One of the most helpful but often misunderstood of all the website KPIs and metrics is how long a user stays on your webpage or website.
You'll notice that we've avoided the terms "time on page" AND "session duration" in that description. That's because there's a common misconception that these two metrics are interchangable, and that they can give you similar information about your website performance.
So, in this article we're going to talk about the differences between session duration and time on page, what they can both tell you about your website performance, and how you can effectively use them as KPIs.
- Session duration and time on page
- Time on Page vs. Session Duration
- How to increase average session duration and time on page
- What do session duration and time on page tell us about website performance?
- Conclusion: How to measure time spent on a web page
Session Duration and Time on Page
Session duration and time on page are both unique metrics you can find in Google Analytics, and help you understand how much time people are spending on your website.
To be useful as Key Performance Indicators, it's essential to understand exactly how they work, and to know the common pitfalls of relying on them without context.
On the face of things, session duration is the amount of time someone spends on your website in an entire session, and time on page is how long they spend on a specific page. However, these aren't calculated in exactly the same way, so it's important to know the difference.
Session duration in Google Analytics is the length of time someone spends on your website in a session.
When you're looking at how to calculate average session duration, Google Analytics uses a method that looks at the time between your first and last "engagement hits" on the website.
An "engagement hit" is any sort of interaction that someone has with the website, whether that's visiting the page, clicking a link (even an external link that takes them to another website), or playing a video.
The page load will always be the first engagement hit, however, if a user enters and exits on the same page and there are no further engagement hits in the session, Google can't tell when the person left. And so, the session duration will be displayed as 0.
Take a look at the example below:
But, if the same user goes on to visit another blog post, clicks a link or makes another "engagement" with the website, they'll now have a session duration:
The Google Analytics time on page metric is calculated as the time your user spends on a specific webpage, from the moment they arrive, to the moment they click away.
But, as with the session duration, when the page is the last one in a user's session, Google can't tell when the person left, unless there has been another engagement hit on the page. And so, any sessions where this was an exit page with no additional interactions, Google will record the time on page as 0.
This can be particularly problematic if you're doing content marketing or have landing pages with no click-through, as no matter how engaged a user was with the content, if this was also their exit page with no engagement hits, their time on page and session duration will be recorded as 0.
Average Time on Page is the average amount of time that all users who access this page spend there.
When calculating the Average Time On Page, Google does take into account the exits, and removes them from the calculation so it can provide a more reliable estimate depending on the type of page you're looking at.
So, if time on page and session duration use different calculations, which is going to be more effective if you're trying to work out what the average time spent on a web page is?
Well, as with most metrics in this series, the answer is that you're best off using both!
Context is everything with all website metrics, and by using a combination of average time on page and average session duration on a website, you can get a better picture of how people are engaging.
Of course, there are certain things you can do to help improve the accuracy of these metrics - particularly for key website pages such as landing pages.
There are two distinct elements to improving the average amount of time spent on your website. The first is by making changes that will show Google that a user is still interacting with the website. The other is to look for ways to actually keep the user on your website.
The most obvious way to increase your time on page is by writing really great content. And not just writing it, but displaying it in a way that's easy to read and encourages people to scroll onwards. For example, try adding a summary section and table of contents to your blog posts to ensure that your users can find the information they need quickly and easily.
But, as we already know, Google's calculation for average time spent on a website page doesn't include exit pages.
That can be frustrating if you're trying to analyse the performance of things like landing pages or articles, because a user could spend lots of time reading your content, but that won't be reflected in the analytics.
So even if you increase user engagement, it might not be reflected in Google Analytics. If your user spends 20 minutes reading a fantastic article, but at the bottom of the page finds nowhere else to go, you may not get another "engagement hit", and so that user's time on the page won't be included in the session duration.
So, it's always a good idea to give users more opportunities to create an "engagement hit", so Google gets more and better signals about how a user is interacting with a page.
There are lots of different ways you can do this, from good internal linking and CTAs, to including video or interactive elements to your web pages.
Here's another example:
Even external linking will qualify as an engagement hit, so don't be afraid to include those where they're appropriate too. Naturally, you don't want to push people off your own website, but an external link in a new tab is a good way to create that engagement hit opportunity.
Likewise, your landing pages may be returning a low session duration if they don't provide the user with a clear action to take.
If you have a form on your landing page, a really easy way to improve this metric is to have a success or confirmation page that users see when they complete that form. That will make the landing page the second-to-last page visited, and so it will get included in the session duration figure.
Of course, this only affects the users who do complete the form, but that in itself should help you better understand how people are interacting with the page.
Another good way to encourage users to stay on the website is with a good internal linking strategy.
Now this isn't a great option for landing pages, as there you're looking for a good conversion rate, and don't want to take people off the page.
But if you're doing content marketing, internal links are a really good way to encourage users to read more and stay on your website. This can increase your average session duration metric and the average time on page, because you're keeping people on the site longer as well as adding another step to their journey.
Both session duration and time on page can be really useful as KPIs, but it's incredibly important to look at them in context before using them to make judgment on your website.
This is probably more significant for these metrics than many others, as the complexity in how both measurements are calculated can really skew the results.
The first thing to do if you want to use time on page as a KPI is to get as much knowledge as possible. You want to have a really clear idea of:
- What the page is - for example, is it a product page, article, About Us, or landing page?
- Where should this page sit in your user journey?
- How much content is on this page?
Your expectations for the time on page should be different depending on the type of page it is. If your page is an in-depth article, naturally you'd hope that people spend more time reading it.
If you're looking at a product page, a shorter time on page might actually be a sign of success, as people are finding the information they need and moving on to the purchasing process quickly.
Knowing where this page fits into your overall user journey is also really helpful. We already know that exit pages generate a 0 time on page, so if your page is a common exit point, it can help to introduce methods like internal linking or CTAs to generate better data about the page and whether people are interacting with it, or simply clicking away.
The level of content on the page is also a good indicator of whether the time on page is good or bad. If you have lots of content and a short time on page, then that may be a sign that people aren't engaging with your content.
On the other hand, short content and a long time on page could also be a cause for concern, as it may show that people are confused about where to go and what to do next.
Just like with time on page, session duration can only be analysed in context, so it's always good to have all the background information before working out whether your session duration is positive or negative.
As session duration covers the entirety of your website, it can sometimes be difficult to know what your targets for session duration would be. After all, you'd hope that someone just looking to buy something on your website can do so nice and quickly.
But, at the same time, if you're running a content marketing campaign, you'd probably want a user to stay on the site longer.
So it's often useful to split your Google Analytics data into segments before analysing this metric.
For example, you may want to have segments for people whose experience includes visiting a product page, or one for people who visit an article or informational page as part of their journey.
Naturally, there would be an overlap between these two segments, but it's likely to give you a better picture of how people with different motivations are engaging with the site.
Another way to get a more accurate figure for your session duration is to create a segment for 'non-bounced sessions'. This will give you the session duration for those who have engaged with your site and had more than one engagement hit.
Put simply, there is no one simple way to measure the time spent on your website. But, if you really want to dig deep into your site's engagement metrics, it's worth using a combination of metrics and segments to get insightful data that you can put into practice.
Consider looking at:
- Page type - engagement will vary dependent on whether it's a blog post, product page or exit page e.g. a form completion page
Creating segments for different page types will help you understand how users are interacting with different types of content, and allow you to estimate average session duration benchmarks based on the type of page and content
- Page content - including the word count and any interactive elements
- The user journey - is there a clear path for where they should go next from that page?
If not, try to create one! Consider the number of links, events and potential engagement hits on a page and how this can be increased to keep your users engaged with your content for longer
- Bounced versus non-bounced users - if your page has a high bounce rate, you're always going to get a super low session duration. Creating a segment for non-bounced users will give you clearer picture of the session duration
It may take a little more time than taking these metrics at face-value, but it'll give you a wealth of additional insights into your pages' performance.
Need a little more help understanding your website's metrics? Our digital marketing agency is here to help!