Google Analytics (GA) is a hub of data containing information to inform and guide your marketing strategy if you know what each metric represents. If you’ve been confused about the difference between users and sessions in Google Analytics (and why it’s vital to your ROI), keep reading. We break it down into simple definitions and provide actionable advice that you can use right away.
What Are Users in Google Analytics?
Users in Google Analytics represent individual, unique visitors to your site. Found within the GA platform under Audience Report and its subsection, Overview, the total number of users and new users to your site is displayed and regularly updated by Google. So, if you have 10,000 users, does that mean 10,000 individual people have been to your site? Not necessarily. Here’s what you need to know:
- Users are only as good as their cookies. If a user visits your site 12 times, deletes their cookies, and returns to your site, Google will count the individual as two users.
- Devices affect user count. You also can’t conclude that one user equates to one unique individual because they may use multiple devices. A user who visits your site on their phone before accessing your site from a desktop device is counted as two users.
New Users vs. Returning Users Explained
When someone visits your site for the first time on any given device, they are counted as a new user. Except for the two scenarios described above, all new individual users are considered new. Once a user visits your site, a Google Analytics tracking ID is added to their cookies. Provided they have not deleted their cookies or visited your site from another device, the user can return to your site 100 times and will still only count as one user. However, GA will now classify repeat visitors as returning users.
You can easily find out how many new and returning users your site has by checking the Google Analytics dashboard. Click on Audience and, instead of going to Overview, click on Behavior. Here you will find the number of new users, returning users, and sessions associated with each. You will also see the bounce rate for each user group, the average number of pages viewed per session, and session duration.
What are Sessions in Google Analytics?
Sessions are the total number of visits to your website. This metric counts both new and returning users as starting a “session” on your site. Therefore, one user who visits your site 15 times will be counted as 15 sessions in GA. Like the user metric, there are two important things to keep in mind when interpreting session data:
- Google Analytics ends the session after half an hour of inactivity
- The session counter also resets after midnight
What does this mean for you? First, a single user may count as two sessions if they were stagnant on your site for 30 minutes or longer only to return later in the day (before midnight). Second, the time of night during which the user accesses your site may result in two sessions being counted instead of one. For example, a user browsing the site may start to feel hungry around 11:50 pm, grab a late-night snack, and return at 12:10 am. This user will be recorded as having two sessions.
How to Interpret Users and Sessions in Google Analytics
So why do the differences between these two metrics matter? Because they can have a direct impact on your marketing strategy. Take a look at this example:
Total Number of New Users: 100
Bounce Rate: 48.68%
Total Number of Returning Users: 50
Bounce Rate: 39.57%
From the above data, we can conclude that only about half of new users return to your site. Although fewer people return, the ones who do spend more time actively engaging with your site through pageviews, clicks, etc. However, maybe you’re not seeing as much of a difference in bounce rate as you’d like. What can be tweaked to get users the information they’re looking for quickly? A site redesign, more engaging on-page elements, or the addition of information-rich pages?
When you understand what users and sessions in Google Analytics truly represent, you can begin to tailor your marketing and SEO efforts to maximize ROI.