Actual Bounce Rate vs. Bounce Rate, and Why the Difference Matters for SEO

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Glenn Gabe
Glenn Gabe
Actual Bounce Rate vs. Bounce Rate, and Why the Difference Matters for SEO

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.

There are several other ways that the engines can determine if a piece of content has a high bounce rate (actual bounce rate).  Using these methods, the engines can build a more rounded view of your content with regard to actual engagement.  And no, they don’t need to look far.  Let’s take a look at some of the mechanisms that are in place today.  Note, some of what I’m listing below cannot be proven.  I’ve noted when that’s the case.

1. A Bounce Back to Search

Bounce Back to Search

As I mentioned in my example, and what Duane listed in his post about quality content, someone clicking through a search result, only to quickly return to the search listings is a strong negative signal.  But, as I explained earlier, it truly depends on how long that person stays on your page before clicking back.  I’ve analyzed many pages where visitors are spending several minutes to over ten minutes on a piece of content, but that content has a very high bounce rate.  Those pages still rank well in Search.  This makes sense, since the content is ultra-high quality, provides solutions to problems, etc.  The engines know this and understand the actual bounce rate.  They can analyze the dwell time.

2. Glorious Toolbar Data

search engine toolbars

Millions of people have either the Google Toolbar or Bing Toolbar installed.  Although many people don’t know this, they might be passing information back to Google or Microsoft about the sites and pages they visit on the web.  Most SEO’s understand this, but I find most people outside of the industry have no idea.  This is an incredible way for the engines to understand actual bounce rate.  Imagine you visited a page from Search and spent 12 minutes on the page.  Then you either type in another URL directly in the browser or via the toolbar (Google or Bing).  The toolbar can pick this up and understand how much time you spent.  Again, that’s much different than seeing a “bounce” in your analytics package.

Also, if you read the privacy page for Google’s toolbar, it’s clear that the toolbar sends information back to Google about the searches you conduct, the pages you visit, etc.  Check out the section about “Enhanced Toolbar features”.  In addition, you can read the privacy policy for the Bing bar to learn more about the data it sends back to Microsoft.  Once you start realizing how much information those little toolbars are collecting, they start to look a little different to you.  You can almost make out a pair of eyes looking at you.  🙂

3. Chrome


In Chrome, the address bar essentially acts as the Google toolbar.  Auto-suggest works, Google Instant works, and now Instant Pages work in Chrome.  If Chrome is passing your data back to Google, then it has yet another signal about actual bounce rate versus traditional bounce rate.  There’s been a lot of debate about how much information is being passed to Google from Chrome, and Matt Cutts addressed this in a blog post back in 2008.  A lot has changed since then with Chrome (functionality-wise), and you can read the Chrome privacy policy to better understand the data that is sent to Google.  To me, the more functionality that’s available in Chrome, the more opportunity for data to get passed back to Google.  And that means more data that can be used to determine low quality content, high actual bounce rate, etc.  I’m ok with this, but that’s me.

4. Instant Previews

Instant previews

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about how Instant Previews could provide quality signals back to the mothership.  I like to call this Instant Bounce Rate, which is someone clicking an instant preview, viewing a snapshot of the page, and then not clicking through.

That’s definitely a signal to Google that the content isn’t meeting visitor expectations (at least based on the snapshot viewed in the search results).  Google might be incorporating this data into its actual bounce rate calculation.  You can think of Instant Bounce Rate as a micro bounce rate metric, since the person never actually visits the page at hand.

5. Google Analytics Data Sharing (when combined with other signals listed above)

google analytics

Disclaimer: I have no hard evidence that Google uses data from Google Analytics in its calculation for actual bounce rate, but it’s entirely possible.  When you agree to share your data with Google products, you agree to share your analytics data with Google to help it improve its services.

By providing this data, it’s just another possible way for Google to better understand your content and engagement. For example, a certain page might have a high standard bounce rate, but the average time on page can give them more information about how non-bounce and non-exit visits consume the content.  You can check out my post about time on page and time on site to learn more about the metrics.  Again, I’m not saying Google is doing this, but I’m also not saying it isn’t.  The data is there and companies are freely sharing it with Google.

Key Takeaways

I hope this post helped explain some of the mechanisms that are in place for understanding actual bounce rate versus standard bounce rate.  As I explained throughout this post, the search engines have the ability to collect in-depth data from a number of sources to determine your actual bounce rate, which can then be used for ranking calculations.  So, make sure you don’t simply analyze bounce rate in your analytics package and think that metric has an impact on SEO.  Instead, dig deeper to better understand the real metrics being used, because that’s exactly what the engines are doing.

Now, if you ended up reading this entire post, and then leave, you should know you didn’t really bounce, right?

Glenn Gabe

Glenn Gabe

Featured SEO Writer for SEJ   Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on ... [Read full bio]