Bounce rate is one of those quality metrics that gets tossed around a lot in the search engine space. People are almost always talking about absolutes in terms of "this is how XYZ will reduce your bounce rate," and so on.
I don’t subscribe to this school of thought; bounce rates need to be looked at subjectively.
While there are some general best practices, for the most part certain activities prescribed as absolute can both hurt and help websites.
Hence the title of this post. I don’t want to stand on my bounce rate soapbox and preach to you that everything in this post is going to help you, so I’m approaching this from a more realistic standpoint; the items on this list are worth thinking about, and probably trying – but this isn't some magic wand from the land of unicorns and bounce rates under 5 percent.
A high bounce rate can be indicative of a number of things but usually falls into one of two categories:
- You're acquiring the wrong kind of traffic to your page(s), or
- You're acquiring exactly the right kind of traffic to your page(s).
Did number 2 throw you for a loop? Most people forget about the second scenario, since most websites tend to fall victim to the first.
But think about this for a second: if a user comes into your site and finds exactly what they were looking for; an answer to their question or solution to their problem, why should they stay a moment longer or look around on other pages?
Websites that are excellent at solving information problems quickly often have high bounce rates, for example here is a website that is designed to rank for question queries, offering specific and succinct answers:
Users come in, get the answers they need, and leave; but come back often.
On the Flipside
You have websites where it is critical to get your visitors to stick. You want them to spend time clicking around the site, perusing content, and build toward a conversion.
In these instances high bounce rates are a conversion killer, and anything you can do to increase the time on site and number of pageviews will most likely directly correlate to your site’s success and your bottom line.
Before we can approach improving something, it is important to make sure you have a firm grasp on what it is.
Bounce rate is often confused with exit rate, and the difference is important; bounce rate is a measure of people who bounced off a single page (i.e., they did not visit any other pages within your website), whereas exit rate is simply a measure of the percentage of visitors who left your site from that page.
Why It’s Important to Reduce Your Bounce Rate
Reducing the bounce rate on pages that have the highest volume of traffic from your highest converting sources means more engaged visitors and a greater chance of conversion.
What follows is a list of 20 considerations for reducing your bounce rate. These are by no means absolutes and are relative to everyone’s unique value propositions and audience, but generally speaking, these are worth thinking about.
1. You Should Probably Avoid Pop-ups
2. Use Intuitive Navigation for Important Items
Don’t make your visitors feel dumb (or think you’re dumb) for not providing them with clear and obvious paths to get the content they may be looking for.
The most common reaction to not being able to find something that should be obvious is frustration – and if you’ve ever been on a web page where you can’t figure out how or where to navigate, this is exactly how you feel.
Heatmaps are a great way to gain visibility into where user’s might be trying to click, giving you insight into what should be clickable. A great tool for this is Crazy Egg.
3. Poor Design is Increasingly Less Tolerable
I’m not just talking about gradients and drop shadows; design now transcends the whole user experience. Your content needs to be attractive; both in terms of graphical treatments and readability.
Design for your target audience, which may not necessarily be the audience you already have, or at least not the majority of it. Design has become a legitimacy signal and the lack thereof can directly impact visitors (and prospects) perceptions of the quality of your business and services.
This pretty much goes without saying these days but nothing really effects bounce rate like having a web page that takes 10 seconds to load.
Not only is this a confirmed ranking factor and lends directly to user experience, but it can cause your follower reach to stall, negatively impact your search rankings, and destroy your conversion rate.
5. Is Your Website Mobile Usable
I realize that is far from proper English, but I feel it makes my point. Being mobile friendly is ideal, but being mobile usable is critical.
Websites can still be effective as long as content can be accessed and used from a mobile device or tablet.
Furthermore, mobile usability does not necessarily mean from a design compatibility and accessibility standpoint, in many cases it means is the language on your site simple and clear enough that people on the go (on mobile devices) can still make sense of what they need to do to find information and at the very least contact you if necessary.
6. Design Information Around Priorities
This comes back to the last consideration, are your target conversion or content points clearly presented on your pages? Can users immediately get a sense of what they should expect to find or are expected to do while on the page?
Websites tends to have two paths to conversion:
- Landing pages (short direct sales path)
- A conversion funnel (longer process of qualifying visitors through a collection of pages that drive toward conversion)
Are you effectively managing the expectations of your visitors? A good litmus test for this is if you are able to trigger your primary page conversions more than 20 percent of the time.
7. Segment Information
This is another perspective on creating content that is designed to be digested and consumed. Readability is important here but so is the idea of grouping content into segments or categories – this is most often seen in blog posts where header tags are used to break apart large walls of text.
8. Optimize For Intent
This is a more detailed take on information design, and ensuring that based on the keywords your visitors are using to get to your pages, you are serving them an experience that address their expectations.
This is often talked about in paid search and display advertising, where the highest bounce rates are created from advertisers not closing the loop between the ad copy and the landing page copy and design. The experience needs to be consistent from start to finish or you risk breaking the user’s intent loop.
9. Be Mindful of Ad Placement
This is still a bit of a new idea (especially to advertisers) but if possible avoid the standard ad units. Not only have web users developed ad blindness but Google has also started penalizing pages that have too many ad units above the fold, and hint: they are looking for standard ad unit sizes.
Furthermore, from a publisher perspective, I can understand it's great to squeeze an extra handful of impressions in per pageview, but if you look at some of the high performing niche ad networks, you will notice there publisher websites have a general lack of intrusive ads.
10. Lazy Load Third Party Content
Lazy loading, in case you’re unfamiliar, is a design pattern process for deferring the loading of objects until they are needed. Mashable is a fantastic example of this in action, notice how their pages load almost instantly and then new content is loaded as it is needed (as your scroll position advances toward those pixels).
This is done both for speed and user experience, and can be specified programmatically on a component by component basis.
11. Color Contrast
Readers need contrast. Contrast between colors can make a dull story into an exciting one and conversely can turn the most exciting content in the world into a palette of indiscernible whites and grays if not given proper consideration.
Contrast is important to consider as the web moves faster towards different mediums of content, with more and more happening on the pages, it is important to use colors and patterns to draw your reader's eyes toward the important parts of the page.
12. Messaging is Blatantly Obvious
This is another consideration when it comes to focus and attention. Remember you only have a few seconds to translate value to a new visitor, so don’t make them guess.
Taglines are a great way to quickly translate purpose, but if you don’t have one another simple way is to place your site’s purpose in plain text in an obvious place (like the header or the top of the sidebar). If you sell something, say that.
13. Cut Out Distractions
I wish I could say this goes without saying, but I still run into website on a weekly basis that autoplay audio and video. These are distractions and intrusions that aren't expected and break the experience.
Cutting out distractions not only leads to better bounce rates, but usually dramatically increases your conversion rates.
14. Offer Related Content Based on Personas
If you don’t offer related content on your pages, or intuitive navigation (hopefully with some sort of hook or teaser) then you're missing out on a substantial number of pageviews and the opportunity to be more of a sticky resource.
Related content gets really powerful when you're able to target it within the same categories or tags, as these segments of content tend to be attractive to visitors who make it through related posts in the same content stack.
15. Leverage Internal Search
If you don't currently offer search functionality on your website or if you don't regularly review internal search analytics, then you're missing the boat. Web users have become so used to search that it is an easy behavioral pattern to accommodate and leverage for improved experience.
To take this a step further, you can use newer tools for crowdsourced FAQs to literally create a content roadmap for what matters most to your audience.
16. Open External Links in New Windows
This is an incredibly simple concept that is still often overlooked, but if you're going to link out to a resource on your website, make sure you have it open a new window instead of redirecting the user off your site.
The best (and easiest way) to do this is to simply add target="_blank" into the link’s <a> tag. So for example; <a href="http://example.com" target="_blank">anchor text</a>.
17. Prominently Display Your Search Box
This is a separate consideration from leverage internal search that has more to do with number 2 on this list; if you are going to offer helpful functionality like site search on your website, don’t make users have to search for your search box.
18. Offer a Helpful 404 Page
Nobody likes to think of instances where their website or pages may greet users with a 404 page, but these things happen.
The best thing you can do to turn a negative experience into a potentially positive one is a few things:
- Add a search box and a link to the homepage
- If nothing else, add a bit of design and humor.
19. Keep it Readable
This isn't a duplicate of number 3. In this consideration I'm talking specifically about your page’s Flesch-Kincaid score, or the level of difficulty for comprehension of your content.
There are two tests used to determine both the ease of reading and the average grade-level required for comprehension. Both of which have been baked into a very helpful index calculator.
20. Split Up Long Posts
People have shorter attention spans than ever before. So when they see long posts they are immediately reminded of times in high school trudging through massive texts of traditional English literature.
Consider instead splitting these up either into separate posts in a series or adding pagination to break up the content into smaller and more digestible chunks. This New York Times piece does a fantastic job (with an absolutely incredible story) of consolidating their story into chapters and breaking up a substantial and engaging experience across several views and interactions.
Editor's note: This column originally was published on January 18, 2013, and comes in at No. 6 on our countdown of the 10 most read Search Engine Watch columns of 2013. As the clock ticks down to 2014, we're celebrating the Best of 2013 by revisiting our most popular columns, as determined by our readers. Enjoy and keep checking back!