Optimising for Bounce Rate Can Be Counter-Productive

Optimising for Bounce Rate Can Be Counter-Productive

Before I wax lyrical about the dangers of over-optimising for bounce rate, I’d like to tell you all a little story. Around 6 years ago, back when I was a fresh-faced PPC Executive, I took over management of a medium-sized Adwords account that was spending several thousands per month in click costs. The client was a lead generation website whose main goal was to drive contact form enquiries, which were the client’s primary source of leads and income.

When the account was handed over to me, I was given two Key Performance Indicators for my optimisation activities: enquiry form leads and bounce rate. Each month I would have to report on the total volume of leads generated by PPC, and the PPC bounce rate, the latter of which the client was very keen on keeping to a minimum.

“Easy peasy”, I thought. “If I simply focus on driving contact enquiries, then the bounce rate should naturally reduce. Or vice versa, whichever comes first.”

Time went by and, after a quick-win tidy up to reduce non-converting traffic which was naturally generating high bounce rates, the campaign was ready for me to make my mark. I did a lot of ongoing work on that account, and my optimisation was indeed driving more contact form enquiries. “This client will be super happy when I produce their next report!” I remember thinking at the time.

The Bounce Rate Pendulum

However, over time a curious pattern began to emerge: whenever I optimised the campaign and drove more contact form enquiries, the overall PPC bounce rate would increase. This made the stickler-for-detail in me wince, because the client was judging the success of the activity on this metric, and so I also made a point of trying to counterbalance this effect. However, whenever I optimised the PPC account by bounce rate, the overall lead conversion rate would drop.

It seemed I had uncovered a curious, natural equilibrium with the client’s bounce rate. And there’s a perfectly valid reason for this: if I optimised the campaign to attract a lower bounce rate, then I would simply be optimising the campaign to attract a certain type of user: one who is more likely to navigate through the page. However, it turned out that just because the person navigated deeper to a second page, it didn’t necessarily mean they would be more likely to submit a contact form. In fact, it had the opposite effect! Enquiry form completions began to drop until I reverted back to the higher bounce rate.

Many experienced PPC managers or Analytics analysts will probably smile at the above story, because it often takes an experience like that for the realisation to kick in: bounce rate isn’t all it seems. In short, if there is a moral to the story, it is this: there exists a natural bounce rate – even amongst high-intent, converting users – which is a natural result of how users choose to navigate a website. Over-optimising for bounce rate can therefore have a negative impact on your high-intent, converting customers.

Bounce Rate – Not All It Seems

There have been many articles written about why a bounce isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many businesses focus a lot on the bounce rate metric because they see it as wasted spend, or missed potential. I like to quickly avail these fears by showing these businesses a segment which drills down into users who have bounced. Let’s check out the below screenshot:

bounce rate segment
In this example, users who have bounced generated just short of $314,000. I don’t know about you, but personally I would consider $314,000 to not be a missed opportunity at all. In fact, I’ll quite happily take your $314,000 if you don’t want it!

Granted – we can see in the second segment that users who HAVEN’T bounced drive a higher conversion rate. Which leads me to my second point:

Don’t Measure All Your Success on Conversion Rate!

For those who don’t know, Conversion Rate is worked out as follows:

Transactions (or goals), divided by Sessions, expressed as a percentage.

There’s an inherent danger in this, because most users who are keen on purchasing or generating a lead are likely to visit your website more than once. By default, Google Analytics does not report on User Conversion Rates – you will need to create a Calculated Metric to do this, and then introduce the figure into your reports (I’m quite certain Google will add this automatically to e-commerce reports soon, however). User Conversion Rate is calculated by dividing your conversions by Users, rather than Sessions.

But, if you’ve been carrying out CRO activities, and you introduce this amazing little metric into your Google Analytics reports to start analysing transactions or goals at the user level, a curious pattern emerges: often the traditional Conversion Rate seems to be increasing at a slow, barely notice level – if at all – as the User Conversion Rate increases exponentially. How can this be? Let’s examine this – below we see a website that has driven 2,000 users to its website in a month. Each user generates on average of 3 sessions. However, each user who successfully purchases generates on average 12 sessions, which compounds the volume of sessions. This makes the standard Conversion Rate metric appear to increase in a less exciting manner – check out the difference between User conversion Rate and the traditional Conversion Rate:

user vs session conversion rate

In some situations, the User Conversion Rate can increase, whilst the traditional Conversion Rate actually sees a decrease, due to the way in which high-intent/converting users behave for some websites, as per this example from a lead generation website:

user and session rate

If an e-commerce or lead-generation website is concerned that Conversion Rates are not hitting their ideal targets, then take a look at the User Conversion Rate first before jumping to conclusions. It really doesn’t matter how many visits a user makes to your website, so long as they convert at their own pace. I recently discussed a similar way of examining user behaviour in this article about the user journey.

Final Thoughts About Bounce Rates

Users bounce – customers who purchase bounce, I bounce, you bounce, hell – even our parents bounce, but nobody wants to admit it – eww!

Because even successful converters bounce, it stands to reason that multiple visits to your website will compound your overall (traditional) Conversion Rates. As such, bounce rates and conversion rates should always be taken with a pinch of salt. I am always wary of companies that claim to specialise in “unbouncing” – I have never seen a customer-specific example from these companies that provide tangible proof that the user journey for a particular website needs to have a lower bounce rate, nor seen such companies report on the User Conversion Rate results prior to planting the idea that changes are required. Surely it is dangerous to act on incomplete data? Surely you would want to check first that the changes would improve, rather than compound performance?

So, examine your bounced users, but first identify if they’re actually as useless as you think. I can guarantee that not all of them are as useless as they seem.

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