The myth of the 'golden metric'

Build a sustainable business by taking a more holistic view of metrics.

Open bank vault with gold coins spilling out
Credit: Thinkstock

Monitoring web traffic data has been a central strategy component for businesses since it became apparent that shifting operations from print to digital was a necessity, not a luxury.

But the volume of data and the complexity of analysing that data often leaves the liberal arts majors among us scratching their heads. What do these numbers mean? Which ones are more important? How will this data tell me if my content is performing well?

In his book, The Signal and the Noise, statistician and writer Nate Silver said we live in an age where the volume of data available to us has vastly outpaced our knowledge of what to do with it. In no industry is this more evident than web publishing. Between pageviews, reader engagement, clicks, shares and numerous other metrics, publishers today have a lot of data to choose from when measuring success.

However, measuring value based on individual metrics does not provide a holistic overview of the success of your business -- because data rarely tells the whole story. Let’s examine measurement through the lens of another industry to help clarify.

Prior to my current gig, I taught high-school math and economics in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The NYC Department of Education had just implemented the NYC Progress Report, which used mathematical models to assign a grade to each school in the city.

The program came loaded with controversy, partly because opponents thought the metrics the model used were too focused on test scores. The issue rages on today. The Common Core program has also sparked fierce debates, and again, it focuses on what? Measurement.

It’s not about measuring; it’s about solving a problem.

An aggressive focus on metrics, and particularly on one “golden metric,” creates the illusion that solving for the metric solves for the problem. But, that’s not always the case.

The problem in education is how to help students. The problem in journalism and media is how to build a sustainable business online.

And in publishing, an industry where the value of individual metrics has dropped in recent years, the challenge to measure success in a meaningful way -- beyond pageviews or visitors -- is what will drive us toward sustainability. In short, there is no golden metric that tells the whole story of how users are interacting with your website and content.

So what metrics actually matter? What role do they play for audience managers as we move into 2016? How should we approach all the charts and graphs presented by our myriad analytics platforms?

I propose a simple solution: Take a more holistic approach to answering the specific questions you have about your content. Use all of the metrics you have available and combine them in a way that will provide you with insight into specific questions that your site is looking to answer.

For example, when measuring the performance of an individual piece of content, what is it that you’re really asking?

Ev Williams, CEO at Medium, wrote earlier this year about the difficulties of measuring success as a digital publisher. He talked about a time when a post from Medium went viral, but had very low engagement. Faced with this contradiction, he decided that the question his team needed to answer was simple: Are we making an impression on how you think?

Today, Medium’s top-line metric is “total time reading,” an imperfect measure of time people spend on story pages. Explained Williams: “The problem with time, though, is it’s not actually measuring value. It’s measuring cost as a proxy for value. Advertisers don’t really want your time  --  they want to make an impression on your mind, consciously or subconsciously (and, ultimately, your money).”

This is the type of analysis that site managers who aren’t necessarily data-savvy can perform. Start by making a list of questions you have about your content or website. Then look at your analytics platform to see which available metrics can serve as variables to answer your question.

This analysis will do more to answer the key questions about your business, and you’ll move away from the short-sighted practice of focusing on one “golden metric” to answer everything.

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