How Bounce Rate Optimization Can Improve Your Search Rankings

Straight from Google’s Quality Guidelines comes the mantra for the white-hat SEO community: “Build your site for users, not search engines.” And Google means it.

The search giant disclosed its latest algorithm update includes page layout as a ranking factor, with a focus on how much above-the-fold real estate is dedicated to visible content vs. advertising or other distracting, useless shiny things (like splash pages).

Google states that customer feedback influenced this change, as it’s no surprise that sites with buried content make for a crummy user experience, as do pages that load slowly — another user-experience related ranking factor.

Design for Users – No, Seriously.

Google is open about its consideration of page load speed, and now page layout — but read between the lines, and you understand that it’s bounce rate that matters. And I mean bounce rate in the context of users pogo-sticking back and forth between search results (web pages) and SERPs (search engine result pages). This behavior is a strong indicator of which pages are truly relevant to a given keyword phrase, and which fail to deliver.

For example, if your page’s content and incoming links suggest high relevance for the search query “learn to speak french,” but you consistently have a high bounce rate and very short average time on page before users return to search to try other results, Google’s simply not going to want to keep ranking you highly. Whether the reason for your high bounce rate is too much non-content above the fold, painfully slow page loads, cluttered and confusing design or something else.

So, BRO (Bounce Rate Optimization — come on, you like this acronym) should be a priority, not just for hanging on to the visitors that arrive on your site, but to help keep those visitors comin’ through search engines.

How to Improve Bounce Rates

  • Page load speed optimization
  • User testing
  • A/B and Multivariate testing

In that order.

Why?

Improving page load speed is low-hanging fruit. It can be performed without user involvement, and takes care of one of the biggest usability issues right off the bat.

User testing should be next, not that it’s any quicker or easier than quantitative methods like A/B and multivariate testing, but the insights you get from real people can help you make better testing decisions. There’s no point testing a whack of site elements that never were problematic for users in the first place.

Finally, A/B and multivariate testing is the process that helps you quantify the impact of changes against the status quo, rather than just making changes and hoping for the best. Use your web analytics to determine which pages to optimize first. Remember to segment traffic source to Google, and hone in on bounce rate by keyword. Look for pages that get high amounts of traffic, with higher than average bounce rate.

Designing for users is designing for search engines. Expect more algorithmic updates in the coming months that favor pages that keep users on-site.

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21 Responses to “How Bounce Rate Optimization Can Improve Your Search Rankings”

  1. Hadi says:

    As usual with these things, the devil’s in the detail.

    Say I have a landing page showing availability of accommodation.

    A user lands on that page from search and finds the weekend they’d like to book is unavailable – they bounce.

    Now I could set up that page to make the user click to another page on my site which shows availability – no bounce from the point of view of the search engine (good thing), an extra click for the human (bad thing).

    So do I value the search engine over the user in this case?

    I choose the user and perhaps get penalised by the big G – them’s the breaks I guess…

    • Hi Hadi,

      I understand what you are saying, but I still believe designing for the user first, as you suggest, is the way to go. There is no discrepancy :)

      In the example you provided, there are 2 scenarios (among many) that could affect the bounce:

      1) The user lands on a one-step accommodation lookup and does not find what they are looking for on your page, and returns to search results
      2) The user lands on a 2-step accommodation lookup and bounces without performing the second step (additional steps increase friction, increase likelihood to bounce)

      So in this case, changing your funnel in order to save some bounces due to inventory inavailability is not necessarily going to produce lower bounce rates. In fact, a clunkier user experience will likely increase bounce rates overall in aggregate. Google can also detect if the user proceeds to step 2, finds there is no availability, and backtracks twice to the search results to click on another results. It will see the same landing page as the referral back to the SERP.

      Also worth mentioning is time on page is likely considered. The definition of bounce rate is a point of discussion — according to Avinash Kaushik from Google, a bounce is typically considered 5 seconds or less time on page, some analytics tools may calculate it as 10s or less. I did not mention this in the article as I do not have a reference for what Google search engine considers a bounce in terms of seconds. Certainly if one is interacting with a lookup tool, the time on page would be longer, and your visitor who did not find what she was looking for may not be considered a “bounce” per se. Ad-heavy pages and slow loading pages produce quick bounces, and it’s those pages that Google is concerned about. However, as suggested in this article, your pages may have other elements that are causing quick bounces or very frequent bounces.

      Another thing to remember is Google is looking at aggregate behavior. If inavailability of accommodations is a frequent occurrence on your site, and it’s really impacting your bounce rate consistently, that is a business issue that you need to “optimize,” — as yes, this is a poor user experience and will signal to Google that it should rank you lower in favor of other sites that don’t have this issue. But I wouldn’t worry about the few who are unlucky every once in a while. This is likely happening to other sites too at the same time, and Google considers your site vis-a-vis your competition.

      Linda

      • Hadi says:

        Thanks so much for your very thorough reply Linda – you’ve cleared up a few ambiguities I’ve tussled with for a while.

        Google seem to be pretty vague on their Analytics Help page stating:

        “Bounce rate is the percentage of single-page visits or visits in which the person left your site from the entrance (landing) page.”

        This might suggest that they’re counting bounces not just back to a search page, but back to any source from where the original click came.

        Your comments about time on page as a factor in bounce rate were something I suspected must be true but it’s great to have some confirmation of that from Avinash Kaushik – thanks for pointing this out.

        May I just add how much I enjoy the GetElastic blog. It’s always full of proper “meaty” information backed up with facts and examples.

        Please keep up the great work!

        Hadi

  2. Hi Linda,

    Extremely important points and also avoids the possibility of the user clicking back and being presented by google with “block all results from xxx.com” making it a whole lot worse!

    Jonny

  3. Greg says:

    Linda,

    The Google link you pointed to at the top was from the page speed update 2 years ago. I believe you meant the first link to be to this page:

    http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2012/01/page-layout-algorithm-improvement.html

    ~Greg

  4. Good reminders, Linda. It all makes sense. And it rewards websites with good, relevant, engaging content and punishes those who link bait without the quality content to back it up. It’s the way it should be. You shouldn’t be able to “game” a system. You should be rewarded for creating content that satisfies rather than deceives.

  5. Chris says:

    Hi Linda,

    Do you think Google pays relevance to the bounce rate of individual pages, or the bounce rate to your site as a whole?

    I ask because on one of my biggest sites (a blog), I added Google Analytics and had a BR of around 2% overall.

    Then I added GA to a custom tool I created for the blog, which was attracting a completely different set of visitors to my daily traffic, and the overall BR went up to 45%.

    It’s really early days so I can’t comment on how it’s affected my search rankings – and I’m sure Google knows about this sort of thing regardless of whether you use GA or not, but I just wondered if you had any insights on this?

    Thanks for your time, and for your article.

    Chris

    • Hi Chris, I believe it’s both page level and keyword level. Google wants to match relevant pages that match search intent, so one page may have a high bounce rate for “vegan recipes” but a lower bounce rate for “vegan recipe book”. Google would prefer to match your page to searchers who are likely to engage with your page. I strongly believe this is how it works, since this is how it works with Adwords’ Quality Score system, calculated per landing page/keyword combo.

      Linda

  6. Hi Linda,

    Good morning and thanks for the great article. I would like to take an opportunity to further write on the topic.

    The Google defines bounce rate as “Bounce rate is the percentage of single-page visits or visits in which the person left your site from the entrance (landing) page.” So the lower the bounce rate the better, as this means more of your visitors are clicking through to other content on your website.

    I would like to discuss the reason behind increased bounce rate. Many users will exit your site immediately if they start hearing something they don’t like. Remove anything that automatically starts making a noise, such as soundtracks and auto-starting videos.

    Your website should have the most professional image/picture etc and if, the picture you have put does not match with the business/website theme then many visitors would go away straight away without reading any text.

    The browser compatibility is another reason so if your website breaks in any browser then the visitor is not going to stand there any second.

    The complexity and difficult navigation also pushes your users move to the next place in fewest seconds of their stay on your website.

  7. Jeroen says:

    Hi Linda, thx for your thought’s. Great article! Do you think Google looks already always to the bounce rate? So also when a site doesn’t have many visitors?

    • It’s one of many ranking factors and may not be used for every search query. Because it’s query-by-query, it matters less about a site’s overall traffic, more about click through rate from search results and what happens after that compared to other sites shown in results for that search term. For example, if you are ranking for “vegan dog food” you would be compared against the other sites ranked for that term, click through for that term to your landing page, and bounce rate to your landing page vs. other pages that rank for “vegan dog food” rather than your overall traffic.

  8. Martin says:

    I use Colibri Tool (http://colibritool.com/)
    I highly recommend this software, You can compare Your web position on Google, search and compare with Your competitors, very useful Try it!

  9. These points are really very much important to maintain a a good and quality bounce rate. Linda I really appreciate your views.

  10. Brett says:

    Of all the factors about my different sites, bounce rate seems to indicate just how much Google loves them (yes more than backlinks).

  11. Gary says:

    I have videos that pertain to guitar instruction on my website that are hosted at YouTube. So when people click on the video and and go to YouTube does that mean I’m being credited with a bounce?

    • In Google’s eyes for search ranking purposes, the Exit can’t hurt you as Google’s not tracking your user’s path away from your site, only measuring time between search page, your site, and return to search results. Your analytics may count it as a bounce, depending on its settings.

  12. Mat says:

    So if you dont install google analytics or webmasters, how is google to know what your bounce rate is at all and improve or devalue your serps..if bounce rate is indeed being used to determine serps then what about sites that dont have the code installed?

    • It’s calculated only between time of clicking on a search result and then returning to search results through the back button. Google has all that data with or without Google Analytics.

  13. Anyone have opinions on what an acceptable-excellent page speed score would be? I like to think that anything below 85 means that your either having issues with cache levaraging, or file compression but I’ve heard elsewhere that 75-80 is still considered good.

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