Besides being one of the primary metrics used for selling advertising space on websites, analytics can be powerful in determining the type of content consumers are looking for and help businesses better tailor their online experiences for customers. However, with analytics programs able to turn any interaction with a website into a number, it’s important to keep in mind that most of those numbers cannot make a website better. Instead, it is the job of every site to determine which metrics are most valuable to them, then decide how and to what extent to use those numbers to determine future content direction and best practices. In news-speak, this would be called taking an editorial approach to the data.
Discovering Valuable Insights Within the Analytics Noise
When used correctly, analytics can reveal insights about content and websites that are otherwise invisible. But analytics can often create a cacophony of noise with no obvious message, turning a tool that is intended to clarify user experience into a confusing mess of numbers. Marketers report their problems with analytics often surround basic questions: who, what, when (and for how long), where and why are people viewing their content? Each one of these problems raises another set of questions: Which is the best metric to use to answer this question? Does a metric exist to measure this? What do I do with this information once I’ve acquired it?
The simplest metric to measure is a page view count, but just because it is easy to log does not mean it is valuable. Too many publishers put too much emphasis on the importance of clicks, mistaking a user’s action for a positive impression. Valuing clicks, which are only truly useful for ad-driven sites, can give a mistaken impression about a user’s experience and often results in publishers delivering content that user don’t really want. “Are a lot of page views per visit a good thing (“the visitor loved our site so much!”), a bad thing (“our site is so bad it takes 23 pages to find what you’re looking for!”), or a horrible thing (“After a 23-page hunt, the visitor gave up!”)? Measuring only page views, how would you ever know?” writes Avinash Kaushik on Think with Google. Perhaps the only way to rationalize the continued obsession with page views is that this information is easily obtainable, easily quantifiable and easily understandable to those who don’t work regularly with analytics. But even seemingly simple and established metrics like “time on page” or “bounce rate” have their limitations.
How Do You Measure True Engagement?
Viral content site Upworthy, which does not use banner ads, wrote it was changing its primary metrics for gauging content from page views to “total attention on site” and “total attention per piece,” which it defines as more precise than the more common “time on page” metric. “We built attention minutes to look at a wide range of signals — everything from video player signals about whether a video is currently playing, to a user’s mouse movements, to which browser tab is currently open — to determine whether the user is still engaged,” Upworthy posted on their blog. “The result is a fine-grained and unforgiving metric that tells us whether people are really engaged with our content or whether they’ve moved on to the next thing.”
Onto Even Bigger Challenges: Measuring the Reach of Visual Content
The picture becomes even more blurred when visual content and social sharing come into the picture. While sites can easily track who is sharing their posts on social media, a sure sign the audience is engaging with it in some manner, images can easily be dislodged from their original context, reposted and shared beyond the reach of traditional analytics programs. It’s therefore difficult to truly understand the full reach of any visual content on the Internet. Despite these challenges, marketers and analytics experts continue to come up with new metrics and new ways to contextualize data in order to glean new insights. What challenges have you faced when using analytics on your site? You can start learning more what analytics can do for your visual content, using Visually’s new Native Analytics. Allison McCartney is an editor at the PBS NewsHour focused on education and informational graphics, and a freelance designer in the Visual.ly marketplace. She has a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied Middle Eastern history and art. You can follow her on Twitter @anmccartney.