Update: Looks like we have a direct answer now.
Forget for a moment everything you think you know about Google and how they rank content. Put yourself in the role of a person who is tasked with ranking results. One result gets clicked often, but most of the time the user only stays on the page for a few seconds (if that), returns to the results page, and clicks on another result.
Meanwhile, another result on the same page gets clicked on a lot too, but when users click on that one, they stay on the page longer, and don't even return to the results page to find another result to click on. Nor do they refine their query. Which page is most likely the one that has the better content for that particular search?
Should bounce rate be a ranking signal? Comment here.
Well, being a human, you have the luxury of looking at both pages and making that call. Now, pretend you're not a human. You're a computer algorithm tasked with ranking the world's information for the majority of searchers. While you have over 200 signals that can help you determine which one should rank higher, wouldn't this be one that could help?
This is not exactly bounce rate, but it's related. In this case, it is the bounce in the direction of back to the SERP, and while there has been a lot of discussion and argument about whether Google uses actual bounce rate as a signal, it seems pretty likely that they are looking at this specific element of it.
SearchMetrics, after releasing data about the Panda winners and losers in the UK, said, “It seems that all the loser sites are sites with a high bounce rate and a less time on site ratio. Price comparison sites are nothing more than a search engine for products. If you click on a product you ‘bounce’ to the merchant. So if you come from Google to ciao.co.uk listing page, than you click on an interesting product with a good price and you leave the page. On Voucher sites it is the same. And on content farms like ehow you read the article and mostly bounce back to Google or you click Adsense.”
“And on the winners are more trusted sources where users browse and look for more information,” the firm added. “Where the time on site is high and the page impressions per visit are also high. Google’s ambition is to give the user the best search experience. That’s why they prefer pages with high trust, good content and sites that showed in the past that users liked them.”
WebmasterWorld Founder Brett Tabke wrote in a recent forum post, discussing what he calls the "Panda metric", that “Highly successful, high referral, low bounce, quality, and historical pages have seen a solid boost with panda.”
In a recent video from Google's Matt Cutts, on ranking in 2011, he talks about increasing site speed, and how this can keep users on your site longer (IE: not bouncing), you can increase your ROI. Speed is a ranking signal. We know that. Speed can reduce bounce rate. Even if Google doesn't use bounce rate directly, there is a strong relationship here.
A reader (hat tip to Jordy) sent us this link from Matt McGee at SearchEngineLand, posted last June:
Bounce rate and rankings? Matt [Cutts] says Google Analytics is not used in the general ranking algorithm. “To the best of my knowledge, the rankings team does not use bounce rate in any way.” He tiptoed around this question a bit, choosing his words very carefully.
The part about tiptoeing is somewhat intriguing in and of itself, but it's also important to note that this was nearly a year ago, and the Panda update was not announced until just this past February (and has even been tweaked since then).
We also picked the brain of SEO vet Jim Boykin. We asked Jim how important he thinks bounce rate is. He says, "I think that some aspects of bounce rate are very important in the post-panda world."
"It's important to note how Google defines Bounce Rate," he adds. This is below:
"Bounce rate is the percentage of single-page visits or visits in which the person left your site from the entrance (landing) page. Use this metric to measure visit quality - a high bounce rate generally indicates that site entrance pages aren't relevant to your visitors. The more compelling your landing pages, the more visitors will stay on your site and convert. You can minimize bounce rates by tailoring landing pages to each keyword and ad that you run. Landing pages should provide the information and services that were promised in the ad copy."
He also points to how it is defined in Google Analytics:
"The percentage of single page visits resulting from this set of pages or page."
"Personally, I don't think that a single page visit is a bad thing. To me, it tells me the visitor found what they were looking for. Isn't that what Google would want? If I were Google, I'd want a searcher to find the answer to their search on the exact page they clicked on in a search result...not 1 or 2 clicks in. If I were Google, I'd look more at 'Who Bounces off that page, and returns to the same Google search, and clicks on someone else, and then never returns to your site,' but I'm not Google, and that's just my 'if I were Google' thoughts".
Regardless, it can't be a bad thing to strive to make every page of yours the best page of its type - the solution to the searcher's problem. At its heart, that is really what the Panda update is about. Really, that's what search ranking is about in general. Delivering the BEST result for the query - signals aside.
As far as links, while Boykin says it's "kind of" fair to say that making sure your links point to quality pages can have a major impact on how Google ranks your site post-Panda, he says, "The final solution should be to remove or fix the low quality pages, and thus, all your links would point to 'quality pages'."
Again, this should improve bounce rate.
"I think most agree that there's a 'Page Score' or a 'set of pages score,' and when that has a bad score, it affects those pages, and somehow ripples up the site," Boykin adds. "It could quite well be that if you have a page that links out to 100 internal pages, and if 80 of those pages are 'low quality' than it just might affect that page as well. A lot of this is hard to prove, but there are some smoking guns that can point in this direction."
"Bounce rate is important, and yes, many sites that got hit did have a high bounce rate, but comparing this to sites/pages that weren't hit doesn't exactly show any 'ah ha' moments of 'hey, if your bounce rate is over 75%, then you got Panda pooped on,' because the bounce rate Google shows the public is missing many key metrics that they know, but don't share with us."
I think the best advice you can follow in relation to all of this is to simply find ways to keep people from leaving your site, before they complete the task you want them to complete. That means providing content they want.
Is bounce rate important in the post-Panda world? Tell us what you think.