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Behavioural metrics and search engines

Written by David Harry   
Friday, 02 January 2009 13:21

The debate continues

Well it seems the whole discussion of bounce rates and SEO continues… and as predicted, it’s picking up steam. I think it’s important and worth stating once more; I do believe in behavioural signals and their application just not the current representations floating in the sphere.

We’ve talked about them here on the trail since 2007 and here’s a list of posts on the various aspects;

Beware: Google is watching you
Query analysis confirmed as Google ranking signal
Taking off my tin foil hat
Ranking through behavioural metrics
You’re not paranoid, someone IS watching you
What every SEO should know about personalized search
Personalization through application focus
Personalized search and behavioural metrics
the Art of of personalized search optimization
Yahoo personalized PageRank


And here are some patents that I didn’t get around to covering;

Microsoft;

Using search trails to provide enhanced search interaction
Personalization of web page search rankings
Click through log mining
Accounting for behavioral variability in web search
Automated analysis of user search behaviour

Yahoo

Search pogosticking benchmarks

Google

Personalized Network Searching

 

Why are we fixated on bounce rates?

I think the most troubling part of this is how SEOs are so fixated with bounce rates. There are more than a few ways (implicit and explicit) that search engineers can find behavioural metrics from which to glean signals. Why is it that the community has latched onto one of the weaker ones (bounce rates)?

To review, here are potential avenues of data to track;

  1. Query history (search history)
  2. SERP interaction (selections and bounce rates)
  3. User scrolling behaviour (on selected page);
  4. User document printing behaviour;
  5. Adding a document to favourites (bookmarks);
  6. Data from different application (application focus – IM, Email);
  7. Surfing habits (frequency and time of day)
  8. Interactions with advertising
  9. Demographic and geographic
  10. Explicit editorial (such as SearchWiki voting)
  11. and closing a window.

As you can see there are many approaches to analysis of behavioural signals. One wonders why only one has been touted by the SEO community; bounce rates. Is this ignorance? Or the one they thought could be manipulated the best? Who knows.. but to me it really does a disservice to the community to have such limited speculation and reporting.

…for the record? I’ve never seen ‘time on page’ mentioned in any patent/paper, so let’s not even go there, ok?

 

It’s a personal thing

Ultimately we have to concede that search engines are quite interested in this area, but we simply must consider the problems such methods would have in the organic SERPs. It is far more suited to a personalized search environment than anything as it would be kinda hard to spam yourself.

This is where folks seem to not be understanding my position on this; I have been writing and talking about it for a looooooong time, just not so sure about it’s efficacy or implementations in the day to day ranking mechanisms. And calling it a ‘new’ or ‘major’ signal is nothing short of nonsensical.

And we’ve even discussed ways one can adapt their SEO programs for behavioural/personalized search here;

Another problem in getting a clean signal (in a non-personalized setting) is the assertion that there are enough data points to make this all effective and that is debatable IMO.

 

Where’s the beef?

For me the problem is when SEOs start running around trying to position themselves as experts (or get you on mailing lists) using this talk of behavioural metrics. Not to be tooting my own friggen horn, but I have talked about this (in great detail) for more than a year – BUT I am not offering ebooks nor making predictions about things that have been around for quite some time now. That’s what’s really eating me… and it has already happened.

For example is this offering; ‘Sticky SEO’(the link is 'followed' I ain't a total dick)

Which has statements like; “Please note: this book is not just a bunch of theory. It is a practical guide that offers 6 exclusive strategies to master this new "usefulness algorithm".” Or; “What should you do to score big with the new algorithms?” - - That just smacks a bit of self rightiousness (and hype to get peeps signed up).

And while Fantomaster did a great job of approaching the topic in a sensible matter, he does bring the prospect of spamming said metrics with; SEO Bounce Rates, Behavioral Metrics and the Birth of SEO Surfbot Nets

Gee… pretty sure the search peeps saw that coming and thus Matt (Cutts) and John (Mueller) have recently poo poo’d the inference by SEOs of bounce rates as IR signals. Now if we take that at face value or not, we should at least consider it.

 

Have any questions?

Since this debate is growing, as expected, I now leave the floor open. I have done as much as I can to try and bring some reality to this and unfortunately the masses are more interested in ‘the Big Story’ and not discussing the reality of the problems facing search engineers with such methods. Feel free to get in touch to discuss further... because that's what is needed, not hyperbole.

On Monday we’re going to look at a TON of resources that the fastidious SEO can use to learn more about Indexing and Retrieval and technical aspects relating to them. If you really want to be better at understanding search engines… I suggest you tune in then.

 

Peace ya’ll… it’s the love of the art that keeps me rolling…please take my rant as that.

See this post for more details on bounce rates and behavioral metrics
 

Comments  

 
0 # Zak Nicola 2009-01-02 14:01
I've always thought that the SE's at least look at the return time to the original SERP for the query as a relevance factor to glean usefulness from. But as you say, it's nothing new.
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0 # David Leonhardt 2009-01-02 14:50
Hi David.
This might surprise you, but I actually agree with most of your premise. You might note that in Sticky SEO, bounce data is only one of the factors I mention. Bounces (and everything associated with them, not just the number of them, and certainly not the number Google Analytics offers up) are actions that can be measured without privacy concerns because they relate to how we act while on the search engine's website. Further, like click-throughs, bounces can be attributed to specific searches (different bounce characteristics for different searches leading to the same website).

I suspect that the search engines won't be able to resist some of the other data, even though it might mean some brush-ups with privacy advocates or trying to build algorithms around the partial data they glean through toolbars and analytics programs. So, in the long run we are not saying much different except that I am convinced that the search engines will use bounce data as part of their algorithms as soon as they possible can (if they are not already ).

Specific to my Sticky SEO ebook, you might want to re-read that

...the "sales" page. Yes, it's hype. I had a lot of fun writing a "sales" page for a free book. The message is serious; the form is satire. If you are unaware of my satirical past, you might wish to read what I say about my only "published" book: http://www.thehappyguy.com/best-seller.html . There is really nothing wrong with having a little fun.
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+1 # Dave 2009-01-02 15:00
@Zak - Google actually cut it's teeth in behavioral with AdWords/AdSense... so it's obvious that SEs would look at the data fer sure, it's just when we start trying to valuate the influence.

@David in addition to the above, its not that I dissagree as much as I worry about the industry using it as a whip to get clients (or worse) look good. I like talking IR and have had a thing for behavioral metrics for more than a year at least...

We simply have to watch it... I mean already it's spawned stuff like this; http://www.brokeragentsocial.com/article/108/page-ranking-is-dead

That one says an 'upcoming Google algorithm' is going to do away with 'Page Rankings' ie; links? ha ha ha ha ha.... man, this is how it starts. I've just seen it too many times and get frustrated (Im sure U have too over the years)

As for the sales pitch, most certainly I am not familiar with your work and made my own supposition on that one I guess... (put some cartoons in next time would ya.. he he).. I am sure you've seen a lifetime's worth of those pitches and when it's 'new and improved' Google algo stuff... my ears perk up

Thanks for dropping by tho...and I sent U an email as well.. :0)
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0 # Ben McKay 2009-01-03 03:39
Hi David,

I totally get your frustration regarding SEOs banding around new metrics / algos / techniques etc, but I guess that's always going to be the case unfortunately, especially in this industry where people / companies are left to their own devices to work out what helps there content rank.

This doesn't mean to say that it should be this way, but what I do like is to see guys like you advocating testing / researching / reading to work things out for themselves in a more scientific manor. Researching and testing is quite clearly time-consuming so I guess people tend to opt-in to reading others', but without enough testing going on it's make the scientifically founded resources a little thin on the ground...leading people to interpret changes on their own analytics data as being many peoples primary source of research material, which as we all know can at times tell several stories.

Clearly, reading one source and taken that as a given is no approach...which is why I guess I spend hours reading about SEO - it's really the only way you can gather enough information and come up with your own conclusions that fits with your analytics data.

It's a tough one but it's the best way. I guess it makes it all the more important to encourage people to read, analyse, research and test as much as possible...but guys who aren't passionate about the field are never going to do that. Hence the void.

Does this make the SEO industry flawed? I don't think so, it just makes it like any other, but I do think it creates a two tier system of those continual learners and those passive SEOs...I don't think it will change though. I hate the way that I sound so self-righteous when I write something like that but the point that I'm really trying to make is that it happens in all industries - there are good and bad people in every trade, that's the point I'm making.

Great post, and excellent links to other posts - cheers for all that.

Ben

p.s. struggling to get my posts published on this site (just joined the community so hopefully that helps, although I thought you could post comments anyway?? :s ).
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0 # Ben McKay 2009-01-03 03:40
It published!! :woohoo:
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0 # Dave 2009-01-03 08:33
WOW, it's early in '09 but yer definately in the running for the longest comment for the year... he he....

I definately agree that our guesses should me a little more educated fer sure. I spet last night researching even more into the behavioral stuff (shall post the papers today) and that's all I really ask - people do more indepth research into things and not make bold statements (without research, testing or any evidence).

And as U touched on, it's quite possible many lack the passion for the art.

Flawed? Well maybe only in the sense that many bloggers get their information from larger publications and they are the ones that could temper their reporting. Considering 'Big News' brings people in, that may not change.

Well, glad the comment stuck for ya... we do have issues now and again it seems...

Welcome aboard... we may be starting our own little community this year; the HuoMah Dojo - so keep yer eyes on this space :0)

Thanks for the uber long comment... always appreciate insightful responses
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0 # Mike Wilton 2009-01-03 13:56
:o Le Sigh...Will we ever hear the end of the bounce rates Dave? It seems like just when we had hoped it had been silenced it's back with a vengeance.

Me and a couple of fellow SEOers have the Matt Cutts comment about bounce rates as a ranking factor bookmarked for future use. At the rate the wheels seem to be turning on this one, we may need it.

Great post though, I love that you outline other behavioural metrics that are out there that could ultimately be of more value.
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0 # Dave 2009-01-03 19:43
Well let's not forget ol John (Mueller) that has on 2 occasions echoed the statements towards bounce rates (once on groups and once in the Live Webmaster Help Q&A).

I've bee doing some more homework and still haven't found my smoking gun - the ability to limit the spammability of said signals. If I could find more in that direction, I'd be willing to move from the personalized search angle.

I'll likely publish some more papers that peeps can read tomorrow or soon...

Speaking of which, I found an interesting Microsoft Research paper with a few more 'implicit user feedback' signals that aren't on the list... so I guess we will be back to this again... he he...
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0 # Serbian 2009-01-20 03:39
You have given a very good insight about the SEO..there are certain things we need to know when doing SEO for our website..the best thing is we get to know about new concepts and techniques every day..
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