Media companies must know how their favourite analytics tool defines an active session

By Ariane Bernard


New York, Paris


Most of the popular content analytics tools have a purview to help you understand “what’s popular right now.” This falls into two categories of information: 

  • How many entries into the content come from where. This is a standard content analytics tally. 

  • And, for these tools with a real-time component, a notion of what pages have the actual attention of users. 

The grey area of this latter paradigm  isn’t in the baseline — it’s in the measuring of the article being highly trafficked “right now.” And it ties to some bits that I could hardly imagine you would have looked into unless you have a fairly technical background.

All traffic measurements are not created equally.
All traffic measurements are not created equally.

First, a quick look at how your Web browser works

There are not a lot of efficient ways to constantly measure the activity of a user on a page. There are inefficient ways to do this. For example, some analytics tools used in product analytics will record entire sessions of a user’s activity. But this is used in very specific cases and usually sparingly because of the high resources involved: Tools that make heatmaps do this, for instance. These tools are expensive in terms of computing resources and your publisher wallet, and they slow down Web browsers. So they are not a good option to keep tabs regularly on how your users are interacting with your pages. 

So now, where your preferred content analytics tools tell you “this many users on this page right now,” they will also readily explain to you that the proxy of “users on the page right now” is derived by what are called “events” — an analytics concept that takes certain kind of user interactions such as clicks, scrolls, and certain pieces of your page coming into view and tracks them. Think of it a bit like a “proof of life.”

Varying a bit across some of the more popular tools, then:

  • Tool A will consider that an event recorded every N seconds means a continuous session.

  • Tool B will have a different number of seconds. 

The problem isn’t that different tools have decided on a different number of seconds. It’s a problem potentially if you try to compare the numbers of both these tools, but that’s hardly what regular analytics users do. See Chartbeat’s very clear explanation from how their approaches and Google Real Time’s vary. 

In fact, the problem is the content configuration of pages will greatly affect how certain methods will classify a session as active or not. The biggest place where this occurs is around videos.

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About Ariane Bernard

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