For content publishers, finding reliable information about web analytics can be challenging. Most web analytics systems are built with ecommerce as the core focus, advertising viability as an add-on, and editorial decision-making as an afterthought. Experts on digital editorial metrics are few and far between. Most legacy media companies never invested in thinking beyond the error-ridden easily inflated impression-based advertising system, and digital editors are far too weighed down with producing too much content to make space in their brains to learn much beyond the basics.

I've spent the past seven years jury-rigging ecommerce-focused systems to focus on content, making sense of content analytics from a toolbox assembled for another use case. In this new monthly series, I want to share what I've learned and patterns I see, with the hope that content marketers and website publishers can make some use of them. Many of these metrics are often misread and used to make bad business decisions—by execs who never bothered learn nuance, by marketing leaders who understand growth but not churn, by entitled broadcasters who believe audiences will hang on every word and avoid hard truths about how people actually consumer info.

In a business world obsessed with gamification, competition and ranking, people lose their jobs when leaders misread metrics. Because they're rarely provided time and training to understand editorial analytics, content folks dismiss data-backed thinking as universally challenging and out of reach. But if you know what to look for, understanding common data stories and patterns in your analytics can improve content performance immensely.

Today we'll spend time with some of the most oft misread metrics: duration. How much precious time from their days do your readers devote to your content? How can you take actionable steps using duration data?

What are duration and time engaged metrics and why do they matter to editors?

Duration measures how much time, on average, your audience is willing to spend with your content and your brand. As discussed on a recent episode of Reply All, video algorithms like TikTok and YouTube can determine which content to serve next based on the content you spend the most time with. It's a decent system for passive measurement, since video content is always loading and always tracking as it loads. As long as the video content keeps loading, the algorithm believes you're engaged and serves you similar content.

Engagement with text-based web content is notoriously much harder to determine. Text loads quickly, and people consume the content at different paces, for different needs. Informational websites don't have "like" buttons, and operating a comments section is only for the bravest of web operators. Email newsletters are even less measurable—that privacy is critical to newsletters' current popularity—and so newsletter writers will never be able to tell whether someone devours every word of your newsletter or just skims the headlines.

On websites, the length of time an audience spends with content is crucial to understanding whether they like it or not, whether they want to see more, whether they'll return, and whether they'll subscribe.

Common website duration metrics:

  • Time on page (universal GA): How long a user spends on a particular page before clicking to the next page, whether or not they're engaged with the page
  • Session duration/time on site (universal GA): How long a user spends on a website, whether or not they're active on the page, whether it's in the foreground or background, last page excluded.
  • Engagement time (GA4): How long a user spends on a page in the foreground.
  • Engagement time per session (GA4): How long a user was engaged on a specific screen or page during the course of a session.

Best practices for using duration metrics

For retail sites, the rule of thumb is to keep session duration low. A long session duration during a purchase can mean users are confused or frustrated by the site. Ideally, ecommerce sites get users to what they need, fast, without many hiccups.

For content-rich sites, session duration is a different story. You want a longer session duration because you're in the attention-attracting business, or because you want users to be researching your product/brand so much that they want to read every word you've written.

When evaluating duration, remember that these metrics are averages, which means they log the time of super-interested readers at the same rate of the ones who are just skimming the headlines. Someone who has a bunch of tabs open clicking back and forth is right there, hanging with the bots.

Averages should always be used in conjunction with another metric or in comparison to another, similar situation. On their own, they have little value or meaning and should absolutely not be used to make business decisions without additional context.

I recommend that content-driven websites:

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