Bounce rate, when you should ignore it and when you shouldn’t

Posted by on Jun 11, 2012 in stats | No Comments
Bounce rate, when you should ignore it and when you shouldn’t

Bounce rate has long been one of the key performance indicators (KPI) used to determine the success (or failure) of your website or individual web page. What is a “bounce” exactly and is it actually important? This from Wikipedia:

Bounce rate: represents the percentage of visitors who enter the site and “bounce” (leave the site) rather than continue viewing other pages within the same site.

It’s easy to see why bounce rate is seen as important, after all, it’s featured prominently in all stats packages and it’s easily understood: if a person lands on your website and then immediately leaves, it feels like something is wrong.

But consider the customer who needs to find your telephone number or postal address. They hit your home page and because you’ve conveniently provided all of this information right there in your header, off they go, happy that your site has answered their question immediately – especially if they were in their car, on their smartphone, trying to find directions to your office. This is why it’s important to consider the source of your visitor in conjunction with their landing page. Your high bounce rate might just describe the single biggest category of visitor to your website: people coming from Google looking to get in touch.

And indeed, Matt Cutts agrees; when asked “Is Bounce Rate a Signal in Determining What Content May be Spam?”:

No. Cutts said the Google web spam team doesn’t use Google Analytics data. “It’s not a bad thing when someone finds their answer right away and bounces”, Matt said.

(via SearchEngineWatch)

Also consider that it’s entirely possible to reduce your bounce rate without any associated increase in conversion or increase in revenue:

  • Moving key content onto a second page, e.g. your offer’s sign-up form
  • Breaking a single landing page into two
  • Adding tempting links to eye-catching, sensational content
  • And most damagingly; replacing paid-for offers with free ones that give no long-term value

All of these techniques encourage visitors to move on to a second page (and therefore not “bounce”) but without any gain in value. It’s just a statistics trick and has no place in your conversion optimisation strategy.

This gives us a clue that bounce rate can be very misleading. Chris Rand has done some thinking on this:

I run many AdWords campaigns where the bounce rate can be 80% or more. You might think this means a large percentage of the people being attracted to the site aren’t finding what they wanted. What a waste. Hang on a minute though; AdWords allows you to send people to exactly the right page on your site, and it’s quite possible the page concerned has all the information you’re trying to give them. Indeed, I’d suggest that’s just what a good landing page should do! So the bounce rate includes everyone who found the site wasn’t what they wanted, plus everyone who found it was exactly what they did want. It’s just the total of the best visitors and the worst ones: a useless figure in isolation. [My emphasis]

This is the real kicker for me: if I have a stat that combines my perfect visitor with my least preferred visitor, what can I gain from obsessing over it?

Over at Orbit Media Studios, Andy Crestodina has some interesting thoughts to share:

Your bounce rate doesn’t matter, at least not for most sites. Why not? Because some of the most important activities in content marketing – blogging, social media, email marketing – result in a higher bounce rate.

If your bounce rate is below 65%, it’s too low. You’re not active enough in web marketing. Get blogging, get your newsletter out, be more active in social media, and your bounce rate will increase. [Again, my emphasis]

Mr J Spool at UIE suggests it might not be any more valuable that counting how many times the letter E is used on the home page.

Also consider the slightly separate example of blogs. As Avinash Kaushik points out at Occam’s Razor:

[Blogs] are a unique beast amongst online experiences: people come mostly only to read your latest post, they’ll read it and then they’ll leave. Your bounce rates will be high because of how that metric is computed, and in this scenario that is ok. also has some interesting examples to share (slightly rewritten here so they make more sense to me!):

Example #1: Consider a web page that has high natural search ranking (i.e. it appears in the first few results on the search engine’s results page (SERP)) for keywords that don’t result directly in sales. This page brings in visitors that you’re not specifically targeting (because they don’t make you any money). However, these non-target visitors aren’t hurting you so you can safely disregard them (unless you can figure out a new way of converting them into buyers of course!). Therefore your true bounce rate for your target visitors may be lower than you think.

Example #2: Another page is doing a very good job of communicating your message, so more visitors that aren’t ready to convert can leave rather than navigating the site to try and figure out what you sell. This isn’t a bad thing and, conversely, it might allow for a relatively high lead generation or purchase conversion rate.

So it seems clear that bounce rate shouldn’t be relied on too heavily. However there are times when it can be useful.

When to use bounce rate

Measure the bounce rate for your traffic sources

It might well be useful to see the quality of traffic coming from different sources. You may discover that Google is sending you visitors who just aren’t right for your product or are too early in their purchasing journey. Instead you might discover that some great prospects are coming from your Facebook page because you’ve interacted with them and they have a great feeling about your company. Remember to consider your source/landing page combination though – maybe Google sent these bouncers straight to the content they needed (e.g. your contact details – see above).

Compare bounce rates across similar pages

Your bounce rate can be a useful comparison tool. Use it to compare similar pages or the same page after you’ve made changes to it. What’s important now is the change in bounce rate, not the rate per se.

Other examples

Please let me know when you use bounce rate and why you find it useful.

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