Bounce Rates and Search Engine Rankings

Topics: Google Algorithm, SEM Tips, SEO Tips, Web Marketing Written on May 18, 2016 by Surfaced Media

What effect does your website’s bounce rate have on your search engine rankings? Even though it may seem like a simple question, it’s actually a hotly contested topic. Google and other major search engines keep their search algorithms very close to the vest — which means that there isn’t always a cut-and-dry answer to how certain scenarios affect performance. It’s known that bounce rate definitely does impact SEO, but the extent to which it impacts  SEO may be arguable. The only thing a marketer can do is experiment.

Why Would Bounce Rate Impact SEO?

Bounce rate is the rate at which individuals click on a website link and then immediately leave the website. A high bounce rate indicates that users are intrigued by a website listing but abruptly discover that the website isn’t offering the content that they need. For a search engine, a high bounce rate would imply that the website isn’t valuable for that particular listing — in other words, a high bounce rate shows that the website shouldn’t be listed in the results for that particular query. But that’s how bounce rates would work in theory, not how they necessarily work in practice.

Bounce rates can impact SEO in a direct and indirect way. A direct way would be a search engine saying to itself, “Everyone is bouncing from this website — we shouldn’t promote it anymore.” But a more indirect way is actually more likely. If someone bounces from your website, they don’t share it on social media. If they bounce from your website, they don’t link to it from another reputable site. The higher your bounce rate, in other words, the greater the indication that your website isn’t being engaged with — and consequently the greater chance that it’s going to begin falling down the search engine results page.

But Does Bounce Rate Affect SEO?

Results are mixed. Studies have been performed that show that about half of the websites with high bounce rates are adversely affected — and another half aren’t impacted at all. The theory is that Google and other search engines may be using so much additional data to determine whether a website is relevant that a high bounce rate could be either trivial or could be mitigated by other factors. Websites may find themselves having positive social signals or find themselves with longer read times for the users who do stick around, both of which could potentially reduce the negative impact a bounce rate has.

Bounce rates might also only be taken into consideration during certain times; Google could have a “bounce” statistic that is only refreshed at certain time periods, or that may detect “gaming the system” and not update accordingly. After all, if it didn’t do this, companies could quickly tank their competitor’s websites simply by searching for them and bouncing from their site over and over.

Bounce rates could even have an upper cap on how much they impact SEO. In the above mentioned studies, it’s possible that the websites that didn’t experience any adverse effect were already at the bottom tier of bounce rates, and so could not be adversely affected any more. An upper and lower cap on bounce rates would make sense, as otherwise bounce rates as a factor would overshadow all other factors of the search engine queries.

But again, these are largely theories. According to many sources, Google doesn’t directly consider bounce rates at all. This can be a hard pill to swallow, since bounce rates are so conscientiously tracked through Google analytics — but that is only through Google analytics. There’s no actual evidence that Google uses bounce rates in their search engine calculations at all. This is one reason why marketers can become embroiled in a bounce rate debate even though everyone agrees that high bounce rates themselves are a negative.

What’s More Important Than a Bounce Rate?

Though bounce rate may factor into Google’s search engine results page in some way, there are other factors that are far more important. Google puts a premium on valuable, insightful, and unique content, in addition to content authority. Google has many ways that it can determine whether content is valuable — it often looks for length, complexity of information, and uniqueness of information. Google also judges content authority based on links. If other reputable websites are linking to your content, then your content is very likely to be high authority and useful. If you have links from brand new websites or no links at all, it’s more likely that your website isn’t valuable.

Google also has a new AI technology known as RankBrain, which is designed to determine the relevance of search engine results. RankBrain is a predictive AI that takes search engine results and ranks them based on how useful each of them are — it’s thought that RankBrain can significantly outperform people when classifying materials in this way. RankBrain is primarily used in new queries, which are queries that Google has not encountered before.

Of course, Google isn’t the only search engine available — but most modern search engines use very similar technologies and rank websites based on similar metrics.

Even if a bounce rate doesn’t impact SEO, it’s not good for a website. A high bounce rate means that customers aren’t going to engage or convert; they may not even really be reading the page. And a bounce rate can occur for a variety of reasons, including technical issues. Ultimately, marketers need to pay attention to their bounce rates carefully if they are to improve their end product.

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