Bounce Rate: The Secret That’s Killing Your SEO

Whoa! Whoa! Put down your pitchforks!

While I’m sure there’s many an SEO looking to put my head on a spike for such a bold headline, I hope you’ll stick with me on this one for a little while longer.

Does bounce rate affect your SEO? I don’t think I’ve spoken with an SEO in my time that hasn’t at least wondered about this. In a word, Yes: Bounce rate affects your performance in the search engine rankings.

burn the witch

Many a marketer has wondered if Google tracks information from its Analytics software that it incorporates into search results, and while that’s not necessarily the case, bounce rate information is still a factor that search engines have specific access to.

Let’s take a look at what we’re going to learn first:

  • There are two types of Bounce Rate: Collateral & Inferior
  • Why do search engines care about bounce rates? How do they interpret them?
    How can you decrease bounce rate?

UNDERSTANDING BOUNCE RATE

Before I go any further, I want to clear away any of the haze for some newer marketers who may never have heard of bounce rate. And yes, even veterans might want a refresher on what I believe is the most powerfully simple analytics metric available.

Bounce rate, according to Google is the percentage of visitors who land on a page on your site, and then exit your site without viewing any other pages. Oh boy, I feel an example coming on 🙂

ralph

This is Ralph. Let’s say Ralph is searching Google for “make your own wine”. Ralph clicks on the first search result, which is the homepage of “WineMakingForBeginners.com”, he takes a look at the page and decides it’s not what he’s looking for, and then returns to Google to view another result or try searching with another keyword.

back from wine making for beginners

In this example, Ralph has “bounced” away from WineMakingForBeginners.com and will contribute to their bounce rate percentage in the webmaster’s analytics tracker.

Similarly, Ralph could have chosen to close his web browser while on WineMakingForBeginners.com, or his power might have gone out, or he might have used a toolbar in his browser to perform a search in another search engine. All of these things would contribute to bounce rate since Ralph exited the site without viewing any other pages.

bounce rate numbers

As a webmaster/marketer, you ideally want your bounce rate to be as low as possible. Anything from 20% or below would be considered an excellent bounce rate in my books, but typically 35% is seen as a win.

I would recommend watching this video from Google’s Conversion University for a little more info – it’s from mid-2007 which might seem outdated, but bounce rate still functions the same:

At a glance, bounce rate is a good indicator to tell you whether or not the content/design on your page is engaging and drawing visitors in to learn more. If your visitors are engaged, they are going to stick around and view more content, right? Well…

2 TYPES OF BOUNCE RATE

All things are not equal, and for this reason I’m going to say that there are two types of bounce rate: Collateral & Inferior.

Neither are good for your site, but one is certainly worse.

Let’s revisit our example with Ralph. Let’s say Ralph visited the search result at WineMakingForBeginners.com and found what he was looking for. He read through the content for a good 15mins+, made some notes, and then decided he wanted to know what kind of cheese would go well with his delicious wine.

So, Ralph searches for “wine and cheese pairings” using the toolbar at the top of his browser and exits the page.

Technically this is a bounce.

But Jay…” I hear you thinking “Wasn’t Ralph interested enough to read through the entire article and spend more than 15mins on the page, that sounds pretty engaged to me!

I agree! This is why bounce rate, while a great metric, is not perfect. Though Ralph was certainly engaged he is contributing to the bounce rate of the site by being an example of a “Collateral Bounce“.

Collateral bounce is unfortunately unavoidable. People will come to your site, land on the page you want, get the information they need, and then exit. This is more of a problem with conversion optimization and user engagement which is a whole ‘nother kettle o’ fish.

Collateral bounce is basically the definition of bounce rate as explained by Google in the video above.

Going back to our old pal Ralph, let’s imagine he’s looking up some search results for “wine and cheese pairings” and decides to view the result linking to WineAndCheeseHQ.com. Once Ralph clicks through to the page, he notices there are too many ads, flashing images, and a large pop-up greets him asking for him to “opt-in” to their mailing list…

spam spam spam

“Geez!” Thinks Ralph, “This is way too spammy” and he clicks his browsers back button to find another search result. This is an example of “Inferior Bounce“.

Inferior bounce is the worse of two evils when we talk about bounce rates. It usually occurs when a visitor to your site leaves almost immediately, or within a such a short time that they couldn’t have possibly found any of your content useful. Any visitor who leaves in 5-10secs or less after landing on the page is a good example of an inferior bounce.

Essentially this visitor “puked and left” in the words of web analytics expert Avinash Kaushik . Lots of inferior bounces should be a huge warning sign that you are doing something very wrong, and this should be your priority instead of trying to rank that page higher in the SERPs – what’s the point in trying to get more traffic if everyone just “pukes and leaves” when they get there?

So, now that we know collateral bounce will usually happen regardless of what you do, and inferior bounce is largely within your control let’s take a look at why search engines care about all this, and how they are able to measure your analytics without going all Big Brother on you…

WHY DO SEARCH ENGINES CARE?

Relevancy is king. It’s a common mantra within the SEO world that content is king, but really, content is just a part of the overall relevancy of a web page which is what matters more and more to Google.

google hummingbird algorithm

If we look at the Hummingbird update to Google’s search algorithm from late last year we can see that the changes they made were much more geared towards conversational searches rather than focusing on keyword driven results.

This tells us, if nothing else, that the Big-G is looking more and more at the content relevancy of a page in answering a searchers query rather than focusing on displaying pages that have specific keyword relevancy.

This movement away from focusing on keywords is something I believe we will see more and more of in coming years and future updates.

But how does this relate to bounce rates? Well, if a page is not seen as relevant to searchers then it will be penalized and pushed lower in the results pages in favour of pages with a higher relevancy.

I have no doubt that Google, BING, and Yahoo! use a variety of different metrics to measure what relevancy might be, but one of them has to be bounce rate as indicated by dwell time as described by Duane Forrester, Senior Project Manager at Webmaster Outreach for BING (Microsoft’s answer to Google’s Matt Cutts):

“The time between when a user clicks on our search result and when they come back from your website tells a potential story. A minute or two is good as it can easily indicate the visitor consumed your content. Less than a couple of seconds can be viewed as a poor result. And while that’s not the only factor we review when helping to determine quality, it’s a signal we watch.” – Duane Forrester

Let’s imagine what might go through the mind of a Google search bot when showing results for “wine and cheese pairings” to Ralph: “This user has returned to the search results immediately after viewing the page on WineAndCheeseHQ.com – he must not have thought it was relevant to his search. I better think about showing this search result to less people since I only want to show people pages they will find useful”

That, in a nut shell, is why bounce rate is killing your SEO. If less people are staying on your page because it’s not useful, then why should Google or any other search engine choose to show it to anyone?

Collateral bounce rate will affect things, but I have no doubt that Inferior bounce rate is sending the negative signals that matter to search engines.

How do search engines track this data? Well as Duane Forrester mentions above, search engines need only minimal data to determine the dwell time on a search result:

a) What search result you are choosing to view
b) How long after clicking that search result you returned back to the results page

And that’s it. No secret agencies monitoring your site, no data being passed off without your knowledge.

Using this information Google will be able to tell whether or not your page was relevant enough to keep the user engaged, or whether they “puked and left” returning to choose another search result. It’s worth keeping in mind the following:

a) The specific bounce rate of your page shown in your site tracker is not available to Google
b) Google does not know when the user exits the browser after viewing your page
c) Google can only track when a user views your page, and then bounces back to the search results – not internal actions on your site.

You can target the right keywords, send all the right social signals, have perfectly optimized images, and your meta data can be flawless – but if your page sucks and nobody wants to stick around, you will be pushed out of the SERPs.

google pogo stick

This pogo-sticking between search results is what search engines are paying more and more attention to in trying to deliver the highest quality results to search queries.

HOW CAN YOU DECREASE BOUNCE RATE?

The function and purpose of each site is different, and as such there is no magic tool to reduce bounce rate, however, there are some best practices that will be a benefit to all sites – regardless of content or audience. I suggest refining each one to see an immediate drop in your bounce rates.

speed

People hate slow sites. If it doesn’t load fast enough, your visitors aren’t going to stick around. Not to mention, speed is an actual ranking factor in Google’s algorithm and is important for conversions and SEO let alone bounce rate.

focus on first concerns

Why are your visitors here? Why did they click through to you? What is your intent with this page? Making sure your page is focused on what that visitors priority will keep them around for longer.

A wall of text rarely keeps readers focused. Introduce images, infographics, videos, and more above the fold that will grab their attention and keep it.

watch out for pop-ups

Ads that pop-up or even opt-in forms are pain in the ass. Instead of waving around an opt-in form as soon as a new visitor gets to your page, just wait.

Imagine this is your first interaction with that visitor, you’re going to show more value towards capturing their email than providing great content if you start waving your opt-in form around the place before they can get settled on what’s actually going on on your page.

Set your opt-in forms to show after a user has been on a page for 20+secs or has clicked through to a second page on your site. It sounds counterintuitive, however, you get considerably more qualified leads using this strategy. As well, your opt-in rate will actually increase as the impressions your opt-in form gets are from users are already familiar with your content and wanting to learn more.

make it mobile

Your site isn’t mobile friendly. Shame. It looks like your killer content and perfect conversion optimization is being wasted on over 50% of your possible search traffic!

I’m guilty of this all the time, aren’t you? If the site doesn’t look right on mobile then we want to get the hell out of there. Focus on making your content more mobile friendly and you’ll see a significant drop in your bounce rate.

WRAPPING UP

Bounce rate is not the most significant factor in increasing your search results, but I do think it will affect a higher percentage of search results as Google focuses more on behavioural search metrics rather than data/signals coming from websites themselves.

Remember too that bounce rate is a negative factor affecting your conversion rates and engagement. Focusing on this outside of SEO is a good practice to get into.

Keep this in mind and you will be well on your way to a more effective page and more engaged reader when Ralph finds his way onto your site.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below how you feel about bounce rates and where you think Google will take it’s behavioural metrics in the future.

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