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Bounce Rates as an SEO Ranking Signal

Bounce rates. You’ve probably heard about them, and you’ve probably even spent time worrying about them. If you’re a keen follower of SEO trends, you’ve probably also heard the long-runing debate about whether or not they’re used by Google as an SEO ranking factor.

This argument has been going on for a long time – and we want to finally put it to bed. It would be great if Google just came out and gave us a definitive answer, but as we know their ranking algorithms are too closely guarded for that.

So where does that leave us, the folks who want websites ranking well?

Well, it leaves us ready to take a deep dive into bounce rates, whether they’re a ranking factor for SEO, and the behaviour metrics that matter.

What are Bounce Rates for Websites?

In really simple terms, bounce rate is the number of times a user visits your websites and leaves without going any further. No clicks to other pages within your site, no filling out a contact form. Nothing past the first page.

Sounds bad doesn’t it? All the hard work you’ve put in to creating your website and people are jumping ship without even having a look around. But is it really as bad as it sounds?

One thing bounce rate doesn’t take into consideration is the amount of time spent on that single page (more on that later). So, having a high bounce rate isn’t always a bad thing, and that may have a lot to do with how your website is put together.

 

The Changing Landscape of Website Design

20 years ago, business websites followed a very simple formula. The home page, ‘about us’, maybe a page about your services, a pricing page, and a contact page. That was the bare bones of it, but everything was very segmented. Fast forward and think about the websites you visit now. Many of them are pretty compact, and in fact a lot of them have pretty much all the key information on the home page.

Then there’s landing pages, which depending on your strategy, may have all the information a user needs in one tidy package. If customers are hitting your landing page and then making contact via phone or checking your social pages, you probably don’t care much about the bounce rate.

 

The Google Analytics SEO Bounce Rate Myth

The popular misconception – dare we say, ‘myth’ – is that the bounce rate SEO factor comes from Google Analytics. We need to clear this up.

As a website administrator, you can absolutely, 100%, undeniably check your bounce rate through Google Analytics. But not everything on Google Analytics is an SEO ranking factor.

Some have argued over the years that Google sources bounce rate data from Google Analytics and uses it as an SEO ranking factor. This is wrong, and where a lot of the confusion comes from. Let’s take a look at why.

 

Not All Websites Use Google Analytics

It may sound surprising, but not everybody uses Google Analytics. For one thing, there’s a lot of other website analysis tools out there, such as WordPress Jetpack, Clickly, Amplitude and a heap of others.

In fact, according to W3Techs Google Analytics usage statistics, only 56.7% of websites use the tool. It doesn’t make sense for Google to use bounce rate data from just over half the world’s websites when determining its SEO rankings.

 

Google Has its Own Data

Simply put, Google doesn’t need to pull data from Analytics. It’s a great tool for marketers and website owners, but Google doesn’t need this information. It already has all of the data it needs from internal sources, so again, it doesn’t make sense for them to be trawling through your Analytics results.

When it comes down to it, the information you’re given on Google Analytics is only the tip of the iceberg compared to the data Google holds and uses for its search engine results pages (SERP). The numbers we’re given on Google Analytics does come from Google’s own enormous stack of website data, after all.

 

The Inherent Problem with Implicit Signals

Bounce rates are part of a whole bigger picture, being behavioural metrics. When we talk about behavioural metrics, we mean all of those signals that Google is said to pick up on when determining search rankings. Consequently, most of them are the factors you can see from Google Analytics. They’re usually broken up into implicit and explicit signals.

Implicit signals include bounce rates, time on page, geographical data, interactions with site advertising, and generally everything about how a user spends their time on a website.

Explicit signals are very browser-centric, and include things like saving to favourites, printing the page, or emailing the page to a friend (from the browser).

So why do we have a problem with implicit signals, you ask?

In short, because they’re unreliable. Here’s a couple of reasons why.

 

All Websites Serve a Different Purpose

Not all websites are created with the purpose of having a user spend a lot of time there. Blog pages for example, are usually clicked on as a result of a specific search. If users find the answer they’re looking or, there’s no reason to hang around.

Images also cause a problem here. If you’ve ever done a Google image search and opened a picture, you’re not even looking at a whole webpage. But it still counts as an extremely quick visit to the site that owns the image.

We mentioned before that bounce rates aren’t necessarily bad – and that’s precisely why they aren’t a reliable SEO ranking factor.

Not a Good Reflection of Relevance

Think about how you interact with webpages. If you’re like most of us, we’ve all opened a webpage and wandered away from the computer for a period of time. This may send an implicit signal that you’ve spent hours on one page, but it’s not an accurate reflection of that page’s relevance to a search result.

You might have pasted the link somewhere to come back and check later if you’re researching something. That shows an incredibly quick bounce, but that doesn’t mean the site isn’t useful. You might even find exactly what you were looking for first go, and then moved on.

As you can see, behavioural metrics are at best, a guide, but it’s not an exact science when determining if a website is useful or not.

Behaviour Metrics that are Actually Ranking Factors for SEO

Now, we’re a bit cold on a lot of behavioural metrics, but that’s not to say they’re all bad. There’s some that are SEO ranking factors, so we don’t want to leave you without discussing them.

Let’s just pause for a minute though, and remember that when it comes to SERP, Google’s algorithms take into account hundreds of factors. So even though some of the behavioural metrics we talked about above aren’t major influencers, they do still exist and do play a part. They’re just not a major part. Google is shuffling its algorithms constantly in a bid to provide users with the most relevant search results possible.

So, while bounce rates and the time of day people are checking your site aren’t huge SEO ranking factors, let’s take a look at some of the behavioural metrics that do matter.

 

Click Through Rate (CTR)

CTR is often only spoken about in conjunction with Paid Per Click (PPC) advertising campaigns, but it’s more far-reaching than that.

Pages that rank highly for particular keywords or searches may get a little SEO boost when people are regularly clicking through to that page. With internet usage habits suggesting that many people only click through to the first few search results, this may seem a little unfair. A page that ranks first for a keyword will get clicked on more often, thus getting an added SEO boost.

 

This is a big reason why it pays to get those rankings up for your desired keywords.

 

Pogo-Sticking

Here’s a metric that matters, but in a negative way. Pogo-sticking refers to the practice of clicking on page from the SERP, then reverting straight back to the SERP to try another page. This tells Google that the clicked-on page doesn’t include relevant information for the query it ranked for, and subsequently loses some performance points.

One way to avoid pogo-sticking, aside from the obvious of making sure your meta tags and content are in cohorts, is to ditch any annoying banners and advertising you might have. Improving page load time also increases the chances of a user staying to look around.

 

Long Clicks vs Short Clicks

We discussed time spent on page earlier as an implicit behaviour metric, but this is one that really matters. It’s fairly self-explanatory, but a long click means people are spending some time on your page and a short click means they’re moving on quickly. Long clicks are obviously desirable, as it’s letting Google know that users are finding your site worthwhile – and relevant to the search result.

This also ties in somewhat with pogo-sticking, but there’s a distinct difference between pogo-sticking and short clicks. Pogo-sticking is when someone leaves your page quickly and tries another search result. A short click just mean’s they’re not spending a lot of time on your page, which isn’t considered quite as bad because a user may have simply found what they’re looking for.

 

So, Does Bounce Rate Matter at All?

As an SEO ranking factor, bounce rate is not a significant concern for all of the reasons we’ve highlighted. It’s certainly a factor, but not a major player in determining where your page ranks on Googles search results. If you think of SEO as a 100-point ID check, bounce rate falls into the lowest category document that only gives you 5 points.

It’s simply too unreliable to be a major consideration when Google tries to determine a page’s relevance to particular search results. And the SEO ranking factor certainly wouldn’t be pulled from a website’s Google Analytics data – we can state that with plenty of conviction.

But in saying all that, does bounce rate matter at all?

Well, as a metric for monitoring your website’s performance, yes. But you need to look at bounce rate with one eye pretty heavily on the desired purpose of your website. If you’ve kept your site simple, with all the information a customer could need in one handy spot, bounce rate is of little interest to you.

If your site is a bit more expansive, and you’ve got conversion or interaction opportunities one very page, you’ll definitely want to have a good look at your bounce rate. If people are taking a quick look at your homepage and not getting into the nitty-gritty of what you’re promoting, you could be missing out on customers and potential profits.

 

Want to Improve Your Bounce Rates?

Improving bounce rates is important, and we can help you do that here at 3WhiteHats. Our goal is to help you turn those singular site visits into customer interactions and sales. If your bounce rate is great but you’re struggling to get noticed on Google search results, we can create a targeted SEO approach to help get your site noticed.

Don’t dwell in the depths of Google’s search results any longer. Contact us and speak to our creative marketing experts to see what we can do for you today.