Bounce Rate – We Can Do Better

In a great article for Marketing Profs, Avinash Kaushik asks: Is Bounce Rate “the Sexiest Web Metric Ever?

I agree with Avinash in that Bounce Rate is one of the most important metrics for any type of site. A high bounce rate negatively affects Time Spent on Site in ways that may not be immediately apparent; have a look at my article on Life Tables and Time Spent on Site to see how. However, we need to take a closer look at our data collection methodology before we assign too much importance to this metric.

Bounce Rate Defined

The classic definition of a Bounce is a visitor that views a single page and then immediately leaves without viewing any other pages. A site’s Bounce Rate is the ratio of single page visits by the total number of visits. Anil Batra defines it (in his post “Bounce Rate Demystified“) this way as well, but with an added definition adding people that visit a single page, but exceed some predefined time limit on that page.

Problems with Bounce Rate

There are potential problems with Bounce Rate in that it is not consistently defined/recorded by analytics packages, it is not applicable to certain type of sites, and there is potential for the metric to be over-emphasized, particularly by those who are not aware of the shortcomings of their own analytics methods.

Bounce Rate in an E-commerce Site

As an example, if I were optimizing an e-commerce site, bounce rate would be very important to me on a number of levels. Presumably, I ensure that both my site’s homepage and sub-pages (perhaps individual products) would be indexed by search engines and other product search aggregators. I would also market my site through keywords purchases and banner advertising. I would want to closely examine individual page bounce rates to see which sites are most inviting to people to remain on the site and presumably stay on a path to a purchase. I would also closely look at the bounce rate of visits generated by each of my keywords; a high bounce rate indicates that I may want to look at spending my money on keywords that are more in-line with my site’s offerings.

Bounce Rate in a Content Site

If I were optimizing a site with a “walled garden”, a subscription-based content site, I would be much less concerned about a high bounce rate as it is defined now. Bounces to login pages would be expected, these could be attributed to visitors without access. Bounces from individual article pages could be attributed to subscription users that have individual articles bookmarked or users that email articles to another subscriber.

If I were optimizing an open content site, such as this blog, I would not have the tools at my disposal to make any conclusions based on Bounce Rate. Visitors to individual article pages come from search engines, RSS readers, social networking sites, and linkage from other blogs. A bounce from any of these sources may not be a bad thing – I want my visitors to read a single article if that is what they are seeking. The problem with our classic definition of a bounce is that there is no difference between a visitor that spends a minute to read an article and a visitor that clicks into the blog and leaves within five seconds.

A Solution for Google Analytics Users

One (messy) workaround for Google Analytics users is to simply call the urchinTracker function after a certain delay (perhaps 15 seconds). This will count another pageview for the visit, but no longer count that visit as a bounce.

The Future of Bounce

Unless we change our methodology for measuring bounces, bounce rate will cease to be a “sexy” (or even relevant) metric for most sites due to increasing popularity of social networking, RSS, and alternate browsers such as mobile browsers, televisions, and other types of syndicated content. For example, I regularly read “newsy” blogs such as TechCrunch and Engadget. However, my path to TechCrunch is my Google Homepage >> Techcrunch and my path to Engadget is Google Homepage >> Digg >> Engadget. My personal overall bounce rate to all three of these sites is probably 95%. Deep-linking and social news will continue to drive Bounce Rates up (and the overall relevance of Bounce Rate) unless we change the way we collect and interpret bounce data.

Blogs Cited in this Post

I highly recommend Avinash’s blog, Occam’s Razor and Anil’s blog, Web Analysis, Behavioral Targeting and Advertising. Check them out.