Time on Site

by Jason Preston on October 17, 2008

Everyone can agree that the pageview is basically a broken metric – it doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the number of people coming to your site, what they’re doing there, and how valuable they are to an advertiser.

A big part of making ads a workable solution for newspapers online is finding a metric that does correctly report its value to an advertiser. Right now the metric looking to supplant the pageview is “time on site” (that’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it?).

This is a step in the right direction, because it’s a metric that includes user engagement as well as just user existence. But it’s dangerous to mindlessly chase any one metric. Here are some of the pitfalls I think we might run into if “time on site” become overly important:

Roach Motels

In the late 1990s, it was all about how well you could trap a user on your domain. After all, the more a user is trapped, the more “hits” you generated, and the better off you were.

A whole science was born in using convoluted landing pages to make sure that a user rarely, if ever, left your site. Can you imagine using Yahoo! if clicking on a search result took you to another Yahoo! page?

From a user perspective this is a nightmare. But time on site is a lot like the “hit” in that if pursued mindlessly, sooner or later management is going to assume that the best way to increase the amount of time people spend on your domain is not to produce better content, but to make it difficult for the user to leave.

And the second you make that choice, you’re dead.

Substanceless journalism

Going hand in hand with the above point is the tendency for time on site to lead to less substantive journalism.

What do I mean?

Take a look at your server logs. I’ve had a number of people tell me that on news sites as with other sites, the big time wasters are: photo galleries and sports detail pages.

Now, I’m all for photography and sports, and in fact I think photography can be one hell of a powerful way to do journalism, but it’s important to realize that this creates an “easy way out” trap when you’re looking to maximize time on site.

I would much prefer it if papers were to experiment with good interactive tools. I’m willing to bet that the New York Times gets a big boost in time on site from all their really amazing interactive tools.

Devalued breakaway stories

If your focus is on time on site, you’re going to end up devaluing your breakaway stories—you know, the ones that make the Drudge Report or Digg?

Stories like that typically have very high bounce rates, but if you’re on the ball they can turn into great short-term ad revenue streams and they end up doing a lot by giving your brand some national exposure.

In short, there are good reasons to still want your reporters working on stories that might turn into big, short-lived hits (as in “one hit wonders,” not “hits” the page metric).

Putting too much emphasis on time on site means putting pressure on your staff to produce one kind of content over another, and I think it’s better to have a healthy balance in your editorial.

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Time on Site - Amphibia Daily Links
12.08.08 at 2:30 am

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1 DoreenatDMS 10.17.08 at 2:29 pm

Yes, Jason … everything in moderation as they say … there are pros and cons, but it comes down to the level of interactivity of the site (as you mention), types of content, etc., keeping the user/reader in mind. This may be a bit off topic, but somewhat related: the continued use of “hits”. Technically, I know what it means and I understand its value (or, rather, lack of); but whenever I hear others use it — especially those in mainstream tv/radio media, I always think to myself, “do they actually mean ‘eyeballs’? … ‘Page views’?…” It continues to surprise and frustrate me that this is still a part of the mainstream media’s lexicon when reporting online stories…

2 Jason Preston 10.17.08 at 2:42 pm

DoreenatDMS – You’re right on all counts. I’m also totally with you about media still using the term “hits.”

If page views are on their way out the door, then “hits” left on the Mayflower.

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