Should Bounce Rate Matter to SEOs? Does Google Look at Bounce?
I have mentioned briefly before what a flawed metric bounce rate is. Michael Martinez wrote a great post in far more detail on the same subject which got me pondering this subject even more. While I agree that it is a flawed metric, I disagree in that it is still a number I want to have and analyze. To be sure:
- As an absolute number, bounce rate is completely meaningless. Who knows how long a user spent reading a page even if they bounced? The amount of time required to satisfy a user might vary depending on the page. A 15 second visit might be more than sufficient if all a person was looking for was a phone number! I have seen sites with great bounce rates that did get hit by Panda (in one there was no content above the fold, just links - so they got a lot of clicks - and a lot of frustrated users I imagine). Conversely I have seen sites with very high bounce rates spared by Panda.
- It is very easy to degrade user experience and improve bounce rate. For example, consider a hotel page where users really want to find a phone number. If that was one of the drivers to traffic, and if it was moved off the main SEO page (perhaps to a contact hotel page) navigation to the contact page would go up (and bounce rate down). However, a critical piece would now be missed by most users. More people would return to Google to continue their quest (and this gives negative metrics about your site).
- Implementation can impact these numbers even though the experience might be identical. (Think about the use of Ajax vs. rendering new pages).
- Why would Google ever risk using a product which is strategically important to them to potentially inflict damage on the customer using the product? Even if it was a good metric - Google could not be that stupid. Plus, not everyone has Google Analytics and it would not make sense for them to use a metric that is not available for all sites.
As Michael points out in his post, sometimes a bounce is an indication of a good visit (user got what they want).
Let's look what happens with a good visit (keep in mind that I am using the Google analytic definition of 'bounce' - that is, a single page visit).
- Users enter a query
- Google returns your page and user clicks over. This should be your most relevant page. This means that if Google did it's job on relevance and you did your job with delivering the relevant message on the page - the users has no need to navigate to another page on your site.
- Assuming you have a good page design, the user finds the content he was looking for. He then either goes on his merry way ( a bounce which I will call action A), or finds your site so engaging that he continues to browse, register, buy some products or something (positive engagement - call it action B). So therefore, Action A = Good Bounce, Action B = good engagement.
Now, how about a negative visit!
- User enters a query
- Lands on your site and does not find what he is looking for
- Some users bounce (call that action C) and some users may click around to find their answer (call that action D).
So in this case, Action C = Bad Bounce and Action D = Bad Engagement.
So how do you know what percentages of your bounces are good vs. bad? And what percentages of your engagement is good vs. bad. You can't tell by bounce rate - you just don't know. When the ratios change you don't know what is driving it.
Suppose you make changes to your site and your bounce rate goes up. Is that a bad thing? You don't know changes in good bounces (A) vs. bad bounces (B). By looking at the numbers, you can't really tell. So trying to draw conclusions from bounce rate alone is a dangerous things. But that does not mean you should not look at bounce rates!
So should SEOs look at bounce rate (or CEOs or anybody?). I still say yes, but not as an absolute metric as it is not meaningful by itself. Really, you need to look at all the factors impacting bounce rate, conversions, knowledge of your users, site changes and more to understand whether your site has gotten better or worse to reach some sort of interpretation of what your bounce rate means. Also, remember to segment your visits down to the smallest segments that gives you statistical significance. Your goal is to understand if users are being satisfied and the bounce rate is another piece of information in your quest to find the answer to that question.
You have to look carefully at the change to truly understand the shift in bounce rate. Again, if you remove critical content, bounce rate may go down and user dissatisfaction go up.
So bounce rate does matter to me, but only as an additional piece of information to help provide insight into user experience from SERP. As an isolated number, it is meaningless. Meanwhile we still have a huge gap with what we know about our site and with what Google knows about our site. Addressing that gap is key to good SEO in an AfterPanda world. I'll be writing more about that in upcoming posts.