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How I learned to stop worrying and love the bounce (rate)

By Paddi MacDonnell Posted Oct. 20, 2015 Reading time: 8 minutes

If you are trying to understand why a site is not producing the results you want, the bounce rate can be a very useful indicator of where problems might be occurring. A high bounce rate is generally bad: on the face of it, it means visitors are landing on a page, then leaving without following through on any actions.

Or, as Avinash Kaushik succinctly put it, “I came, I puked, I left”.

And because you can look at the bounce rate for each page, you can pinpoint which pages in particular are letting the side down. At least, that is the theory; in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that.

 

Understanding the bounce rate

First of all, it’s essential to distinguish between bounce rate and exit rate. Put simply, bounce rate applies when only one page in the site is visited, while exit rate applies to the last page visited regardless of how many other pages were visited in the same session.

The bounce rate of a site or page is meaningless in isolation

For example, person A goes to your home page, looks at it for a few minutes, then goes to another site or closes their browser. That’s a bounce, and the bounce rate for your home page increases.

Person B goes to your home page, then your about page, then your contact page and then leaves. That’s not a bounce, but the exit rate for your contact page goes up.

The bounce rate of a site or page is meaningless in isolation. In order for it to actually be helpful, it needs to be read in context. For example, acceptable bounce rates vary greatly depending on the type of site.

Google Analytics supplies the following benchmarks:

  • 40-60% – Content websites
  • 30-50% – Lead generation sites
  • 70-98% – Blogs
  • 20-40% – Retail sites
  • 10-30% – Service sites
  • 70-90% – Landing pages

So, why the variation? The short answer is that we use different sites for different things. An acceptable bounce rate of 70% – 98% for a blog seems very high but not if we actually think through how this might occur.

For example, person C has discovered the joy of Google Analytics and is trying to work out what it all means; they have searched for “Bounce Rate”, and among the results are the links to several articles, including this one. They have clicked the link and are now reading this (hello C). When they’ve finished reading it, they will go back to the results page and click the link to another article on a different blog.

That constitutes a bounce, but it does not indicate a negative experience per se. On the other hand, with a retail site a high bounce rate usually is a bad sign. Our behaviour when using a retail site tends to involve more browsing or using an internal search. If a visitor jumps away immediately, it means they don’t want to bother looking any further, and they are definitely not going to buy anything.

Of course, even with this there are exceptions. For example, I want to know how much Macy’s charges for home delivery, so I do a search for “Macy’s delivery charges”. Google gives me the link to the page with the information I need; I look at it, then close the browser.

Bounce!

The point here is that even within sites which have lower acceptable bounce rates there are certain pages where a higher rate is acceptable.

 

Can a high bounce rate be good?

In fact, it could be argued that in a case like this, a high bounce rate is actually a good thing. I wanted to find a specific piece of information, I did a simple search and found exactly what I was looking for.

When determining whether the bounce rate is good or bad, it is important to consider whether the page in question is a common entry point

Contact pages are a good example of this, particularly when the site is for something like a restaurant where visitors are looking for opening times and a phone number. When determining whether the bounce rate is good or bad, it is important to consider whether the page in question is a common entry point.

In other words, would you expect many visitors to arrive at your site on this page, or is it a page they would visit further along the path through your site? If it’s the latter, then a high bounce rate is unlikely to indicate a problem.

Remember bounce rate is a percentage, so if one visitor lands on what you consider to be an internal page and leaves immediately, you will get a 100% bounce rate — the 200 other users who viewed the same page before and/or after other pages on your site aren’t counted here.

 

Does it always matter?

There are pages within multi page sites where bounce rates are meaningless. Pages such as checkout pages and form submission confirmation pages should never be entry pages (ie first page visited) so a bounce rate for them may in fact indicate that there is something odd going on somewhere.

You need to work out how visitors are landing on these pages in the first place. The significant statistic with checkout and cart pages is the exit rate. A bounce shows an accidental landing, whereas an exit indicates a dropping out during the purchase process; and identifying the point of exit is what is helpful here.

Another, obvious, exception to the “high bounce rate = bad” rule is single page sites, and there are a growing number of them. Recent trends in web design, such as parallax and JavaScript powered sites, favour the single page approach. Plus it works well with responsive design. In this case, a high bounce rate is completely meaningless as there is nowhere else to go.

In order to get meaningful data on user behaviour for a single page site, Google recommends adding events which can be tracked.

 

What can you do if it’s bad?

Once you have assessed the bounce rate of a particular page in context, and found that it is higher than it should be, you can start to look at how to improve it.

So why do users “bounce” away? The major reasons are usually one or more of the following:

  • it’s the wrong site or content;
  • it takes too long to load;
  • any calls to action are not clear;
  • the navigation is awkward or confusing;
  • it’s visually unappealing;
  • it feels untrustworthy;
  • they just don’t like it.

Got the wrong site

Make sure any content that will be picked up by search engines is clear and relevant. When your site shows up in search results, you want to make sure that the user can tell what it is you do/sell.

It might be worth checking that your url is not getting confused with another site’s. I don’t know how many times I visited habitat.com only to rediscover that it was not the correct address for the furniture store (which is habitat.co.uk).

Of course, having users bounce from your site because they’ve got there by mistake is not an indication that anything is wrong with your site, but it does muddy the analytics waters. By doing what you can to make sure that your visitors are your intended target, you’ll know that your bounce rate is a genuine reflection of user reaction to your site.

Page load speed

There are disagreements over the precise number of seconds the average user is prepared to wait for a page to load, but it’s safe to say you want as fast as possible, not least because load time has a major impact on your Google ranking. So at the very least, make sure you’ve optimised your images, minified your js and css and stripped out any unnecessary code.

I’d suggest reading The quick guide to speeding up your websites as a good starting point. 

User interaction

A bounce is usually explained in simple terms, as a single page visit. A more precise explanation of a bounce as far as Google Analytics go, is a single page visit that involves only one GIF request to the Google Analytics server. (The data collected from a page by the GA tracking code is sent to the Analytics servers as a list of parameters attached to a request for a single pixel GIF image, which is why this process is referred to as a GIF request.)

This means that there are things you can do to get more meaningful results in your analytics by providing the potential for more GIF requests. Setting up events which can be tracked as interactions is a good start. These can be things like a sign up form, a download, a video which the user clicks to play; you can even track whether a user has scrolled to a certain point in the page.

This last could be especially useful on a blog to show how many users scrolled to the bottom of an article. Of course this alone can’t tell you if they read the article, but you can use event tracking to work out how long a user has spent on a page. GA calculates a session duration (i.e. time spent on a site) as the time of the last engagement hit, or tracked user interaction, on the last page minus the first hit on the first page.

If there are no engagement hits on the last page, then it uses the time of the first hit on the last page instead. Crucially, this means that GA can calculate the length of time between a user arriving at a page and triggering your tracked event. In theory, you could eliminate your bounce rate by setting up events which will trigger every time a user visits your page, causing a second GIF request.

This would be foolish as, although Google may (they deny it but the jury appears to still be out) be using bounce rates when ranking, having no bounce rate tells you absolutely nothing about how users react to your site. A bounce rate which is extremely low, below 10% say, is most likely to be the result of an error in your tracking or analytics set up, which again, renders the results useless to you.

UX

A cluttered, disorganised page can be off-putting. Poor typography, too much text to read, lots of adverts scattered everywhere, random pop-ups, eye-watering colour scheme: these are all things which can make users run screaming. Plus no one is going to hand over their money on an e-commerce site which feels untrustworthy to them. Make sure your site is well designed, following good UX guidelines.

These can vary depending on who you ask, but the basics are good typography, clear content hierarchy, adequate spacing of elements and clear calls to action. And remember, just because you like a certain image or font does not mean it works in the context of a particular page.

 

And finally…

The most important thing to remember when checking your bounce rate is context. Check it against the benchmarks, and evaluate what a good rate for each particular page should be. If it is too low, check for script or set up errors in your analytics; if it’s too high, try some of the above tips.

Bounce rate can be your friend, if you learn to use it properly

It’s best to make one change at a time, and then check if it has made a difference. Bounce rate can be your friend, if you learn to use it properly.

Above all, remember that bounce rate — like all analytics — is a tool. Having a healthy bounce rate will not magically increase sales or sign ups, but investigating an unhealthy one can help you find the weak points in your site.

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