This is the third in a series of posts in which I dis­cuss the poten­tial “best” mea­sure­ment for online adver­tis­ing. While some audi­ence mea­sure­ment firms believe time-spent-on-site is set to take over the wan­ing page view as the most effec­tive mea­sure of vis­i­tor engage­ment, I believe they’re wrong.

I believe it is actu­ally impres­sions that should become the stan­dard by which both buy­ers and sell­ers of online media will begin to nego­ti­ate their buys. And per­haps, in the future, another met­ric like clicks will gain more foot­ing in the non-search adver­tis­ing world (clicks are already the stan­dard in search advertising).

For a quick sum­mary of my argu­ment, read the first in the series. For more on time-spent-on-site, read on…

With its announce­ment, audi­ence mea­sure­ment firms have sug­gested that time-spent-on-site is a more equi­table way than page views to mea­sure vis­i­tor engage­ment in a Web 2.0 world.

The ratio­nale is that Web 2.0 tech­nolo­gies like AJAX do not adhere to the tra­di­tional page metaphor, so time spent on site is a bet­ter form of engage­ment mea­sure­ment. (For a descrip­tion of why pages that use Web 2.0 tech­nolo­gies are dif­fi­cult to mea­sure using tra­di­tional page views, see Mea­sur­ing Vis­i­tor Engage­ment: Brave New World or The Emperor’s New Clothes.

To that end, Scott Ross, direc­tor of prod­uct mar­ket­ing at Nielsen com­mented, in a Beet​.tv inter­view that, based on every­thing that’s going on with the influx of AJAX and stream­ing, total min­utes is the best gauge for site traffic.

By way of exam­ple, Ross ref­er­enced, in the same inter­view (or read about it in a Com­put­er­World arti­cle from Oct. 7, 2007), a com­par­i­son between MySpace and Youtube, where MySpace out­num­bers YouTube’s page views by a fac­tor of 10 or 11, but the ratio of time spent on MySpace is about 70% less — at roughly 3 to 1.

Sites like AOL and Yahoo also cat­a­pult to the top of the “engage­ment” list, dri­ven by inter­ac­tive appli­ca­tions like Instant Mes­sen­ger and email.

With all of this in mind, it becomes increas­ingly evi­dent why time spent on site has attracted so much atten­tion. In a way, audi­ence mea­sure­ment firms didn’t have a choice. They needed to move beyond the page view to mea­sure engage­ment, or the “qual­ity” of the visit (but not nec­es­sar­ily the qual­ity of the visitor).

But some­thing else hap­pens with time-spent-on-site. Audi­ence mea­sure­ment firms regain the high ground. Why? Because time spent on site is actu­ally dic­tated by the pan­elist, not by the site they visit. In other words, time spent on site is mea­sured by a meter that sits on the user’s com­puter — and unlike page views, sites have lit­tle way to manip­u­late or cor­rupt the number.

At this point, you could argue that this is great — kill two birds with one stone. Improve engage­ment or quality-of-visit mea­sure­ment, and offer a met­ric that can’t be dra­mat­i­cally biased by sites themselves.

While I haven’t seen any arti­cles men­tion this angle of the busi­ness (con­trol vs. not), it’s nonethe­less sup­port­ive of the claims that this is Brave New World ter­ri­tory and bet­ter for the indus­try as a whole.

But as I men­tioned ear­lier, I actu­ally disagree.

Time-spent-on-site has been avail­able for years as a stan­dard web­site met­ric.  In fact, it has changed very lit­tle since the pre­his­toric era when server log files were used to mea­sure site traf­fic (yes, it was avail­able back then).

So is it really a step for­ward for audi­ence mea­sure­ment — an indus­try that has recently come under fire for major chal­lenges in their under­ly­ing method­olo­gies and data accu­racy?  And is it really a step for­ward for adver­tis­ers and pub­lish­ers — who have like­wise strug­gled to cre­ate an effec­tive mar­ket­place for buy­ers and sell­ers of ad inven­tory (hence the mete­oric rise of third-party ad networks)?

I think not.  Next time, I’ll write about impres­sions, and why using impres­sions offers a sig­nif­i­cant oppor­tu­nity for adver­tis­ers and pub­lish­ers to cre­ate a more effi­cient marketplace.

3 comments
michael k
michael k

Just finished reading all three 'visitor engagement' entries and now have more questions than answers! I run a resource site for traveling auto racing fans with a decent amount of content (i.e.: city guides, venue feedback, images, restaurants, lodging, etc.). The site employs both tabs and Ajax, so it seems that impression numbers will never give me the complete story when it comes to users. Because of this, I have been using the 'time spent' as a major KPI. Further, when it comes to advertising, it seems that impressions and 'time spent' can't be separated. If I am competing for ad dollars against another, similar site, it seems like there has to be a way to leverage 'time-on-page' in addition to merely impressions. If both sites have the same number of overall impressions on the Talladega Superspeedway page, but only averages 30 seconds per page; however, my users where on the page for over 3 minutes, wouldn't I be leaving ad dollars on the table if I can't leverage that fact? If nothing else, it seems like my site's higher time-on-page number will convince the advertiser that my site is more worthy of their dollars. If impressions were the metric advertisers used to compare the two sites, wouldn't they simply 'go with their gut', pick the prettier site, or even, flip a coin to determine which site to advertise on?

David Risdate
David Risdate

Though I agree with your basic premise about Time Spent being potentially not a step forward, I fear you approach this from a very colored perspective (being employed with a site analytics firm). Time Spent, as measured by an audience measurement firms, is accurately captured by software on a users computer. However, companies that use page-tagging methods to track behavior are unable to provide a complete picture because the last page of a visit is never included in time spent calculations (since there is no subsequent server call to compare timestamps). This is simply a fundemental challenge in page-tagging and accepted as being a 'flaw' in the process. However, this means that Time Spent measures from companies like Coremetrics and Omniture are inherently incorrect. What's odd in your posting above is that you say you disagree with the push of Time Spent, yet you don't mention why. Pithy statements such as "I think not" don't provide any detail as to why you are disagreeing with the industry. And you don't make any mention at all of the measurement flaw noted above and how it puts companies like yours in a more challenging position to find alternate methods of measuring 'engagement'.

Tammy A.
Tammy A.

Time spent on site is also one of those tricky metrics because it can be artificially high. Back in the day, I used to watch the average time spent on site metrics for a particular site I was managing. While interesting, it could also be misinterpreted. More time spent on the site doesn't always equal a happier visitor. It could be they couldn't find what they wanted and had to spend more time searching. It could also mean they were on your site and simply left their browser open and went on doing something else, which artificially inflates the sense of engagement they had. (Of course eventaully the 30-minute rules comes in, but I think you get my point.) Should be interesting to see how this plays out.