Online, just as in life, there’s a fine line between success and failure. That’s why, if you own and operate a business website, collecting and analysing visitor data gives you a far better chance of beating away the competition. Especially if your competitors aren’t as motivated to dig into their own data.
How relevant is bounce rate and dwell time for your business website?
Recently, the drive for online domination has led to a number of specific metrics being held up as a magic bullet. By simply increasing this or lowering that, you’ll see an influx of traffic and orders. Or so the idea goes. However, no two websites are ever truly the same, and the story being told by the data needs to be explored carefully for each situation.
This brings me to two such heralded metrics; ‘bounce rate’ and ‘dwell time’. In this article, I’ll discuss the relevancy of these metrics, when they should be measured, and when they should be overlooked.
What is bounce rate?
Before I delve into the relevancy of bounce rate for your business website, it’s crucial that you understand just what bounce rate is.
Bounce rate is simply the number of visitors who land on a page of your website, and then leave without viewing any additional pages. When you log into Google Analytics, you’ll see this displayed as a percentage. If, for example, your website’s average bounce rate is 80%, then this means only 20% of your visitors are exploring beyond the page they’ve landed on.
On the face of it, this essentially means your website is failing to retain visitors and encourage them to browse further. This could be for a couple of reasons:
- They might discover your site via a search result or social media update, but they’re not finding the information, product, or service they require.
- Or they actually have found what they’re looking for, but aren’t willing to take action or they’re not satisfied with what you’re offering.
To address a high bounce rate, you need to identify which of the above reasons is the root cause. And once you know the issue, you can take steps to encourage visitors to click through and explore more pages on your website. But is a high bounce rate inherently a bad thing? Well, perhaps not…
Here’s why a high bounce rate isn’t always bad
A high bounce rate doesn’t always indicate a problem. It’s very much a top-level metric that needs to be looked at in context. When your average bounce rate percentage on Google Analytics is high, it’s worthwhile drilling down and pinpointing the pages that skew that number.
Think about the main goal of your website; is it reliant on visitors browsing multiple pages, scrolling through and digesting lots of content? Or are you looking for visitors to respond to a particular call-to-action (CTA)? If it’s the latter, this could lead a visitor to leave without visiting any additional pages.
Here are some typical calls-to-action that can result in a high bounce rate:
- Phone calls - a motivated prospect might pick up the phone to speak to you or a colleague about a product or service, all while closing the page without exploring further. This is clearly a positive result, but it won’t be reflected in the bounce rate of that page.
- Affiliate links or ad banners - Links to affiliate sites or clicks on pay-per-click ad banners can potentially make you money, but they’ll also result in high bounce rates.
- Enquiry or lead forms - It’s best practice to direct users to a ‘Thankyou’ page after a form completion to better track success. However, some contact form plugins won’t do this, meaning you’re successfully gathering leads while also witnessing a high bounce rate.
- Third party domains or networks - Links off site to third party domains or networks where you have an account (eBay, Amazon, Etsy) have the potential to earn money in sales, but they can also increase bounce rates.
Put simply, if your goals only require that your visitors take action on one page prior to leaving, then a high bounce rate can be incredibly misleading. You need to find a better metric to measure success, and one such metric is dwell time.
What is dwell time?
In recent years, a school of thought has emerged that webmasters and business owners should focus on something called ‘dwell time’ instead of bounce rate. The concept first came to my attention back in 2011 when Duane Forrester - then of Bing - wrote about building quality content.
Dwell time is the actual length of time that a visitor spends on a particular page on your website before leaving by either returning to the search engine results (SERPs), or by visiting another page. The more time spent on the page, the more likely the visitor has read and understood your content prior to taking another action.
Unlike bounce rate, dwell time is more difficult to measure. Unfortunately there’s no ‘dwell time’ category in Google Analytics. I’ve seen a number of marketers confuse dwell time with ‘time on page’ or ‘session duration’, or even wrongly assume that dwell time and bounce rate are interchangeable.
In actual fact, dwell time is a combination of these metrics - or, as it was described by Dr Meyers of Moz:
“Dwell time, in a sense, is an amalgam of bounce rate and time-on-site metrics – it measures how long it takes for someone to return to a SERP after clicking on a result”
Therefore, if Google Analytics shows a page with a low bounce rate percentage, a relatively high time on page, and a high click-through rate from the SERPs, it would suggest the dwell time for that page is high.
Is ‘dwell time’ a Google ranking factor?
As it stands, there’s no official confirmation from Google that ‘dwell time’ is in fact a ranking factor. However, detailed blogs from the likes of Ahrefs and Wordstream make a compelling case. They suggest that, while dwell time might not kick-in as a potential ranking factor outside of the top 10, when your site ranks on the first page of the SERPs, Google could use it to discern the quality of your content.
This is because outside of the top 10 your site will receive very little traffic, which means you won’t have many visitors ‘dwelling’ in the first place. But the theory goes that once your site is ranking high in the SERPs, ‘dwell time’ could be used by Google to indicate whether or not your site is relevant and fulfills the searcher’s query.
Your website and these metrics
Again, I return to that word... context. If a page on your website has been designed to inform and educate, then dwell time is an important metric. The longer someone spends on your site, consuming the information, the more confident you can be that you’ve fulfilled their needs.
However, if you own and operate a transactional website, high dwell time could indicate that the user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) of your site needs work, or that your product descriptions lack clarity. When you’re looking for someone to make a decision and part with their cash, the last thing you need is for them to be hanging around not taking action. The more they dwell, the more likely they are to change their mind.
Similarly, where bounce rate is concerned, a high bounce rate (as I’ve already mentioned earlier) isn’t always a bad thing. The bottom line: Don’t get mixed up with the hype surrounding these metrics. Focus on your own goal outcomes and monitor everything in context. If the context shows that improving bounce rate and/or dwell time will benefit your site, then you should take steps to do just that.
How to improve bounce rate?
As I’ve previously mentioned, improving bounce rate comes down to your circumstances. If you have specific pages on your website that are producing results, but also have high bounce rates, chances are you won’t need to worry too much about them.
However, there are particular pages on a website that should be addressed if the bounce rate is too high. These include the homepage and the contact page (if you’re witnessing a low amount of enquiry form completions). Product pages with high bounce rates should also be monitored carefully if sales are low.
Here are a few ideas to help you improve your site’s bounce rate:
- More internal links: Including more links to other pages on your website within your content increases the likelihood that visitors will click through and explore further.
- Complementary content: If you notice that visitors appear to be abandoning a product page without making a purchase, it’s likely that they’re not ready to buy. One way to approach this issue is to create content that complements the product, offering more information, reviews, testimonials, product demonstrations, photos, etc. This will help keep your prospect engaged and on your site for longer, and may even result in them making a purchase after all.
- Related content: If a visitor lands on your website, reads your content, and leaves, it would suggest that you haven’t fulfilled their search requirements. The likelihood of a bounce can be reduced if you include related content that might be closer to what they were looking for in the first place. Place such content on a sidebar or at the foot of an article to encourage your visitors to explore beyond their point of entry to your site.
- Depth and value: If you’ve identified a page with a high bounce rate and a low average time on site, this too would point to your content not fulfilling your visitor’s requirements. Consider rewriting the content to add more depth and value to the page. This will increase the time they spend on your website, which in turn will increase the chances that they’ll visit more pages, therefore reducing the bounce rate.
Beyond these improvements, it’s worth keeping in mind that we all now live very busy lives. You’ve probably experienced it yourself; reading a great piece of content, only to be distracted by an email, Tweet, or phone call, and closing the tab before taking action.
You can’t always stop attention being diverted elsewhere, but you can at least try to make sure they’ll return. Include links to your social media profiles, or encourage visitors to sign up for your weekly newsletter; that way you have the opportunity to convert them into paying customers further down the line.
How to improve dwell time?
While reducing bounce rate is primarily about encouraging exploration of your website, improving dwell time borrows a number of the same principles. After all, you don’t want visitors to up and leave as soon as they arrive on your site.
Content should be improved so that it is useful, educational, entertaining, and accessible. In doing so, you increase the chances that visitors will stay and consume what you have produced instead of returning to the SERPs in search of a better, more fulfilling resource.
One word I and many other marketers like to use when describing effective content is ‘sticky’. The more engaging your content, the more likely your visitor is to stick around and read it.
Another approach to improving dwell time is to change your site’s design. A dated design can lead to a poor user experience. You can have the best, most in-depth content in your niche, but if your site is clunky and difficult to navigate it will count for nothing. In order to retain visitors for substantial periods of time, you need to ensure your site is modern, pleasing on the eye, and mobile-friendly.
Other key metrics
Bounce rate and dwell time aren’t the only metrics you should be monitoring. In fact, they aren’t even close to being the most important metrics a website owner should pay attention to on a daily or weekly basis.
Here are four that ought to be higher in your list of priorities:
1. Web Traffic
The very first metric you and most other webmasters should track carefully is of course Web Traffic. Without traffic, your website is doomed to fail, so it’s crucial that you monitor it and seek ways to influence it.
It’s one of the first things you’ll see when you log into Google Analytics, and it offers you a terrific jumping off point in understanding the current performance of your website. For examples, if your traffic has spiked after publishing a blog post or releasing a product update, you’ll know that you’ve struck a nerve with your audience. Conversely, if you’re seeing a slow and steady decline in traffic, you’ll need to change course and try something new.
In short, treat your web traffic metric as a health check. Traffic going up? Things are looking good. Stagnating or declining? Time to explore further and diagnose the problem.
2. Traffic Sources
In addition to monitoring your traffic numbers, it’s useful to understand where precisely the traffic is coming from. Within Google Analytics, these Traffic Sources are broken down into four main categories:
- Organic Search (via a search engine query)
- Referral Traffic (via a link from another website)
- Direct (via someone typing your domain into their browser)
- Social (via social media)
It’s important to track each of these sources carefully as they will indicate whether or not specific marketing tactics are working for your business. For instance, low organic numbers would point to issues with your site’s Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), while high referral numbers might suggest a blog post or news item has gone viral.
By keeping tabs on these traffic sources, you can make sure your website isn’t over-reliant on one particular source, while taking steps to increase traffic from other avenues.
3. Conversion Rate
Next, you need to ensure you’re tracking your site’s Conversion Rate. This should be considered a key top-level metric as it points to the profitability of your website.
The total number of conversions are of course important, however the conversion rate indicates how well you are able to convince visitors to take action. If it’s low, it would suggest that your offer is weak, the traffic is unmotivated, your copy is confusing, or your call-to-action isn’t compelling.
Monitor it carefully and take steps to optimise your website in order to improve your conversion rate. Even bumping it up from 2% to 3% could result in a massive increase in sales and profits.
4. Conversion Rate by Traffic Source
Finally, you should bring your understanding of the previous three metrics together to monitor your site’s Conversion Rate by Traffic Source.
This will give you an idea of which of the four traffic sources (organic, referral, direct, and social) is the most valuable for your website. When you know, for example, that organic search traffic results in a 2% conversion rate, and referral traffic results in a 6% conversion rate, you can decide whether or not to divert resources to improve your SEO or further enhance your link-building and outreach.
Tracking this metric gives you the opportunity to play to your strengths and address your weaknesses.
So, to summarise: Are ‘bounce rate’ and ‘dwell time’ reasonable metrics? Yes. Do they tell us something about the performance of a website? Also yes. But should they be the focus of improvement above all else? Quite simply, no.
By all means, measure them and use them as indicators for specific outcomes, but only in the right context. It’s all too easy to be blinded by the hype whenever a metric is held up as the cure-all for a website’s problems.
Use these metrics only when relevant, and in conjunction with others in order to paint a clear picture of the performance of your website. At the end of the day, ‘bounce rate’ and ‘dwell time’ only tell a very small part of the story. You need to use the rest of your data to fill in the blanks.