Bounce Rates in Higher Ed: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Date posted: March 11, 2013
When marketing managers begin working with Google Analytics to learn more about their website’s effectiveness, bounce rate is one of the first metrics they are exposed to. Google Analytics certainly highlights it, putting it up front on almost every report. As they explore their site statistics and get comfortable with visits, visitors and duration of visits, they inevitably turn to bounce rate and say ”OK, I now understand that we are “bouncing” a lot of people off our site, and that’s a bad thing. So what would a reasonable bounce rate be for my site and how do I get it there?
An experienced digital marketer, with a bit of time on their hands, will answer “it depends”, and then go on to explain why it is important to understand why bounce rate is so variable on typical higher ed web pages (and in fact, in most industries). If they have no time, but feel pressed to provide a more specific answer, they will probably say its around 50% but that you need to be careful with how you use that number. In this post we’ll try and explain both of these answers, but more importantly we will try to give you a bit more knowledge so that you can intelligently evaluate your own situation.
What is a Bounce?
By definition a bounce occurs when someone visits one page on your site and then leaves the site without visiting any other pages. Bounce rates are generally good indicators of how effective your pages are at engaging the visitor and drawing them into your content. They are also generally seen, along with conversion rates, as an indicator of whether or not your pages are meeting the goals of your site, which are typically associated with a click on a link, a button or image that is associated with a goal, for example, a “Book a Campus Visit” button. Knowing your bounce rate for important pages like this and how well they are “converting” becomes quite important to reaching your site’s marketing objectives.
A visitor will usually bounce from a site when she realizes that the site does not offer the information that they were seeking or had been led to believe would be found there by a earlier page or link. This disconnect can be a function of the page that brought them there or related to the content on the page that they bounce from. For example, a visitor may bounce from a page where they thought they would find tuition information but were instead told to call an 800 number to speak to an admissions officer.
From a technical point of view, a bounces occurs when a visitor:
– clicks on an external link
– clicks the back button in the browser
– closes the browser window or tab
– enters a new URL in the same browser window or tab
What’s a Typical Bounce Rate?
So now that we have defined an individual bounce, lets talk about bounces in aggregate, as in bounce rate. The bounce rate for a particular website is the total % of visitors who bounce from all pages of that website.
So what’s a typical bounce rates for a website? Well surprisingly, benchmark information on this topic is rather difficult to come by. The reason is that “typical” is a really bad way to look at web site performance. Even as much of a cliché that it is, all sites, and all industries are quite different, therefore it is difficult to produce useful comparisons. An ecommerce site, an information portal, a prospective student site all have very different audience and types of content, so trying to compare them is not particularly useful. Regardless, people are always quite interested in seeking out general benchmarks to help them understand how they fit into the broad spectrum of bounce rate performance.
So to that end, here is an example of bounce rates that one webmaster recently volunteered on their blog, as sampled across their clients.
So, if I can generalize this a bit, the typical bounce rate seen above falls somewhere between 35 and 60 percent. This data is quite anecdotal, but it does clearly make the point that companies in different vertical markets will have widely divergent bounce rates, depending on the type of sites they operate and the related intent and goals of their site visitors.
Here’s another more general and statistically more reliable summary of bounce rate from Kissmetrics, a major player in the analytics market.
I am reluctant to try and generalize how higher ed might fit into these categories because you can find elements of almost every one of these categories in any given higher ed site. My instinct would be for it to be less like a retail or a service site, suggesting a higher than average rate, somewhere in the range of 40-50%
Bounce Rate in Higher Ed
In this blog, we always try to provide really focused information about the higher education marketplace but in this case, I have come up dry on any hard stats. If anyone out there can help us with this please send us back a comment and any references to specific research done in this area that you have found or conducted.
I was able to find some stats for Continuing Education websites, as seen below, which I think is at least close to the kind of activity you would see on a general higher ed website.
The three charts above illustrate the averages, minimums, and maximums for bounce rate, number of visits, and average time on website across 20 higher ed institutions, over a period of one month. The data for these schools is plotted in descending order to give a sense of the trend in our industry.
The average bounce rate for websites was 45%. The lowest bounce rate was 30%. The highest bounce rate was 61%.
So to come back to our original question, “What is a reasonable bounce rate for higher ed,” I think a 45 percent bounce rate is about average. If your rate surpasses 60 percent, you should be concerned. If you’re in excess of 80 percent, you’ve got a major problem, definitely in the ugly zone. You either have some really bad pages that provide no redeeming content or links or the links on those pages intentionally push your visitors off your domain. I’d start by taking a close look at those sections over 60 % to try and improve your general performance. PPC landing pages might be the culprit. If so, get out your Conversion Rate Optimization hat and get to work!
A Bounce can be a Good Thing
It is also important to recognize, that in some cases, a high bounce rate can be a good thing. For example, if you have a popular blog site that has a lot of return visitors, who spend a significant time on each new post, but then bounce, you have a high bounce rate for that section of the site, but very satisfied visitors.
A Caution about Worrying too much about Average Bounce Rate
Please remember that the average bounce rate across your whole web site is a very blunt indicator. In fact many would argue that is simply too blunt to be of any use at all. Your average website bounce rate is an aggregate figure made up of bounce rates from many individual sections of your website. Check them individually for deeper insight. Some experts go even further and recommend completely redefining the bounce rate metric as a minimum visitor time on page to make it truly useful. The important point here is not to get caught up in industry averages, or even site averages, rather that you should break your site down into meaningful sections or segments and then look closely at their bounce rate performance relative to their purpose.
Having said all of the above, there is also a time when a bounce is a really bad thing. If you have new or returning prospect students bouncing off your site at high rates, there is clearly a problem. You want them to spend time on your site, perusing the content and moving towards some kind of conversion event, i.e., an information request, a PDFs download, entry into a registration funnel. So how do your do that?
Next week in “15 Ways to Reduce Your Higher Ed Website Bounce Rates“, we’ll take a detailed look at this question and give you a thorough review on how to refine your design and content and tweak some technical parameters to avoid bounces and drive your websites towards improved performance.
We would very much like to hear about your bounce rate challenges and share them with our readers. Please let us know about your experience and share your best tactics to reduce the dreaded bounce rate.