Why Time on Page Is a Broken KPI for Content Marketing

Will Fleiss
Will Fleiss

time on page content marketing

Google Analytics defines time on page as follows:

How long a user spent on a particular page in seconds. Calculated by subtracting the initial view time for a particular page from the initial view time for a subsequent page. Thus, this metric does not apply to exit pages for your property.”

Did you catch the last part? In case you missed it, in other words:

The last page, or exit page, in a user’s session is not included in the Google Analytics time on page calculation (CLICK TO TWEET)

If you read our post on “Why Bounce Rate as YOU understand it has no place in Content Marketing”, you’re probably having your “wait..WHAT?!” moment right about… now.

For those still asking, “what’s your point?”, let me spell it out for you.

If a visitor lands on one of your blog posts, spends 12 minutes reading your in-depth article – the one you spent 15 hours researching, writing, finding the perfect images for, and editing – and then exits without going to another page on your site, Google Analytics will not factor those 12 minutes into their calculation of time on page.

Crazy, right? I know!

Thankfully there is a fairly simple solution to fix this issue, so you can trust the time on page metric as a meaningful KPI for your content marketing strategy.

How to Accurately Measure Time on Page for Content

GA needs an “engagement hit” to occur during the visitor’s session in order for it to start the clock, so to speak. Clicking to another page on the site serves as that engagement hit, but without that action on the visitor’s exit page, something else needs to tell Google the visitor is still on the page.

Enter Time-based Events

By adding a simple line of code to your Google Analytics tracking script, you can automatically trigger an event when a reader stays on a blog post for a minimum amount of time. You decide what you think the appropriate time should be. We implemented this on the Outbrain blog and decided firing an event every 30 seconds for up to 5 minutes would give us a much better understanding of how people are engaging with our content.

Here’s what the code looks like:

<script>_gaq.push([‘_trackEvent’, ‘Timing’, ’30 Secs Live on Page’, ‘{{url}}’]);</script>

(We used Google Tag Manager to set this up. Sarit Anavim, our Head of Marketing Technologies, will be publishing a step-by-step setup guide to setting this up very soon!)

Here’s the impact it had on our time on page metric in GA:

Change in time on page with time-based event


The average time on page went from 2 minutes and 21 seconds to 7 mins and 16 seconds. A very significant jump. Now we have a much better understanding of what content actually gets read, instead of falsely assuming the average time on page is an accurate reflection of how people are engaging with our content.

Key Takeaways

  1. Google Analytics’ time on page metric does not factor in time spent on the exit page of a visitor’s session.
  2. Google Analytics is not set up out-of-the-box to properly measure your content’s performance without implementing some simple customizations.

Effectively measuring your content marketing is not easy, but those who measure and optimize the right metrics will be the ones who ultimately see the greatest return on investment.

How are you measuring your content marketing?

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Will Fleiss

Will Fleiss

Will has been doing online marketing for 10+ years, spending time on the agency-side at BKV, Ogilvy, and Converseon and then moving on to startups Knewton and Startup Institute. He lives in NYC with his wife and their cavalier, Luna.

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  • Rustin Banks| August 27, 2015 at 11:11AM

    Interesting. Couldn’t google (or anyone) attach an event listener to when the mouse left the window (as in the user is going to hit the back button or type a new URL into the address bar)? This is how those “on exit” popups work where they hit you with one final offer before you are about to leave the page.

    • Will Fleiss
      Will Fleiss| August 27, 2015 at 11:11AM

      Hey Rustin,

      Yep, anyone can definitely do that. I’m sure Google could do it too, but that many ping backs to the browser may be difficult to scale. If enough people make noise about it, they’ll probably do something eventually, but in the meantime what’s important is that people actually understand the metrics they’re using to make decisions. Content is a whole different beast than eCommerce, which is really what GA was designed to measure. I expect to see lots of innovation in the area of content measurement.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Elliott| August 27, 2015 at 7:19PM

        Super interesting info, but isn’t time on page a pretty dubious stat anyway? Some engagements (like when someone responds to a call to action) should be short. I’ve definitely seen higher time on page correspond to higher exit/bounce rates in some circumstances. Totally depends on the goal of the page, I suppose…