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Understand the Meaning of Metrics

Amanda asks, “As a data scientist, you’re adept at collecting raw data, interpreting their meaning, and determining the resulting actions to take. What tips can you offer to help content creators and other analytics novices understand the meaning behind the metrics data they’ve collected?

Metrics are numbers. So, the real question is, what does each metric measure, and how is that relevant to the outcome you’re after?

Let’s take the venerable Google Analytics session as an example. Every time you log into Google Analytics, you see a report about sessions.

Google Analytics

Here’s a question: what is a session? Do you know? How is it different from a pageview or an event?

If you aren’t clear about what the metric measures, then it’s very hard to understand what it’s telling you or what conclusions you should draw from it.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say your website is a book, and a person is reading it.

A pageview is exactly what it sounds like. The reader read a page of your book. Possibly more than once, depending on how tired or distracted they were. Pageviews used to be called hits, back in the day.

A unique pageview is a tally of which pages in the book the reader has read. No matter how many times they’ve fallen asleep reading page 172 in the book, they have either read page 172 or not – and once they have, that’s a unique pageview.

A session is the number of pages the reader has read in a single sitting. You sit down on a Sunday morning with a cup of tea, crack open the book, and read for a bit until the kids or the dog or your partner distracts you, and then you put the book down until later. That sitting? That’s a session.

A user is… the reader.

Once you understand the metrics and what they mean, why they exist, and what they tell you, then you start the most valuable activity of all: making decisions from your metrics. This is key: you cannot make an informed decision about a metric you do not understand. If you didn’t understand what a speedometer measured, could you make informed decisions about whether to press the pedals on the floor of the car? If you didn’t understand what a cup measured, could you make informed decisions about how to adjust a recipe?

For example, average time on page and average session duration measure very different things; both are based on your understanding of what a session and a pageview are. Now that you understand the difference between a pageview and a session, you start to understand that these metrics measure very different things.

Average time on page is how long it takes someone to consume content on any given page on your site. Suppose you have a blog post with an embedded 5 minute video. If the average time on page isn’t 5 minutes, then you know people aren’t watching the video. If you’ve written 1200 words on a page and the average time on page isn’t around 6 minutes (the average reading speed is 200 words per minute), then you know people aren’t making it all the way through your content.

Average session duration is how long people are sitting down (metaphorically) to consume your content in one sitting. How engrossing is your content? Going back to our analogy, how long did you get the reader to sit with your book? Was it a page turner and they couldn’t put it down? Or did they fall asleep after two paragraphs or get distracted?

Knowing the difference between a pageview and a session, what decisions could you make about these two metrics, average time on page versus average session duration?

Do you want to increase the amount of time the reader spends on a page in your book?

Do you want to increase the amount of time overall the reader spends reading your book?

Does one relate to the other, perhaps even drive the other?

When we understand the metrics, we understand the behaviors we’re trying to encourage.

As a marketer, I’m less concerned about how long you spend on a single page and more concerned about how much time you spend with my content in general. I care more about average session duration than I do about average time on page. What can I do to nudge you to spend more time with my content? I’d want to examine what the difference was in content you viewed for longer sessions versus shorter sessions – are there certain paths or types of content that encourage you to hang out?

That said, if there are pages where the average time on page is substantially different than what it probably should be – you spend 3 seconds on a page that should take 4-5 minutes to read – then I know something is wrong with that page.

As a marketer, there are some pages I’d like you to spend more time on, like content I’ve worked hard to produce. There are some pages I’d like you to spend LESS time on, like form pages to fill out. The faster you get through that page, the faster you get to what you wanted – and do the marketing objective I’m trying to accomplish.

So many of our more complex metrics are built on the foundation of simpler metrics – and if we don’t understand what those simpler metrics measure, then we can’t possibly understand what the more complex metrics measure either. We’re doomed to just look at the numbers in our measurement tools with a forlorn, glassy stare. We’re also prone to go buy fancier measurement tools and software simply because we think it will solve our understanding problem – and perhaps it will, but probably not. It will for certain cause us to spend more than we need to on measurement.

Invest time in understanding the tools and metrics you already have and what they do, and you will probably find they answer the majority of the questions you have. That’s my biggest, best tip for analytics novices and veterans alike.

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