Which metrics should you include in your SEO report? 70+ SEO professionals share the SEO metrics that they include (and you should, too.)
Marketing | Mar 25
Dann Albright on July 23, 2019 • 15 minute read
Bounce rate, pageviews, new vs. returning users, goal completions: the list goes on and on.
So where does something like average session duration fall in terms of importance?
According to our research, average session duration is the fourth-most-tracked Google Analytics metric. Only users, bounce rate, and sessions ranked higher.
But like bounce rate, average session duration is one of those signals based on merit, meaning it’s hard to game it. You can’t improve it by advertising, by stuffing more keywords onto your page, or by writing more clickbaity headlines.
So to find out how you can improve your average session duration, we asked dozens of marketers to share how they keep users on their sites for longer.
Here’s what we learned.
Table of Contents:
Average session duration is a Google Analytics metric that reports the average amount of time users spend on your website. You can find your website’s average session duration in Google Analytics by navigating to Audience > Overview.
But to fully understand what average session duration means, we need to answer a few more questions.
A session in Google Analytics is simply a visit to your website. A session starts when someone views a page on your website and ends either when they leave your website or after 30 minutes of inactivity. Everything a user does during that visit is counted as a single session.
If that same user comes back a few days later and visits your website again, that’s counted as another session. So if one person visits your site 15 separate times during a week, those 15 visits would be counted as 15 sessions.
When a session starts, Google Analytics begins timing the session. That timer stops when the user ends the session via leaving your site, or it stops when the user has been inactive for 30 minutes.
The reason the timer stops after 30 minutes of inactivity is to prevent your average session duration from being artificially inflated in cases where, for example, someone accidentally left your website open on his/her work computer all weekend.
Google Analytics calculates average session duration by dividing the total duration of all sessions (in seconds) during a specified time frame by the total number of sessions during that same time frame.
For example, say in one week you had three website visitors:
To calculate your average session duration, Google Analytics would add together the duration of each session (180 + 60 + 360) and divide the sum (600) by the number of sessions (3) to get an average session duration of 200 seconds, or 3 minutes and 20 seconds (which is sometimes displayed in Google Analytics as 00:03:20).
However, there is one caveat that makes average session duration a tricky metric. In order for Google Analytics to calculate the time spent on the last page a user visits, the user must take an action on that page (clicking a link, playing a video, filling out a form, etc.).
For example, when a user clicks into one of your blog posts from search, the session timer starts. It continues when that user clicks on a link to another blog post. But unless the user takes another action on that second page, the time spent reading that second blog post isn’t counted as part of the session duration.
Instead, the session duration would only count the time between when the first page loaded and when the user clicked on the link to go to the second blog post. The time spent reading the second blog post (but not interacting with it), is not counted as part of the session duration.
For that reason, it’s often important to keep an eye on both average session duration and average time on page.
Average session duration in Google Analytics measures how much time—on average—that visitors spent on your website as a whole. Average time on page, on the other hand, measures how long—on average—that visitors spent on a specific page of your website.
While these are two different metrics, they can support each other to help you get a better sense of how long users are spending on your site.
For example, say you notice that a specific page of your website is a top exit page (meaning many sessions end on that page).
If you know that there isn’t an opportunity for users to take additional actions on that page (no videos to play, etc.), you can look at the average time on page metric for that page to get a better idea of if your average session duration might actually be longer than what Google Analytics is reporting.
Editor’s note: Want an easier way to track your most important website engagement metrics? Grab this free Google Analytics Website Engagement dashboard to get a consolidated view of key Google Analytics metrics like average time on page, exits by page, and bounce rates for new and returning visitors.
According to our research, a reasonable benchmark for average session duration is between 2-3 minutes.
A good average session duration, then, might be anything above three minutes. In fact, 55% of the marketers we surveyed reported an average session duration greater than three minutes, and 27% reported average session durations greater than four minutes.
If you feel like your average session duration is too low, there are many ways to increase it and keep visitors on your website longer.
To uncover the best ways to increase average session duration, we asked dozens of marketers to share their top tips. Use these nine tips to give your site’s average session duration a boost.
“Broadly speaking, people tend to skim or to multitask as they consume content,” says Colibri Digital Marketing’s Andrew McLoughlin. “By leveraging video, you can present information more dynamically, allowing for more convenient multitasking.”
Many marketers agreed with McLoughlin. And a couple let us know that they’d seen impressive results by adding videos to their sites:
If you’re not sure that you have the resources to add videos to your site, don’t worry. Lone Fir Creative’s Tyler Pigott says that “in most cases, the videos do not have to be highly polished and highly produced.”
Instead, Pigott says, “they can be talking heads of someone on your team describing a service or tactics more clearly, providing a more in-depth explanation.”
Two marketers also emphasized the importance of how you start and end your videos.
Karen Weider of Weider Web Solutions starts her videos with a preview of the video’s content. “I make sure to focus on the benefits of hanging around,” said Weider. “For example, ‘watch this video to the end to understand the three reasons why you should…’”
So you should start by reviewing the value of the video. How should you end?
“At the end of your video, you want to reinforce your message by creating a strong call to action,” says Kobe Digital’s Arya Bina. “Whether that’s sending someone to a website, checking out your product, or signing up for a list, tell your viewers what to do next.”
Video isn’t the only way to add visual interest to your page.
“Populate your posts with relevant videos, charts, and infographics to dramatically increase the time people spend on the page,” says Jose Angelo Gallegos.
Chetna Singla of Grazitti Interactive agrees: “One effective tactic to increase the average session time on your website is to have high-quality images between the content. These images make the content more engaging.”
“Visual learning is necessary because it adds simplicity to content,” says G2’s Alan Santillan. “A picture is definitely worth a million words. The content we produce with custom graphics that help visualize statistics performs better in terms of session duration.”
What are your customers looking for? What stage of the funnel are they in? What will help them move to the next stage?
The answers to these questions will help you boost your session duration.
“When we’re creating and publishing a new article, we think about where it fits in the typical user journey—is it top-of-the-funnel content, or is it designed to convert returning visitors?” says Nelson Jordan of The Ecommerce Profits.
“That information dictates which path we try and steer our users to next. Taking this approach has increased our time on site by close to 20% so far,” Jordan adds.
Jennifer Lux of LyntonWeb agrees: “One of the best ways to increase average session duration is to truly understand your customer’s path to purchase.”
“When you map the typical customer journey with data and understand the typical touchpoints your prospects experience, you can build that natural progression on site pages and improve average session duration.”
Users need obvious next steps, Lux says. In-line calls to action, slide-ins, pop-ups, and exit-intent offers at the right stage of the buyer’s journey will improve your session duration.
So how do you know where your customers are in the buying cycle?
David Hoos of The Good, recommends a simple method. “One very effective strategy is to do frequent customer surveys asking about their challenges, then use that data (and sometimes language) to flesh out high-quality practical content around those challenges.”
Cultivative’s Amy Bishop uses faster methods of data capture: “I use Google Analytics to understand common exit pages and which pages have the lowest average time-on-page to identify which pages need the most work.”
But Bishop doesn’t stop there. “I like to track visitor behavior with heat mapping, click-tracking, and pop-up surveys. This provides a sense for how users engage with each page—what they like, what seems to be missing, and the paths that they take.”
Editor’s note: Go deeper by tracking your average session duration by channel to see which campaigns and initiatives are driving more engaged website visitors. Grab the free Google Analytics Traffic Breakdown dashboard below to visualize your data in minutes.
How clean is your user interface (UI)? If it’s not clear and easy to use, your visitors might leave your site fast.
“All users should instantly see the useful part of a page when they land on the homepage,” says Andrew Ruditser of MAXBURST. “If there are fewer things to look at, then users are more likely to focus and stay longer.”
There are all sorts of distractions you can remove, says UNINCORPORATED’s Ian Evenstar. “A distraction-free experience focuses a reader’s attention on the article or web page instead of on closing pop-ups, ignoring ads, or exploring your sidebar.”
Ian Revling of Evolve Digital Labs puts it this way: “If your website’s UX is too complex—full of unnecessary graphics or CTAs, difficult to navigate, etc.—the chances of user abandonment are quite high.”
Revling suggests testing a simple landing page against a longer-form landing page with the same messaging. If the simpler page performs better, you’ll have a sign that your site may be too complicated.
Your UI and visuals should make it easy for visitors to read your content, but so should the content itself.
Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios sums it up this way: “Many subheads. Short paragraphs. Long pages. As soon as they land, they start scanning. They often have something in mind, and they’re trying to find it.”
“If it looks like it’s easy to scan through (descriptive subheads) they’ll spend a few seconds scrolling down. If something grabs their attention and the content looks easy to read (short paragraphs) then they’ll slow down and start reading. If the page has a lot of information (long copy) they may stay for several long minutes.”
It’s a simple recipe, but effective.
You can also write an overview of what the reader will learn on the page, says Blair McKeeof Constellix who recommends including a linked table of contents at the top of the page.
Lasting Trend’s Tim Absalikov also emphasizes the beginning of the page. “We utilize the inverted pyramid strategy, also known as Lead > Details > Context strategy.”
Here’s how that works:
Focusing on generating interest first and then provide the details. Your average session duration will benefit.
You might not think about links as an important part of increasing session duration, but several marketers told us that they are. Even just making sure to provide internal links can make a difference.
Since Fisher Unitech started using more internal links, their average session duration has increased by 10%, Jackie Tihanyi says.
Why is this so effective? James Pollard of The Advisor Coach has an idea: “If people are interested in a topic, they will keep reading. Don’t let them stop.”
It’s that straightforward.
“Take a look at some popular websites and pay attention to their interlinking strategy—how they link enticing words that make you want to click on them,” says Laura Cabrera of Outcry.
And Box Marketing’s Ashleigh Peregoy recommends adding internal links lower on the page. “If you are trying to build SEO and ensure that all information on a page is read, make the information on the page direct and place any links toward the bottom of the page.”
“Blogs are publications—one-off, scattershot posts that span a wide range of topics. For many visitors, that means coming to your blog from a search engine because you have one—and only one—article that’s relevant.”
So what’s a library?
“It’s a hub-and-spoke model that identifies a relevant, high-level topic then builds out articles on all related topics.” These libraries, Gleason says, prove to your readers that you have expertise and supply related information to keep them reading.
You can use all the session-duration-increasing tactics you want, but if your content isn’t worth reading, they’re not going to help. In the end, interesting and engaging content is what keeps people on the page.
“If you want to keep people on your website longer, you need to make sure you are satisfying your readers,” says Donna Duncan of B-SeenOnTop.
How do you do that? Make sure your content does the following, Duncan says:
This strategy not only increases your average session duration but also earns you repeat visits, Duncan says.
Gwen Montoya agrees: “Create in-depth blog posts that actually answer someone’s question instead of a brief blog post that relies on SEO tactics to get traffic. Dig in, create something worth reading, and utilize SEO for the magic combo of getting and retaining traffic.”
And Codeless’ Brad Smith gave us a great example of how his team increased the average session duration on a single blog post by 280%.
Smith and his team:
With those four steps, the average session duration on that post rose from 28 seconds to over 1:47. That’s a big jump.
DWR increased its average session duration across its entire website by 55% with similar ideas. Instead of adding media and content upgrades, though, DWR focused on its text content.
“In improving text content, we use the following rules: original content, accurate, engaging, informative, and providing answers to users as quickly and concisely as possible,” says Dario Sipos. He noted that keeping content up-to-date is very important as well.
In the end, the most important thing you can do to increase average session duration is providing readers with something valuable and worth their time. That’s what gets people to stick around.
Originally published in October 2018, this post has been updated with an expanded definition of average session duration and explanations for how it’s calculated and how it compares to other Google Analytics engagement metrics.
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