On Valuing ‘Time Spent’ Over Pageviews

hand tallies count on wall

Earlier this week Nielsen announced it will begin focusing on “time spent”, rather than pageviews, as the key measure of website user engagement.

Huzzah. Pardon me while I do a few celebratory cartwheels.

The ecosystem of a large, ad-driven site is one of statistical obsession. Hourly, blow-by-blow metrics minutiae is just another fact of life. Traffic numbers, ad impressions, clickthroughs. Why? If you can measure it you can monetize it.

But the metrics industry was born with a congenital deathgrip on pageviews. The “p.v. stat” has ruled their reports since time immemorial. Despite any mathematical special sauces they might wave in your face most every company gathers numbers the old-fashioned way: By sitting around, staring at user clicks, waiting to see if the server spits back a file with a mimetype of text/html in response. (At last check most will time out after pauses on the order of three seconds, ignoring the click as “noise”.)

The more technically-minded among you may have already spotted some trouble here.

Effectively, every metrics company until now has been blind as a bat when it comes to AJAX, Flash, or any other moderately exotic gewgaw that gives the wonderful world of Web 2.0 its tangy zip. Want to use AJAX for the Forces of Good, cutting down on data exchange with the server and presenting your user with a more responsive UI? You will be punished for your temerity in the form of a big, fat gaping void where your traffic numbers ought to be.

You will look down at your report in shock, befuddled by the paltry audience stats you see despite king-size user activity and massive PR buzz. The report will look back balefully and quip, “Sorry. Ain’t nobody here but us HTML pages.” Antiquated development is rewarded (iframe, anyone?) and pageview traps rule the roost.

A combination of unique users mixed with time spent tells you (and your advertisers) more about the value of your audience, and neatly sidesteps the issues I’m harping about. The user that sticks around is the user you want to throw ad dollars at.

Perfect? No. End of the pageview? Not bloody likely. But the door is now officially open to more balanced formulas, counting user engagement along with raw site traffic.

A long, interminable monogamy with the pageview is coming to an end. Here’s to a beautiful breakup.