Understanding bounce rate and why it is not an SEO factor

March 23, 2017
Mike Friedman

I want to start off by making one thing crystal clear. Bounce rate is not a ranking factor.

I am going to say that again. Google does not factor bounce rate into its rankings. They never have, and they never will. I’m going to both explain why that is and show you a real life example of a page with great rankings that has a bounce rate over 90%. I know people usually don’t like to share their websites publicly, but I am going to share one just so we can put this debate to rest.

What is Bounce Rate?

Before we get into that, for those who do not know, we need to explain what bounce rate is on a website. A “bounce” occurs when someone enters your site through one of its pages and leaves without visiting any other page on the same site.

If someone performed a search in Google and found one of your pages ranking at the top, clicked on it, and then either closed their browser, entered a new URL into the URL bar on the browser, hit one of their bookmarks, or in some other way exited the site without clicking to another page on your site, they “bounced”.

It does not matter how they found your site. I used a search in Google in the example above, but they could have entered your site from an AdWords ad, a link shared on Facebook or Twitter, a link sent to them in an email, or even just entered the URL directly into their browser. As long as they only visit that initial page without visiting any other pages on the site in that visit, the visit is registered as a bounce.

The percentage of visitors who do that is the bounce rate. You can have a bounce rate on a specific page or across an entire website.

Is Bounce Rate A Search Engine Ranking Factor?

I am going to say this again so there is no misunderstanding. Bounce rate is not a ranking factor for search engines.

There are two very simple and very logical reasons why Google and other search engines do not factor bounce rate into their ranking algorithm.

The first reason is just a matter of access. Google does not have access to bounce rate data on the majority of the webpages in existence. For some reason, many people seem to think of Google as this omnipotent power that can see and knows all. That is just not the case.

The only way for Google, or any other search engine, to know the bounce rate of any given page is if you grant them access to that visitor data. They can see your visitor’s behavior if you are running Google Analytics on your site (most websites are not). They have never verified this to my knowledge, but a lot of people also suspect they can gather data like that if you are serving AdSense ads on your pages. Again, that has never been confirmed, but it would hardly be surprising.

If you want to go all conspiracy theorist, you can also say that they are collecting data on everything you do in your browser if you are using Google Chrome. Google Chrome is currently estimated to control about half of the web browser market share.

Even if I give you that they are pulling bounce rate data from users using Chrome, at most 10% of webpages are using Google Analytics, and some of that will be overlapped data with Chrome users, so they might be catching the data on 50-55% of web visitors.

That leaves a lot of missing data.

There are over 200 rankings signals in Google’s algorithm, all of which have different weightings.

When a search query is made, Google is pulling data from its index and comparing all of the websites it has indexed based on those 200 signals.

If Google were using bounce rate data, how would the algorithm compare a webpage where it has bounce rate data versus a webpage in which it has no bounce rate data? Which one is performing “better” for that ranking signal?

Still not convinced?

Okay, let’s say you have read this far and you still are one of those believers that Google knows everything. They have the bounce rate data for every webpage because they are everywhere and into everything.


Let’s look at the second reason that Google is not using bounce rate in its ranking algorithm.

Bounces are not always bad. They are not always a signal that there is something wrong with the page.

For some reason, many marketers have this stigma stuck in their head that all bounces are bad. They are not.

Let’s say you are running an emergency plumbing service and repair business. Someone in your community has a toilet that has suddenly started to overflow and they cannot fix it. They search for a local plumber in Google, see your page ranking first. They click the search result which brings them to the home page of your site. They like what they see and pick up the phone to call you (or your office) and see how fast you can help them out with their problem.

They never visited another page on your site. They will register as a bounce, but they did exactly what you wanted them to do, right? Your webpage converted them immediately into a phone call and a possible job.

That’s a good thing.

And why should Google see it differently or ding your site for that?

The same thing could be said if I am running an affiliate site. Usually an affiliate site is setup to drive traffic to a landing page and get them to click on an affiliate link. If they do not browse around on your site but click on the link, they are going to register as a bounce. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. They did exactly what you were hoping they would do.

We obviously do not have access to their analytics to prove it, but look at a site like Wikipedia. I would venture a guess that their bounce rate is quite high. People generally end up at Wikipedia because they were looking for an answer to a specific query and one of Wikipedia’s pages came up. They visit the page and find the answer they were looking for. Some might click on an internal link on the page if they see something that interests them. The vast majority most likely do not and simply leave.

Yet, Wikipedia ranks for everything.

So How About an Example That We Can See?

I know that marketers usually hate to publicly share their websites. They fear that people will reverse engineer them, report them to Google for some obscure reason, or steal their niche. I understand all of those concerns, but I am going to share one publicly anyhow.

This is a site that has been largely torn down because parts of the project were abandoned. There is nothing special about the site. It is very basic. The majority of the content has been removed. It is in the opiate addiction niche.

Despite the changes made to the site, there is one page that is ranking for a moderately competitive group of keywords around the topic of The Thomas Recipe. The Thomas Recipe is a collection of minerals, herbs, vitamins, and prescription medication taken on a specific regimen that will hopefully help relieve some of the severe symptoms of opiate withdrawal.

The truth is, The Thomas Recipe really does not work and will only help someone who is going through the mildest of withdrawals. The article points that out, which is why I have left it up. Hopefully, it points people away from this old wives’ tale of a remedy and encourages them to seek out something else that will actually help them.

It is currently ranking #2 for the Thomas Recipe and Thomas Recipe. It is ranking just behind Drugs.com which is an authoritative forum in the drug addiction niche.

Despite being #2, it currently has the featured snippet above the SERP. This goes back and forth periodically with Drugs.com (and drastically changes the traffic I might add).

SERP of search 'the thomas recipe'

I’m sharing a screen shot because I know that by sharing this publicly all kinds of bad things could happen to those rankings.

It also ranks #1 or #2 for all kinds of terms like what is the Thomas Recipe, how to use the Thomas Recipe, does the Thomas Recipe work, what is the Thomas Recipe schedule, etc.

Again, I would characterize this as a moderately to lightly competitive keyword. There is not a lot of money in it unless you happen to manufacture a remedy for opiate withdrawal. I just tossed AdSense ads on the site a few months back. It is making about $100 per month off of the ads. Nothing big, but hey, it’s $100 a month for a page that I have not touched in almost a year.

Ranking just below the site is OpiateAddictionSupport.com, which is a pretty authoritative site in the drug addiction niche, and Withdrawal-Ease.com which is a supplement manufacturer that has been around since 2008.

So why am I sharing all of this?

Because I want to show you a webpage that is ranking very highly despite an astronomical bounce rate. And here is the proof.

Google Analytics screenshot of data for past 30 days

A bounce rate over 93%. You would almost have try to get a bounce rate higher than that, right?

And just so nobody thinks I did something to skew the data over the past 30 days specifically for this article, here is roughly the last 6 months of Google Analytics data.

screenshot of Google Analytics for past 6 months

The bounce rate has held steady over 92%.

And here is the ranking over that time period.

ranking screenshot from RankWatch.com

If bounce rate was a ranking factor, it is highly doubtful that this page would be given the featured snippet above the search results or be ranking #2 for these search terms. If Google felt that bounce rate was in any way an indication of how visitors felt about a webpage, we probably would not see a page like this anywhere in the top 50 or top 100 (it is tough to get much higher than 92%!!!), much less top 2.

Does That Mean Bounce Rate Data is Useless?

No. Not at all. Bounce rate data is useful for you. Not for search engines.

A high bounce rate could be indicative of a problem on a webpage. It really depends what type of website you are running and what it is you are trying to get visitors to do.

If you are running an ecommerce site where a particular page is bringing in a lot of traffic, but then the visitors are leaving without browsing other products, adding anything to their cart, etc. there is something wrong with that page or the traffic coming to that page.

Even then, believe it or not, it may not be a bad thing. You always want to take a closer look. I’ve relayed this story before, but I will share it again here.

Before you go reworking a whole page or website, it is important to understand where the bounces are coming from. Who is bouncing, how did they find your site, and what pages are they bouncing from?

I was looking at a client’s website recently and noticed that the bounce rate across the site was 43%. Most of the pages fit around that number, but there was one page where the bounce rate was 89%. That was unusual. Average time on the site was over 6 minutes, but on this particular page it was under 30 seconds.

I took a closer look at the analytics, and found that search traffic was bouncing from that page at a much, much higher rate than traffic from other sources. Generally, if there is something wrong with the page, the bounce rate will be consistent among all sources of traffic. This was not the case.

Through some digging, we found that the page was not only ranking highly for our target keyword, but it was also ranking highly for another keyword that was similar but highly unrelated to the page. In other words, the words in the phrase were close, but the definitions were much different.

I cannot reveal the client’s site, but the difference in keyword phrases would be something like doggy style versus styles of dogs. The words are close, but have two completely different meanings.

The targeted phrase was searched about 500 times per month on average. The untargeted phrase was searched about 12,000 times per month. That’s why the percentage of bounces was so high.

In this situation, it was nothing to worry about. The bounces were coming from untargeted traffic.

This is a perfect example of why you really need to take a close look at what the bounces are actually telling you.

The next time someone tries to tell you that bounce rate is a ranking factor, share this post with them.

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