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  • Writer's pictureIgal Stolpner

Google Analytics made us think in sessions instead of users

When you only start you website, you want to check out every single session to your site.

You want to see where each session is coming from (GEO), how did that session got to your site (Source), and any additional information you may find interesting. So devices, browsers, specific city, pages, landing and exit pages and so on.

But when you run a large site with millions of visits every day, you must differentiate between users and sessions. Every large site has different groups of people, and sometimes a very small group of users is generating a large amount of sessions and pageviews. Differentiating is critical because 1000 users who are generating a single session each, isn’t the same thing as a single user who’s generating 1000 sessions. It’s not the same thing from your advertisers point of view, and it’s not the same thing from your market share point of view.

Check out your GA’s overview page (Reporting>Audience>Overview), and have a good look at your returning vs. New visitors pie chart:

GA Returning Visitors

You may think that this chart is referring to your visitors (users), but it actually refers to the total number of sessions.

Now just think how many of your returning sessions are created by a small group of dedicated users. If I come back to my site 10 times a day, every day. Then all 300 monthly sessions are returning sessions. But I’m still only one guy. If there’s only one more person who’s visiting the site and he only visits once, then this chart will show that 99.67% are returning (300 out of 301 sessions), but it’s 50% of users!

All of the users data is available in Analytics, GA counts every single hit to your site and it’s using a 24 months cookie for each used browser.  The problem is that the data is hidden under customized reports and many folks are simply not aware of it.

Here’s a report I use to show the number of users and number of new users for every month. You can simply open this link,  and save it to any view in your Analytics account.

GA Users vs New Users

And if you want to create it yourself, simply make sure to add Users and New Users as metrics in your next custom report.

 Sessions vs. Users in Traffic Sources

Another interesting area in GA where we’re used to look at sessions is the Traffic Sources area.

We look at the Organic traffic, Direct, Referrals, or Social – and think about the number of people who visit the site through each of these channels. Once again, this is a bit misleading, because GA shows us a Sessions based report.

GA Traffic Sources

Creating a customized report can show a better picture when it comes to the source of my users. For, we see that 48% of our sessions come from Organic search, but it’s also over 54% of users.

Here’s a report I use:

Traffic Sources Sessions vs Users

There’s one hell of a gap.

It’s time to start thinking in users and people, and not just in visits to the site.

Do you see a similar gap? Feel free to share, and also – in which other reports do you think that looking only at a sessions level is wrong?


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