Ok, ok, you caught me. I’m using a link bait title to get your attention to get you to read my article. What I’m about to tell you isn’t a flaw in Google Analytics so much as it’s a flaw in how we think about it (although they could certainly do a better job explaining it). This is one of the single most misunderstood concepts I can think of when people view their site metrics. In fact, up until about a week ago, I was one of those people who misunderstood this concept. Thankfully, I am now enlightened, and it is time to pass the thoughts on to you.
So, raise your hand if you have a website and your bounce rate is above 50%. How about 60%? 75%? 90%.
Sounds pretty damn awful, doesn’t it, having a bounce rate above 90%. Now raise your hand if you can actually tell me what bounce rate means without going a quick Wikipedia search? Hint: it has nothing to do with how many seconds someone spends on your site. We’ll get back to this in a second.
As long as we’re on the topic of awful things, who here can say that they have visitors who, according to Google Analytics, spend 0.00 seconds on your website? Everyone’s hands should be raises at this point, cause everyone has those weird non-visits, at least according to Google.
What’s going on here?
The problem that we’re experiencing is simply in the incorrect way many of us assume Google Analytics is reading our webpage. Here’s an example to illustrate how it really goes:
When a user enters your site, a page load request is processed by your server. This request is noted by Google Analytics and is officially logged as the start browsing time. Let’s pretend that a user loads your page at 12:00 PM. This is noted in the log.
At 12:05 PM, the user finishes reading your homepage and decides to click on a tab on your site and load a new onsite page. This page load request is noted by Google Analytics and the time is recorded. At this point, and at this point only, Google Analytics can now report that the user has spent 5 minutes on your site.
At 12:08 PM, the user clicks an internal link in your site and begins reading a new page on your site. Google Analytics logs the page load request and now know that the total time on site is 8 minutes.
Now pretend the user spends 30 minutes on this third page, carefully reading a long article you have posted. When they finish your article, they click off your site, go to a new website, or click on your affiliate link. They don’t load another page from your server. What just happened..? There is nothing in the log file to indicate that they loaded another page from your site, so Google Analytics doesn’t know that they just spent 30 minutes on your last page! In your Google Analytics report, you would see that this user spent 8 minutes on your site and viewed two pages. As far as Google is concerned, that last 30 minutes never happened. Your server doesn’t make an announcement that a page has been ‘unloaded’.
If you haven’t seen the obvious problem in this, I’ll spell it out for you: What if your website just has one landing page??? The user will never have a reason to click away from your one page. They’ll arrive at your website, view your page, and either click on a link or hit ‘Back’ in their browser. As long as they don’t load another page on your website, there is no log of how long they spent on your website. This visitor has, according to Google Analytics, just spent 0.00 seconds on your website. They are also CONSIDERED A BOUNCE. A bounce, by definition, is a user that only loads one page of your website! This might be useful for people with e-commerce websites, but for those of us with information or content-based sites, what happens when the user lands on the page, finds the information they are looking for, and immediately leaves? They are contributing to our bounce rate with no real indication of how long they were on the page and whether or not they found what they are looking for. Also, the total time on site of ANY visitor will also be under-reported by one page’s worth, (the last page loaded) and whether they spent 30 seconds or 30 minutes on that page be never be known.
Now, you can see how many campaigns to ‘lower your bounce rate’ or ‘increase time spent on site’ fail. Many people are operating under the assumption that bounce rate refers to people who leave your site after just 10 seconds, or just 30 seconds. They spend hours putting pretty images, enticing displays and other imaginative ways to keep users on their site. Unless those fancy methods encourage the user to click through to other pages on your site, however, they aren’t going to really have an affect on your bounce rate and you’ll be unable to tweak conversion rates for a home page that has, say, a lead form.
There are various work-arounds for this issue, if you are inclined to try, but none of them work very well. Many of us, for both personal ego reasons and business-related reasons, would like to know how much time users are ACTUALLY spending on our website, but it’s just not feasible at this point in time for Google Analytics. Some people have tried working with page unload tracking with moderate success, and you can find a little detail of their efforts here.
This makes me have major issues with Google Analytics and question its feasible usage. If I am to continue using it, I would definitely consider eliminating Time on Site and Bounce Rate as relevant metrics of performance evaluation. If clients still want to know about their statistics on these metrics, I would have to explain to them why they aren’t very good ways to evaluate performance.
The original article that inspired me to write this piece can be found here.
Image Credit: ddablogimages.