A huge increase in "deep dips" was one of the big findings in our new user research for this year's Top Web UX Design Guidelines seminar. That is, ever-more users are arriving deep within websites rather than entering them through the homepage.
The homepage is still important, and you should continue to ensure homepage usability for two main reasons:
The homepage is typically the single most-visited page, because the deep entry points are scattered across a vast number of interior pages.
The homepage is the orienteering point for visitors who arrive through deep links and then decide to explore the site further.
For many sites, the deep-dip increase has an unfortunate consequence: much bigger bounce rates.
The bounce rate is defined as the percentage of visitors who turn around at the entry page and immediately leave the site. Such visitors "bounce" out and never see additional pages.
"Unique Visitors" Must Die
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.
On the contrary, bouncers should be considered a negative statistic: the site failed to engage them enough to entice even a second pageview.
To measure site success, you should count only loyal users who return repeatedly. Or, if your site is such that most people will visit only once, at least require that they exhibit a minimum amount of engagement before you count them as a positive statistic.
Chasing higher unique-visitor counts will undermine your long-term positioning because you'll design gimmicks rather than build features that bring people back and turn them into devotees and customers.
Analyzing Bounce Rates by Entry Source Segmentation
As with all quantitative methods, Web analytics is a dangerous game. If you measure the wrong thing, your metrics won't just be weak — they'll be directly misleading and might cause you to pursue an erroneous strategy that reduces your design's business value.
In this case, it's important to realize that there's no such thing as a single bounce rate; you must analyze bounce rates separately for the 4 sources of visitors (ordering the segments by their level of commitment to your site):
Low-value referrers, such as Digg. People arriving through these sources are notoriously fickle and are probably not in your target audience. You should expect most of them to leave immediately, once they've satisfied their idle curiosity. Consider any value derived from Digg and its like as pure gravy; don't worry if this traffic source has a sky-high bounce rate.
Direct links from other websites. These links are the equivalent of a vague recommendation: "You might want to check out this site." People who click such links haven't expressed a direct intent to engage with your topic to the same degree as someone who actively enters a search engine query. These visitors do have some degree of interest, however, so a high bounce rate is a symptom of a user experience problem.
Search engine traffic, whether from organic SEO or paid links. By clicking your link, these users have actively indicated an acute interest in the topic and should engage intensely with your content. If they leave immediately, it's a sign that something is seriously wrong with your landing pages.
Note: for some search keywords, you'll rank highly even though you don't serve the user intent that the keywords express. Obviously, people who come looking for something you don't have will leave. Because they're not your customers, you shouldn't worry about a high bounce rate from these visitors.
Loyal users who return repeatedly to your site. On the one hand, you'd expect the highest engagement from your biggest fans. On the other hand, this engagement might not show up on every visit if they visit often. As long as people keep coming back, there's nothing wrong with having them sometimes leave after a page view or two.
As an example, when I send out my email newsletter announcing a new Alertbox column, there's a flood of visits from my subscribers to that page. Of these visitors, only 10% click on to additional pages. I expect that, however, because long-term subscribers have already read most of the earlier articles I link to. Also, it usually takes about 3 years before new subscribers can convince their bosses to send them to my conference, so I don't expect them to repeatedly click through to in-depth course descriptions of the topics I briefly cover in a column.
The following chart shows a rough visualization of the expected bounce rates from the four user-interest levels. The rates resemble an inverted checkmark:
Even though bouncing users may seem most common on websites, they are also found on intranets. Here, employees are predisposed to accept the validity of a page or section, since it's the official company intranet, after all. Thus, intranet bounces are usually symptoms of poor navigation or poor use of related links, as well as poor section landing pages. (For more on all these topics, see the report on Intranet Information Architecture [IA].)
Getting One More Pageview
Depending on the source of visitors, your bounce rates might be high or low. But, except for low-value visitors, you should certainly strive for fewer bounces.
In one of our case studies on the Return on Investment (ROI) from usability, a website reduced its bounce rate from 30% to a minuscule 2.5% through a simple redesign. Even if you can't always cut your bounce rates to one-tenth their previous levels, simple changes can often lead to substantial improvements.
First and foremost, test your site with representative users. You'll almost always find striking ways in which you repel visitors through low-credibility design, fluffy content, or confusing navigation.
Second, expose some next steps for people to take if they're interested in the current page. There are two good approaches here:
A linear information path offering a single link to either follow-up information or a deeper treatment of the topic. Place this link at the bottom of the page, where people are (hopefully) motivated to learn more. (But don't use the lame follow-up link employed by the New York Times, which refers people to "more articles" without listing a specific, relevant article.)
Contextual see-also links can provide multiple pointers to key places of interest to people who liked the current page. Specific links are vastly superior to generic navigation menus for this purpose.
Third, if you have a product or service that alleviates the pain point that motivated visitors to seek out the deep link, you should say so explicitly (and link directly to it), instead of hoping that people will find the right page by perusing your product catalog.