INSIGHT: How website data without context can present a false positive

This business adjusted some text on a website page & thought it helped to increase the viewing time. The data told a different story

Can you double the reading time on a website page
Summary

We’ve probably all been there at some point in our lives, we tweak a graph or chart to make a result look a bit better, maybe even keep some other bits out of a report. We are all human right?

One of my clients got super excited when they ran a Google Analytics report that showed major improvements to a web page they had updated. When they told me, at first my anxiety kicked in, ‘how could they have achieved such a stunning result I wondered?’. Then that turned to, ‘good on them for taking my advice and having a go’.

Fortunately they wanted to validate their findings so they asked me to have a look. Sadly, it was a false positive, and the data raised more questions than answers. Although this example highlights how important it is to mix common sense together with data that has some form of relative context thrown in the mix so you can validate a view or opinion.

Taking this approach can help measure the impact of website changes and help prove whether you are attracting new customers. Read on to see how I used digital marketing data analysis in this situation.

Website data needs to be looked at with context

Assumptions need the right analysis to create quality outputs.

Imagine making changes to a website page that improved the average time spent on the page by 730%, it is a huge achievement. To get people who were spending just 34 seconds on average, to now be spending over 4 minutes is worthy of an award. It’s possible for any business to achieve this by updating their page content, creating deep, long form information in the form of a guide, case study, white paper or opinion piece. 

I do this regularly for various clients and here are the benefits for a business;

  • It means you are creating content that is unique to your brand / situation.
  • This type of content improves brand credibility and trust.
  • It helps you stand out from competitors who just focus on the basics e.g ‘We are experienced’, We are the best choice’ etc
  • You can showcase your team’s skills, work & results in a believable, credible way.
  • It can help convert more visitors into making enquiries.
  • It can help you rank for search terms that are related to the product or service.
  • It can demonstrate your way of working, thinking, beliefs & culture.
 

For this example I was surprised with the result because it had been the first time in 12 months that my client had made any significant changes to their website content. So when I saw the Google Analytics report I was stunned, but then I was immediately curious to see what they had written about to create such an improvement in the website visitor behaviour. My digital marketing instincts kicked in, expecting to see a super duper new website page full of amazing new content from their team.

Unfortunately there wasn’t.

So I did a quick comparison to see what had changed, as the information more complex, detailed or deeper than before?

WordPress lets you compare versions of a page, so you can see the differences before and after in the image above. Technically speaking it was about the same volume of content on the page. You can see the comparison with the original page on the left that was written a year ago vs the recent changes on the right. The page had been changed, the wording & explanations had been cleaned up to be more relevant and accurate for the service that was being sold which was great.

Although, the changes weren’t really enough to have people dramatically change their behaviour when visiting the page, especially the length of time. The content was essentially an introduction paragraph, some information about their process, photo gallery of sample work & then links to recent case studies. A skim would be what most people were doing because it isn’t a piece of content with deep levels of information that required a long time to read through it.

Therefore I knew pretty much straight away that something wasn’t quite right with the data. 

So how did I prove this?

Look at a longer time period to see trends

This particular page had been live for over twelve months with no major changes made to it. So this provides a really sold base to measure against. Using Google Analytics I created a simple report that looked at the page views for the last twelve months vs the average viewing time. As you can see in the screenshot above it showed that;

  • Australian’s were averaging around 2.49 minutes reading the page.

     

  • Over the last 12 months the light blue trend line has ebbs and flows (September for some reason showing an abnormal drop).

     

  • There is growth in page views from January onwards which makes sense as the corporate and enterprise markets return to work.

     

  • The viewing volumes are trending back towards last year’s averages.

     

  • The bounce rate is relatively high at around 80% meaning the content isn’t really engaging people, a 50-60% rate would be more ideal.
 
 
So in some respects the growth that was getting shown in my client’s first report comparing week on week results was to be expected, you can see the trend from January. Although the average time on page improvement is an anomaly because the sub 40 second average being reported doesn’t match up to the longer term view. The other interesting aspect is that this page only accounts for less than 2% of all views.
 
 
What’s the relevance of all of this?

 
1. It demonstrates that week on week growth should have been expected as it was trending up anyway. A year on year comparison would have been more suitable because it would have compared a like for like time period i.e people returning from Christmas / School holidays after February heading to March. It also would have compared the content change because no other changes had been made to the page in between those time periods. So it would have been a fairly relative comparison.
 
2. It also showed that the 4 minute reading time wasn’t that much different to what was being delivered before when you consider most people had been spending 3 minutes on the page already. So good to see an improvement, but it wasn’t really from 30 seconds to 4 minutes.
 
 
Therefore the report looked great, but it didn’t really mean a lot when you look at it in a different, longer term, context. That is why it is always important to use a mix of common sense (was there a huge change in content on the page either text, videos or photos) together with looking at historical performance for context. That way you have a more balanced view on the results from website content changes.
 

Looking at website visitor trends

Even if you still weren’t convinced, you can look at other aspects to get an idea on the behaviour patterns of website visitors. From early 2019 to early 2020 Australian website visitor volume was fairly steady and has been growing from early 2021 with the only drop around the Christmas period. The average session times have been there or thereabouts for the last 3 years. 

You can see the increase in visitors the last few months, so naturally you’d expect to see an increase week on week when you compare different website pages too. Therefore to really know if the content changes were any good you’d need to compare week on week growth of the page vs overall site growth trends to see if it is outperforming other pages or not.

More recently, since October 2021 the average session duration (how long someone spends overall) for visitors has been around 1.20 mins and the pages per session (how many different pages someone looks at) for this website has been just below 2 for many months. There hasn’t been any major structural or content changes to the site, so you’d hope that these behaviour patterns remain fairly consistent which they have done. 

So to see the first report showing a shift for a content piece to be viewed for less than a minute to over 4 minutes seems odd, this report helps prove that theory even further.  

You can go another step using Google Analytics and look at individual pages. Here we can see the top 20 pages by visitor volume shows the news / case study content pieces are performing really well at more than 4 minutes average reading time. Looking at all the service pages you can see most of them are less than 2 minutes on average, except for a couple.

So from this perspective it proves that the service pages have enough information to explain what is available, but nowhere near the depth or length of content that the news or case study pieces do. So expecting that a few word changes on a service page would instantly improve the reading time by 2X or 3X isn’t very reasonable.

Is there value to making small changes to content?

This is where it gets interesting. 

Why were small changes made to this page’s content anyway? 

Was the information outdated, was it incorrect, did it prevent leads from being generated? They would be some of the typical reasons or you are making changes to improve your search rankings for particular keywords. Although in this example the content wasn’t really changed enough to have much tangible impact other than cleaning up the information being presented by the brand.

Is this a good investment in time though? Maybe, maybe not.

Management teams or sales people want to see their marketing teams deliver impact that is tangible, clear & very visible. In the chart above you can see there is a constant flow of ‘Goal Completions’ since 2020 and growth from early 2021. This is a result of the digital marketing assistance I provided which improved their website content, search rankings and lead tracking mechanisms. You could debate about whether all of the leads are high quality, the % that turn into customers etc because quality is better than quantity, but, anecdotally you would say it is trending the right way.

If this was declining, then there would be reason for concern, but it is growing, so perhaps small tweaks to pages aren’t going to make a huge difference. Certainly not the sort of bang for buck increases that a sales team will be hungry for even if it does improve brand presentation.

So how do you make an assessment of where to spend your energy? It’s back to the data to see what is working & where opportunities are.

Work out where or how your lead volumes come from?

The biggest change that this website has experienced in the last few years is that it now relies on on organic search traffic for its lead volumes. In the table above we can see that since November there have been more than 2,600 different goal completions for people calling, emailing, asking for a quote, reaching the contact page etc with nearly 70% of that coming from organic search.

Keep in mind this is a B2B business focussed on the commercial and retail sector who have been established for more than 20 years. So even though they are recognised leaders in their space, they are being discovered everyday by new people looking for solutions to problems.

The ratio of visitors to actions is generally above 10% which is pretty healthy. While this is a very crude measurement methodology it helps to provide some type of benchmark to understand if people are engaging with the information on the website. The earlier chart showed the growth trajectory of all completions looking really positive and here we can see most of this comes from organic search sources.

Therefore making a few small text changes on a page won’t really be enough to move the needle here – it would need a wholesale change to this page to really make an impact in terms of average reading time, convincing someone to enquire and/or achieve search ranking improvements. You would have to make a decision to;

  • Maintain the basic changes made to the content, but also include an offer, hook or some other element to entice people to specifically enquire from this page to grow lead volumes.
 
  • Do a deep dive on the topic that this page is about with a view to improving the content to make it more informative, more engaging, deeper & combine it with an offer or hook in order to improve lead volumes and potentially keyword search rankings.
 
  • Based on the success of the other case studies and news items, create new content focussed on the topic this page relates to so that this can be featured on the page. This would also be the first new content piece for the website in 12 months which Google rewards vs sites that remain static.

Prioritise website content changes based on services / products

Small text changes, a few image adjustments or re-wording a handful of sentences might help brand presentation and if you are really lucky, improve lead conversions if the new information is very compelling. Although this would be pretty rare or mean the original information wasn’t good enough to be useful in the first place. 

Remember, if a significant proportion of a website page isn’t changed, Google may not even re-index it.

So how can data help with this type of decision making? Let’s look at consumer behaviour using Google Search Console

“Site analysis” – 9,100 search impressions that created close to 300 visitors.

“Site plan” – 27,000 related search impressions only created 130 visitors.

This data is from the client’s organic search performance of their existing website in its current state from the last 16 months. While the search terms are similar service types, there is 3X more potential available with “site plan” related queries, but they won less than half the visits. 

There is money being left on the table.

Depending on the commercial priorities of the business, it may have made more sense to leave the minor tweaking & put the energy into growing visitor volumes knowing that the website is converting at least 10% of its traffic into leads right now. Imagine walking into the next sales meeting being able to say an extra 100 leads came in. 

For this client their average conversion rate from lead quotation to booked job is around 40%, that’s how good they are. So if the marketing efforts pull in another 100 odd leads, that is potentially another 40 or so booked jobs leading to $100,000+  in revenue growth (assuming an average job value is $3,000 ex gst or more) That’s just looking at a single service related phrase & they have more than 20 different services to offer across their business.

In summary
For a marketing manager managing a website, it might be nice to have perfectly presented pages for the brand & of course senior management will be happy as well.

Although, as proven in this example, there could be other low hanging fruit that can generate increased lead volumes that would result in immediate impact to the sales team and the bottom line. Senior management in my experience appreciate this even more. This is how marketing people can make themselves invaluable to a business, by clearly demonstrating their inputs & direct outputs that help drive the business.

Paul D'Ambra

Paul D'Ambra

I love to re-energise businesses by injecting energy into their marketing using data-driven consumer insights. I’ve motivated start-ups, small business owners and six-figure corporate brands to deliver incredible marketing impact.

Whether you are a start-up or existing business, you may find yourself stuck and unsure how to execute to achieve your goals. Is your business in need of an overhaul? Maybe you need help managing workflows? Are you struggling to understand the value of your business and the direction it needs to grow & flourish?

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