What’s so wrong about counting clicks? Well, according to New York based web analytics firm Chartbeat, traditional metrics only tell part of the story.

“Traffic measures are useful for understanding the scale of a site, but they are not meaningful for the evaluation of content,” says Josh Schwarz, Chartbeat’s Chief Data Scientist.

He illustrates with an all-too-familiar scenario – a publisher taking a single-page article and splitting it in half to make a two-page article.

“If I measure clicks, and I split a single-page article, I now have twice the clicks, but all I’ve done is double the pagination,” Schwarz says, which in turn makes more work for the reader, asking them to click onto multiple pages, waiting for the new page to load, resulting in drop off due to a poor user experience.

Chartbeat is flipping that model on its head, helping publishers measure and value the attention a reader gives to the content after they click and not on the click itself. The industry is calling this approach the Attention Web  and is using it to judge the true value of their content via the engagement it receives.

Measuring engagement means different things to different people: Scroll depth, social actions, time spent, paywall subscriptions. For Chartbeat, engagement centers on time spent.

“Time spent is a census-based measurement,” says Schwartz, “a picture of the entire piece. It’s a nice measure of consumer action.”

Schwartz acknowledges that publishers have measured time spent for a long while, but traditional ways of measuring it are not trusted in the industry, as they do not take into consideration if the user is paying attention. Traditional time spent is calculated by starting a timer when a visitor opens a web page and closing it when the page is closed or the user clicks to another page.

Time spent in the Attention Web measures active engagement: if the browser window or tab is active and not in the background and what happens between those clicks, such as if the user is reading, scrolling or moving their mouse.

This idea of measuring attention is picking up steam across the industry from brands as large as Facebook, who want to understand how much collective time people spend on the platform, to the individual editor and journalist, who want to understand if people read what they have written in an individual article.

To answer that need, Chartbeat built tools to optimise reading, highlighting what people are spending time with and helping content teams improve articles.

Schwartz gives headline optimisation as an example. “Headlines influence more than click throughs, they also have an influence on whether people actually read the content behind them. Someone sees a headline gets excited about reading the article, then… disappointed or satisfied.”

Chartbeat helps solve this with benchmarking and A/B testing. “It tries to find the headline that is most likely to get the visitor to click through and read the article,” Schwartz explains.

However, simply measuring and driving that engagement doesn’t do enough to change the business model away from traffic-chasing clickbait models. In order to do that, a publisher must also monetising that audience’s attention rather than the clicks driving traffic alone.

The logic is that brands will pay more to be seen by the right audience, an audience that is paying attention and engaging with high-quality content.

Brand advertisers know that context is key: associating your premium brand with another premium brand  reinforces who you are and how you want an audience to precieve you. The same logic applies with a high-value ad placed alongside high-quality content. For example, a Tiffany ad alongside a New York Times article. The benefit Tiffany gets from placing an ad alongside a New York Times article isn’t simply in reaching a New York Times reader; it’s in earning that reader’s attention while they’re engaged with high-quality content.

 “To be seen, really seen, is important to advertisers. They want human attention and that’s a scarce resource, says Schwartz. “The problem is measuring that and monetising that, and that’s where attention metrics come in.”

Image courtesy of Rob McBell via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license.