Bounce Rates & SEO... What are they good for... absolutely... something?

Author Allison Smith
by Pat Fischer, Junior SEO Specialist

As Google continues to hone its mysterious algorithms to reward websites for having rich and relevant content, many SEO companies and contractors have begun focusing more and more of their time and resources on content creation and content marketing. Of course, this is exactly what Google both expected and designed. By demanding quality content from websites, they have not only provided Google users with more informative and relevant websites for their queries, but they have also taken steps toward improving the overall quality of all content available on the web.

While content creation remains an integral part of any SEO campaign, it is still only part of the equation. The richest content in the world is only valuable if it is reaching those who are looking for it. This is why it is so important to make sure that when optimizing your website you are targeting the correct demographic and keywords. Google looks at hundreds of factors when evaluating content and ordering its rankings. Naturally, they are concerned with the overall quality of the content, but when it comes to answering search queries for the zillions of people using their search service, they also have an obligation to deliver whatever they deem the most relevant content available.

SEO Ranking Positions

The bounce rate statistics as seen in Google Analytics.

What is a website’s Bounce Rate?

A website’s bounce rate is perhaps one of the most undervalued metrics of a successful SEO campaign. In general, a bounce rate is the amount of visitors to any given website who navigate off of the site after viewing only one page, typically expressed as a percentage. The Google Analytics (GA) tracking software keeps track of this bounce rate for you. Time and time again, Matt Cutts, Google’s head of Webspam, has adamantly denied that Google uses bounce rates, or any other GA derived metric, in their ranking algorithms. Though this is most likely true (using GA data would exclude viable results from websites who don’t use their Analytics software), Cutts tends to avoid directly answering this question. Though Google may not be using bounce rates from Google Analytics, that doesn’t mean they are not using a similar metric from their own user data from the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page).

When someone clicks a result on the SERP, Google pays attention to how long they visit the page. If a user clicks a result in the SERP, determines the page is not satisfying their query, and quickly hits the back button in their browser to return to the SERP, this is what is referred to in the SEO industry as a “return-to-SERP”. It’s not known exactly how long a user must “dwell” on a page to not count as a return-to-SERP (Google is known for their super top-secret ultra classified Area-51-esque algorithms). What is known, however, is that quickly returning back to the SERPs most likely does play a role in the rankings, and rightfully so. If a lot of users are bouncing back to the SERPs, the assumption is there must not be much valuable content on the page to begin with. Or, the content could be quite rich, but simply not relevant to the searcher’s query. Of course, there are exceptions to this. For example, if the user searches a quickly answerable question, clicks the first result, finds their answer in a few seconds, and returns to the SERP to continue on with something unrelated, this would lead to a high bounce rate. Considering this example, it’s easy to see why “good” bounce rates depend completely on your website’s goals, as well as why there are so many different ranking factors in the algorithms.

So if Google is not using your Google Analytics bounce rate, what use can it be to you? Regardless if you believe Google does or doesn’t use them, bounce rates are still a great indicator of how engaging your website is. It’s a great metric to use to make sure you’re content remains relevant to your targeted keyword plan. If you are suffering from a high bounce rate, you may be missing out on lots of potential conversions (whether its converting a sale, generating a lead, or just interacting with a user who may go on to share your content with others). After all, a bounce back to the SERP on an eCommerce site is comparable to someone opening the door to a traditional brick and mortar storefront, only to take a quick look and turn around without actually walking inside to see what the store has to offer.

How exactly Google implements return-to-SERP rates, or any other metric for that matter, to affect their rankings is still up for debate. Google isn’t exactly entirely forthcoming with this information, and for good reason. The less public they are with the intricacies of their algorithm, the less prone to spammy SEO practices they are, and thus the better Google can continue to sensibly order their rankings.

I want to improve my bounce rate, how can I do so?

There are a number of things to consider when improving your website’s bounce rate. For instance, one simple way to quickly improve your bounce rate is to ensure all links to external sites open in a new browser window or tab. Intuitive navigation, aesthetically pleasing design, a lack of annoying pop-up ads, and quick loading, mobile responsive sites are just a few more ways that come to mind. Also keep in mind the keywords you are targeting. Does your website actually deliver what you’re promising in your Meta tags? For instance, maybe you are targeting the “cheapest sock monkeys" as a keyword for your newest eCommerce start-up. If a user searches Google for “cheapest sock monkeys” and navigates to your site, only to find you are selling high-end, platinum-encrusted $40,000 sock monkeys, you’re likely going to see a bounce rate close to 100%. This is an absurd example, but it illustrates the idea that you had better be able to backup your keyword claims, or optimizing your site for them can be completely counterproductive.

There is a simple explanation that truly trumps any number of insider tips or tidbits about how Google’s algorithms may or may not be functioning. The most important thing you can do to improve your website and your bounce rate is actually quite simple: Give people incentive to stay on your web page. This may sound like an oversimplification, and it is. But if this simple sentence is your core philosophy, you will undoubtedly create a user friendly, interactive, and engaging website. Never forget the human element. Google’s robots that index the web are essentially programmed to be as human as possible, or at least to determine what will end up being the best result for humans. Easily navigable, rich and relevant content will ensure your website offers an engaging experience for all of your users, and your bounce rate will thank you.