Page Views Don’t Matter Anymore—But They Just Won’t Die
The page view is a zombie. For years, everyone has been saying it is no longer a meaningful way to measure online popularity. But the publishers who make websites and the advertisers who pay for them swore throughout the year that they’re no longer fooled. The era where a mere click is the crown jewel of metrics is dead. But someone still needs to shoot this zombie in the head.
“We’ve talked about page views dying for ten years,” says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a digital publishing trade group that represents publishers on the web, including WIRED parent company Condé Nast. “They’re not dead, but they should be.”
The page view, much like the click-through, was once the key way websites understood their audiences. It was the way news organizations figured out who was reading their stories—how many, how often, which, from where—and the way advertisers were able to calculate the value of serving up ads on those sites.
But the page view notoriously spawned that most reviled of Internet aggravations: clickbait. Quality became less important than provocation; the curiosity gap supplanted craft. The page view also drove the primacy of “search engine optimization,” or the technique of selecting keywords in headlines, metadata, and text to push articles higher in Google’s page-ranking algorithms. All of this served an online publishing economy propped up by display ads, which helped cement the assumption that news on the Internet should be free.
More is Better
Along with its corrupting effects, the page view itself has been corrupted. It’s easy to fake (see the gallery above). Advertisers get that counting each click on an endless slideshow as a page view doesn’t equal a multiple of genuine interest over the initial click that brought a reader to the page. It’s low-quality “engagement”—the Internet equivalent of flipping through channels.
And yet the page view hasn’t gone away. “They’re still part of the discussion because they correlate to ad inventory: print more page views and you print more ads,” Kint says. “But that’s part of the problem.”
Sites can even buy bots to “click” and artificially inflate their page-view count. This kind of fraud has become a serious concern for marketers and the advertising industry, who have begun to prefer assurances that ads are actually being seen by real human beings be it on mobile or the web.
As a result, the advertising industry is looking for more meaningful metrics. Concepts like “viewability” and “transparency” are gaining currency, though what they mean and how they’re measured are still up for grabs.
“Having one specific KPI (key performance indicator) like page views or time spent doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Brian Madden, vice president of audience at Hearst Digital Media, said in a panel discussion this year. “It ignores the content entirely.”
The Metrics System
That’s not to say that digital metrics have disappeared altogether. “We’re at a point where the percent of media dollars spent on digital is significant enough where they’re starting to ask questions,” Kint says of marketers. “The biggest question is: where is the money going?”
To figure that out, advertisers are relying on a mix of metrics. There are impressions—the fancier child of the page view—which counts each time an ad is served up whether a page is clicked or not. Then there are unique visitors, which attempts to measure each time a different individual views a specific piece of content.
Ultimately, what publishers and advertisers care about most, however, is how much quality time a person spends with a story. To judge that, publishers are developing newer metrics like “time spent” reading, “scroll depth,” “engagement,” “recirculation,” “shares,” and “percentage of article completed.”
“I don’t think the core metrics are going to away, but they become less critical,” explains Beth Diaz, the vice president of audience development and analytics at The Washington Post.
One of the keys, Diaz explains, is to use metrics that are comparable for any of the myriad ways readers are coming to the paper’s stories. The amount of “time spent” on a story, for example, doesn’t change much when a reader comes to a story from Facebook or from the homepage. With a firehouse of data, Diaz says, the company has to figure out what matters most, and it helps to integrate analytics from across the traditional web browser, apps, mobile web, and social platforms like Facebook or Twitter. “What we’re really looking for in 2016 is a fully singular view of our content across platforms,” she says.
News, after all, has been an important part of the web for the better part of 20 years, and yet it seems that no one has come up with the definitive way to pay for it. Advertisers and publishers are still figuring out the best ways to sell ad space online—and they’re also trying to figure out the best ways to stay ahead of the changing ways we read on the web. But one thing they have figured out is that the page view doesn’t mean all that much. Let’s hope that what comes next—or the whole mix of metrics—will help make the Internet better.
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