Bounce rate is a metric that has become much more important in the last couple of years. Just about every pioneer search engine optimization and Web journalist has addressed it one fashion or another and it’s been pretty much accepted that bounce rate is a factor the search engines consider for ranking purposes. But is it?
First, let’s define bounce rate. It generally has two definitions and which one you choose to go with could determine whether or not you have an acceptable bounce rate:
- Definition #1: The visitor lands on one page of your website and leaves before visiting any others.
- Definition #2: The visitors leaves your site after a short stay, usually 8 seconds or less.
I find the first definition of bounce rate problematic because a visitor can land on your site and find the answer to her question relatively quickly then be gone. Or she could find the answer to her question on that first page then be off somewhere else. Or, better yet, she could land on the page and upon finishing her reading leave for a dinner date then return three hours later to visit ten other pages on your site. The first visit will be registered as a bounce rate.
The second definition is a little more easy to swallow, but it too has its problems. No. 1, a blog usually has a higher bounce rate than a static website because it is designed to attract a reading of a specific blog post. Your RSS subscribers, for instance, might click on the link in their RSS feed, read a blog post, then move on. Another problem is that a visitor could find the answer to their question right at the top of the page and quickly move on. In the case of the latter, a high bounce rate would actually mean your page was a success. And, thirdly, if your website is a made-for-adsense site then you want a high bounce rate – the idea is to attract visitors who will click your ads and be gone. Ka-ching!
So you can see the problems with bounce rates. But, the search engines are smart. They can determine the essence of human behavior by studying patterns. Not perfectly, but in a general sense. For instance, a high percentage of users who visit a website then back out with the browser back button and click on another search result likely didn’t find what they were looking for on you site. That would be a definite bounce.
I can see the search engines using this type of analysis to determine bounce rates and possibly use that information for ranking purposes. By the same token, a high percentage of users that land on a web page, back out quickly then immediately perform another search – particularly an unrelated search – likely found the answer they wanted on your web page. In that case, a high bounce rate could be considered a positive.
But bounce rates alone are not all that telling. Your general site-wide bounce rate might be 70%. But what does that mean? 70% of your traffic leaves after a short visit or after viewing just one page. But what if 90% of that is based on one landing page with an ambiguous keyword targeting issue? If you have a number keywords with a bounce rate hovering in the 50%-60% range and three keywords with a bounce rate in the 90% range, all for one single landing page, then that one landing page is going to skew the results for your entire site. How will the search engines interpret that data?
My guess is they will consider the bounce rate per keyword per page. Perhaps Keyword #1 is at 90% on Landing Page #1, but on Landing Page #2 is it at 45%. Landing Page #2 should not be penalized for Landing Page #1’s deficiencies.
I’m not certain the search engines are at this point in the ranking analysis of bounce rates, but if bounce rates are being used for ranking purposes then I do see them moving in that direction. Otherwise, there is no point in using bounce rates as a ranking factor at all.