Believing in time-on-site

A Sept. 12 Pew Center study found that “Americans are spending more time following the news than over the past decade.”  Great news – or is this yet another misleading key performance indicator, as my previous blog post about time spent on site might suggest?

No – I like the Pew Center study.  It’s a study of attitudes and feelings.  Good old-fashioned survey research (with all of its mind-numbing statistical sampling), is an essential component of web analytics.  Web site traffic data is audience behavior – the “what.” News orgs have to havPew Research Centere attitudinal research to understand the “why” so they can attract audiences that aren’t coming to their sites.

The data you get from Google Analytics or Omniture is enticing, isn’t it?  (Work with me, here….)  Oh wow, we can track every click!  Ah, yes, we can track every click – but we can ONLY track clicks on OUR site, not on anyone else’s.

A time-on-site calculation can only be harvested for you if someone clicks on a page in your site and generates a page view that’s counted by your Google Analytics/Omniture account.  Time-on-site is the time in between the first page clicked on YOUR site and the last page clicked on YOUR site.

This means:

1.   If someone clicks on YOUR site and then immediately goes to another site (a bounce),
Picture 8 it’s not included by Google Analytics/Omniture in the time- on-site calculation.  It’s like it never existed, time-on-site-wise.

It IS counted as one visit and as one page view.  So that means that all of those people who come to your site regularly (you know, the ones we really like) just to get the latest on a story aren’t counted in time-on-site – and they should be.

2.    If someone is on his/her third page in your site and opens another tab anPicture 5d goes to another site for twenty minutes before returning to your site and clicking on another two pages, those twenty minutes are included in time-on-site – and they shouldn’t be.

3.    The time a person spends on the last page of your site isn’t counted.
Picture 7 If someone clicks through a few pages on your site and spends 15
minutes utterly absorbed in a story before leaving your site to go pay
bills online, those 15 minutes aren’t included in time-on-site – and they should be.

So, time-spent-on-site is always either over- or under-counted.  And you’ll never know which – this makes this metric utterly unreliable as an indicator of success or failure.  So you can’t make a decision with this data because you can’t know whether your action – a section added, the number of long-form videos reduced – caused time spent to go up or down.

More importantly, these days it really doesn’t matter how much time people  actually spend on a news site.  What matters much, much more is whether people are engaged with the news, whether they believe news sites are an essential component to their lives, so much so that they come back repeatedly, rate a story with five stars, leave comments, click on an ad, and otherwise use the site.  It doesn’t matter whether they spend three seconds or three hours.
More say they graze for news

That’s what makes the Pew Center finding so exciting (surely you’re still with me on how great web analytics is?).  People actually said they’re spending more time with the news now than they did a decade ago.  It doesn’t matter whether they actually are (!) – they believe they are.
I wish every news org could afford its own Pew Center-like attitudinal research study so it could track how engaged its own targeted audiences are (or aren’t), and to understand how to get and retain new audiences.  The information wouldn’t always be pretty, but at least it would be data that could make a difference.

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