What Does My Bounce Rate Really Mean?

A red red door with a geometrical artwork on it is closed in front of us.

As a modern day website optimizer I deal half of the day with decreasing bounce rates. It means:

I try to make people visiting websites stay longer on them or stay at all and click.

The bounce rate is a weird metric though. It doesn’t even have the same definition everywhere.

  1. Some people define a bounce rate as the percentage of visitors who leave a landing page immediately (that is often stay below 5 seconds on it) without performing any other action onsite.
  2. Others define the bounce rate metric as the percentage of visitors who have just visited one page on a given site and haven’t done anything else there.

I prefer the first definition, where the person comes, pukes and leaves immediately.It allows us to use bounces as a measure of quality or rather lack of it.

The other definition would mean that even in some cases perfectly content users would be considered worthless bounces.


What is a good bounce rate?

When considering one page visits a bounce a one-page microsite where all the information is condensed right there on the homepage would have a bounce rate of 100%.

Asides of that it depends on the site and other circumstances what a bounce rate means and what a actually a high bounce rate is. For instance

the ecommerce sites (aka online shops) I have optimized for had bounce rates around 20% – 25%.

Why? The search traffic they mainly received was very highly targeted. In short the people got exactly what they wanted and expected, why bounce then? On the other hand

the blogs I write for have seemingly abysmal bounce rates of 60 to 80%. Why?

Are the blogs so bad? No, people reading blogs are casual readers, especially when visiting from social media. They check a post out quickly and decide whether they want to read it or not.

At the end of the day depending on the context your bounce rate of 50% can be awful, OK or great.


What does your bounce rate really mean?

On the other hand the bounce rate is far from random and can give you crucial insights into your visitors expectations.

A lower bounce rate can improve both the conversion rate and the return on investment. When people bounce they can’t convert because they left already.

You really have to deal with bounce rates half of your day or your business will suffer.

What sense does it make to get thousands of visitors when 90% of them just create load on the server without even viewing your site?

There we are in the process of interpreting bounce rates. The right question is “what does my bounce rate really mean?

You can pose this question for each site and even on page level. A bounce on the homepgae is not the same as on a deep link etc.

Understanding the meaning of your bounce rate is the key to improving it. It shows you how you can improve it.

To start even earlier it helps to find out whether you really need to improve it in the particular case.

Instead you could even block some traffic sources or remove a page that just creates unnecessary load.


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Find out what your visitors actually want

1) First determine your page or site type and its purpose:

  • Is your site a one-page-wonder like the microsite above or like Seth Godin’s blog where you end up happy after reading one of his posts?
  • Is you site an ecommerce site aka online shop where you actually sell stuff on the same domain (not redirecting to a third party shopping cart)?
  • Is your site a news site or blog or other type of site where people seek information from it instead of regarding it as the end of their current quest?

2) Then find out what kind of queries lead to your site? Search engines are used mostly for thre kinds of queries:

  • navigational ones (people type [amazon], [facebook] etc. in the browser address bar or search input)
  • informational ones (people seek general or specific information on a given subject)
  • commercial ones (people want to buy a product or us a service and who are informed already about it)

Depending on the query type most of the search users who find you use your bounce rate will differ significantly.

Navigational queries have often the lowest bounce rates as long as the people find what they seek.

In case you search for Facebook you want to end up on it when you type it. So Facebook has probably a very low bounce rate from these queries.

One of my blogs ranks very high for Facebook and I get lots of people who search for Facebook on it. Most of them bonce of course.

Commercial queries have a low bounce rate in case the people really find the product or service they are after. In case it’s not 20% you may want to check whether the products you are selling are the ones people want to pay for in the first place.

Informational queries lead the most fickle users to your site. They often do not even know exactly if they really search for what you write about.

There are often misunderstandings when queries do not reflect the users intent at all.

For instance people searching for SEM do not necessarily seek search engine marketing advice but instead they may be interested in scanning electron microscopy.

3) After that think about the ways you want your people act on your site, do you really want them to stay long and read lots of pages or do you prefer a quick conversion?

Michael Gray of Graywolf SEO indeed noted how for affiliate sites a click on the affiliate link is a bounce in a sense but it’s also a conversion of course.

That’s true, a visitor who finds the product you recommend as an affiliate and clicks on the affiliate link has been converted.

In contrast a news site that earns money by ad impressions wants you to stay onsite as possible and to reload or click as often as you can.

That’s why image galleries on such sites tend to show only one image per page. They want you to see 10 ads instead of one.


Open doors inside a newly renovated flat.

Advance in the right direction

Now that you know all these things you can start improving your bounce rate or you can focus on other parts of advanced onsite SEO.

You can try to rank for more specific terms instead of the broad industry terms. Ranking for “seo” may bring loads of traffic but “local seo for travel” might be more effective at retaining visitors.

You can add commercial keyword modifiers to make the purpose of your site clear so that people who just seek information don’t visit at all.

A very broad keyword like [seo] might lead lots of people to your site who just want to find out what it is in the first place.

A more specific key phrase like [seo services new york] might bring you both clients and people from your area who are more willing to deal with a local service provider.

Branding efforts beyond old school SEO might make people more aware of your brand.

By establishing a brand you are making people search for it next time (aka using a navigational query) and not bounce again in contrast to generic terms like [seo services new york].

Don’t forget to ask yourself: What does my bounce rate really mean before trying to improve it. When it’s not broken don’t fix it. In all other cases improve your site quality.

Last updated: March 26th, 2018: clarified the examples in the last paragraph and added more line breaks.

Updated: November 2nd, 2017. Changed the images. Added subheadings and white space. Clarified some paragraphs.