Google Analytics Basics Series - Time on Site


This is the third installment of the Google Analytics Basics Series and today I’ll be walking you through the various time metrics in Google Analytics.

To recap, in this series I’m focusing on the basic key metrics in Google Analytics to ensure you have all the detailed information about how each is calculated, their limitations and how you can use them in your analyses.

The Basic Series is covering:

  1. Visits and Visitors

  2. Bounce Rate and Page Exit Rate

  3. Time on Site and Page

  4. Pageviews

Blog - Google Analytics Basics - Time Metrics.jpg

This week I want to dig deep into the time metrics that you have access to in Google Analytics because I feel that they can be metrics that many incorrectly understand and are making decisions based on incomplete data. This is the last thing I want for you to do.

We’ll start off with everyone’s favourite.

Time on Site

In Google Analytics the metric ‘Time on Site’ is actually ‘Session Duration’, they changed the name when they went from Visits to Sessions. How the metric is calculated didn’t change with the re-name and so I’ll be using the easier to understand ‘Time on Site’.

First to define what this metric is:

Time on site is simply defined as the amount of time that someone spends on your site.

Pretty straight forward right.

Well, yes and no.

The way that your web analytics tracking tool determines how much time a person spends on your site is based on timestamps that are fired when a user performs an action on your site that is being tracked.

This means that Time on Site is calculated as:

The timestamp of the last page they saw (minus) the timestamp of the first page they saw.

To make things easier to understand let’s take a look at an example:

Let’s say that a visitor came to your site. Yay!

They arrive on your homepage at 10:00 am. Then they spend some time reading what you have going on and are interested in looking at some products. Again Yay!

So they go and navigate to your shop page. The time stamp for this is 10:05 am.

This means that:

Homepage - 10:00 am
Shop page - 10:05 am

So far time on site is 10:05 - 10:00 = 5 mins

Now let’s say they have looked at your inventory and at 10:10 they click into one of the products to read more about it.

Now we have:

Homepage - 10:00 am
Shop page - 10:05 am
Product Detail view - 10:10 am

Then your visitor leaves your site from the Product Detail page.

The total time on site for this visitor was:

10:10 am - 10:00 am = 10 mins

But wait, there’s something very important to note.

This shopper could have spent 5 whole minutes on the product detail page but because they didn’t click onto another page or perform an action within the product detail page that is being tracked in Google Analytics as an engagement it is not going to be reported at all.

What this means is that you will only have partial information on how much time people spend on your site.

This very important detail of how Time on Site is calculated is crucial for those who have 1-page and blog sites. If your site falls within one of these categories, it’s very important to implement additional tracking that will signal to Google Analytics that those who visited your site have actually spent time on your page. Without this additional tracking, you’ll be even more in the dark to how much time people are spending on your site and on your pages (spoiler alert, Time on Page works the same way).

Why should you care?

Well, you won’t be able to know which content your visitors find valuable vs that which they don’t. If you’re a 1-page site, you won't have visibility into what sections of your site your visitors are viewing and are getting stuck on or not taking actions from.

To give you an example, let’s say you’re a 1-page site and you have a list of your services with a call to action to submit a form to request a call. This form loads all within the same page and once completed a simple text is given to the visitor thanking them for the submission.

Since no new page was loaded throughout this interaction, Google Analytics will only register the pageview of the homepage. That’s it.

You will not have visibility into:

  • How many of your visitors navigate to your services section

  • How many open the contact form

  • How many close the form without filling it out (abandonment rate if you will)

  • The true form completion rate - you’ll probably be able to compute a pseudo-completion rate since you’ll have the actual form submissions, but you’ll have to use total visits as your denominator as opposed to the more correct value of those who saw the ‘Services’ section which is where the form is.

My recommendation is to think through how your visitors will engage with the site and determine what interactions on a page will show that they engaged with the content and additional tracking can be put in place that will give you a better sense of how much time they spend on both the page and the site.

Now on to the next time metric.

Time on Page

Similarly to Time on Site, in order for Google Analytics to calculate the time a person spends on a particular page, there needs to be two timestamps generated.

The simple definition of Time on Page is the amount of time a visitor spends on a particular page.

We can use the same example we used above to understand time on page.

so let’s say a visitor arrives on your site and has the following interactions:

Homepage - 10:00 am
Shop page - 10:05 am

From earlier, we know that the total time on site so far is 5 mins (10:05 - 10:00).

The time on page, or in this case the time on the homepage is also 5 mins (10:05 - 10:00).

If they leave after only viewing the homepage and the shop page, both the time on page and time on site would be 5 mins.

Let’s say though that they went and took a look at a specific product within your shop.

Now we have:

Homepage - 10:00 am
Shop page - 10:05 am
Product Detail view - 10:10 am

Then your visitor leaves your site.

As we calculated earlier the total time on the site for this visitor was:

10:10 am - 10:00 am = 10 mins

We can also calculate the time they spent on certain pages:

Homepage - Time on page was 5 mins (10:05 - 10:00)
Shop page - Time on page was 5 mins (10:10 - 10:05)
Product Detail page - Time on Page is not available because they exited the site and therefore no additional time stamp was fired.

Similarly to how Time on Site is calculated, Google Analytics is not able to give you information on how much time a visitor spent on the last page the viewed before they left your site.

Unless… add tracking to capture interactions with elements that are found on the page.

If we take our example, let’s say that on your product detail pages, users can expand to read the description of the product, you can add tracking to this action that would let Google Analytics know that they are interacting with the page and GA will then be able to calculate Time on Page if the person exits from the Product Detail page.

It’s important to evaluate the key pages on your site and think through what actions a visitor can take while on these pages that you can let Google Analytics know about that would indicate they have engaged with the page.

As I have stated above, this is especially crucial for 1-page and blog sites. Not having this additional tracking in place will not give you a full understanding of how much time visitors are spending viewing your content.

How to Use the Time Metrics

Ok, now that we have walked through how the time metrics work in Google Analytics and have an understanding of it’s limitations based on the tracking implemented. We can take a look at what to look at when doing analyses.

Since you are going to have visitors that spend a lot of time on your site and pages and visitors that spend less time, the metrics you want to really look at are Avg Time on Site and Avg Time on Page.

This way you will have a better understanding of how long people spend reading and navigating through your content.

Some Analyses Ideas

There are some unique aspects when combining certain dimensions with the time metrics and I want to give you some suggestions of analyses that you can run.

Let’s take Avg. Time on Site

When using this metric you are going to want to pair it with dimensions that give you information on the visitor.

A great example is to understand on average how much time visitors from certain traffic sources spend on your site.

Or perhaps you want to understand the difference in how much time New vs Returning visitors spend. You can also take a look at those who view your content on a mobile device vs desktop. Just a couple of examples to get you thinking.

In the end what dimension you decide to use will depend on your measurement plan and what you have identified as key performing indicators(KPIs) for the various marketing initiatives.

What you would not pair together is how much time visitors spent on your site with what pages they viewed. For this, you would use the Avg on Page metric as it will give you a better comparison between your various pages.

Why is knowing how much time visitors spend on certain pages valuable?

When it comes to online retailers, understanding how long your consumers are spending overall on your site and even on the key pages (i.e. Product Detail view, checkout pages, shipping page, etc) can give you valuable information on where you can make improvements.

In general you have to balance the need to provide relevant content to your consumer with the ease of use and clarity they need to get in and out quickly if need be.

If you see that your consumers are spending too much time in the checkout process, can you pinpoint which page is causing this and determine if there is a way to shorten it to improve the experience for the consumer? Perhaps it’s the enter shipping details page that is complicated and causing delays. If so, you want to fix this quickly as it could be costing you sales.

For information heavy sites, understanding how much time consumers are spending on certain content can give you information on what they are interested in. If you write a long article and people are spending very little time on it, then it’s worth trying to understand why this is the case and course correct for future articles.

Also, if you have advertising on your pages, knowing this information is very valuable to your advertising clients. They are going to want to ensure that people spend enough time on a page that has one of their ads before they invest.

Key Takeaways

1- Time metrics are dependent on time stamps fired when visitors move from page to page on your site

2- Unless you have specific tracking, the last page a visitor views before exiting, the time they spent on this page will not be counted

3- Best to use Avg. Time on Site to understand how much time certain type of traffic is spending on your site

4- Use Avg. Time on Page to understand how specific pages are performing

This is all for the time metrics in Google Analytics. Next week, I’ll be walking you through the various Pageview metrics and how you can best use them to give you information about your business.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about these metrics and as always...

Happy Analyzing!

Hi, I’m Karla

I’m here to help small business understand and use their website data to take the guess work out of growing their business.

I’ll love to help you start using your valuable website data to help you grow your business, book a FREE 30 minute discovery call with me and let’s get started.