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The highs and lows of bounce rates

Jonathan Whiteside
Jonathan Whiteside
Global SVP Technology & Engineering
8 min read
21 February 2018

Of all the web traffic stats I ever get asked about, one stands out as the most popular: Bounce Rate. Not only do I get asked about it, I’m also presented with a number of pieces of advice about this most mysterious of metrics.

I’m open to advice of course, even with 15 or so years of SEO experience. Sadly nothing new comes up; just the same fearful one-liners about how it mustn’t be high, it has to be below 20% (why is it always 20%?!), or the lower the bounce rate is, the better.

What is a bounce rate?

The quick version

Put simply, it’s the number of users performing a one-page visit to a website expressed as a percentage.

The long (official) version

To be a bit more wordy (or should that be nerdy?) about it, Google’s definition is: “…a single-page session on your site. In [Google] Analytics, a bounce is calculated specifically as a session that triggers only a single request to the Analytics server, such as when a user opens a single page on your site and then exits without triggering any other requests to the Analytics server during that session”. So now we know.

Don’t confuse a bounce with an exit which simply refers to the point at which users leave the website, regardless of how many pages they’ve viewed.

Bounce rate as a ranking factor

I must admit that when I first started out in SEO, bounce rate didn’t really exist (that’s how old I am). Or rather it did exist, but it wasn’t something anyone used to analyse, or worry about. It was all about number of hits, popular pages, and whether people bought something.

Things have moved on somewhat since then of course, and you’re no doubt aware that Google (and indeed all search engines) use a complex algorithm to figure out where a web page should rank within organic search results. Literally hundreds of different factors and signals are combined to arrive at overall ‘score’. Put simply: the higher the score, the higher you rank.

Not everything is taken into account to determine the rankings of course (not even page descriptions which may surprise some of you), but many areas are certainly included. Bounce rate was introduced into the ranking algorithm with a lot more priority back in 2016. It’s now third in importance behind the big boys Click-through Rate and Time on Site, under the User Signals set of metrics. When something is placed so high, you better believe you should be getting familiar with it.

Why do users bounce?

Users will leave a site after viewing one page for a whole host of reasons, and not always due to a negative experience either. No need to beat yourself up just yet. Consider the possible reasons:

  • Maybe it’s technical. We all have those issues once in a while – the page doesn’t load, the site crashes, the internet connection fails.
  • Other times it’s a usability issue. For example, the user clicks through from a paid search ad expecting to see one thing, and is presented with something else. The content might not be what they’re looking for, and so off they go to try to find a website with more suitable information.
  • Remember a bounce can be good! Think about if the user is visiting a website just for one single targeted piece of content. They might be looking to find a telephone number, get directions, download a document, or to read a specific news article. These are all perfect examples of where a high bounce rate is not only acceptable, it’s expected.
  • And sometimes life just gets in the way. Someone comes to the door, the user arrives at their bus stop, dinner is put on the table, the boss comes back into the room, or Coronation Street starts again after the ad break.

The point is not to assume that when a user bounces, it’s always the fault of the website. These scenarios should remind you that a site-wide bounce rate of 0.00% is not what to aim for – you’re always going to be disappointed.

What bounce rate should you be aiming for?

This is a bit like “how long is a piece of string?”. It really depends on the type of website and web content you have.

Maybe you have a website full of news pieces across a diverse number of subjects, or you’re driving people to download a brochure from a specific page as part of your latest multimedia campaign. Perhaps you’re a popular non-eCommerce high street shop that publishes its opening hours online. A high bounce rate wouldn’t be unexpected in any of these cases.

On the other hand, it could be that you are the authority within an industry, with lots of related content around a particular subject matter. This kind of website would typically lead to users viewing a few similar pages, hence giving a low bounce rate expectation.
That said, there are some industry averages you may want to refer to as a benchmark. Bear in mind that these are global averages, and should only act as a rough guideline.

  • Content Websites: 40% – 60%
  • Lead Generation: 30% – 50%
  • Portal Pages: 10% – 30%
  • Blogs: 70% – 98%
  • Retail Websites: 20% – 40%
  • Service Sites: 10% – 30%
  • Landing Pages: 70% – 90%

Quite the range there, and not many falling within that “below 20%” I keep being told about!

How to improve bounce rate

As you should have started figuring out by now, some pages will never have a low bounce rate by design. So the first step is to work out exactly which pages could be better in terms of bounce. Deconstructing the overall site rate is a good start, by section/topic, and by content type. You may find that if you have a bunch of popular PDFs on your website, those one-hit downloads are skewing your overall bounce rate more than you thought, and need accounting for.

Expected single-page visits aside, there are some simple steps you can take, to ensure users stick around and engage with your content as much as possible.

Be relevant

There’s nothing worse than giving a user the impression that they’re going to see content on one subject, then actually getting something else entirely, with only a slim association to what they expected. This usually happens if the content isn’t optimised towards a specific set of related keywords.

Be searchable

If the above happens, make sure users can find the site search box easily. The number of times I’ve seen this in the footer of a page, or using just a tiny magnifying glass icon; no wonder users can’t find it. If it’s easy to perform a quick search, people will generally tend to do that.

Don’t drag your feet

Make sure your pages load as quickly as possible. Don’t use huge image files on pages, clear out or tidy up any unnecessary code, and regularly test your site using Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool.

Minimise external links

Users clicking through to an external website from yours are leaving your website – if they do that from their landing page, that’s a bounce! Sometimes you can’t help but use outbound links of course, but evauate whether it would work for you to put them all on one dedicated partners type page. Better for everyone to bounce from one page than from a load of pages I reckon.
Another way around this is to simply have your third party links open in a new tab or window, which is also considered a best practice.

Clear the way

Make sure navigation around the website and to related pages is clear. If users don’t see what they want on a page, making it easy for them to navigate to what they’re searching for will help lower that overall percentage.

One final note

I could go on and on about this, but I think a few hundred words is enough for the time being!

My one piece of advice regarding bounce rate is simple: Dig deep and analyse. A site-wide view is ok, but it will never give a true insight into where the problems – or successes – lie.

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Global SVP Technology & Engineering

Jonathan Whiteside