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SEO: Don’t confuse bounce rates with bounces

bouncy springsIf you have spoken to an SEO specialist in the past year, you have probably heard them talking about improving bounce rates, among other things. This is the measurement of whether your website is sticky.

Take a look at your Google Analytics account and you will see bounce rate as one of the top metrics – this basically tells you how many people left your site from the same page on which they landed, without looking at any other pages. In other words, they land on your home page, or on an article, they do nothing else and they leave. That’s a bounce.

However, as I wrote in 2012, it can be possible for bounce rates to be incorrectly reported. They can also be misleading, because they are not necessarily a bad thing.

Think about a single page website, for example, where all the content and the call to action is on one page. That site is bound to have a 100% website, but maybe it performs well.

Google Analytics bounce rates are not an SEO factor

Bounce rates in Google Analytics are not used as a factor in ranking your site on Google. As you can see in the video below, Google’s head of web spam, Matt Cutts, said this as far back as 2010.

However, what is a factor for Google rankings is the bounce back to Google after someone visits your site from a search result. This type of bounce IS measured by the search engine, and it is an important quality signal.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgBw9tbAQhU

Long clicks – understanding a Google bounce

What Google is looking for is quality pages that are relevant to searcher intent. It wants to present results that match what people are looking for. If a searcher sees your website in the results and clicks through, this is a signal to Google that your result was at least enough to attract a click (pat on the back).

However, if the user clicks back to Google within a couple of seconds, this could tell Google that they didn’t like what they saw, and this can reduce the likelihood of your site being considered for the same type of search in future. If people routinely click through to your site from search results and then bounce straight back to Google, this is a bad quality signal and your site may rank lower over time. (I say “may” because lots of different forces come into play.)

I wrote last year about the concept of the long click. This is simply the art of ensuring that people stay on your page once they click through from a search engine. Good design, page speed and matching searcher intent are all factors that can make people stay those few extra seconds, enough to find something interesting to click on.

Why are bounce rates an important SEO metric?

So, bounce rates in Google Analytics are not directly used to affect rankings, but bounces from your website back to Google could be. Why, then, do SEO specialists talk so much about the need to improve bounce rates displayed in Google Analytics?

The reason is simple – it is a barometer to how sticky your site is. Not only do you have an overall, site-wide bounce rate, you also have bounce rates for each page of your site. You can see which pages are failing to retain readers and improve these.

If you have one page that fails to achieve visibility in natural search results, improving its bounce rate could correlate to better performance, which will hopefully be reflected in search results. There’s no guarantee, of course.

Look at these bounce rate factors:

  • Bounce rate for individual pages or groups of related pages
  • Average time on page (how long are people reading)?
  • Which other pages do they click through to? Do you have enough calls to action for them to read other related content?
  • Is your bounce rate higher when people come from a search engine than when they are referred to the page through a citation link? This could signal poor relevance to the search queries for which is achieves visibility.
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