By Paul Gillin | May 7, 2014 - 3:25 pm - Posted in Newspapers

Are page views your primary measure of success for your website or a story thereupon? Well cut it out. Page views are about as relevant an indicator of content value as the height of the starting center is a predictor of the success of a basketball team.

What should journalists measure?The issue of what online publishers should measure was the topic of a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia last week. Experts debated whether page views have any value at all. We think they don’t. In fact, we think they have negative value.

“Provocative headlines and images encourage people to click but it does not mean they enjoy the content…and the spreading of articles over multiple pages has also allowed many sites to boost their metrics,” said Tony Haile, chief executive of analytics firm Chartbeat, quoted in a piece on Journalism.co.uk.

People count page views because it’s easy, but the metric is almost meaningless. It’s easy to drive valueless page views to a website by posting celebrity photos and top 10 lists. Lots of people will visit, few will stay and almost none will return. What’s worse, panelists said, is that obsession with page views creates valueless traffic that drives down the value of inventory and, with it, advertising rates. In a world of infinite inventory, “the value of advertising space will always decline,” Haile said.

And the Alternative Is…?

So what’s better? No one agrees. Some people say social shares are a superior engagement metric, but research has shown that people share stuff without bothering to read it. Time spent on site is another popular alternative, but no analytics tool can distinguish between an engaged reader and a browser tab left open for two hours.

Steffen Konrath, chief executive of Liquid Newsroom, said the Holy Grail is relevance, which is determined by conducting research among focus groups and then giving people what they ask for. The problem with that is that what people ask for isn’t always what they should read. One of the principal values of traditional newspapers is that they give readers stuff they don’t ask for but need to know anyway. This service has been almost vaporized by the Internet echo chamber.

We once worked at an Internet publishing startup that was laser-focused on page views. From an advertising perspective this was understandable. Inventory was at a premium and the more traffic we could generate the more revenue came in. From an editorial perspective, however, the strategy was a disaster. Editors quickly learned that they could drive traffic by posting trivia contests and virtual scavenger hunts. Traffic grew quickly but repeat visits plummeted. The people who visited weren’t the technology professionals we coveted but rather gamers with time on their hands.

The Perugia panel discussion covered concluded that there is no one ideal metric, and they were right. As journalists, we think audience engagement is what matters, and that can be measured through a combination of factors like shares, repeat visits, comments, time spent on site and pages per visit. For advertisers, total eyeballs may matter more. What’s important is to measure the factors that everyone can agree indicate that the right audience is coming and that they’re staying for the right reasons.

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