The Google Analytics Bounce Rate Demystified

by Sarah McMaster
Mount Wachusett Community College
Gardner, MA

Though the “bounce rate” may be one of the most basic metrics available in Google Analytics, it is often one of the most underutilized and misunderstood.

Google defines bounce rate as “the percentage of bounced visits to your site. A bounce is calculated as a single-page view or single-event trigger in a session or visit.” Having a low bounce rate for your homepage or any given page on your site might seem like a good thing and, in most cases, it is. It probably means that visitors arrive at your site, stick around and visit other pages. Maybe they even fill out an admissions form or download a catalog.

So it may follow that looking at your bounce rate will give you a rough idea of your website’s appeal and effectiveness. More bounces might mean people aren’t doing the actions you want because they aren’t sticking around. Fewer bounces might mean people feel they have arrived at the “right place” and are sticking around and investigating further.

Metrics like bounce rate may seem straightforward at first glance, but they can often be meaningful in conflicting or contrary ways, depending on the particularities of your site, or even of a single page. Let’s look at some scenarios that go against the general rule.

Perhaps many people use a page other than the homepage as their entrance onto your site, and that page includes a link to a separate but associated website, like Blackboard, a student portal, staff email, or even FAFSA, for example. Visitors who arrive at that page and click a link like that are counted as a bounce because it takes them off-site to another Web domain where you are not tracking them. If the traffic volume is high enough, this will also have a significant impact on your site’s overall bounce rate, or global percentage.

Maybe you run Google Analytics for your online PR newsroom and that newsroom is set up like a traditional blog with many stories on the front page that visitors can scroll through and browse easily.  In that scenario, a visitor could potentially come, read three stories, scan a list of upcoming events and leave, all on a single-page visit. Even though they did the activity you wanted them to do (gain information), visits of that type would be considered bounces.

My point is that the bounce rate can be misleading. What it tells you depends on the format of your site, or any given page; the purpose, goals and associated actions of your site or any given page; whether the content of the page is appealing and relevant; and how many people are entering your site from that specific page.

If the goal of a page is to serve your internal audiences like staff and students and route people primarily to their portal or email, then a high bounce rate is just fine. However, if the purpose of a page is to attract prospective students to request information and visit the admissions office pages, then a high bounce rate means something is going wrong and you need to re-evaluate your content, visual look, navigation or traffic sources.

As with any metric you choose to use in your analysis of website usage, I invite you to help yourself to a healthy dose of critical thinking, skepticism and problem-solving. Ask yourself what each metric is telling you. Don’t assume it’s the textbook answer. Are you applying filters that may skew your data? Is there a special event going on right now that’s impacting where your traffic is coming from and why they are visiting?

Thinking outside the box and assessing each metric you use helps you build a stronger, more meaningful and nuanced understanding of your institution’s website and what it’s doing for you.

Sarah McMaster is director of new media at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Massachusetts.

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