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Bounce Rate SEO Fallacies

Of late there has been a lot of discussion about bounce rates and whether or not the search engines count these in their algorithms.  A few days ago I posted some pros and cons on this issue.  Today I would like to share with you 9 common objections I have seen to using bounce rates as part of the search engine algorithms, and refute 8 of those.

 

As far back as late 2007, there were reports that webmasters were seeing a difference in their rankings for major keywords within a few weeks of drastically changing their bounce rates.  However, none of the tests and reports seem to be complete enough or repeatable enough to constitute “proof”. 

 

As a result, there are plenty of naysayers who believe that such things as bounce rates are not now and probably never will be part of the search engine algorithms. 

 

I am of the opposite view; bounce rates will certainly be a major part of search engine algorithms and probably already are to some degree.  That is in large part – but not completely – the premise behind Sticky SEO.  Let us not forget that Microsoft has been spending a fair amount of energy on what has been called BrowseRank, which is in part based on bounce rates.

 

Objection 1, there is no definition of “bounce rate”. 

 

Response. This is the flimsiest of arguments.  A bounce is when someone leaves a website, going back where they came from.

 

Objection 2, I don’t like how Google Analytics defines a bounce.

 

Response.  Sadly, Google doesn’t ask me for advice, either.  But cheer up, the bounce rate in Google Analytics might not be the same as they use in their algorithm, just as the little green bar is not necessarily the PageRank they use in their algorithm.

 

 

Objection 3, many sites don’t have Google Analytics turned on, so Google would have very incomplete data.

 

Response (scratching my head in confusion).  What does Google Analytics have to do with anything?  This is about Google (or Yahoo, or MSN, or Ask, or some other) tracking their own traffic and how their own users move about and – most importantly – how their users return to their website.

 

Objection 4, what is the threshold for a bounce?  After 5 seconds?  After 10 second?  After 15 seconds? This is a mess!  (This is often part of the how-do-we-define-a-bounce debate.)

 

Response.   A bounce is a bounce, whether it takes a person one second or one hour to bounce back, it is a bounce.  How the search engines choose to treat bounces with varying lag times is another matter.  Let’s be clear; they won’t tell you, just as they won’t tell you how many links on a page they index, how many they follow and how many they count in their ranking algorithms.  Furthermore, it is a moving target.  Just like every other algorithm input, bounce rates and bounce lag times will not be treated in the exact same way one day to the next.

 

Objection 5, what if people quickly click on an external link and leave my site?  They found the site useful because they found a useful link on it, but they bounced.

 

Response.  That is not a bounce, that’s a referral.  A bounce is when someone hits the back button.

 

Objection 6, what if the user quickly closes the window?

 

Response.  That could be any number of things, but it is not a bounce.  Who can guess how the search engines might treat that, or even if they treat it at all?  However, it need not be considered a bounce unless the search engines believe it should be.

 

Objection 7, doesnt a bounce mean the person has found what they want?  Cant a bounce sometimes be good?

 

Response.  Sometimes, perhaps, but rarely.  After 5 seconds, a person has no time to read a page.  After 30 seconds, they might have found something useful.  So lag times matter.  More importantly, the search engines can determine what a person does next.  If a person returns to the search results and clicks on another link, that is a sign they did not find what they want.  If they return to the search results and conduct a similar search, that might also be a sign they did not find what they want.  If they return to the search results and conduct an unrelated search, that might be a sign that they found what they want.  Search engines can weigh various bounces in light of the user’s next action.

 

Objection 8, for some searches, people look for multiple sources, such as comparing prices, comparing products, seeking varying opinions, etc.  Too many sites would be penalized if all those bounces were to be counted in the rankings.

 

Response.  This is an example of false logic.  If someone clicks on one website, then bounces, clicks on another website, then bounces, clicks on another website then bounces…all the high-ranking websites for that particular search query would be equally affected.  Nobody would suffer a ranking disadvantage because rankings are relative.  On the other hand, if one site typically bounces and the others don’t, the bouncy site clearly is less useful than the others and should be demoted.

 

Objection 9.  Cant I just set up a bot to visit all my top competitors and leave their site after varying numbers of seconds to make it appear that their sites are all bouncy?

 

Response.  Yes, you can.  And you can get very creative.  I have even heard of couriers in China travelling from one Internet café to another to click on a particular site as a means of increasing its rankings.  I have no answer for this, other than that the search engines will have to control for this, just as they have found ways to control for automated link-building.

 

So have no fear.  Good websites that provide what their visitors want or who help them find what they want will prosper.  Sticky SEO looks at conversions and stickiness as integral elements to SEO.

 

Cheap sites that do a lot of link-building – bouncy SEO – counting on large volumes of traffic to offset poor conversion rates, will suffer – because the search engines will stop sending them that traffic. 

 

It’s just a matter of time.  Or perhaps it has already started.

 

 

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13 Responses to “Bounce Rate SEO Fallacies”

  1. Free Games (1 comments) Says:

    I would have to agree, that the lower bounce rate is obviously better. I also agree that by integrating the bounce rate of certain websites and pages into their algorithms could certainly help the big 3 search engines.

    Definitely a great post.

  2. Chris Fiberg (1 comments) Says:

    I didn't understand what is the maximal time to count bounce rate

  3. David Leonhardt (122 comments) Says:

    No search engine is going to tell us that. First, there might not be a maximal time; just as the sunset slowly fades away, so might the effect of a bounce over time. Second, each engine establishes its algorithms independently. Third, algorithms are a moving target, so the effects of bounces will change over time. Fourth, there is no reason to believe that a bounce for a search on "how to…" searches would be treated the same as a bounce on "…company" searches. Fifth, bounces on image search, news search, blog search, etc. likely are each treated differently. Sixth, even if any part of a search engine algorithm was stable enough to remain accurate 24 hours after being explained, and even if any part of a search engine algorithm was simple enough for a normal person to understand, no search engine is about to give away its secrets. So we will never know the details for certain.

  4. Stephen_Pitts (1 comments) Says:

    David, Thanks for your insight on this difficult topic.

    I would tend to agree with all of your conclusions and strongly agree with Andy's response in regards to blogs. However, it appears that Google is trying to extract this data to be useful in adjusting their rankings. Like so many other metrics that are being considered or measured in the algo, I don't think that any one aspect will eliminate your page from the listing (other than blatant black hat techniques), it is a more holistic approach that should be considered but it shouldn't be the predominate factor.

    User behavior appears to be the next addition to the Google algorithm, whether it be bounce rate or time on a page or number of pages a user navigates to… the list goes on, but it doesn't look like Google has figured out how to incorporate user behavior to play a roll in the rankings, yet!

  5. David Leonhardt (122 comments) Says:

    Hi Zach. I feel like I am going to repeat this a few thousand times. Why would a search engine consider a clickthrough to an Adsense ad, or any other referral for that matter, as a show of dissatisfaction? I am not saying they won't but would it make sense? That's a referral, not a bounce. (Google Analytics calls it a bounce, which is confusing a lot of people, but that has nothing to do with SEO.)

  6. Zach Zufall (1 comments) Says:

    I sure hope Google doesn't incorporate "bounce rates" into their algorithm. No matter how they try to account for it, it will give an inaccurate picture of how visitors are interacting with a given site.

    What if a visitor clicks on an Adsense ad? Or an affiliate link? Is that considered a bounce? Because those are my two most desired actions from a visitor (even though it means leaving my site).

  7. Richard Mongler (1 comments) Says:

    I'm not really sure search engines really track bounce rates or care. For instance the site webmasterworld has been known for years to always cloak content so search engines crawl the whole site while normal users are told they must pay $200 to sign up and view, so it'd have a huge bounce rate. However, google always puts this site at the top of the search rankings. This is just one example. I can list other sites that also cloak and are always top google results.

  8. Mike Long (1 comments) Says:

    Thank you so much for this. I've been using Analytics since they bought Urchin, and I've never understood bounce rates at all. This gives me a much better idea of what I'm dealing with and I won't worry about it quite as much!

  9. Krisj (1 comments) Says:

    thats why i would do averaging at a searchprase level – that could be effective. the whole point is that search engines need to do more user research as opposed to web link research in my opinion.

  10. common sense (1 comments) Says:

    when all else fails read the instructions – Bounce Rate is the percentage of single-page visits (i.e. visits in which the person left your site from the entrance page). Bounce Rate is a measure of visit quality and a high Bounce Rate generally indicates that site entrance (landing) pages aren't relevant to your visitors. You can minimize Bounce Rates by tailoring landing pages to each keyword and ad that you run. Landing pages should provide the information and services that were promised in the ad copy. – thats from google

  11. Anna (1 comments) Says:

    Thanks, David, very helpful and though provoking – and thanks, Shane for your valuable comments.

    Blog metrics – I would advise checking out Avinash Kaushik's new web analytics book coming in October – Web Analytics 2.0 (lame title, great author!). Feedreaders, comments, speaking invitations, etc. – definitely not bounce rate. :)

  12. Joe Chambers (1 comments) Says:

    Brilliant input about search engines. I’m honestly stunned that that has not been articulated earlier.

  13. high seo ranking (1 comments) Says:

    Grand commentary about search engines. I’m honestly stupefied that this hasn’t been stated earlier.

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