a consumer-engaging strategy, create a user friendly flow through the site to other pages without going too deep (people should be able to find what they are looking for within three pageviews).
The idea is to engage them on a single page for as long as possible and then dangle a carrot from another page to keep them in your website.
You can even throw a heat map on your pages to see areas users engage the most, as well as those cold zones that get zero love.
This data, in addition to what you have already unearthed thus far, will help you create the ultimate ranking pages that thrive on session duration.
Triage the Needy Pages First
It is ideal to prioritize pages in dire need of a health elixir before addressing those already performing above average.
Why? Because they are low-hanging fruit that can be easily fixed and as you improve the health on multiple pages, your site’s overall domain authority will improve.
Make a spreadsheet of the pages that perform below or near average, then bump up the ones that have no reason to be ranking poorly in your triage queue.
Re-write them using language that nods to the organic voice queries users engage through mobile search, and check all other parameters of on-site SEO to make sure all is aligned.
When your newly written content mirrors user intent, you can expect to see an increase in session durations, as well as an elevated position in the SERPs.
A Fixed Marriage that Works
When setting out to launch a search engine optimization strategy, consider all the various factors of SEO, how they complement one another and if their relationship predicts to do well in the machine-learning climate that is Google RankBrain.
Session durations and organic ranking are too compatible to ignore.
If all your SEO ducks are in a row, yet your session duration average is down along with organic ranking, then you need to delve into a strategy for improving each and pair them together in a perfect union — a fixed marriage that will lead to a prosperous existence within the halls of Google’s organic search engine rankings.