Bounce Rate Explained: Minus the Smoke and Mirrors

January 19, 2016 Daren Worcester

More and more, Blackbaud K-12’s schools are asking about bounce rate in Google Analytics and its relationship to SEO. While it’s encouraging that private schools are taking an analytical approach to measuring website success, there’s plenty of room for confusion and an incomplete understanding of bounce rate can lead to misappropriation of website resources. Nobody wants that, so let’s put away the mirrors and clear the air of any mystifying smoke.

What is bounce rate?

Google Analytics bounce rate screenshot explained for schools.

Bounce rate is commonly referred to as the percentage of website visitors that enter and exit on the same page without going anywhere else on a site. While this is technically incorrect—interactions such as completing an on-page inquiry form may nullify a bounce—the single-page-visit definition is safe for most analytical purposes.

Why should schools care about bounce rate?

Bounce rate can serve as a red flag for pages and content in need of improvement. Just keep in mind that using bounce rate alone to identify poorly performing pages is akin to feeling someone’s forehead to diagnose a fever. In other words, bounce rate is a good place to start for a high-level review, but it falls short of telling the complete story.

How do I get the complete picture?

Before analyzing bounce rate on a per-page basis, make sure enough data has been collected. Bounces require entrances, which for low-traffic pages is best judged over six months or more. In the example below, we can see how a one-month view can skew the bounce rate data.

Bounce rate with incomplete data.

Once the data is trusted, review bounce rate in conjunction with average time on page. Some web pages, such as news stories or tuition pages, often have inherently high bounce rates because users came to the site solely to read a story or learn about a specific topic. If the page in question has a lengthy amount of time on page to counterbalance a high bounce rate, consider users’ “task” complete.

While average time on page is the yin to bounce rate’s yang, it’s worth noting that Google Analytics doesn’t calculate bounces in average time on page.  

What’s a good bounce rate?

I’m paraphrasing here, but the RocketFuel Blog (the number one Google search result for “good bounce rate”) sets the rules of thumb as follows:

  • < 25% — Too good to be true, something is likely wrong with the tracking code
  • 26 – 40% — Excellent, remind your boss daily!
  • 41 – 55% — Average
  • 55 – 70% — Above average; not necessarily problematic, but worth investigating
  • > 70% — Houston, we have a content problem (unless it’s a blog site)

A random selection of 50 Blackbaud K-12 sites revealed an average private school website bounce rate of 54.53%, right on the upper fringe of the “average” range. The average time on page for these schools was a minute and 34 seconds, which is considered good by most industry standards.

Is a high bounce rate bad for SEO?

Not necessarily. This is a question often clouded with smoke and mirrors, so the first thing to know is that Google representatives have gone on record stating that Google Analytics data isn’t used in search. This makes sense for several reasons, most notably because Google Analytics data is easily manipulated.

It’s also likely that Google’s search team views data differently than how we see it in the standard Google Analytics display. Nobody knows exactly how the search algorithm works, but it’s a safe bet that Google measures the time spent on a page/website after being referred from a search result, with attention to whether the user goes back to the search (known as pogo sticking in SEO terms).

What this means for independent schools is that segmenting the bounce rate data by an organic search is a better apples-to-apples comparison. For example, schools often have high bounce rates on home pages due to external links for current constituents. Blackbaud K-12 schools may notice this from users going to the login URL. The image below is a common example of how a high level of repeat traffic logging in can skew the overall bounce rate.

Bounce rate explained.

When viewed in isolation, the 70 percent all-sessions bounce rate for this home page looks troublesome. The 63.83 percent for organic traffic is more encouraging, but perhaps still higher than desired. It’s worth noting that the school hasn’t excluded branded search terms such as the school’s name from organic search referrals, which means a significant number of repeat visitors (e.g., parents who haven’t set bookmarks) is factoring into the results. If we look purely at new users, the bounce rate is only 52.93 percent, compared to a whopping 74.84 percent for returning users.

So is there a bounce rate-SEO problem on this home page? I’d say no. Half of new users are continuing into the site, and they’re spending almost two minutes on the page. The high bounce rate for returning users is counterbalanced by the frequency of repeat visits, which is also a key metric for SEO.

How can bounce rate be improved?

The first step is to identify the pages with the highest bounce rate and ascertain whether there’s a content problem for each. A Contact Us page is likely going to have a high bounce rate, but the first page in the Admissions section shouldn’t. For tips on how to make underperforming pages more engaging, check out our post on tending evergreen content.

Once the priority pages have been fixed, focus on the common pages with a naturally high bounce rate. Identify the audience for each page and think of additional content that might interest them. For example, news story sidebars could include links to the school’s most popular stories. Consider splitting a Tuition and Financial Aid page bloated with content into two pages. If there isn’t enough content to justify two pages, another idea would be to showcase the value of tuition by cross-promoting the school’s specialty programs.

Can we get help?

Of course! Blackbaud K-12 offers basic Google Analytics workshops where we cover the most important metrics for private schools, including tips on account configuration such as the search-term exclusion feature referenced above. We also provide search engine optimization and training services tailored to schools. Please ask your account representative to learn more.



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