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A Bounce Rate by Any Other Name

If you’re like 40 million other web sites (1), you’re using Google Analytics to monitor and measure user behavior on your site. Here at Think Digital, almost all of our clients use Google Analytics - it can be a great tool for diagnosing and troubleshooting issues, for observing site-level trends over time and for understanding how users are consuming your site. That last one you might have heard referred to as “engagement” or “site engagement,” and it can be an important means of understanding the value that your web site and associated content are creating for your business. Engagement metrics can also be confusing and even misleading – it’s important to make sure you know what you’re measuring and what it means before you make any decisions to change things up. Today, we’re going to look in a little more depth at an engagement metric you’ve probably heard of…

Bounce Rate

A high bounce rate is always a bad thing… right? It means you’re getting an unqualified audience, who doesn’t like your site and isn’t interested in your content, right? Not necessarily. The answer depends on a number of different variables.

Google defines a “bounce” as any session on your site that makes only a single call to Google Analytics. So then, “bounce rate” is simply the ratio of these single-call sessions to the total number of sessions on your site for the time period in question (2). Why does that matter? Let’s say you’re promoting a blog post on your site. Someone clicks directly to the blog post, reads the entire thing, feels quite satisfied with the content they just consumed, and then closes their browser tab. Guess what? Under a standard Google Analytics installation, that valuable interaction just got counted as a bounce. In this particular example, you could still make the case that you might want to explore adding some additional content merchandising to the bottom of your blog posts. However, a high bounce rate, in this case, is not indicative of an unqualified visitor, bad content or a negative user experience.

As another example, imagine you’re promoting an upcoming webinar. You’ve got a great landing page for it, detailing all the exclusive content that will be presented and how valuable it’ll be to your target audience with a link to the sign-up page on the webinar platform of your choosing. But then you look in Google Analytics and it shows the landing page with a 98% bounce rate – so the landing page must stink or the promotional targeting must be totally off, right? Again, not necessarily – because most webinar platforms host their own sign-ups, that link on the landing page takes your visitor to another site. In a standard Google Analytics installation, this session is going to count as a bounce – even though the landing page may be performing fantastically! Now, in this case, the solution is simply to compare your landing page visits with your webinar sign-up page visits and you can calculate your real bounce rate, but this is why it’s important to understand the Google Analytics numbers in context.

We’ve mentioned “standard Google Analytics installations” a couple of times now, and you may be wondering why and what difference it makes? If you simply add the Google Analytics universal tracking pixel to your web site, we consider that a standard installation. It’s part of what makes Google Analytics so popular – it’s very easy to install, get started and derive meaningful insights from real data. In a standard installation, Google Analytics primarily tracks page-level activities: which pages are called, where they were called from, at what time and so forth. Without doing some additional work, it won’t track things that happen within a page (e.g. if someone scrolls, watches a video, clicks on an interactive chart, etc.). These on-page activities are, generally, tracked through “Events” which can be configured inside Google Analytics.

Event-tracking itself is outside the scope of this discussion, but it’s worth mentioning the existence of Events because they can radically affect your bounce rate. Remember, a “bounce” is defined as a session that only makes one call to Google Analytics. A page loading in a browser is a single call. But any Event that occurs within that page will count as a second call, thus re-categorizing the session – even if the visitor doesn’t go to any other pages. Once again, whether this is good or bad will depend on the page, the event and the context. But, as we eluded to earlier, it’s important to note that Events can dramatically change the numbers inside of Google Analytics, which can affect how you interpret them.

Let’s say your web developer, unbeknownst to you, decides to add an event to your site that fires when a page scrolls more than 75% because she’s thinking of making some changes to the site footer. All of a sudden, you look in Google Analytics and see that your average bounce rate went from 76% to 14%. You’re thrilled, thinking your new blog post is the most engaging thing ever created… but it’s really the presence of a new event that is changing the number of pages making two calls to Google Analytics.

Bounce rate certainly isn’t the only engagement metric in Google Analytics that is subject to interpretation, but it is an easy one to misunderstand, particularly if you’re not sure of the context. So just be aware and use your data responsibly. Thanks!

1 https://trends.builtwith.com/analytics/Google-Analytics

2 https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1009409