Today, let’s take a look at a more advanced content marketing metric: reading time. For the written word, like blog posts and large articles, one of the more useful metrics to know is average time on page. How long did someone spend reading our content, and does that match up well with our content?
To begin, we should set some baselines based on research from this 2010 paper in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Fast readers in the English language read around 300 words per minute (wpm). Slow readers read around 200 wpm; those who vocalize their reading do so at the average rate of speech, around 150 wpm. We’ll use 200 wpm as our baseline reading speed; a blog post that’s 200 words long should take a reader about a minute to read it.
Next, we need to gather our data. We’ll need the average reading time per page from our website, which you can manually export from Google Analytics or programmatically export from the Google Analytics API. In this examination, I’ll be looking at the last year of data; choose a timeframe that makes sense for your content. Remember that Google Analytics measures time on page in seconds.
This is a good start, but we now need to gather up our page word counts. Many SEO tools offer things like word count in their site audits. My caution with these tools is that SEO word counts tend to be naive; they vacuum up every word in your navigation, page disclaimer, etc. In a quick check between what I know to be the word counts on my blog posts vs. what one of the SEO tools detected, I found that the SEO tool overcounted by 41% due to navigation, footer text, copyright notices, etc. If you’re creating content, chances are you have the final drafts laying around somewhere; use the word count of any word processing or text editing software to get the real counts of your content.
Now we’ve got two tables, one of Google Analytics data and one of word counts. Let’s join these two together so we have one consolidated view of our data.
So far, so good. There’s a small challenge; word count is a number of words, but average time on page is time in seconds. We need to convert our word counts, so we’ll divide word count by our researched 200 words per minute, then multiple by 60 to get seconds. That converts our two measures into apples-to-apples measurements.
Now we’re cooking. So here’s the question. How closely does average time on page correspond to the theoretical time on page we calculated, the reading time? Let’s do some math and divide the two, then look at the median value.
Uh oh. Look at the median in the last column. The median value of read percentage is 0.28436. That means that about half the time, people make it 28.4% of the way through my content before punching out. That’s not good. The ideal would be if people read all the way to the end. Now, what does the very bottom of the barrel look like?
These right here are the bottom of the barrel, the content that no one gets through. The read percentage is almost zero. So the question is, do I care? Some of these blog posts are really old and it’s okay if no one reads them. Some of them I might even retire. But other ones I do care about, and so they go on the list of content I need to look at again and figure out why someone got to those posts and just didn’t bother reading the content.
In fact, there are a whole bunch of pages where the actual average time on page is substantially below what should be theoretical reading time per page. If I plot these two variables logarithmically on a chart, it looks like this:
The green line represents the theoretical relationship that we’d expect – actual time on page mirrors the estimated reading time, so ideally everything would be clustered along that line. I’m less worried about the stuff above that line; if people take more time than needed to read a piece of content, that’s okay. The red zone – where people spend far less time than they should reading content – that’s the problem area. Those are the pages to fix up.
That’s the key takeaway from this analysis: the pages in the red zone are problematic. They earn MUCH less reading time than they should, which means the content itself isn’t holding the audience’s attention, and they need to be fixed up.
Which begs the question – how do we know what to fix? Stay tuned for part 2 where we dive into trying to diagnose what the problem could be.
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