We wonder: what impact are we making out there? Who reads us?
Who likes us?
Now that’s one complicated question, and not always so easily answered. There are no little “like” graphs on your WordPress.com stats dashboard. We can only infer—outside of honest confirmation from every single one of your visitors—whether people like your site or not.
At first, you might wonder if mere visit count is a direct-enough indicator of love. But these days, social media sites like Digg and StumbleUpon can send you hundreds, even thousands, of hits—and they can all evaporate over a matter of days. So visit count isn’t sufficient enough of an answer.
Another measurement, frequently proposed as an answer to a blogger’s most troubling question, is what’s known as bounce rate.
Bounce rate is the percentage of people who visit one page of your site, and then disappear. The lower your bounce rate, the more people are sticking around to read more of your stuff during just a single visit. The higher your bounce rate, the less people like you—or so the wisdom runs.
The popularity of bounce rate as the answer stems in large part from the ease of its measurement, and the cleanness of its oracular nature: high bad, low good.
So is bounce rate the final answer? Many people act as though it is.
I’m here to tell you that it isn’t.
The Two Most Important Questions
Question #1: Who’s Visiting You?
When playing pin-the-tail-on-the-causes-of-increased-bounce-rate, who visits you is an important predictor of love. So let’s start out by factoring out the traffic whose bounce rate you have the least amount of control over.
One important source previously mentioned is traffic from social media sites. Your site gets Dugg, or Stumbled, or Slashdotted if we’re talking old school—just on one page, usually. Extremely high traffic results, with an extremely high bounce rate; we’re talking upper 90s or so. And like the crash of a wave on the shore, it’s soon gone (although some sites, like StumbleUpon, are structured such that a trickle of traffic continues to come through).
Search traffic, on the other hand, is more a constant river of people googling and hitting some page or other of your site. Sometimes it’s raging white water (like Halloween LOLcats on All Hallow’s Eve), but most times it’s a lazy brook (students searching for critical analysis of the Speckled Band). In any case, the bounce rate here is also high.
We’re not going to cover search bot traffic, for spiders do not care over whom they lavish their indexing ways.
Now we get to the more normal traffic: direct/referred visitors.1 You’re more likely to draw out a low bounce rate from this portion of your audience.
Of course, that’s no guarantee.
But if your bounce rate is high, does it mean that this most stable part of your audience loves you not? For that, we need to consider the next question.
Question #2: What’s Your Purpose?
Or rather: what’s the purpose of your site? Purpose, more than anything else, determines bounce rate for the “normal” part of your audience—and whether a high or low bounce rate is actually meaningful.
So let’s examine some site types and look at their resulting bounce rate patterns—once we’ve factored out social media and search traffic.
Simply put: a site that acts as a reference; wikis, for instance. And the most popular reference site is, of course, Wikipedia; but reference sites also include All Recipes, Godchecker.com, and DVD Verdict.
Should a reference site have a low bounce rate? That depends on the nature of the information and its presentation. Most good reference sites tend to have a lot of internally related links on every page, such that a curious reader could begin a long walk through multiple pages, wandering far from their original point of inquiry. This is a commonly known problem, and lowers bounce rates phenomenally.
If you have a front page with a ton of intriguing headlines updated every hour, you’re going to see two behaviors: people visiting, finding nothing interesting, and going away (for a little while); and people who click through. The more stuff that’s posted and cycled through, the more likely there’ll be something interesting for everyone.
A lower bounce rate is a good indication that people are interested in your news items—but at the same time, you don’t always cry over a high bounce rate, because you know it’s likely that former bouncers will return and click through on another visit.
In other words, a high bounce rate is not as much of a concern. In fact, the bounce rate could always be 80%—it’s just that in any one interval, a different 20% of the audience found something to click through.
Anywhere folks gather in large numbers to converse upon certain topics. These of course include forums like Whitechapel and the Authority Blogger Forum, but also blogs that have managed to build up a community, including Making Light and Whatever.
Because discussion between multiple users is a highly important part of these sites, rather than just off-hand comments, the bounce rate of a healthy community site will also be low, as people surf through threads and write posts.
You could say that the low bounce rate comes at a high cost, however: the same human foibles that drive people to lower your bounce rate can also drive flamewars, so you’re either policing—or letting flamewars happen. Owners of successful community sites are far more worried about tending to the community—the low bounce rate is a given and, all things considered, not hugely important.
With the onset of the web, suddenly the business of getting work out in front of people you don’t know became much, much easier—and not just occasionally, when you’ve got enough money to print up some copies, but you could do it every day, even multiple times per day, for a fraction of the cost of print.
People are enthralled by good stories, so you see two types of bounce rates. The first are the newbies to your story—the ones who dig back into your archives to find out where the hell all this goodness is coming from. They’re the ones with the low bounce rate.
The second are the veterans, who’ve been following your story for some time now, and thus are less likely to go digging into the archives. They’re the ones with the high bounce rates—and yet they are obviously loyal and this is obviously good traffic.
You welcome both kinds of bounce rates. Which means that bounce rate doesn’t really matter to you as a metric of love.
Not all blogs are journals, and not all journals are blogs. In fact, blog is a rather looser term than most people think it is, since a blog can be just about anything these days—it can be a community, it can be a serial, it can be a reference, it can be a wide smattering of news.
Very often these days a blog is a journal.
There are two definitions of journal, however: either a diary (most writers keep this kind, like Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Bear), or a very focused magazine (e.g., a periodical on Sherlock Holmes like The Baker Street Blog, or one on the unholy marriage of writing and blogging). On the web, both tend to be a list of articles ordered by date, added to from time to time.
This tends to mean:
- Articles have short memories; things often get lost in archives, and there often isn’t enough backlinking to keep them active.
- Motivation for reading back articles is usually much lower than motivation for reading current articles.
- Articles tend to be dated.
- Updates aren’t frequent enough to yield news-sites-insanity-level stature.
All of these add up to: high bounce rate. Sometimes nearly 100%.
However, this does not mean FAIL. Neil Gaiman’s journal likely has an obscenely high bounce rate at this point, and that’s not a failure by any meaning of the word. People simply visit everyday.
This also does not mean instant success either. It just means that bounce rate tells you little.
Bounce Rate is Not Always the Answer
Bounce rate yields some information, but not a whole lot of it. In fact, depending on the purpose of your site or blog, bounce rate may mean nothing to you as a health indicator.
However, there is one metric that always indicates a healthy site with lots of love waiting in the silent wings of the web.
A Truthier Answer: Returning Visitors
Returning visitors is a different measurement from bounce rate. Bounce rate doesn’t cover an absence of hours or days; repeat does. Returning visitors, on the other hand, will catch visitors who come once a day to read the newest thing that got pulled up on your RSS feed, whereas bounce rate would, if you were being rather strict about the interpretation of the percentages, declare them to be of fleeting affection at best.
For every type of site listed above, repeat visitors is a definite, positive indicator of health—no wangling about with percentages and use cases here.
So why aren’t returning visitors the prime metric over bounce rate when it comes to affairs of the blogosphere’s heart?
The first strike against returning visitors is that it’s much more difficult to track and calculate. It’s one thing for a traffic tracker to remember if someone visited a page twice in a row in the last 7 minutes; it’s quite another for it to remember if someone has visited 24 hours before. Many site traffic trackers don’t even have a way to present returning visitors as a metric to you.
The second strike against returning visitors is that it’s not a metric that can turn up results in a few minutes; it may take days or at least hours to settle down to an exact number. And as we’re all rather impatient with the near-instantenous gratitude the web can provide, this is annoying to some.
And the final strike against returning visitors is that the data is simply hard to collect and collate in the first place. Someone who’s visiting the next day with the same IP may be an entirely different person—and person who visited previously is coming from a different IP. You’d almost certainly have to set cookies on their browsers to identify them properly; and that means, with browsers that block cookies and the use of different browsers, the data that results has to be conservative—far more than bounce rate.
Who Measures Returning Visitors?
Google Analytics, that’s who. As this is Google, they have the data mining power to bring you quite a few statistics—though they don’t provide live updates (and returning visitors isn’t a live update metric anyways).
Under the Visitors tab on the left, you’ll see “New vs. Returning” as well as “Visitor Trending” (here you can see bounce rate, among other things) and “Visitor Loyalty”. The latter section fascinates me a bit, since “Loyalty” will show you the percentage of people who visit once, twice, etc. times; and “Recency” will show you the frequency that people visit you.
Those are the numbers I work to improve.
‘Cause bounce ain’t got nothin’ to do with love.
For More Information
If you’re new to Google Analytics, I suggest you check out Ben Barden’s totally awesome 4-part series, “A beginner’s guide to Google Analytics”.