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The danger of not thinking about what bounce rate means

A lot of people question why the ‘bounce rate’ in their website visitor data is so high. It’s the same story even if you use the more sophisticated model of identifying ‘engaged’ visitors, as we recommend. Even targeted advertising such as email links or pay-per-click adverts can have a high bounce rate or low engagement rate. Why might three out of four visitors leave as quickly as they came?

We might start by looking at the sources of traffic which provide really high engagement, and ask why that is. For example, for many businesses, visits from Google ‘natural search’ can have an impressively low bounce rate of perhaps 25%. But this is caused by a huge group of visitors whose bounce rate is almost 0% – the people who want to get to the company website and who type the company name into their browser’s address bar. We all do this, every day. Almost none of these people who specifically want to reach your website then ‘bounce’ when they arrive. So the headline bounce rate from Google search is much lower than other sources.

Against this, our expectations for bounce rate are perhaps unrealistic. Here’s something I’ve seen a lot of people do when researching online. They have their browsers set up so that any Google results they click on open up in a new tab in the background. They make a search, and are confronted with two or three adverts and maybe half a dozen natural search results. In a blur, they click on the first 5-10 links on the Google results page which catch their eye. All open up in their own tabs.

Then they just go through the tabs, giving each page no more than a couple of seconds’ glance before deciding whether or not to close it. They might ‘bounce’ on anything between 50% and 90% of the pages they opened. Was your closed page relevant? Perhaps. But the reason they closed it had more to do with it not looking as immediately useful as they’d expected; or as useful as a competitor’s page which they’d looked at 1 second before.

There are two lessons to be learned here. One is that your pages need to sell themselves with the headline at a glance. The headline should be a one-line sales pitch, not a label. Secondly, accept that bounce rates are in many cases going to be higher than you’d expect, but only compare them like-with-like.