Why Time on Page isn’t Great For Attention Analytics

What attention analytics measures do you use on your website?

Time on Site? Pageviews? Sessions?

If you use Google Analytics then these are the default. They are what I see day in, day out on dashboards in companies across the world. But are these really the best at measuring and optimising your website?

Suppose you start running a new paid search campaign, driving people to a landing page designed to inform people about your new product. You’ve spent weeks beautifully crafting this page. It’s responsive, mobile optimised, has a catchy headline with clear user benefits and strong body copy. The page is highly educational.

A week after the campaign starts, you’re ecstatic. You’ve driven 10,000 people to the page.

And they you start to look a little closer…

  • Bounce rate is 90% despite your site average being 60%. Fair enough, this is a new audience, so you’d expect a few more bounces.
  • Average time on page is 10 seconds. This is a long page with plenty to read, and a video to watch. There’s no way people get through it in 10 seconds.
  • Pageviews is 11,000. A few people have returned, hence why a higher number of pageviews than sessions. Seems OK.

What do you do next?

Analytics is not simply there so you can produce giant spreadsheets and pretty graphs. Analytics is about action. What is the data telling you to do next?

Given the metrics above, I’d be concerned. Despite successfully generating sessions and pageviews, people don’t seem to be reading the content. The page is purely education (ie there’s no action you want people to take except to raise awareness). These metrics indicate the landing page is failing.

But, there’s a nagging feeling in your head. Your UX guy spent days on the design, and it tested really well with focus groups.

What’s going on?

The sting in the tale

The big problem is the way Google Analytics calculates its Time on Page and Avg. Time on Page metrics, which are really the only attention analytics metrics you get. I’m going to get a little technical here but bear with me. Every page you visit sends a server call to Google, detailing what page you’ve seen and the time you saw it. When you visit the next page, Google calculates the difference between this server call and the previous one, and uses that value as the amount of time you spent on the page.

The astute amongst you will immediately spot a problem. What if I only visit a single page in a session (which is, in fact, exactly what a bounce is, and what 90% of people are doing on your educational landing page)?

Because there is no second pageview, there is no second server call, and therefore Google Analytics has no idea how long you were on the page before you left, and is not able to calculate time on page.

That’s right. A person might have spent 20 minutes highly engaged with your page and soaking up all the material you’d written, but if they bounce Google Analytics discounts their session from the Time on Page and Avg. Time on Page metrics.

To make matters even worse, this doesn’t just happen on single page visits. It happens on all exit pages for the sample reason- there is no subsequent server call and therefore this last page is excluded from the calculations.

What this means in practise

Let’s go back to our landing page example, and take a sample of 10 people. Suppose 9 were highly engaged and spend 10 minutes each reading the content, but all left afterwards. The tenth person spent 10 seconds reading the page, realised it wasn’t for them, but clicked a link in the header to visit your home page.

Here’s what I think the attention analytics metrics should be:

  • Avg. Time on Page: 9 minutes, 1 second (541 seconds)
  • Total Time on Page: 10 minutes, 10 seconds

Here’s what you’d see in Google Analytics:

  • Avg. Time on Page: 10 seconds
  • Total Time on Page: 10 seconds

Which would you rather make an informed decision on?

If I saw the first set of numbers I would be giving the landing page designer and paid search marketer a pay rise! If I saw the second set I’d be asking serious questions of the pair of them, and probably end up spending several days and hundreds of pounds getting a new design launched.

Who’s at risk

The biggest at risk are blog and content website, whose aim is to generate great content their readers love. Just looking in Google Analytics can tell you how many people visited the article page, but doesn’t tell you how much attention they paid to it. And the Time on Page metric isn’t going to help you figure it out.

You need decent Attention Analytics

The moral of the story is, you need a decent set of attention metrics to use when analysing the performance of your website, especially if you are in the high risk category. Don’t rely on pageviews and Time on Page- they skew data by not taking in to account bounced sessions or the last page of a session.

Summary

  • Time on Page and Avg. Time on Page are flawed in most analytics packages (including Google Analytics) and not good attention metrics to use when judging engagement.
  • Those most at risk are bloggers and content sites, or those analysing landing page performance.
  • Consider using better Attention Analytics to really understand what content people love on your website.

 

 

Ed Brocklebank is the founder of Metric Mogul, a digital analytics consultancy. He helps business of all sizes become more data-driven through marketing technology. He runs training for General Assembly London on Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager.