How to deal with a high bounce rate

A space-hopper on a grassy slopeOne of the key metrics that you’ll want to keep an eye on when looking at your traffic analysis is the bounce rate – the proportion of visitors who leave your site from the page they arrived on without reading any further.

Why should I care about bouncing visitors?

If visitors are bouncing, this means that they aren’t bothering to stay and look around your site. It could conceivably be that your visitors are getting all the information they want or need from the landing-page (the page they first arrive on). But it’s more probable that your site is failing in some way to give them a satisfactory experience.

Does this matter? Absolutely. If your visitors aren’t sticking around, they’re not going to be making their way through to your site to achieve any goal you may have set for them – like buying something, or signing up for your mailing list. So if you have a high bounce rate, you may be losing a considerable amount of business.

There are two circumstances I can think of when a high bounce rate might not matter:

  • if visitors are being misdirected to your site by a glitch in the search engines, causing them to give you a high SERP for a phrase you’ve not even thought about ranking for. You can safely ignore bounces of this kind if they’re plainly based on a search engine aberration.
  • if your website is built purely to gain revenue from pay-per-click advertising (the much-derided “Made for AdSense” sites), where you don’t really care what people do on your site as long as they leave via an advert. But even then, a site with a very high bounce rate isn’t likely to have the staying power to generate a worthwhile income for very long – and your off-site efforts to push it up the SERPs will ultimately be wasted. You’d be better off adding some worthwhile content instead.
  • Having established that you’ve got something to worry about, it’s time to sit down and have a good hard look at your site and your traffic to see if you can work out what’s going wrong.

    Step One: Who’s bouncing?

    The first thing to look for is whether there’s any particular section of your visitors who are bouncing more than others, or whether it’s a general trend.

    If it’s a particular demographic that’s bouncing, then try to think about the reasons why, and whether it matters. If, for instance, your website is selling Manly Man’s Male Grooming Products for Real Men, you may not care too much if women over 75 show a high bounce rate, but be rather worried if men aged 25-49 do.

    On the other hand, if the trend is general, then that suggests there’s something not right with the website basics that makes it unappealing to everyone. This could be the navigation, a sluggish server, or something about the website’s overall look and feel.

    Step Two: Remedial action

    Having established that you have a problem, you need to identify what it is and take action to remedy it.

    Bounces as a general trend

    For “general trend” bounces, it may be worth looking to see how quickly the visitors are leaving. If they’re leaving almost immediately, it’s likely that something is annoying them particularly strongly. Typical causes for this kind of behaviour are pop-up third-party ads, videos that start playing automatically when the page loads, garish hard-to-read colour schemes, Flash animated splash screens and – worst of all – MIDI background music.

    On the other hand, if they’re staying a bit longer, it might be that the page is taking too long to load. This could be because your server’s struggling to process a script and serve the page properly, but it could also be a problem with a remotely-hosted script, for instance if you’re showing adverts.

    Another cause for general bounces might be the site navigation – people need to be able to see where they’re going when they click.

    The remedy for most of these is straightforward enough. Make sure your site is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, and don’t allow whoever’s designing it to indulge their own particular whims. An overload of bells and whistles doesn’t enhance a website, it turns it into a parody. The site’s supposed to be showcasing your business, not the designer’s.

    Bounces of a particular demographic

    This is more complicated to deal with, as it’s likely to be something to do with the content of the website – or its look and feel – rather than the way it functions.

    The best way of tackling the problem may be to canvass opinions among people you know who fit the profile of the bouncers, and ask them what they honestly think. If they tell you there’s not enough content that interests them, then you can always provide some more content to address that – unless the overall theme of the website’s of little or no interest, in which case you can probably safely ignore the bounces.

    If they tell you the site looks ugly, then you may want to consider a change of design – starting with something subtle like a tweak of the colour scheme or typeface, and possibly moving to something more radical if there’s no effect. It may be a bit more tricky if they tell you that they feel the tone of the content’s not right – that could mean a substantial rewriting of the pages in a different style. The risk with changes of this kind is that they affect all users – so at the end of it all you could end up losing another population group instead. So to some extent you’ll have to “suck it and see”.

    Step Three: Review and repeat

    Whatever changes you make as the result of Steps One and Two, you’ll want to review the bounce rate after a shortish time to see what effect your changes have had. If your bounce rate has remained static or increased, then you’ll need to try some other change to see if that works any better. (Many web designers advocate split-testing – implementing a proposed change for some users or on part of the website to see whether the change gives better or worse results. It’s a bit of a faff, and may be of questionable value for a small site or one with only light traffic.)

    If your bounce rate has gone down, then congratulations – you’ve kept a few potential customers from walking straight back out. But don’t rest on your laurels. Keep an eye on the bounce rate, just in case it starts creeping up again.


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