Online marketing is full of misconceptions. One of the biggest is that search engines are designed to rank websites by looking at backlinks, title tags, etc. This is false.
Search engines are designed to rank the best website for the specific search query…and the “best” website is usually the website with the best user experience. Things like backlinks, social signals, title tags, semantic HTML markup, alt tags…these are just proxies for user experience. The proxies are definitely important – no website will rank for a competitive term without them – but these aspects of “SEO” are secondary. User experience is #1.
Usability and User Experience
A website with good usability is fast, clear and easy to understand, helpful, and generally pleasing to the eye. A quality, trusted website with good usability leads to a good user experience, and “user experience” is what Google and Bing are all about. In fact, one of Google’s mantras is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
One of the simplest ways to measure user experience is to measure bounce rate. Google and Bing are fully capable of measuring bounce rates, and they can do it without any access to analytics or your website. Here’s how:
- Whenever someone clicks a link to your website from a search results page, Google or Bing can start a timer.
- If the person who visits your website “bounces” by pushing the “Back” button and returning to the search engine results page, the timer stops.
- By comparing the time between the click and the return – and evaluating that time against other sessions, the query, the device, etc. – bounce rates can be measured and user experience can be approximated.
While Google isn’t measuring bounce rates like this on every search term, there is considerable evidence to suggest that bounce rates are part of Google and Bing ranking algorithms. What’s more, Google and Bing can run experiments to measure bounce rates and compare them to other signals, thereby tuning their algorithms to better estimate website usability.
The point: Google and Bing are designed to rank sites with good usability higher than sites with bad usability. If you want to rank higher, you need to make your website more usable.
Reduce Bounce Rates and Increase Search Traffic
As we explained, Google isn’t ranking websites exclusively by bounce rate. Google looks at hundreds of data points to determine rankings. Decreasing bounce rate isn’t going to fix a site that lacks quality, unique content, for example. A great bounce rate also isn’t going to compensate for a lack of quality backlinks.
However, assuming your website has good content and a decent link profile, improving bounce rate is probably going to help you with rankings. Not to mention, better usability = better sales.
Here are seven areas to focus on to improve bounce rates.
Bounce Rate Fix #1 – Make Your Website Fast
When you have a slow website, you’re testing the user’s patience. Therefore, load times are critical to rankings and conversion rates. As of 2015, the industry best practice is for a website to render in two seconds or less. This is according to Google’s John Mueller, who recently suggested Google is looking at pages which take longer than 2 seconds to “fetch” as being slow.
A few things you can do to improve the speed of your website include:
- Reducing the number of HTTP requests via simplification, consolidation, and CSS sprites
- Reduce server response times by upgrading the server, implementing a CDN, and optimizing code
- Reduce page download size by reducing the number and/or size of images, compressing JS, CSS, and HTML
- Facilitate browser caching
If you’re self-hosting your website, you have nearly total control over all of the above. If you’re paying a 3rd party for your website, you may be able to ask them to help you implement some or all of the above.
Bounce Rate Fix #2 – Make Your Website Pretty
An ugly website will instantly turn off a lot of users, resulting in a high bounce rate. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are a few areas where there is universal agreement on web design:
Use a nice color scheme. Color choice is hard. It often takes an artist or experienced designer to come up with a color palette that’s pleasing to the eye. If the color scheme on your website wasn’t created by an artist or experienced designer, it’s time to hire one to review your site.
Use a conventional layout. Website designs have adopted a few conventions over the years. Main menus are along the top or left side of the page. A site’s phone number and search box are in the top right corner. The logo is in the top left corner. Links to privacy policies, shipping and return policies, etc. are expected in the footer. If you have a site that doesn’t follow these conventions, you risk frustrating users and/or challenging their perceptions of “ugly.”
Utilize white space. White space is a key aspect of website design, and it’s hard to visualize if you aren’t an artist or designer. Too little whitespace makes a page feel busy and crowded. Too much makes a site feel stark and incomplete.
Choose your typography wisely. Font style and size is important in web design. Readability is crucial to success, and there are a few guidelines to follow here:
- Sans serif fonts are best for body text
- Font sizes below 12px are very hard for people to read, as are lines of text that contain more than 100 characters
- Color contrast between the text and the background is important
- Sub-headings and bullet-lists make a page easier to read, as do small paragraphs with short, punch sentences
Bounce Rate Fix #3 – Make Sure Your Website Is Obvious
Here’s a test to help you determine how confusing your site’s homepage might be: Strip away the text on your homepage so that only images remain. Can you figure out what your site is about? What it sells? If not, your imagery isn’t helping you.
The thing to understand is that the human brain processes images much, much faster than text (many orders of magnitude). As a result, imagery is crucial in terms of communicating relevance. If the user thinks they’ve found the right website for their query/purpose, they’re far less likely to bounce.
Here’s another test to help you determine how confusing your site might be: Ask a child to tell you about the website. Try with a young child that hasn’t mastered basic reading just yet. Ask them what the website does. Ask them what they would click on first. Ask them what specific elements mean, etc. If a 3 or 5 year old can explain your website to you, congratulations. But if they’re confused, it’s likely that some percentage of your site visitors are too.
Bounce Rate Fix #4 – Make Sure Your Site Navigation Is Helpful
In our experience, the structure and content of a website’s main navigation is incredibly influential on usability and conversion rate. Some general guidelines for creating a helpful navigation system:
Use a Standard Style – Website navigation menus work best when people don’t have to think about them. If your website menu doesn’t function like most menus, it’s probably hurting your business.
Use Menu Descriptors Your Visitors Will Understand – The term you use in your website’s main menu should reflect the terms most users will understand. Many companies want to use trademarked terms in their main menu to build their brand. Some want to differentiate themselves by calling their products something unique. While these are understandable decisions, they generally confuse website visitors. Use the language of your customer wherever possible.
Include “Home,” “About,” and “Contact” in Your Main Menu – Menus that don’t include a link to “Home,” can be confusing. “About” and “Contact” are important because they’re utilized by customers who are either a) trying to figure out if your site is legitimate or b) trying to solve a problem ASAP. Hiding links to these pages costs you money and aggravates users.
Bounce Rate Fix #5 – Make Decisions Easy For The User
Every page should have a purpose. The homepage needs to get the user to click into the site. The product page needs to get the user to click “Add to Cart” or “Buy Now.” The checkout page needs to get the user to enter their name, address, and credit card info. Etc.
If you want people to do something, you have to reduce the barriers to making a choice. The call to action on a web page should be obvious. If the user is wondering about whether or not to click on the sale banner, the chat window, the ‘buy now’ button, or watch the image slideshow, you have a problem. Keep it simple.
NOTE: Two of the most popular websites in North America are Wikipedia and Craigslist. When you go to the Craigslist homepage, are you confused about what you should do next? When you land on a Wikipedia page, do you feel a bit lost, or are you able to find exactly what you were looking for? While they’re not pretty or fancy, these sites work quite well.
Bounce Rate Fix #6 – Make Sure You Aren’t Annoying The User
Annoying your users is bad for business:
- Irrelevant or constant pop-up elements (like an overlay, an invitation to chat, etc.) are often annoying. If you’re going to use these things, you should invite users to click on them sparingly.
- Audio or video that plays automatically when your first visit a webpage can be very annoying. Many people have their computer speaker volume turned up because they’re watching videos or playing music. If you’re bombarding them with some sort of marketing message, they might hit the back button to put an end to the sound.
- If you make a mobile user download a video when they first visit your website, they might hit the back button to avoid data charges. Etc.
While pop-up elements, audio, and video can all be beneficial, they must be used with great care.
Bounce Rate Fix #7- Make It Easy For Users To Search
A good internal website search system is a powerful tool. If your website visitors don’t find exactly what they’re looking for, your search system gives them one last chance to find what they need before they go. If you’re selling auto parts, you want users to be able to search by keyword, part number, or fitment (eg. year, make, and model). If you don’t have a search tool – or if your search form isn’t visible – your bounce rates will increase.
Google isn’t secretly studying your bounce rate metrics via Google Analytics to determine your website rankings. Neither is Bing.
However, bounce rate is a proxy for usability, and that is something Google and Bing are serious about estimating. It’s all but certain that each search engine can reliably predict bounce rates by studying your website’s content and layout. Therefore, it’s a very good idea to reduce your website’s bounce rates. By doing so, you should see gains in both search engine traffic and conversions.