Misuses of 4 Google Analytics Metrics Debunked

Posted by Tom.Capper

In this post I’ll pull apart four of the most commonly used metrics in Google Analytics, how they are collected, and why they are so easily misinterpreted.

Average Time on Page

Average time on page should be a really useful metric, particularly if you’re interested in engagement with content that’s all on a single page. Unfortunately, this is actually its worst use case. To understand why, you need to understand how time on page is calculated in Google Analytics:

Time on Page: Total across all pageviews of time from pageview to last engagement hit on that page (where an engagement hit is any of: next pageview, interactive event, e-commerce transaction, e-commerce item hit, or social plugin). (Source)

If there is no subsequent engagement hit, or if there is a gap between the last engagement hit on a site and leaving the site, the assumption is that no further time was spent on the site. Below are some scenarios with an intuitive time on page of 20 seconds, and their Google Analytics time on page:


Intuitive time on page

GA time on page

0s: Pageview
10s: Social plugin
20s: Click through to next page



0s: Pageview
10s: Social plugin
20s: Leave site



0s: Pageview
20s: Leave site



Google doesn’t want exits to influence the average time on page, because of scenarios like the third example above, where they have a time on page of 0 seconds (source). To avoid this, they use the following formula (remember that Time on Page is a total):

Average Time on Page: (Time on Page) / (Pageviews – Exits)

However, as the second example above shows, this assumption doesn’t always hold. The second example feeds into the top half of the average time on page faction, but not the bottom half:

Example 2 Average Time on Page: (20s+10s+0s) / (3-2) = 30s

There are two issues here:

  1. Overestimation
    Excluding exits from the second half of the average time on page equation doesn’t have the desired effect when their time on page wasn’t 0 seconds—note that 30s is longer than any of the individual visits. This is why average time on page can often be longer than average visit duration. Nonetheless, 30 seconds doesn’t seem too far out in the above scenario (the intuitive average is 20s), but in the real world many pages have much higher exit rates than the 67% in this example, and/or much less engagement with events on page.
  2. Ignored visits
    Considering only visitors who exit without an engagement hit, whether these visitors stayed for 2 seconds, 10 minutes or anything inbetween, it doesn’t influence average time on page in the slightest. On many sites, a 10 minute view of a single page without interaction (e.g. a blog post) would be considered a success, but it wouldn’t influence this metric.

Solution: Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy solution to this issue. If you want to use average time on page, you just need to keep in mind how it’s calculated. You could also consider setting up more engagement events on page (like a scroll event without the “nonInteraction” parameter)—this solves issue #2 above, but potentially worsens issue #1.

Site Speed

If you’ve used the Site Speed reports in Google Analytics in the past, you’ve probably noticed that the numbers can sometimes be pretty difficult to believe. This is because the way that Site Speed is tracked is extremely vulnerable to outliers—it starts with a 1% sample of your users and then takes a simple average for each metric. This means that a few extreme values (for example, the occasional user with a malware-infested computer or a questionable wifi connection) can create a very large swing in your data.

The use of an average as a metric is not in itself bad, but in an area so prone to outliers and working with such a small sample, it can lead to questionable results.

Fortunately, you can increase the sampling rate right up to 100% (or the cap of 10,000 hits per day). Depending on the size of your site, this may still only be useful for top-level data. For example, if your site gets 1,000,000 hits per day and you’re interested in the performance of a new page that’s receiving 100 hits per day, Google Analytics will throttle your sampling back to the 10,000 hits per day cap—1%. As such, you’ll only be looking at a sample of 1 hit per day for that page.

Solution: Turn up the sampling rate. If you receive more than 10,000 hits per day, keep the sampling rate in mind when digging into less visited pages. You could also consider external tools and testing, such as Pingdom or WebPagetest.

Conversion Rate (by channel)

Obviously, conversion rate is not in itself a bad metric, but it can be rather misleading in certain reports if you don’t realise that, by default, conversions are attributed using a last non-direct click attribution model.

From Google Analytics Help:

“…if a person clicks over your site from google.com, then returns as “direct” traffic to convert, Google Analytics will report 1 conversion for “google.com / organic” in All Traffic.”

This means that when you’re looking at conversion numbers in your acquisition reports, it’s quite possible that every single number is different to what you’d expect under last click—every channel other than direct has a total that includes some conversions that occurred during direct sessions, and direct itself has conversion numbers that don’t include some conversions that occurred during direct sessions.

Solution: This is just something to be aware of. If you do want to know your last-click numbers, there’s always the Multi-Channel Funnels and Attribution reports to help you out.

Exit Rate

Unlike some of the other metrics I’ve discussed here, the calculation behind exit rate is very intuitive—”for all pageviews to the page, Exit Rate is the percentage that were the last in the session.” The problem with exit rate is that it’s so often used as a negative metric: “Which pages had the highest exit rate? They’re the problem with our site!” Sometimes this might be true: Perhaps, for example, if those pages are in the middle of a checkout funnel.

Often, however, a user will exit a site when they’ve found what they want. This doesn’t just mean that a high exit rate is ok on informational pages like blog posts or about pages—it could also be true of product pages and other pages with a highly conversion-focused intent. Even on ecommerce sites, not every visitor has the intention of converting. They might be researching towards a later online purchase, or even planning to visit your physical store. This is particularly true if your site ranks well for long tail queries or is referenced elsewhere. In this case, an exit could be a sign that they found the information they wanted and are ready to purchase once they have the money, the need, the right device at hand or next time they’re passing by your shop.

Solution: When judging a page by its exit rate, think about the various possible user intents. It could be useful to take a segment of visitors who exited on a certain page (in the Advanced tab of the new segment menu), and investigate their journey in User Flow reports, or their landing page and acquisition data.


If you know of any other similarly misunderstood metrics, you have any questions or you have something to add to my analysis, tweet me at @THCapper or leave a comment below.

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The Long Click and the Quality of Search Success

Posted by billslawski

“On the most basic level, Google could see how satisfied users were. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy users were all the same. The best sign of their happiness was the “Long Click” — This occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query.”

~ Steven Levy. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives

I often explore and read patents and papers from the search engines to try to get a sense of how they may approach different issues, and learn about the assumptions they make about search, searchers, and the Web. Lately, I’ve been keeping an eye open for papers and patents from the search engines where they talk about a metric known as the “long click.”

A recently granted Google patent uses the metric of a “Long Click” as the center of a process Google may use to track results for queries that were selected by searchers for long visits in a set of search results.

This concept isn’t new. In 2011, I wrote about a Yahoo patent in How a Search Engine May Measure the Quality of Its Search Results, where they discussed a metric that they refer to as a “target page success metric.” It included “dwell time” upon a result as a sign of search success (Yes, search engines have goals, too).


Another Google patent described assigning web pages “reachability scores” based upon the quality of pages linked to from those initially visited pages. In the post Does Google Use Reachability Scores in Ranking Resources? I described how a Google patent that might view a long click metric as a sign to see if visitors to that page are engaged by the links to content they find those links pointing to, including links to videos. Google tells us in that patent that it might consider a “long click” to have been made on a video if someone watches at least half the video or 30 seconds of it. The patent suggests that a high reachability score on a page may mean that page could be boosted in Google search results.


But the patent I’m writing about today is focused primarily upon looking at and tracking a search success metric like a long click or long dwell time. Here’s the abstract:

Modifying ranking data based on document changes

Invented by Henele I. Adams, and Hyung-Jin Kim

Assigned to Google

US Patent 9,002,867

Granted April 7, 2015

Filed: December 30, 2010


Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on computer storage media for determining a weighted overall quality of result statistic for a document.

One method includes receiving quality of result data for a query and a plurality of versions of a document, determining a weighted overall quality of result statistic for the document with respect to the query including weighting each version specific quality of result statistic and combining the weighted version-specific quality of result statistics, wherein each quality of result statistic is weighted by a weight determined from at least a difference between content of a reference version of the document and content of the version of the document corresponding to the version specific quality of result statistic, and storing the weighted overall quality of result statistic and data associating the query and the document with the weighted overall quality of result statistic.

This patent tells us that search results may be be ranked in an order, according to scores assigned to the search results by a scoring function or process that would be based upon things such as:

  • Where, and how often, query terms appear in the given document,
  • How common the query terms are in the documents indexed by the search engine, or
  • A query-independent measure of quality of the document itself.

Last September, I wrote about how Google might identify a category associated with a query term base upon clicks, in the post Using Query User Data To Classify Queries. In a query for “Lincoln.” the results that appear in response might be about the former US President, the town of Lincoln, Nebraska, and the model of automobile. When someone searches for [Lincoln], Google returning all three of those responses as a top result could be said to be reasonable. The patent I wrote about in that post told us that Google might collect information about “Lincoln” as a search entity, and track which category of results people clicked upon most when they performed that search, to determine what categories of pages to show other searchers. Again, that’s another “search success” based upon a past search history.

There likely is some value in working to find ways to increase the amount of dwell time someone spends upon the pages of your site, if you are already having some success in crafting page titles and snippets that persuade people to click on your pages when they those appear in search results. These approaches can include such things as:

  1. Making visiting your page a positive experience in terms of things like site speed, readability, and scannability.
  2. Making visiting your page a positive experience in terms of things like the quality of the content published on your pages including spelling, grammar, writing style, interest, quality of images, and the links you share to other resources.
  3. Providing a positive experience by offering ideas worth sharing with others, and offering opportunities for commenting and interacting with others, and by being responsive to people who do leave comments.

Here are some resources I found that discuss this long click metric in terms of “dwell time”:

Your ability to create pages that can end up in a “long click” from someone who has come to your site in response to a query, is also a “search success” metric on the search engine’s part, and you both succeed. Just be warned that as the most recent patent from Google on Long Clicks shows us, Google will be watching to make sure that the content of your page doesn’t change too much, and that people are continuing to click upon it in search results, and spend a fair amount to time upon it.

(Images for this post are from my Go Fish Digital Design Lead Devin Holmes @DevinGoFish. Thank you, Devin!)

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Effective Outreach: Making It as Easy as Possible for Journalists to Say "Yes"

Posted by Beverley_Distilled

As part of the promotions and online PR team at Distilled, I spend the majority of my time trying to get the attention of journalists. If you’ve ever worked in PR you’ll know that this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Journalists are busy. They’re on a deadline, they’re knee-deep in an article that’s exponentially more timely than whatever you’re pitching to get coverage for. That email you spent half an hour perfecting? It’s getting scanned for something newsworthy, for surprising facts, for data that’s going to make an interesting story, and something that’s going to make their readers hit the ‘share’ buttons.

When I’m not working at Distilled, I run a travel blog and I’m a freelance writer. Consequently I find myself on the receiving end of the kind of emails I send out in my day job. More often than not, I hit the archive button and move on. Why? Because a lot of the pitches I get are totally irrelevant to my readership and, honestly, if you can’t take one minute to visit my site ask yourself whether you actually want you client in front of an audience of travel-lovers, then welcome to my trash folder.

That’s not where you want to be; the trash folder. You want to be in the yes folder, if there is in fact such a thing. You want your email to be so compelling, so full of the little details that make a journalist’s job easier, that their mouse doesn’t even hover near the delete button, let alone actually press it.

So how do you make it easy for a journalist to say yes to you?

Stop with the flattery

Flattery might work when you’re doing blogger outreach. Or, should I say, genuine flattery works; as a blogger I’ve received way too many emails where the the first sentence reads like a random positive adjective generator’s been used to say some nice things about my blog so that the sender, seemingly too busy to visit my site for a few minutes, doesn’t have to do any actual research.

Genuine flattery works with bloggers because it’s our site, our hard work, our money being poured into site design and hosting every month, our bedside lamps burning until the early hours as we write, and promote, and plan, and pitch.

Journalists are doing their jobs. You don’t need to tell them that the article they wrote for The Atlantic back in 2013 really resonated with you. You don’t need to try to make them like you. You don’t need to make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. So stop. Stop with the flattery and get to the point.

‘CC’ is a big no-no

I get it, OK, you’re busy. I’m busy. We’re all busy. You know what you shouldn’t be too busy to do if you really want journalists to cover your story? You shouldn’t be so busy that you don’t have a few minutes to send a separate email to each journalist you’re pitching.

Unless you’re pitching an exclusive story journalists know that you’re probably going to be pitching to more than one publication. That’s OK, that’s what you should be doing to try and obtain the maximum amount of coverage for your company or client.

What you don’t want them to think is that you’ve sent the exact same email to every single journalist with the exact same information which, if you send a blanket email, is basically what you’re doing.

When you do that you’re almost saying ‘OK, I’ve done no research into your publication, no research into the kinds of articles you’ve written in the past, and I haven’t tailored any of my pitch to appeal to you or your audience’ which is exactly what you don’t want.

Write some of the story for them

Imagine if you told your friends you’d cook them dinner anytime they wanted. They wouldn’t have to give you any notice. All they had to do was turn up at your door with the ingredients.

Except word gets around and, one day, you’re facing the prospect of cooking 20 different meals for 20 different friends. I don’t know what your culinary skills are like but can we all just agree that this would be a somewhat stressful and annoying situation?

Now imagine that those 20 people turn up with their ingredients again, except this time they’ve done some of the work for you. Onions have been diced, garlic’s been crushed. Everything you need to make the meal is there, you just need to bind them together.

How much better do you feel? How much more willing are you to forgive your friends for turning up unannounced?

That’s kind of what you need to do for journalists. No, not invite them around for dinner; do some of the work for them so that they can write the story around the facts.

In practical terms, I tend to take the stats that are most relevant to their audience, the parts that I want them to focus on, and include them in my pitch email on separate lines. This way, the journalist can see the most important details at a glance without having to dig through data, or read a huge press release. Help them write the story you want them to write about your client and you’re much more likely to get a ‘yes’ out of them.

Don’t Be a Tease, Be Proactive

Do you have images that the journalist can use should they choose to run the story? Do you have a press release with more information in it? Do you have contact details for your company or client’s spokesperson?

Maybe you have an awesome interactive graphic the journalist can feature, or an iframe they can use to host it on their site fully. Maybe you have all the things.

So why are you only teasing the journalist in your first email?

‘I have some photos of the product if you want to use them’

‘I can also get your the details of our expert on this.’

‘Let me know if you need anything else.’

Seriously? If you have these things available, give them to the journalist now. Be proactive. If you think they’re going to be useful include them in your email. Attach the photos, copy the press release underneath your pitch in the body of the email, include the iframe code.

Journalists are under more pressure than ever to get stories published. They don’t spend all day working on one article, they’re writing multiple articles each day. This is why it’s so important that you give them everything you think they could possibly need so that they can get on with writing the story instead of replying to your email.

Build a relationship

Good news: you did your research, you sent a pitch, and a journalist covered your story. But your relationship with that journalist doesn’t stop there. In fact, what you do after they’ve hit publish on their article is almost as important as everything you did before you hit send on your pitch.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a piece of creative we’d built for one of our clients some coverage on the site of one of the UK’s largest national newspapers so, afterwards, I emailed my contact to say ‘thank you’ and shared the article on my social media channels. It literally took me all of 10 seconds.

I mean, sure, I didn’t get another email back from my contact (remember when I said journalists were busy?) but that’s because, by that point, she was probably more interested in writing her next article.

And that’s OK, because the next time I have a story I think she’d be interested in covering, and I email her, I’ll carry on the email thread and she’ll know that I was helpful, and quick to reply, and courteous. Things that go a long way in the world of PR.

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