Thu
14

Is Google using bounce rates to rank websites?

mr bounce

 

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SEOs often speculate how much weight Google puts into engagement statistics from Google Analytics. Google says they don’t use it… SEOs aren’t so sure.

There seems to be growing evidence that bounce rate and other metrics from Analytics are being used to rank websites. There are also glaring holes in Google’s argument for why they don’t use bounce rate.


Google says no…

Let’s put it out there – Matt Cutts categorically denied that Google use bounce rate at last June’s SMX Advanced conference. I wasn’t there myself, but thanks to the wonders of Twitter these nuggets of information are quickly circulated around the web.

So there you have it, end of story right?

Maybe not…


Evidence suggests otherwise

Here at Custard we’ve seen evidence that suggests the issue may not be as cut and dried as Google’s webspam chief suggests.

I don’t want to name and shame anyone here, but one of the frustrations of being an SEO is clients not wanting to invest in content. Once a page is ranking, then they consider it.

But by this time, traffic starts to come in and it seems like Google identifies a lack of engagement with the content on that page. Next thing you know, rankings slip again.

So why would this happen? Maybe Google sees low engagement and decides maybe this page doesn’t deserve to rank as highly as the algorithm first thought.

Maybe it looks at a high bounce rate as a sign that this page isn’t providing what users are looking for?

(Edit – thanks to Barry Adams for pointing out that this activity could also be down to this particular update)


Other SEOs agree

I recently chatted with Kristina Kledzik from Distilled’s Seattle office after her SEOMoz article on responsive design, where she mentioned in passing that without a good mobile site “your bounce rate will rise and your rankings will drop.”

Kristina mentioned that a lot of SEOs were seeing similar evidence and pointed me to a very assertive article by Tom Gregan on Google’s Panda and Penguin updates.

Tom’s article stated that Google is “taking time to assess signals such as bounce rate” when ranking websites.

Not that everyone agreed with Tom – Barry Adams over at Pierce Communications didn’t hold back in his rebuttal, calling Tom’s comments on bounce rate and other metrics “in all likelihood patently false.”


Why wouldn’t Google use it?

Waaaay back in 2008, Cutts stated that bounce rate as a ranking metric would be “not only spammable but noisy”. Five years later and he’s yet to really expand on this statement.

I also find this a little vague as a response, especially given that the whole algorithm centres around links, which are the most spammable metric I can think of. The noise surrounding links is almost deafening.

Quick reality check – the negative movement I’ve seen after a week or two of page one rankings could be explained away in a number of ways. I do believe however that the most likely explanation is low engagement metrics as a whole – including number of pages viewed and time on the page – are a collective factor.


Over to you

I’d love feedback on this issue. I’m certainly not brave enough to call out Matt Cutts on bounce rates!

Have you seen evidence of pages with high bounce rate being bumped from high ranking positions? Comments gratefully received!

 

 

  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    *sigh* here we go again… One of those endless urban myths about SEO that never seem to go away. A bit like the keywords meta tag.

    This is simply a gross misunderstanding of the actual metric that Google DOES look at, which is the ‘return-to-SERP’ metric. That metric, in a nutshell, is how often after clicking on a specific result users come back to Google’s search page and try a different result or a different query – i.e. the page they clicked on did not give them what they’re looking for. Pages with a high return-to-SERP metric are likely to be not relevant for the specific search query in question, and might as such lose ranking in Google.

    This is precisely what is recorded as a bounce in the receiving website’s analytics, which is where the confusion originates. Google does NOT look at a website’s analytics, it merely looks at user behaviour on its own search results.

    Google does not use Google Analytics data in its search ranking algorithm. If they did, they would quite literally get sued in to oblivion. Google is smarter than that. They don’t need to look at your analytics, they only need to look at user behaviour on their own sites.

    • mattfielding

      Thanks Barry – as always your insights are valuable. Any thoughts on why Google hasn’t been more transparent about this? As you alluded to, it seems to come up time and time again…

      • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

        I think because it’s fairly easy to manipulate that ‘return-to-SERP’ metric in your favour, by offering a great incentive for users to stay on your page – regardless of the relevance of the content you’re showing.

        A free download or customised offering would keep users on your site and make it less likely for them to return to the SERP, which would make that metric almost useless for Google.

        Hence their reluctance to be too explicit about it – however Matt Cutts has been as explicit as he can be by saying they don’t use bounce rates.

      • http://twitter.com/hannah_bo_banna Hannah Smith

        Hey Matt,

        I’m in agreement with Barry on this – they’re using their own user behaviour data, not the GA data.

        In terms of why they aren’t more transparent, I think ‘bounces’ or ‘return to SERP’ are way easier to game than links. You could build something to mess with those metrics pretty easily or use Mechanical Turk or similar.

        I also don’t think it’s necessarily strongly weighted for exactly this reason :)

        Hannah

  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    Also with regards to this: “(By the way, I’d love to hear from anyone else who has seen this – keywords jumping onto page one around position 5/6 and within a couple of weeks slipping back to 9/10 or even off the first page.)” – do a Google search (hah!) for ‘transition rank patent’, that should shed some light on the matter.

    • mattfielding

      Thanks again Barry – I’ve edited the original version of the post with a nod your way.

  • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

    I tend to agree with Matt Cutts on this one. Not EVERY website on the Internet uses Google Analytics so there are plenty of sites that Google wouldn’t have enough data on to accurately determine “engagement.” Based on that alone, what this insinuates is that people who use Google Analytics get preferential treatment? Or get penalized based on statistics? Doesn’t add up.

  • http://www.custard.co.uk/ Matt Fielding

    Thanks Marc. I guess I haven’t been careful enough here to specify that by “Google Analytics data” I meant the kind of metrics that GA would show. Bounce rate and the ‘return to SERP’ metric that has been alluded to in the comments need to be understood separately.

  • http://twitter.com/pedro_urzaiz pedro_urzaiz

    I think so. But it is too big. What would happens if Google gives credit to bounce rate an reduce our SEO positioning with this rule?. The Ad budget will decrease and also the content generation for MK pourpouses…..

  • http://www.alexiswilke.me/ Alexis Wilke

    Reading your post and the comments below, it looks like the bounce rate is likely related to your rank because the math of both is certainly correlated. What I’m trying to say is that if your can better your bounce rate, you’re likely to see an improvement in your SEO click through, it goes hand in hand. That does not mean that Google uses their Google Analytics results to calculate website rank or more precisely the relevance of your site in their index for a given search.