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Yes, usage data does matter for SEO after all

Posted May 7, 2024 by Will Critchlow

In October 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched its antitrust trial against Google. The trial has been assessing Google’s practices, investigating accusations of monopolizing the industry and anticompetitive behaviors. The verdict will be announced in May this year (as of publishing time, there has been no verdict shared yet).

Amongst the evidence surfaced in the trial, new information has emerged about how Google uses usage data, also known as user behavior data. During the trial, former Google employee Eric Lehman stated that “pretty much everyone knows we’re using clicks in rankings.” While he didn’t tell us exactly how usage data directly impacts search rankings, his comment confirmed that it does influence search results.

We already knew they were a vital piece of the puzzle in improving site performance. But perhaps, we need to give these signals more weight than we were. Let’s explore.

Does usage data directly impact search results?

There are, of course, several ways that we already knew Google was using our data. These include:

  • Training machine learning
  • Evaluating the performance of algorithms
  • Creating learning feedback loops
  • For personalization.

Google has discussed all of these publicly already. However, the confirmation that usage data could influence search results directly and in real-time is a new and fascinating revelation for SEO specialists. Usage data in this context relates to the measurement of how searchers use the search results page and the links it contains. It might include (but isn’t limited to) metrics like:

  • Click-Through Rate (CTR)
  • Dwell Time
  • Bounce Rate
  • Page Views and Sessions

The pros and cons of usage data influencing search rankings

As with any algorithmic factor, there are pros and cons to Google using this data to influence search results directly. Let’s explore both.

Some advantages include:

  • Users may see more relevant search results that showcase high-quality content and websites (those with high click-through rates, longer dwell times, and so on).
  • Users will receive a more personalized experience (including enhanced UX and localization).
  • As user behavior changes, Google has the opportunity to update and improve user experience continuously.

In contrast, some of the notable disadvantages include:

  • It may be possible for websites to manipulate these metrics and for search results to get worse as a result.
  • High-ranking content may continue to perform due to its high visibility rather than its quality or substance.
  • It may be more challenging for new or small websites to compete with older, larger, and more established ones.

We aren’t expecting the closing arguments for the antitrust trial to provide any more details on this. But, no matter how Google might be using this data, it’s still essential to understand how these factors influence your website’s overall performance.

How people interact with your website matters (whether or not it impacts search rankings)

It’s about more than SEO. All usage data metrics play a vital role in the ongoing success of your website.

At its very core, your website exists to encourage visitors to take a desired action. That action will vary from website to website — purchases, form-fills, or reading informative content. Whatever it is, there’s something you hope every user will do when they land on your site.

So, optimizing your site with user behavior and user experience (UX) in mind is just as important as optimizing it for SEO. Often, these things go hand in hand. Testing SEO and Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) in tandem allows you to identify how your changes impact both metrics.

SearchPilot: Why organic traffic, CRO, and UX go hand-in-hand

Not every change you make to your website will directly impact your Search Engine Results Page (SERP) ranking. But, it might still positively impact the number of users that click through to your website, and what your visitors do when they get there. So, measuring SEO test success on SERPs rankings alone isn’t always enough.

At SearchPilot, we measure SEO test success with organic traffic. We also offer full funnel testing, which incorporates SEO and CRO testing (and looks at how they impact each other, too). This works by testing one hypothesis against both metrics to see how a website change affects your organic traffic levels and how your visitors behave.

We don’t know exactly how usage data influences SEO. But knowing that it does means you should focus on user behavior to ensure you get your intended results from your website — whether that’s sales, leads, or engaged readers.

Speak to a member of the SearchPilot team today to discover how SEO testing can elevate your website’s success in more ways than one.