Google Analytics 101: Users and New Users

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This is the second post in my Google Analytics 101 series. This post explains how Google Analytics Users and New Users metrics are calculated, how they work, and their potential shortcomings. The previous post can be found here and is about sessions.

What Are Users and New Users in Google Analytics

After sessions, the most used traffic metrics in Google analytics are Users and New Users. These metrics differ from sessions. While sessions are the count of how many visits a website has, users and new users utilize cookies to determine how many people came to the site. So while sessions are similar to visits, Users are similar to visitors, and New Users are new visitors.

To formally define it, Users are visitors who have initiated at least one session on the website within a specific about of time.

Where Are Users and New Users Used

Most reports in Google Analytics that contain session will also contain users and new users. Users and New Users along with sessions help to clarify what kind of traffic is coming to the site. Sessions provide the raw count of website visits. users and new users provide nuance as to who makes up that traffic. Is it returning users? Are they new users?

I’ll go into users first and then explain how they’re different from new users.

Users vs. Sessions

It is not uncommon for people to confuse users and sessions. I’ll continue the Disney world metaphor from the previous Google Analytics 101 post. Assume you went to Disney World in the morning. Went on some rides and bought a souvenir. Then you left the park for a while to run errands. Then in the afternoon returned to Disney World rode a few more rides and then ate at the food court. In this scenario, you would have two sessions at the park as one user.

A user can have multiple sessions. If five people got to the same website five times in one day, that would be twenty-five sessions and five users.

How Does Google Know?

Cookies! A unique identifier is attached to a user when they visit your site. When they return Google recognizes the identifier and associates both sessions with the one user. Google also applies an algorithm to help reduce errors and all that jazz. But it’s mostly cookies that allow for user tracking.

Because it is cookie based there are a few things that can throw off these numbers.

New Users

A new user is a visitor to the site who didn’t already have a unique cookie from that site. When Google Analytics assigns a new identifier they’re a new user. When Google Analytics doesn’t assign a new identifier, they’re a user.

Weird Numbers

Since users and new users are cookie based, there is the potential for strange numbers. Albeit it’s very rare.

People who clear their cookies frequently or who use incognito mode will raise the number of new users on a site.

If a person visited a site, then cleared their cookies, and then did this four more times. That would be five sessions, five users, and five new users. But in reality, it was five sessions, one user, and one new user. This is particularly true for incognito mode users. Every time they visit a site they’re considered a new user.

People don’t clear their cookies all that often. And only certain websites have high incognito mode traffic. So generally these caveats are unlikely to affect you. But it is good to keep them in mind.

Returning Users

To look at returning users specifically, go to the “New VS Returning” report under Audience > Behavior. This report will allow you to compare new user activity to returning users.

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