Is Time on Your Side?
Nielsen//NetRatings announced in July that it was adding “total minutes” to its syndicated Internet measurement service. ComScore, another measurement company, also uses this time-based metric in determining how users are interacting with a Web site. The announcement echoed what many Web site managers were already doing on their own. That is, tracking the amount of time a visitor spends on a particular page. However, with the already massively popular use of streaming content and technologies such as AJAX, which hamper the page view metric by refreshing certain content areas without reloading an entire page, time spent appears to have gained ground as a metric more suitable to a user’s overall engagement with a site’s content.
The announcement also ignited renewed interest in the metric because if you replace the commonly used page views with time spent, sites with heavy video content, for example, suddenly bubble to the top of the “traffic list.” Sites with content that doesn’t require much time to digest, but nevertheless have massive page view metrics, move down the list.
What’s in It for Publishers?
The relevance for publishers could vary. “I think it matters what kind of site you have,” says Joe Galarneau, chief technology officer at Thomas Publishing Company. “For instance, our main site, ThomasNet, is more of a sourcing site. It’s not heavily ‘AJAXed’ and so for us, a page view is still a meaningful metric because it gives us some barometer on how we’re doing.”
Media companies seeing success with rich media applications may want to place more weight on the time spent metric. “If you’re a media company and you’re throwing more rich applications on your pages and you’re looking at page views as a performance metric year-over-year, it’s not going to do you nearly as much good,” says Galarneau.
He adds that his company had already been tracking session length and other engagement statistics for years. But the panel-based measurement firms, which offer their survey results to clients, now emphasize session length metrics. “The panels send that out to media buyers, saying, ‘Here’s a way to slice and dice your sites. Don’t just look at uniques or page views or share of audience,’” says Galarneau.
The Bigger Picture
Overall, however, time spent is just another view into audience behavior, not necessarily a sales definer. But despite the fact that most publishers still base their ad sales on page views, it doesn’t hurt to have engagement metrics as extra ammunition—either to back up a sales pitch or for a more complete understanding of how your users interact with your site. “We position our Web site as a mix of reach and time spent,” says Chris Peacock, vice president and executive editor at CNNMoney.com. “That makes sense to anybody. How big are you and how engaged is your reader?”
Nevertheless, page views still drive the value of the advertising. Peacock, whose site attracts an average of about 8 million uniques per month, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, says CNNMoney.com is still sold on impressions, despite the fact that some data—headlines, index data—are updating dynamically without a page refresh. “I think the assumption is that even if somebody stays on a page for 30 minutes, it’s still just one impression, not a 30-minute ad buy,” he says.
In the end, page views (reach) and time spent (engagement) go hand-in-hand when presenting the true value of a publisher’s Web site. But depending on the market, a publisher might not actually want its customers spending too much time on the site. “We don’t try to have them on the site for long amounts of time,” says Tim Reason, editorial director of CFO.com. “We emphasize clean navigation, search and information that’s going to help. We almost feel more successful if they get a useful piece of information and get off our site quickly.”
This is not to say CFO.com does not offer rich media applications. But, according to Reason, the video, podcasts and Webcasts are all part of a different financial model. “The financial connection to a time-spent metric is not as direct as it is to a page-view metric,” he says. “In the case where we have a user spend an hour with a Webcast, there’s a different business model there.”