Interesting Alertbox on bounce rates

This is a little old now, but still worth making mention of. Jakob Nielsen, in his AlertBox column Reduce Bounce Rates: Fight for the Second Click, makes some good points, especially about the importance of search and the impact that has on homepage design.

The impact of search

He points out that while the homepage of a site is typically the single most visited page, it’s usually the content pages of a site, in aggregate, that get the most visits overall. This follows the principle of the Long Tail – and I’ve seen it with a number of sites I’ve worked on.

This is a reflection of the increasing power of search – visitors come to a site because a specific page has been returned in a search result. Jakob mentions that bounce rates from such visitors can be quite high, and he suggests some approaches for reducing them.

The role of the home page

Specifically, and interestingly, Jakob singles out the home page as “the orienteering point for visitors who arrive through deep links and then decide to explore the site further.” This is something I hadn’t quite put my finger on, though it intuitively makes sense.

If I find a site that has some interesting content, I’ll have a quick look around the page to see if there’s launching points to other relevant information. The home page is often a place that I go to get a “100 foot high view” of the site – one method of determining if there’s anything else of interest there.

Choose the right metrics

He also suggests, somewhat controversially, that ‘”Unique Vistors” must die’ – in other words: the metric of the sheer number of visitors to your site is not adequate to determine site success.

Given growing bounce rates, we must stop using “unique visitors” as a metric for site success. Site tourists who leave a site immediately ratchet up the unique visitor count, but don’t contribute long-term value.

Unique visitors, of course, do play a role in a balanced review of site statistics. But the point is well taken.

I think using this metric as the primary measure of site success is problematic for more than the reasons Jakob points out. In projects that I’ve been involved in where visitation rate is the primary “success” KPI, the projects have usually been too heavily swayed towards trying to get as many people – any old people – as possible to a site, rather than considering how to really focus on a core audience and engage those participants to achieve organisation goals (while/through fulfilling participant needs, of course).

In other words, the focus shifts to how many people are coming through the door, rather than getting the high-value folks coming through, and bringing their friends back with them.

Reducing bounce rates

The remainder of the article provides some useful segmentation ideas for determining the value of users and makes some simple suggestions that can help increase visitor follow-through.

The idea of providing links to related articles is a strong one, but surprisingly difficult with some Content Management Systems (CMS) to get good results with (especially while maintaining site performance). It’s actually one of the more tricky questions in content design – how to determine what’s “relevant” or “related”.

Amazon have a great system in place that uses purchasing data to present a “people who bought this also bought…” list – a fantastic method of getting people to another point in the site. While not everyone has Amazon’s resources at their disposal, it’s worth considering these kind of features when developing your site – and to look around at what options are available for your CMS.

More than one path

And if you can create a few different options with this in mind, all the better. (Of course it’s important to not go overboard, lest we confuse our visitors entirely with a million and one options.)

This was one of the design goals with the project that I worked on with Digital Eskimo. If you visit the home page or content pages, a lot of thought went into the various options that lead you to more content within this site.

Some of those listings are based on reader activity, others are based on relationship/relevance to the current article, others are completely random. In fact, one of the surprise elements of the design was just how interesting the “From the archives” section is on the home page.

The aim of this small panel was to expose a random article from the deep (5-year strong) archive of the site. And I think it’s surprisingly effective at producing interesting results (although I don’t have metrics on what sort of impact the panel has on visitor flow).