As of March 12 Google rolled out another algorithm update. Often the updates that don’t have a name are ones the industry considers minor, however this particular update has apparently made some ripples.

Media Post says that health sites were hit the hardest, with industry leading sites like losing 9% of their ranking clout. This appears to be a continuation of the E-A-T update that also affected food and diet-related sites.

So far information has been sparse. Several websites reference the shift and state that there is “no fix for lost rankings other than to continue focusing on creating quality content.” I’ve already covered why I think this is poor advice.

Quick rehash: If you already think you’re creating quality content and your site has lost rankings, simply doing more of the same is rarely the answer. Beyond that, “quality content” is nebulous. It’s like telling a would-be athlete “don’t suck”. It’s a given and does nothing to actually move their skills forward.

However, other research I’ve done suggests that this whole “quality” thing is about to be clearer. At least in terms of how we measure it.

Algorithm update: A greater focus on site quality metrics? says that their own research has shown that some sites have reaped the benefits of this update. Where some sites have notably lost rankings, others have improved in equal measure.

Taking a look at the sites that benefited the most versus the ones that lost the most, they say a contrast in a few simple metrics was clear:

  • Time spent on the website
  • Number of pages viewed per visit
  • Bounce rate

None of these are new as metrics go, but it does seem that they’re playing a greater role than in the past. It makes sense, since these are more objective than other measures and aren’t as easy to manipulate.

Social signals (shares, mentions, etc.) seemed like a good signal in the past, but it turned out that savvy webmasters were pretty good at buying/coercing/faking those.

Linking has always been significant, but is harder than ever to leverage because one site legitimately linking to another is rarer than you’d think. (Especially without using nofollow tags in the links.)

  • I think part of the reason for this is that there are so many writers acting like experts on everything, and they think that referencing anyone else makes them look less like experts. It’s easy to write a 500 word article armchair critiquing something without any research or examples of your assertions and think that you’ve created quality content.
  • The other reason is that some people still believe in the SEO myth that linking to other websites is giving away your “link juice” and makes your site weaker. Even if there were any truth to that, here’s another truth: Google likes seeing sites link to other sites. It’s what the web is built on. Seeing that you link out to other sites has always been a positive signal, and outweighs any supposed loss of “link juice”.

Back to the other metrics. Optimizing for these is sometimes a fool’s errand.

Optimizing for bounce rate or pages per visit can cause you to chase your tail.

These can be good indicators of quality. After all, if each visitor routinely visits 5 pages on your site, your content much be so good that it hooks interest quickly. That in turn means a low bounce rate where we can draw the same conclusion.

But it’s not as black and white as simply grunting, “bounce rate bad.”

Sometimes a user was only searching for one specific answer — one that you provided well.

  • Even if you did a great job of answering the question, that user may not be in the mood to read more articles.
  • Even if you provided related posts and social sharing options, that user may be in a hurry and be clicking away faster than those items catch their attention.
  • If you tried any harder to catch that attention you’d end up being obnoxious to all the other users on your site, which could actually damage your metrics.

It’s fine to offer someone some related content if they liked what they’ve read. So long as they’ve had a chance to really read it first and aren’t hit with a popup box in the first five seconds of being on your site. (Talk about a rapport ruiner.)

Just like it’s fine to offer a convenient way for people to share your content. But don’t make it feel like extortion.

The aim of optimizing for bounce rate or for more page views per visit often ends up in one of those scenarios.