It’s Time To Stop Tracking Time On Site

By Shaun Tinney
5 minute read | Last Updated: July 1, 2016

The typical metrics for determining site engagement, such as time on site, are missing some key context.

Website managers spend a lot of time with site analytics hoping to better understand user behavior, discover areas for conversion rate optimization, and to judge the success of their company’s marketing and advertising efforts.

One metric that always stands out is the time each visitor spends on the site during their visit. Unfortunately, time on site is often relied on too heavily to determine success or failure online, even though it doesn’t offer much in the way of actionable guidance.

Typical metrics used to determine site engagement include bounce rate, time on site, exit rate, total pages visited, and conversion rate (if applicable). None of these commonly tracked site metrics can really be judged as “good” or “bad” in isolation. Even something as seemingly straightforward as bounce rate isn’t always the best way to determine site engagement.

Getting a pulse on what’s really happening on your site comes down to three key things: goals, context, and content.

Goals: Starting With The End In Mind

Before putting anything online, it’s important to know why it’s being added in the first place.

Before putting anything online, it’s important to know why it’s being added in the first place. Click To Tweet

Many companies tend to evaluate the site structure and content of their nearest competitors and attempt to replicate that with their own spin. This assumes way too much on the part of the competition, particularly that they have put their own sites through rigorous testing that has optimized their site experience over time. All too often, that’s just not true.

Knowing the results you’re hoping to achieve by putting content online is step one. Step two is aligning your goals with those of your site’s visitors.

Brand goals usually include things like increasing conversion rates and engagement, while visitor goals are far more specifically focused. Visitors are looking to solve a problem, learn something new, buy a product, or be entertained.

Approaching your site content within the context of goals also helps to create actionable data for increasing other key site performance goals. Content-related trackable goals include things like:

  • “Read more” link clicks
  • Downloads (PDFs, etc.)
  • Images expanded (or zoomed in on)
  • Video completion rates and drop-off points

Commonly tracked site-wide goals include:

  • Newsletter sign ups
  • Social shares
  • Social follows
  • Leads generated
  • Account creation/sign in
  • Account upgrades (free to paid)
  • Transactions completed

If you’re hoping to increase newsletter opt-ins and most of your site visitors are just trying to find your phone number, you’re already at an impasse.

In order to gain real traction with your own goals, you’ve got to connect them with the goals your site visitors are already trying to accomplish.

Context & Content: Everything In Its Right Place

The metrics in your analytics dashboard all come without some particularly important information: context.

The time spent on a page or piece of content will vary based on the purpose, length, difficulty or density, and intent of the page. Not all content is created to accomplish the same goals, so judging the performance of every page based on the same metrics doesn’t make any sense.

Your customer service pages should be designed to help people get answers to their questions as quickly as possible. In those cases, a low time on site would indicate that visitors are able to locate answers to their questions quickly, saving them time.

If it takes an average of five minutes for a site visitor to read through a particularly lengthy and engaging article, then five minutes is a fine success metric for time spent on that page. If it takes five minutes for a site visitor to find your contact information, the site is definitely failing them.

Before letting any metrics speak on behalf of your site’s performance, it’s important to account for the intent of each page. Since each type of content serves a different purpose, each page should be evaluated using metrics appropriate to the intended purpose of that content.

Content is what keeps visitors on your site & continuous great content ensures they’ll come back. Click To Tweet

Great content is what keeps visitors on your site, and continuous production of great content ensures they’ll come back. Outside of your site’s navigation, content is the only thing your visitors are interacting with. Content can be useful, relevant, actionable, helpful or entertaining. But whatever it is, it must be designed for a purpose, and judged according to the purpose it was designed for.

Solving The Metrics Equation

Finding the right metrics to track the success of your website, landing page, or marketing campaign requires two things: goals for your content, and metrics for your goals.

For a quick contrast let’s look at two types of content that might use the same metrics with totally different results:

Customer Service Content

Goal: Quickly answer customer questions
Metrics: Pageviews (the fewer the better), Time on Page (the lower the better), Page Scroll Value (doesn’t matter, as long as their questions are answered)

AirBNB Help Center

airbnb’s help center is a lauded example of Customer Service Content

Editorial Content

Goal: Keep visitors engaged with great content
Metrics: Pageviews (the more the better), Time on Page (the longer the better), Page Scroll Value (ideally everyone gets to the end of each page)

Techcrunch Mobile Read Full Article

Techcrunch’s mobile site experience includes “Read Full Article” links to engage and track readers

The goal of your customer service content is to help solve problems, so the less time it takes your visitors, the happier they’ll be. With editorial content, the goal is to be engaging and keep a visitor’s attention, so more time is generally an indication of success.

Time On Site Is Not Perfect

We’re still waiting for someone to design the perfect metric to track a site’s success. In the meantime, stay focused on helping your visitors get what they came for, and judge your content by the right metrics, and you’ll be on the right path.

If you need help sorting all this out, we can help. We’ve developed the Conversion Growth Program™ to ensure your site is performing at its peak, and your team is tracking the right metrics for success.