Why You Shouldn’t Set Pageviews and Time on Site as Goals in Google Analytics

Nearly every site out there has a pageview and time on site goal enabled. They’re easy to set up and they make us feel great. We can say that our site has a 55% goal conversion rate just by enabling these two goals. We’re measuring engagement (like everyone says we need to) and we have a super high conversion rate. We must be doing a fantastic job.

Technically, Google Analytics pages/visit and visit duration goals do allow you to measure the engagement of your site. The problem is that we don’t know what KIND of engagement.

Let’s say someone visits 10 pages on your site. That’s a good thing right? Maybe. What if they were clicking all over your site trying to find something, couldn’t, and got so fed up with you that they left in a terrible mood? That’s bad engagement.

When we track these metrics with Google Analytics goals, we don’t know if we’re making things worse or better. In most cases, they provide zero value.

You might argue that while these goals don’t have much value, they’re not hurting anyone. But they are. These goals get rolled into every aggregate goal conversion rate in your reports and make it harder for you to figure out what’s working. At best, they’ll waste your time. At worst, they’ll lead you to the wrong conclusions.

The Cost of a Useless Goal

Having more goals is not necessarily a good thing. The more goals we have, the harder it is to focus on the goals that actually matter (revenue, leads, account creations, etc.).

When you have goals that don’t track critical outcomes of your business, some metrics and reports in Google Analytics become worthless.

For example, take the Goal Overview report. Since Google Analytics compiles all of your goals into a single conversion rate, you’ll have to drill deeper into the reports just to get a sense of what’s working. In other words, the at-a-glance metrics that are supposed to help you no longer do so.

This is the Goals Overview Report with pages/visit and visit duration goals activated:

Goals Overview Google Analytics

The pages/visit and visit duration goals account for 95.6% of the total goal completions in this report. If goals go up, we might be doing a better job with engagement and delighting our customers. Or we might be frustrating them to no end. There’s no way to tell.

Since pages/visit and visit duration goals don’t tell us anything about our business, the majority of this data set isn’t useful. That means we have absolutely no idea how our business is doing without looking at other goals individually.

With the other goals being such a small percentage of the total goals (less than 5%), we can’t even begin to see how they impact our business.

These items from the Goals Overview Report are now worthless:

  • The Graph
  • Total Goal Completions
  • Conversion Rate
  • Abandonment Rate

We could drill down into each individual goal. But we can no longer get a quick overview of our critical goals. At least not easily. If you’re super motivated, you could apply advanced segments or build a custom report. But it’s faster and easier to not apply pages/visit and visit duration goals in the first place.

If you keep your goal data clean by only including essential goals for your business, you can get an accurate overview of how your business is doing whenever you want.

Now, there are two exceptions to this: support and advertising sites.

Exception #1: Support Sites

What’s the primary purpose of any support site? To help visitors find the information they’re looking for as fast as possible. People rarely go to support sites for fun. They arrive because they have a problem. And the faster you provide the answer, the happier the visitor becomes.

You want the visitor to spend as little time on your support site as possible.

So one of your goals is to reduce the number of pages people need to view before they leave. You also want to reduce the amount of time they spend on your site. Pages/visit and visit duration goals sound perfect for this.

Here’s how you set them up.

How to Define Goals for Support Sites

Most pages/visit and visit duration goals set a minimum threshold for how many pages or minutes trigger the goal. When people view more pages per visit, conversions go up. We’ll do the opposite and set a maximum threshold. Now when people view FEWER pages, conversions go up. Our priority is to increase the number of people that reach the goal.

So if we set a pages/visit goal to less than 5 pages, the goal will trigger every time a visitor leaves before loading a 5th page.

Visit Duration Goal

To start setting up your visit duration goal:

  1. 1. Go to your Google Analytics standard reports
  2. 2. Click on the “Admin” button in the top right
  3. 3. Click on “Goals”
  4. 4. From one of the Goal sets, click “+ Goal” (goal sets are just a way for you to easily group goals) to set up a new goal.
  5. 5. Name your goal and select “Visit Duration”

For the name, I recommend included the amount of time for your goal in the goal name so it’s very easy for you to remember what the threshold is.

Pick a length of time that 25-50% of your audience will hit. It’s not important to have the perfect amount of time; you simply want to establish a benchmark. So if 50% of your visitors spend more than 5 minutes on your site, that’s your starting point. A benchmark of 40% spending more than 6 minutes works just as well. Don’t get caught up in absolute numbers, just figure out where you are so you can start moving the needle in the right direction.

Make sure you select “less than” for the Condition, then enter in the time you want. If you don’t know what where to start, plug in 5 minutes.

In general, you won’t define a goal value for visit duration goals. For the lowdown on Google Analytics goal values, check out this KISSmetrics post.

When you’re all set, you’ll have a Google Analytics goal that looks like this:

Support Site Visit Duration Goal Google Analytics

When tracking this goal (or any time on site metric), be careful about focusing on the actual amount of time people spend on your site. Visit duration will never be a good way to measure engagement accurately because of how time on site is calculated. Google Analytics only calculates time when a page loads. So if a visitor goes to two pages, it can figure out how much time was spent on the first page. But Google Analytics doesn’t know how much time the visitor spent on the second page unless that visitor goes to a third.

Essentially, Google Analytics has no idea how much time your visitors spend on the last page of their visit and assumes they didn’t spend any time at all there. So time on site metrics and visit duration goals are artificially low. Don’t focus on the actual number, focus on how that number changes over time.

Pages/Visit Goal

Instead of picking “visit duration” when setting up a new goal, choose “Pages/Visit.”

Just like your visit duration goal, don’t worry about the exact number. Simply set a maximum threshold that will be triggered by a good chunk of your visitors. It doesn’t matter what the exact number is, you just need a place to start from.

Choose “Less than” for the condition and define the pages you want (5 pages is a good starting point). Unless you have a REALLY good reason to set a goal value, leave it blank.

You’ll have a pages/visit goal that looks like this:

Support Site Pages Per Visit Goal Google Analytics

WARNING: Be careful with this goal on any site that uses virtual pageviews heavily. Remember, virtual pageviews allow you to force a pageview into Google Analytics whenever you want. And if you use them frequently, the vast majority of your visitors will start to hit your pages/visit goal. Either use restraint with virtual page views or set your pages/visit goal MUCH higher.

3 Strategies for Lowering Pages/Visit and Time on Site

Simplify Navigation: Look for ways to eliminate and condense items in your navigation. If you don’t know where to start, use heatmaps (CrazyEgg is a great choice) to figure out which elements in your navigation aren’t used at all. Then merge those elements into other areas of your site or get rid of them altogether. Also consider replacing them with other content that your visitors find more valuable.

Clear and Concise Copy: Every word on your site should be super clear. Avoid cute copy which tends to confuse people. When your visitors know exactly what to expect from each page on your site, they’ll find what they’re looking for much faster.

Better Internal Search Engine: Most internal search engines are terrible. Test yours out and see how well it pulls results. If it can’t give great results for common search terms that directly relate to your content, start shopping around for a new internal search engine.

Exception #2: Advertising Sites

If you sell ad space on your site, you live and die on one of two metrics. Click-throughs or pageviews.

If you sell by the pageview, your entire business model is based on increasing your visitors and increasing pages/visit. In this case, a pages/visit goal makes a lot of sense. The more pages you serve, the more impressions you have, and the more money you make.

So let’s get to it.

How to Define Goals for Advertising Sites

Go ahead and log into Google Analytics, head to your goals in the admin area, and pick the pages/visit goal.

Since you sell ad space by impressions or clicks, time on site goals won’t give you any value. Focus on pages/visit goals.

Just like the support site, you’re going to set up a pages/visit goal that a portion of your audience already reaches. Once you’ve established a benchmark, try to increase it.

Set the condition as “Greater than” and pick the number of pages you want as a threshold. Most sites use 5.

Then you’ll get a fancy schmancy goal that looks like this:

Ad Site Pages Per Visit Goal Google Analytics

What if you sell ads based on clicks? You’ll have to take a different route altogether if you want better data.

Abandon pages/visit goals and track your ad clicks with events. Then set up event goals and use event values or goal values to track your revenue. This will track individual clicks on your ads.

Tracking individual clicks will definitely give you better data since you can set specific goal values for each ad. You’ll have reliable revenue data in your Google Analytics reports. But it’s also much more difficult to set up because you’ll need to add onclick event tracking using JavaScript.

Check out Google’s Event Tracking Guide along with KISSmetrics’ posts on Goal Values and Goal Types for a complete overview of all this.

Avoiding Goals Altogether

Even if you have a support site or you sell ad space, you have the option of not configuring goals in the first place. Instead, you can grab the site-wide time on site or pages/visit metrics each month and put them into an Excel spreadsheet. Over time, you’ll be able to judge whether or not you’ve been going in the right direction.

If you’re tracking other goals like newsletter sign ups or ecommerce transactions, this is probably your best bet. It’ll keep your goal data clean and allow you to track user engagement over time.

Bottom Line

Unless you have an advertising-based business model or a support site. You should never ever have visit duration or pages/visit goals in Google Analytics. They’ll get in your way and prevent you from focusing on data that matters.

Instead, focus on goals that help you track any of these items:

  • Transactions
  • Leads
  • Account Creation
  • Downloads (software or PDFs)
  • Upgrades
  • Newsletter Sign Ups

Think I’m wrong? Give it to me straight and we’ll duke it out in the comments! The winner gets crowned Analytics Champion of the Intrawebs.

About the Author: Lars Lofgren is the KISSmetrics Marketing Analyst and has his Google Analytics Individual Qualification (he’s certified). Learn how to grow your business at his marketing blog or follow him on Twitter @larslofgren.

  1. Excellent post – I’ve been doing something without knowing it – and further strengthened the analysis of my website. I’m testing the tool kissmetrics, I’m from Brazil and I’m getting quite satisfied with the ease of use. It forecasts for Brazil in Portuguese since Google Analtycs is widespread here?

  2. I believe this is flawed, the more page views, the more:

    “•Transactions
    •Leads
    •Account Creation
    •Downloads (software or PDFs)
    •Upgrades
    •Newsletter Sign Ups”

    This is why we have goals to see how our pageviews are doing. All of these listed are subcategories resulting from pageviews.

    • Not necessarily. Both visitors and pageviews have a notorious history of being very poor correlates of business outcomes (sign ups, conversions, etc). When one goes up, the other may not. Say I get a blog post at the top of Reddit and drive a substantial amount of traffic to my site. Visitors and pageviews will then skyrocket. More frequently than not, conversions won’t budge at all.

      The same thing also happens with viral content. When something goes viral, visitors and pageviews increase substantially. But conversions seldom increase at all in these circumstances.

      To get visitors and pageviews to correlate with conversions, the traffic source has to be a perfect match for your business. The audience on Reddit has to overlap perfectly with my target market for the increase in traffic to correlate with conversions.

      Traffic volumes don’t correlate with conversions. That’s why we spend so much time tracking them.

      And since pages/visit and time on site don’t tell us what kind of engagement is happening (the user might be happy or frustrated, we have no idea), it’s better to drop these goals altogether and focus on conversions.

  3. There are several reasons to set interaction goals. One that we use is to measure placements from AdWords (http://certifiedknowledge.org/blog/save-money-on-placements-with-google-analytics/) to quickly block traffic from display networks we don’t like.

    If you’re worried about corrupting overall stats, then the advice should be to create a new profile for these odd cases. With GA, creating a new profile is so easy – its not that you shouldn’t measure something – its that you might want to measure it in a new profile so that you have one that is based upon goals that are (or closer) to revenue events.

  4. Now I know how to setup goals for my advertising site.

    Thanks,

  5. I wish that there was a “like” or “+1″ button in the thread here. I’d use it for Brad’s comment. I, too, don’t believe that inflating overall stats is a big deal; but if it is a concern then a separate profile is the way to go (and easy to do).

    One method that I use to help choose engagement goals is to apply an advanced segment to the Audience > Engagement histograms. For example, if I’m creating an engagement goal for an ecommerce site, I may look at the histogram of how many page views are necessary for a user to add to cart or to complete purchase. Setting a pages/visit goal based upon this report can help me quickly hone in on inbound channels that perform well (or not so well).

  6. How about measuring Avg.Visit Duration and Pageviews for Visits with Conversions? Would that result in a Goal worth measuring?

Comments are closed.

← Previous ArticleNext Article →
Buffer