Analytics Tip Of The Week: Google Analytics Definitions


By Jay Adamsson

Welcome to Week 1 of our new series: Analytics Tip Of The Week.

Every Monday morning we’ll be providing a quick tip for your website Analytics.

Quite often, it will be Google Analytics related, but not always. Remember, there is a lot more to website Analytics than just Google Analytics. We can’t forget other properties like your social media analytics, how best to implement Google Analytics, and perhaps the most important of all: reporting results in a way that makes sense and prompts continual improvement.

So, with that out of the way, let’s jump right into our first Analytics Tip Of The Week.

Google Analytics Basic Definitions

To get started with Google Analytics, it is important to have a good understanding of the basic statistics that seem to make their way into every website report. However, there is often a lot of misunderstandings about exactly what the most fundamental terms for Google Analytics actually mean: Users, New Users, Sessions, and Bounce Rate.

Sample Basic Statistics for Google Analytics

Users: It is hard to emphasize enough that a User in Google Analytics is not a person. In most cases, it is a browser. What this means is that a person will, in all likelihood, get counted multiple times in your data. If a person visits your website through their smartphone, that is one user. If that same person then uses their desktop to again visit your website, that is now a second user. Finally, if that person switches from Firefox to Chrome and then visits your website again, they are now a third user.

This also introduces another complication – multiple users. If a user visits your website on a desktop computer for the first time, they are a user. But if that person’s daughter then visits your website a day later using the same browser, to Google Analytics, they are the same user.

This is one of the most important concepts to realize with Google Analytics: A user is not a person, but is a browser that interacts with your site.

Like much in life, there are lots of exceptions to this (and Google themselves are starting to change how this works). But if you are looking at your Google Analytics data, always keep in mind that a user is not a person – it is a browser.

New Users: The New Users in Google Analytics uses the same idea as Users – it is a browser that Google Analytics does not recognize. Again, this does not measure actual people. Using the example above, if that person visited your website on their smartphone, on their desktop using Firefox, then again on their desktop using Chrome, and all of these visits were the first time visiting your website, then this would be three New Users. Even though it is the same person, it is three browsers that Google Analytics did not recognize, so this gets recorded as three Users.

Sessions: A Session in Google Analytics is a series of interactions on your website without 30 minutes of inactivity. Again, keeping in mind the definition of a User above, Google Analytics tracks activity on your website by a User. If that User clicks through 7 pages on your website, those clicks are all grouped together as one session.

But what about the 30 minutes of inactivity? Assume a User goes to your website, clicks through 4 pages, then gets up and goes for lunch, returning after 45 minutes, then clicks through more three pages. That is two sessions. To Google Analytics, this will be a User that visited your website and visited 4 pages. Then there will be a second session for that same user with 3 pages. It doesn’t matter that they walked away and kept your website on their screen – Google Analytics doesn’t know that in general. Google Analytics, unless you do some advanced customization, only knows when a User clicks from one page to another on your site. So, if they take a 45 minute break between clicks, Google Analytics counts this as two sessions, regardless of whether or not the user actually closed down their browser or not.

There is one other subtlety with Sessions as well. A session is always assumed to break at midnight local time. So if you have a lot of Users on your site as of midnight, that will impact on your Sessions. Normally this isn’t a big enough problem to worry about, but it can introduce some complications if you have a world-wide audience for your website.

Bounce Rate: A Bounce on your website is a Session with only one interaction. Normally that means that a User only visits one page. This is one of the most misused and misunderstood measures in Google Analytics, but it is important to understand exactly what it means – a Session with a single page visit.

We’ll be talking more in later tips about Bounce Rate.