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Page dwell times, bounce rates and social media likes are vital metrics, but their role as SERP necessities often leaves digital marketers guessing.

Google Myth Busting: SEO Facts and Fiction

David Bosley

Google has always been tough to predict, even when bypassing the age-old ‘invisible algorithm’ problem. Even though digital marketers are willing to leave mysteries unsolved, however, several Google-based marketing topics persist as head-scratchers.

The SEO world has evolved a lot in recent years, undoubtedly: In the past few years, the marketing world has undergone some serious resurfacing due to Google’s game-changing search engine updates. Singular keywords—and search intent, experts assert—are leading the way. At the same time, long-tail searches keep up the pace. This is easy enough to ascertain, but the depth of details driving our fundamental marketing approaches, these days, aren’t easily deciphered.

In some cases, they aren’t seen at all.

Mixed Management: SEO Rumors

As Google’s search algorithm evolves, digital marketers will engage new avenues of branded social media content.

Companies, agencies, and solo marketers alike place a lot of emphasis on the Internet’s biggest players—such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google itself. Understandably, each platform’s hallmark features are presumed to weigh heavily on a brand’s position in Google’s search results.

Oddly, however, more experts are suggesting the opposite. Theories discussing the true impacts of social media likes, for example, have grown in number. In this particular case, surprise decisions like Instagram’s announcement to remove likes completely only raise more questions.

More often than not, it’s all anyone can do but look back to ‘old SEO,’ comparing it to the ‘new SEO’ today’s marketers prioritize: the difference between being rank-focused and engagement-focused. This is inherently one of the biggest flags for further investigation—as the Google algorithm conundrum can lead to strategies which are faith-based, as opposed to fact-based:

If Google’s analytics can parse organic content indicators, ascertaining human behavior, then it probably sources human behavior as a resource. Ergo, social media likes are heavily considered—and also drive search engine rank. Right?

Technically, we don’t have an answer. In good faith, we should also acknowledge just how much is assumed about Google’s SEO priorities. Many factors fall into such a gray area, but three, in particular, are rather large mysteries. While mysteries, again, are sometimes just that—some might deserve a little more exploration.

Let’s check out these top three head-scratchers, for ourselves.

Social Media Likes

Instagram isn’t the only mega-platform to seemingly toss social media likes to the wayside. Google, itself, did it first.

A few years back, Google’s Matt Cutts provided some useful insights into the search engine’s algorithmic mysteries. Allegedly, social signals like Facebook likes, Instagram likes and even Twitter followers don’t influence a page’s search rankings. Going further, it’s suggested that these factors don’t even contribute to an underlying measurement of perceived social influence—let alone industry authority.

It’s definitely a head-scratcher, and a lot of marketers left it at that. They can hardly be considered negligent, however, as some studies indeed assert that social media presence does contribute to SEO rank. A 2018 Hootsuite study, for example, found that top-shared articles on social media experienced a 22-percent boost on the search results pages.

A closer examination, here, also displays an exponential growth of Twitter and Facebook pages in Google’s results. Supporting the average marketer’s primary, logical assumption, search visibility linked between three separate keyword brackets has a strong correlation with social media activity—as well as rankings.

Page Dwell Times

Next up, we have page dwell times. Google currently utilizes over 200 ranking factors to determine SEO quality—and website quality, in general. Many assume that webpage dwell times are among these factors—but even heavy assumptions have limits.

The fact of the matter is: Dwell time is a commonly misunderstood metric. Because of this, it’s entirely possible that marketers—even today—might be placing their attention in the wrong places. Because dwell time is simply the amount of time between a search result click and a return to the SERPs, many SEO strategists have adopted it as a white-hat link building metric. This metric often crosses over into bounce rate territory, and the lines are pretty thin.

Then, we have another Google statement to consider: Three years ago, Google Brain’s Nick Frost stated that dwell time, indeed, is an important contributor to a brand’s SEO mix quality. The statement also referred to Google’s newest machine learning innovations: tech models that measure dwell time to a high degree, as well as eventual website return times.

Google Brain’s Cyrus Shepard, however, states otherwise: that Google’s formal statement about dwell time’s influence on ranking is one that doesn’t exist at all. In a reassertion of Google’s focus on machine learning as the primary topic, Shepard promoted a shift in perception on the topic for many marketers: Dwell time was always important—but it’s possible that its implementation as a ranking metric is a future one.

As for its use as a metric, currently? No proof has been found.

Bounce Rates

Speaking of bounce rates—they rank third on our mystery list. Again, many marketers already misconstrue the details of dwell time and bounce rates. Today, a growing number of experts are suggesting that bounce rates are also given undue importance in an unfortunate amount of SEO strategies.

Much like dwell times, no formal proof of bounce rates’ utilization as a Google search results metric exists. Still, plenty of speculations have been made. Some even suggest that Google can’t determine webpage relevancy via bounce rates, in the first place. Naturally, there are SEO strategists who disagree. Believing that Google is capable of ascertaining these things isn’t too unreasonable, after all. This has become a bit of a debated topic, however, because there also those who emphasize the impossibility of such computing feats. Statistically speaking, that is.

What is known about bounce rates is that they’re measured by Google Analytics. Because Google Analytics code is merely an option for branded websites—but not forced—it fails as a reliable measurement of human behavior. This assumption, too, isn’t exactly unreasonable: When it comes to tall claims, such as a website visit statistic’s ability to determine the truth about human behavior, a tall order for analysis is created. So, from this perspective, Google is unlikely to use bounce rates as website quality indicators at all.

Marketing Mysteries to Live By

Webpage metrics frame most SERP-based strategies, but digital innovations exist in unknown environments.

So, what can we glean from these cases? One wouldn’t be wrong to end their own exploration as it began: with a head-scratch. Truth be told, many marketers simply play their strategies safely. They assume that, on some level, things like webpage dwell time, Facebook likes and bounce rates make an impact. At the very least, they’re useful strategies for a brand’s further analysis of itself.

The approaches below, too, are healthy:

Explore Bounce Rates at Every Turn

If last year’s Google Marketing Live presentation has shown us anything, it’s that 2020 is all about user-specific data—further departing from aggregated data covering various audiences. Consumers redefine their wants, needs, and expectations every year—and Google, time and time again, is always ahead of the curve. The mystery surrounding bounce rates may never be solved, but their spotlight reveals truth by proxy: Google employs its most advanced technologies to learn more about users, individually.

Always Pursue Human-Oriented SEO

Moreover, it shows us that Google still pursues individualized browsing solutions—not as a standard, but as an aspiration. Closing the gap between ‘humanlike’ and ‘human’ SERP experiences, likely, will always be impossible. Still, Google’s application of machine learning tools to individualized experiences, as opposed to mass experiences, is well-worth the attention.

View SEO as a Journey, Not a Destination

When thinking about ways to utilize today’s growing number of marketing tools, it’s important to weigh data’s relevancy not only correctly—but efficiently. Every strategy is different, and data supporting ROI growth due to a proactive approach to deeper bounce rate analysis, for one brand, might be wasteful to another. By breaking down one’s marketing investment returns by channel, it becomes much easier to examine prospects within their own frameworks of relevance. The key takeaway is a reflection on resource management—specifically its ability to leverage new SEO pursuits.

Plenty of mysteries persist in the wide world of marketing—and many, if not most, will never truly be answered. This is okay, though, because every new digital marketing innovation reasserts the same truth: SEO is simply a means to an end. Google is much more than a search engine: It’s the primary promoter of engine-free user experiences. As digital marketing evolves, numerical proofs of concept should indeed start disappearing. Sticking to our current marketing toolsets is still vital—but remembering why they were initially created is, too. Their inventors strove for truly organic solutions, and they likely always will—as yesterday’s tools of tomorrow chased unverified truths, all the same.