Evil or Good? Google use of Web Analytics Data for Ranking

If one of Google’s most significant challenges is to clear the cesspool of content spam, the temptation to use analytics data must be stronger than ever.

There is already evidence that Google is factoring in domain age and the presence of legitimacy indicators on site pages. There’s even talk of giving more credibility to well branded sites or certain types of sites. But one of the more significant factors mentioned in one of Google’s patents is “time spent on the document”.


Longer time on the page (or more pages on the site) suggests a relevant document. Some call it Dwell Time but most site owners call it Average Time On Site (ATOS). I see at least three ways that Google can measure this.

1. Time to the Next Selection in the SERPS (Search Engine Results Page)

In other words, each time a visitor makes a selection in the SERPS a stopwatch begins. If the visitor clicks another result in the SERPS in say, three seconds, the prior site is deemed less relevant to the search term. There are holes in this data since the absence of a second SERP click doesn’t necessarily deem a page relevant. Also, Google doesn’t see where the user goes next without other data.

2. Toolbar Data

The Google toolbar, in most configurations, broadcasts browser page requests back to Google. Time on site (or page depth) may be calculated from this data. This is very useful data for determining aggregate visitor behavior, but it is limited to the number of installed toolbars that are configured send usage statistics to Google.

3. Google Web Analytics

Google Analytics reports the average time on site (ATOS) and page depth for every site on which it is implemented. It also can assign this data to specific keywords. For this, Google doesn’t need a tool bar and no stopwatch on SERPs is necessary. There are fewer holes in this data and less aggregation cycles necessary to evaluate the relevance of a specific site.

Evil or Not?

In your Google Analytics terms of use, you agreed that Google and its wholly owned subsidiaries may retain and use [the] information collected in your use of Google Analytics. In other words, Google may use the data in any way it chooses, subject to some restrictions in the agreement. A layman’s interpretation of this is that Google can use your site stats to determine the search relevance of your page.

Is this disturbing to you? Do you believe you “own” the data related to your site when you use Google’s tool to collect and store it?

Let’s assume not. then we should ask, “Do you believe that your average time on site is better than your competitors for a given keyword?” If so, you probably don’t mind Google knowing it. In fact, it would be a marked advantage over your competitors for Google to know your ATOS.

Have Something to Hide?

If you believe that your ATOS (or your average page view count) would be less than average, or misunderstood by Google to the detriment of your rankings, then your choices boil down to: (1) increase time on site or (2) try to hide the data from Google.

I predict that option two will eventually be futile as the SERPS method and toolbar data could eventually reveal a trend of a less relevant site.

Ultimately, the conformists will agree to make a more relevant site. The black hats will game the system (it’s not hard to do at all) until Google finds another way to determine relevance. But until then, we know for certain that the data is available to Google, and they have a strong motivation to use it.

What do you think? Should Google use Google Analytics for ranking?

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