You’d think that after 25 years of this Web thing that we’d pretty much have it figured out.

Why is it then, that so many businesses in so many industries -- media, retail, advertising for starters -- struggle so mightily with getting readers, shoppers, viewers, influencers and the like to pay attention to their wonderful Web creations? Tony Haile thinks he has the answer: We’re paying attention to the wrong things. I know: bummer. Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, a New York-based Web analytics company, wrote a piece recently for Time that argued convincingly that the obsession with clicks and the focus on counting the number of social shares of content is essentially a waste of time. Instead, what’s important is how deeply consumers are engaged with the content on your site. In his essay, Haile decries what he calls “the click Web,” a place that he says became fixated on click counting in 1994 when direct mail maven Ken McCarthy came up with the clickthrough as the scoring system by which to keep track of how Web sites were performing. And maybe clickthroughs as a measure made sense then, the same way a fax machine made sense as a way to send documents back and forth. But things change in 20 years. In the tech world, things change so much that you don’t recognize them anymore. “In 20 years, everything else about the web has been transformed, but the click remains unchanged, we live on the click Web,” Haile writes. “Spurred by new technology and plummeting clickthrough rates, what happens between the clicks is becoming increasingly important and the media world is scrambling to adapt.” He calls for a move to the “attention web,” where those running Web properties use powerful analytical tools to measure how long a visitor stays on a page and how far into the content they read or watch. "A shift toward the attention web means we can stop guessing if visitors who landed on our site read the content or watch the video or took in the ad; we can now know --second by second, pixel by pixel -- where their attention is locked and for how long,” Haile told me by email. “This shift changes the economy on the web from one that places a premium on any click to one that values focus, interest, and attention."

It’s important to note that Haile wasn’t writing based on some hunch. He explained that Chartbeat “looked at topics across a random sample of 2 billion page views generated by 580,000 articles on 2,000 sites. We pulled out the most clicked-on topics and then contrasted topics that received a very high level of attention per pageview with those that received very little attention per pageview.”

The results of the study should alarm anyone who is relying on clickthroughs or social media shares to measure the performance of their Web sites. And though Haile’s firm works primarily with media properties, the findings certainly apply to sites run by retailers or anyone else for that matter.

Among Charbeat’s notable findings:

  • Fifty-five percent of those who click on a link spend less than 15 seconds on a site.

  • For every 100 visitors there is one tweet and eight Facebook likes on average, meaning the numbers are so small that it’s useless to try to draw conclusions from the behavior.

  • More importantly, in its study, Chartbeat found that the story that generated the most tweets received only 20 percent of the meaningful engagement received by the story that did the best in the meaningful engagement category.

  • Sixty-six percent of meaningful attention is paid below the fold of a typical Web page, meaning the banner ads at the top are not what visitors are paying attention to.

Lauryn Bennett, Chartbeat’s head of brand, elaborated a bit on my brief email exchange with Haile. She told me that for too long too many Web enterprises have been asking various metrics to be things that they are not. A click, after all, is simply a click. It doesn’t mean a visitor to your site read the content, or enjoyed the content or was moved to act by the content.

“You’ve got to look at the metrics and what they were intended to measure -- and exclusively what they were intended to measure,” she says. “as opposed to asking certain metrics to be proxies for something else.” Chartbeat, of course, is not the only outfit arguing that engagement is what really matters. It’s been a notion, an easier-said-than-done notion, that’s been discussed and debated in e-commerce for some time. In fact, more than 86 percent of agency and marketing executives said engagement was a priority for their companies, according to a survey by Google Think Insights and Advertising Age. Oddly, fewer than half those surveyed (45.8 percent) said they were actually managing engagement. Part of the reason, eMarketer concluded, was that most of the executives polled said they didn’t know how to measure engagement. Sounds like they could use some help. David Cost, vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing at clothing retailer Deb Shops, believes he has a handle on engagement on his site. He says engagement is king. Think about it: Whether in a store or on a website, wouldn’t a retailer want customers to remember their experience as a pleasant one? Cost told me earlier this year that Deb Shops' embrace of engagement is part of what turned around the e-commerce operation for the retailer, which is a BloomReach customer. Chartbeat’s Bennett says while doing engagement right might be complicated, the benefits are not hard to understand. “If people read more, they’re likely to come back,” she says. “People who read content on the site for three minutes as opposed to one minute, double their chances that they’re going to come back.” And you want them to come back. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed about the Web in the last 25 years. Photo of coffee shop surfers by Robert Couse-Baker and web surfing in the car by Casey Konstantín both published under a creative commons license.