Even since the Web descended down from the heavens (through a series of pipes and tubes, of course), we web folks have been obsessed with gathering, analyzing and spouting our wisdoms about metrics. By far the most popular metric these days is the length of time spent looking, reading or otherwise examining the screen in front of us. It is to be accepted and otherwise unquestioned that the longer the time a user spends on a page, the better. So you can imagine the relief of online newspaper publishers when they learned of the results from data collected by Nielsen Online in March 2008.

Nielsen Online Data Results

A little more than one third of the top thirty newspaper Web sites reported an increase in the time spent per person in March.Among the sites that recorded high gains in user attention are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal Online, Village Voice Media, the Houston Chronicle, and Politico. Some highlights include: * The average time spent per person for Politico soared about 200% in March, up an average of 15 minutes from 5 minutes the same month a year ago. * Village Voice Media doubled its average to almost 7 minutes in March 2008 from about 4 minutes in March 2007. * The Seattle Post-Intelligencer jumped more than 80% to 11 minutes from 6 minutes in March 2007.But really want does this mean? Why doesn't Nielsen calculate how much readers are retaining? Or what else users are doing while "reading" the paper online? While some sites, like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped from 28 minutes in March 2007 to about 11 minutes in March 2008 and, who was down from an average of 21 minutes in March 2007 to about 7 minutes in March 2008, didn't fair so well in the report, metrics for unique visitors were rather kind. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's monthly unique traffic was up 28% in March year-over-year, for example.

Is It About Content Quality?

Does the time a user spends on a site correlate more to the information a user is actively searching for or the quality of the content online? Considering that the sites measured by Nielsen are online newspapers, can we only infer that people read at different speeds, some taking the time to digest World news or a recent editorial, while others scan? Of course, there's the actual news to consider. Lots happened between March 2007 and March 2008. A presidential election picked up speed, economic woes grew and environmental concerns abounded. Perhaps there was more to keep readers interested and therefore online longer. Yet, it most always goes back to content quality. CMSWire contributor Rick Sloboda has written about the time visitors spend on websites and as metrics gradually shift from page views to time, he makes it clear that "quality content engage visitors." Metrics are always important in helping to see the big picture. But it's important not to let number alone dictate; there may be many explanations for data collected. Look to your content and it could tell a bigger story.