I’ve written extensively about bounce rate on my blog over the past several years, including how to lower your bounce rate, blog bounce rate, homepage bounce rate, etc., but I’ve never written about how it’s connected to SEO. Bounce rate is an incredibly powerful metric that can tell you a lot about campaign performance and the quality of your content in a very short amount of time. If you’re not that familiar with Bounce Rate, it’s the percentage of visits that arrive on your site, visit no other pages, and then leave.
Those visitors simply visit one page on your site. From a conversion optimization standpoint, the more you can lower your bounce rate, the more opportunity you have to convert visitors. But although bounce rate optimization is extremely important, it’s not the focus of my post today. Instead, I want to focus on how bounce rate impacts SEO, and specifically, how ACTUAL bounce rate affects SEO. More on the distinction between bounce rate and actual bounce rate soon. First, let’s quickly explore an introduction to quality content from a search engine perspective.
Cutts, Forrester, and Panda
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of debate (and confusion) about whether bounce rate is a signal that the search engines use to determine quality content. Matt Cutts has probably been asked this question ten thousand times, and has referenced bounce rate when answering some questions about ranking factors. You can check out the part of the video about page speed to see what I’m referring to. Then with the rollout of Panda, an important algorithm update that targeted low quality content, bounce rate and other quality signals entered the spotlight.
In addition, Duane Forrester recently wrote a post defining quality content (from a Bing perspective). It’s a great post, and I highly recommend you go through it thoroughly. There are some great points Duane underscores. As part of the post, Duane explains that the engines can monitor “dwell time”, or the time a person remains on your page before clicking back to the search results. If visitors are clicking through the search listings to your site, and then clicking back to Bing quickly (in just a few seconds), that can be a negative signal to Bing. He clearly explained they have this on their radar from an SEO standpoint (and that it does matter for determining quality content).
So, when two of the top guys in organic search quality explain that you should keep an eye on bounce rate and quality content, you should probably listen. But, is it as easy as checking your bounce rate in Google Analytics to determine quality problems? Is the standard calculation for bounce rate the one that the engines use when determining rankings? These are great questions, and the answer is most definitely “no” to both questions. The engines have several better ways to determine actual bounce rate, engagement, etc., as well as how actual bounce rate applies to specific types of content. This is something that I’ve come across many times while analyzing SEO performance for clients (across industries). A high bounce rate in your analytics package does not mean that content has a high bounce rate to the search engines. Sometimes the two metrics might be close, but other times there might be a large discrepancy between them. Confused yet?
Bounce Rate vs. Actual Bounce Rate
As I explained earlier, I’ve known that actual bounce rate differs from bounce rate for some time. I’ve had the opportunity to manage SEO for a wide range of organizations, from major brands to local businesses. While helping these organizations, there were many instances of pages with high bounce rates (in Google Analytics and other analytics packages) that still ranked well in Search. The content I’m referring to would clearly be identified as high quality, unique, and valuable, but had high bounce rates. Many of the pages I am referring to ranked in the top three to five listings on page one of Google, Bing, and Yahoo. That was the case across clients, industries, domains, etc. So, it didn’t take the most advanced SEO analysis to understand that other factors were at play. To me, standard bounce rate couldn’t be the metric that engines were using to impact rankings. It just didn’t add up.
The problem with standard bounce rate is that it’s too simplistic. Check out the following two situations and I think you’ll get my point. Person A visits a page via organic search, takes a quick look at a page filled with ads and low quality content, and returns to the search results. That person spent 6 seconds on the page before returning to the search results. That’s clearly an “actual bounce” and would also show up in Google Analytics as a bounce. Next, Person B clicks through a listing in organic search and ends up on a thoroughly written, unique blog post about a specific topic. The content is supported by great visuals, addresses all the top concerns, provides definitions, etc. The person ends up spending 21 minutes on the page consuming the content before clicking back to the search results to perform an unrelated search. Guess what? To Google Analytics, that’s a bounce. But to the engines, that’s a much different situation than a bounce. They know that you spent 21 minutes before coming back to Search (by analyzing dwell time).
The scenario I listed above is a great example of the difference between actual bounce rate and standard bounce rate. This is exactly why you might see pages with high bounce rates that rank well in Search. They don’t have high ACTUAL bounce rates. They have high standard bounce rates, which is too simplistic to take true engagement into account. A quick example of content that might have a high standard bounce rate, but a low actual bounce rate, would be a detailed tutorial. Someone has a problem, needs help, and the content provides a thorough solution. A person visits the content, spends a good amount of time consuming the content, is happy with her experience, and leaves. That’s not an ACTUAL bounce. That’s a standard bounce.
Actual Bounce Rate = Real Signals to the Engines
The example I provided above covered someone clicking from the Search results to a page, and then clicking the back button in their browser to return to the search listings. That’s obviously one strong way the engines understand that you bounced, but that’s not the only way.