Web Analytics: The Results of Tabbed Browsing

Web browsing behaviors are constantly changing. As a result, analysis of those behaviors must evolve to match those changes. A recent change that has become more prevalent over the past few months is tabbed browsing. The Firefox browser made tabbed browsing much more common, and now Microsoft has added it to Internet Explorer.

Tabbed browsing allows people to open more than one window within a browser and easily bounce back and forth. If you haven’t already discovered tabbed browsing, check out this example.

Tabbed browsing has made comparing products, shopping for the right price, and researching products that much easier. For example, Chris is looking for a plasma television for his new home. He opens the browser and starts looking at ratings on Epinions. As he explores the ratings, he pops open links to pricing for a few different TVs in tabs. He decides to research a few different models on manufacturers’ sites.

As he launches those pages in tabs, Chris is most likely triggering a page view and starting a visit for each site within its analytics tool. But he has yet to actually view those pages, since they opened behind the page he’s viewing.

Chris may very well open 15-20 links in different tabs while doing his research. He bounces between the different tabs, clicking deeper into some sites, then bouncing back to other tabs. If he doesn’t immediately see what he’s looking for in a particular tab, he’s even faster at closing it and moving on to the next. As he wraps up his research, he closes the browser (and all the tabs), possibly not even viewing some of them.

What does this mean for user behavior tracking and analytics? First, it appears tabbed browsing is only used by a small percentage of Web users but is becoming more prevalent. Depending on your audience, the following issues could arise and should be considered when analyzing site performance and visitor behaviors:

  • Cookies. Typically, different tabs within one browser all run off the same base tracking cookie per site. So if Chris has Firefox open and has six tabs going to the same site, he’s counted as one visitor. Depending on his length of stay, it would be just count as one visit to that site. On the plus side, he isn’t showing up as six unique visitors. But on the minus side, he has six different potential site experiences laced into one through that common cookie.

  • Pathing. When Chris visits the same site from multiple different tabs in the same visit, the same cookie appears and shows one visit. As a result, you may see some pathing behaviors that don’t make sense. You may see people jump from one set of pages to another set that are impossible to move between on the actual site. But since visitors can effectively be in multiple places on the site simultaneously, pathing can be thrown off.
  • Web browsing behaviors. Tabbing can change behaviors when visitors browse the Web and your site. Again, it’s always been easy to do a quick scan of a site, then give up and move on. But tabbed browsing makes that even easier, so you potentially have even less time to make an effect on site visitors. People can now more easily have multiple focus points and could be less focused on your particular offering, making it that much more important to be present a clear, concise, and valuable offering.
  • Time on site. Tabbing may greatly affect the amount of time recorded on a site. Chris may look at something on one site, bounce over to another site in a different tab, then come back to do more research. Yes, this has always been possible using different browsers, but it’s that much easier now.
  • Paid search. Tabbed browsing also makes it easier for people to jump into multiple options when searching. They can open a bunch of paid search listings in tabs and quickly scan which ones look best meet their current need.

Tabbed browsing changes Web browsing behaviors and may change the way you look at some metrics when analyzing data. True, only a small percentage of people are actively using tabs when browsing, but it appears to be a growing trend.

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