I love web analytics and traffic rankings, but unfortunately the web still suffers from a lack of reliable and accurate comparison metrics between sites. Nielsen announced last Tuesday that they are ditching the page view in favor of the “time spent” metric. The question though is if this is a good thing?
Many people have criticized the page view over the last few years as sites like Myspace that are very page view intense rise higher in the rankings than sites that may just do a better job of not making users click around so many pages. Time spent as the metric is a chance to rectify that by making the amount of time a user spends on the site the most important thing. That seems logical, but it has a lot of flaws as well.
Just like the page view metric provided incentive for sites to actually make the user experience worse by creating more pages needing to be viewed to get a task accomplished, time spent also provides incentive to make the user experience take longer than necessary. If pages load slower it can help, if things take a long time to download it can help, or just keeping all those extra pages around to make people take longer to accomplish tasks can help your time spent metric.
It also gives a huge advantage to video sites where a user naturally stays engaged longer to watch videos that need to download and then require watching time. Expect YouTube to rocket in the Nielsen rankings, while a site like Google.com itself which gets the user to it’s goal quickly and off of Google.com will suffer.
If you leave your Yahoo Mail or Gmail open all day, that will add a huge boost to those companies time spent rankings, but does it really mean they should be listed higher because of that? Maybe, but I’m not so sure. It’s also been said that AOL Instant Messenger usage will count for AOL.com, giving it a huge boost as so many people leave that application on 24/7. In no way does running AIM constitute “website usage” to me, but maybe I’m crazy.
So how can we truly measure a user’s engagement with a site? What matters most? How much time users spend? How many pages they view? How many uniques just view a site in general?
I’d argue that we need a formula of some type that factors in multiple things to truly rate sites. Perhaps a combination of time spent, page views, and unique visitors could somehow get us the most accurate picture. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I know so far nobody else does either.