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Does Google consider bounce rate or something similar in ranking sites?

Background: here at Stack Exchange we noticed that the latest Google algorithm changes resulted in about a 20% dip in traffic to Server Fault (and a much smaller dip in traffic to Super User). Stack Overflow traffic was not affected.

There was an article on WebProNews which hypothesized that bounce rate might be a ranking signal in Google's latest Panda update.

According to Google Analytics, these are our bounce rates over the last month:

Site           Bounce Rate Avg Time on Site
-------------  ----------- ----------------
SuperUser      84.67%      01:16
ServerFault    83.76%      00:53
Stack Overflow 63.63%      04:12

Now, technically, Google has no way to know the bounce rate. If you go to Google, search for something, and click on the first result, Google can't tell the difference between:

  • a user who turns off their computer
  • a user who goes to a completely different web site
  • a user who spends hours clicking around on the website they landed on

What Google does know is how long it takes the user to come back to Google and do another search. According to the book In The Plex (page 47), Google distinguishes between what they call "short clicks" and "long clicks":

  • A short click is a search where the user quickly comes back to Google and does another search. Google interprets this as a signal that the first search results were unsatisfactory.
  • A long click is a search where the user doesn't search again for a long time.

The book says that Google uses this information internally, to judge the quality of their own algorithms. It also said that short click data in which someone retypes a slight variation of the search is used to fuel the "Did you mean...?" spell checking algorithm.

So, my hypothesis is that Google has recently decided to use long click rates as a signal of a high quality site. Does anyone have any evidence of this? Have you seen any high-bounce-rate sites which lost traffic (or vice-versa)?

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Google does not use Google Analytics data in any way in rankings. -Matt Cutts, news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2168070 –  Silver Dragon May 17 '11 at 2:15
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@MikeHudson: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/26964/… –  balpha May 17 '11 at 6:49
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All the key site metrics are affected when Google sends us less traffic. If Google sends us less traffic we get fewer questions and answers. We even get less "direct" traffic, proportionally, which is super weird but there you have it. –  Joel Spolsky May 17 '11 at 15:27
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@Joel: can the fact that you have less direct traffic when you have less Google traffic be related to the use of anonymizer tools, referer suppression tools, proxies, search aggregators, etc. that would present you HTTP requests without reference to google search? –  ogerard May 18 '11 at 6:30
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Technically Joel, if visitors from Google leave the site instantly, what worth are they to the Network anyway? They only skew our page views upwards, without truly representing our 'real user base'. So more importantly, did other metrics take a hit as well? Specifically the upvote parts as missing out on non-upvoted questions isn't something we truly 'miss' –  Ivo Flipse May 18 '11 at 21:24

8 Answers 8

This is very likely Google can estimate your bounce rate, if you take into account a new feature that detects when the user is clicking the back button:

  1. Search Google:

    enter image description here

  2. Click a search result.

  3. Click back.

  4. Google is showing a new option, "Block all [site] results":

enter image description here

Obviously, that is a guess, but quick back clicks may be good indicators of irrelevant results, and has strong correlation with bounce rate. Note that this fails when the user is opening search results in a new tab, so it may be directed to the less savvy users.

Note the difference between "making another search", which Google should take personally as it displayed irrelevant results, and "returning to the same search", which means that that particular site wasn't suited for this search.

enter image description here

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This example could already be (part of) the explanation by itself (users bouncing and clicking 'block all stackoverflow.com results') –  Jochem May 17 '11 at 7:36
    
@Jochem - It can, but I doubt the majority users even see it. It's much more likely Google is collecting and using this data to sort results than that ServerFault is suddenly hated by searcher :). Again, I couldn't find any reference to it... –  Kobi May 17 '11 at 7:39
    
@pitr - Thanks for the spy work! –  Kobi May 17 '11 at 17:33

To the best of my knowledge, the rankings team does not use bounce rate in any way.
  — Matt Cutts, June 2010, Search Engine Land interview

I have an issue with the concept of long/short clicks being used in their ranking algorithm. There are too many scenarios where both short and long clicks occur that are the opposite of what the standard logic would be.

For example, short clicks could occur because:

  • A user is opening many tabs at once, let's say all ten links on the first search results page, for research of some kind. (Whether that research is SEO or academic is irrelevant). These will all appear as short clicks.

  • Someone is looking for a particular site and is hopping through results until they find the one they want. Their tome on each site is short not because the site is poorly done, it's just not the one specific site the user is looking for.

  • This is way too easy to manipulate. If this really was a potential ranking factor it's not hard to imagine black hats short clicking their competitors to serve their own ends. (Naturally this would be automated to produce the quantity necessary to spur Google into action).

Long clicks can occur because:

  • A user has no idea what they are looking for and spends an eternity on each site looking for it but never finds it (e.g. that site is irrelevant).

  • A user walks away from their computer or gets side tracked for any reason

  • Abuse (see above)

  • A user is Internet-clueless and just takes a long time at each site because they have a hard time using the Internet.

The best way I can imagine this information being used is for personalized search. If someone keeps short-clicking a particular site then it probably warrants being lowered in their personal search results.

As for anecdotal evidence, I have a few dozen client sites I monitor and bounce rate does not seem to correlate to rankings.

As for Google using Google Analytics in their search algorithm, the answer from Matt Cuitts is no.

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There are lots of reasons that the data isn't perfect, but that doesn't mean it's not statistically valid. –  Joel Spolsky May 17 '11 at 2:24
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I would have preferred you put the "additionally" bit - e.g. the answer, at the top before reading about the short/long click discussion...if it was anyone else, i'd just dive in and edit :) –  Mike Hudson May 17 '11 at 6:25
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You give Google too little credit. Do you really think they would blindly use data like this without even considering all situations or possible abuse? For example, (1) they can easily detect if a user opens multiple results from one page - many pages would be opened in too short a space of time and the user isn't 'coming back' to the SERP in between each. (2) I highly doubt this occurs often enough to make a statistical difference. (3) Google is pretty good at detecting automated stuff like that. –  DisgruntledGoat May 18 '11 at 10:51
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I think you may give Google too much credit. After all, a company that essentially spams their index went public. –  John Conde May 18 '11 at 13:30
    
That quote's a little old now though - perhaps their policy has changed. –  UpTheCreek Oct 12 '11 at 11:23

Per Matt Cutts

Without reading the article [trying to confirm a connection between rank and bounce rates], I’ll just say that bounce rates would be not only spammable but noisy. A search industry person recently sent me some questions about how bounce rate is done at Google and I was like "Dude, I have no idea about any things like bounce rate. Why don’t you talk to this nice Google Analytics evangelist who knows about things like bounce rate?" I just don’t even run into people talking about this in my day-to-day life.

Granted this was back in December 2008, but Matt Cutts saying that bounce rate is not used even a little is fairly definitive in my book, even 3 years on.

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The whole point of this post is that the algorithm changed, so I don't see how a three year old post from Matt Cutts in which he "didn't read the article" is "definitive" in the least. –  Joel Spolsky May 17 '11 at 12:37
    
@joel it just seems unlikely to me that they'd have such a radical change of heart about bounce rate, going from "don't care" to "of critical importance". I think it's more likely we're seeing some seasonal summer declines.. when people go outside and use computers less. –  Jeff Atwood May 17 '11 at 13:19
    
@joel also per news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2168070 which is 104 days old (as of this writing) "Google does not use Google Analytics data in any way in our rankings." Since bounce rate is from analytics, that means by definition it isn't used. Which is kind of my entire point here, that this is an oddball analytics measurement that has no real bearing on search from Google's perspective. –  Jeff Atwood May 17 '11 at 13:23
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I don't actually think they're using bounce rate from Analytics; I think they're using short click rate from the search page. I do believe that they did have a "radical change of heart" about getting rid of low quality sites and they must have used SOME signals to determine this. As for seasonal declines, there's no way that would effect Server Fault alone. If anything Stack Overflow is the "homework" site. –  Joel Spolsky May 17 '11 at 15:30
    
@joel I think you're forgetting that SU has an average user age of under 18, though. It skews the youngest in our network by far. I agree that SF was probably affected by the Panda update since e-e complained as well, so that's topic specific. goo.gl/ojdJY and goo.gl/Pw39l –  Jeff Atwood May 17 '11 at 20:23

I think that the problem with using bounce rate for ranking is that it doesn't take into account the fact that bounces aren't always a bad thing. This metric needs to be taken in context because there are some sites for which you might want to actually increase your bounce rate!

In fact, as an example, your sites might be that type of site (at least from Google's perspective of providing relevant results to it's users). Take SO for an example - if I'm searching for the answer to a programming question then I don't want to spend a considerable amount of time clicking around looking for an answer. I want an answer as fast as possible so I can return to my work. I would expect Google to return a list of sites that answer my question, not ones that will waist my time.

I think that the bounce rate metric doesn't provide enough information on it's own to be useful in a search engine ranking algorithm. If Google is using it for more than internal analysis (where humans can guess at user intent) then they are making a mistake.

As a side note, going back to the example of a search for an answer to a programming question, do you ever find that the answer to the question is actually in the search results and you don't need to click through to a site at all?

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+1. This is why I don't think bounce rate is a ranking factor, or at least not across the board. It would penalise sites that you click on and get the answer immediately, which is exactly the opposite of what the search engines would want to do. –  Tim Fountain May 17 '11 at 9:58

I manage a site that brings in around 30k pageviews per day. It lost 1/3 of its traffic around April 11th (panda international rollout). The entire domain lost traffic across the board. The overall average bounce rate hovers around 65% (pre-panda was 71%). The hardest hit pages have bounce rates over 75% however. It's an interesting theory.

To google's credit (I hope it's not just a coincidence) bounce rate, avg time on site, and pages per visit all improved after the change.

Side-Note: The other sites I manage were not affected by the algorithm change. Their average bounce rates hover from 52% - 68%. I haven't done analysis on individual pages on those sites since they weren't affected

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Google is almost certainly using usability signals as a significant factor in the rankings. Google probably doesn't use "bounce rate", at least not as measured by Google Analytics. Instead, Google relies on:

  • Click through rate (CTR) - The number of people that click from the SERPs to a site is a good indication of whether the site is relevant for the query or not. When a site gets a worse CTR than it should for the position that it is in, its ranking get worse. When a site gets a higher CTR than other sites would at that position, the ranking will get better.
  • Bounce Back Rate (BBR) - The number of people that click the back button from the site back to the SERPs and then hide the site from their results, click another site, or refine their query. Like CTR, Google is likely to make adjustments when the BBR is much better or much worse than expected.

Bounce rate can usually be used as a proxy to measure your BBR, but there are some limitations:

  • Bounce rate is measured as the percentage single pageview sessions. Bounce back rate is the number that hit the back button.
  • Bounce rate includes people who click on external links on your site (including ads), bounce back rate does not.
  • Bounce rate includes people who close the tab or the browser window, bounce back rate does not.
  • Some sites provide the full answer that users seek in a single page. Such sites may have high bounce rates, but low bounce back rates.
  • Bounce rate can be gamed by dividing articles into multiple pages. That tactic hurts bounce back rate.

Furthermore, as other answers have pointed out, Google's Matt Cutts stated that bounce rate is not used to his knowledge as part of the ranking algorithm. He said nothing about bounce back rate (which is subtly different).

I am convinced that Google uses these signals based on my experience with a site on which I was doing the SEO. It was a type of product site. We noticed that we just couldn't get some products to rank for their targeted keywords, despite pouring massive amounts of internal pagerank into them. One pattern that emerged was that the products that were not ranking had less content than the ones that did rank. Content didn't always mean lots of text, we had several type of content:

  • A list of places to buy the product
  • Prices from multiple vendors
  • Reviews written by users about the product
  • Professional pictures of the product
  • User submitter pictures of the product
  • External links to other sites with articles about the product
  • A map of where the product could be found near you

We realized that many of these types of content would be difficult for Google to measure directly. Did it really know there was a map on the page? Was it trying to detect the presence of prices? All the user reviews were on their own pages, could it really measure the amount of text associated with this each product by crawling lots of pages and adding the totals? We theorized that it would be much easier for Google to measure how users react to the page and to adjust rankings on that rather than trying to measure amount of content directly.

First, we made some changes to how our bounce rate was measured. We implemented "events" so that when users clicked on the external links, it would be measured in analytics. We also put in "events" for items like moving the map, and scrolling down the page. We figured that when a user interacts with the page, the shouldn't count as a bounce, even if that user didn't view more than one page on the site.

Then we correlated the bounce rate with the amount of content we had for each product. The results were much more dramatic than we were expecting. For products with no content to speak of, the bounce rate was around 90%. For products with lots of every type of content, the bounce rate was under 15%. Products with some content fell in between. We could use this to see which type of content users found most valuable. We could also put a value on soliciting the tenth user review vs digging up the first external link to an article.

Rankings also correlated very closely with this bounce rate. We needed fewer internal links pointing to pages with very low bounce rate to get them to rank #1 than pages with moderately higher bounce rate.

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While this question is interesting in the hypothetical sense, it lacks the action-ability part of being practical.

Suppose for a minute, that the answer is yes -Google uses bounce rate for ranking sites -what would you do about it? The only way to reliably increase this metric would be to put artificial blocks between the user, and the answer marked as correct on SO -which would slowly train users to avoid these domains (decreasing the CTR from Google -which is known to be an important metric in relevance sorting).

Hence, my suggestion would be to focus your time & effort on metrics that you can actually work on, rather than double-guessing externalities which aren't under your control.

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Oh, the sheer irony of a Joel question being closed for non-comformity :) –  MPelletier May 17 '11 at 2:19
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I don't know if I agree with that. There are a lot of things we could do to increase the probability that a user arriving from Google is satisfied. Off the top of my head, we could leave unanswered questions out of Google's index completely. This makes the searcher's experience better and reduces the number of short clicks. –  Joel Spolsky May 17 '11 at 2:27
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You know, I really like that idea. More sites and forums should exclude unanswered questions from Google. –  The How-To Geek May 17 '11 at 2:35
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Joel, I've found obscure unanswered questions via google that I have answered. By removing them from the index, you might be decreasing your answer rate on the harder questions. Wouldn't this devalue the site? Wouldn't it be better to reduce the bounce rate by improving the options for someone arriving via a potentially unsuccessful search (Google to Unanswered Q)? –  Dan McGrath May 17 '11 at 2:45
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You could modify the page title to indicate questions that had an accepted answer, e.g. add [answered] to the start. This would show up in the search results and make it clearer to Google users that the link they're clicking on includes an answer and not just a question. –  Tim Fountain May 17 '11 at 9:53

"Off the top of my head, we could leave unanswered questions out of Google's index completely"

Yes and no, IMO, depending on how fast are questions generally answered. All questions aren't answered when posted for example almost by definition (unless the question answered something else ). Maybe make it so if not answered for x days, no-index and ping google to see see the tag and no-index.

Do you have more unanswered questions in the sites that went down?

Google is surely experimenting and some sites have lost even 70% of their traffic since 2/24. Not every one of them is a bad site, you know, just no recovery from panda so far, regardless of what you did to the site.

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