The “users” metric in Google Analytics, also known as unique visitors, is an invaluable tool for measuring, tracking and understanding a site’s audience.
The official Google Analytics definition of this Web metric wass: “Unique Visitors is the number of unduplicated (counted only once) visitors to your website over the course of a specified time period.”
The new user definition is: “Users that have had at least one session within the selected date range. Includes both new and returning users.”
Tracking this number at least monthly is an industry standard for understanding if a site’s audience is increasing, decreasing or staying even.
In Analytics, click on Audience in the top left of the page and then on Overview.
The graph at the top will show users / unique visitors over the last 30 days. Another imortant metric there is “sessions”, formerly known as visits. It is the number of times a user or unique visitor comes to a site.
For example, if the site has 10,000 users and 20,000 sessions, it means that on average the users visited the site twice a month.
The user / unique visitor number is found below the graph in the list between Sessions (which used to be called Visits) and Page Views.
Right below the Overview tab, click on Sessions to see its graph appear at the top of the page in place of the Visits graph.
Google used to display Sessions first. I have often thought that Google did so because it thinks visits are more important than unique visitors.
One possible reason is that the unique visitor number is not always what it appears to be. The number is calculated by using browser cookies and other means.
It is not surprising that Google used to place more importance on visits than unique visitors.
That said, the unique visitor number is an industry metric and does provide a useful way of tracking site audience.
Just use it carefully, work to increase the total and understand its limitations. It is best to track it in combination with sessions / visits and page views.
Analytics software such as Google Analytics can slice and dice unique visitors by just about any time period. The most common periods are daily, weekly and monthly.
Beginners will sometimes take a daily number and multiply it by 30 to predict a monthly number. Unfortunately, that formula doesn’t work because of repeat visits.
If I visit a website today, I am one unique visitor. If I come back tomorrow, I am still one unique visitor for the month.
The concept of the repeat visitor is another reason to value visits / sessions more than the unique visitor number.
A monthly view is best in comparison with the previous month and the same month of the prior year.
This section lies underneath the graphical report and numbers that dominate the top of the report.
Note that clicking on some of these reports will display numbers for sessions / visits instead of users / unique visitors.
Sites with a local audience will find the ability to drill down to individual cities, while anyone with an international audience can drill down by country. The language report provides similar results.
The same information is available under Audience / Geo / Location report.
The system reports may be the least used, while the mobile report has useful information about the screen resolution that aids in a mobile-friendly site design.
The rapid rise of mobile means it is becoming important for analysts to track the split between mobile and desktop users. Google Analytics makes that possible with the above report, but it offers other options for analysis.
Look above the graphic at the top of the main audience report page and to the right for something that says + Add Segment. Click on it and select Mobile Traffic (or any other category that looks interesting) and then click on Apply.
The resulting graphic and numbers underneath will show mobile traffic as a proportion of the total traffic. The breakout includes not only users but also sessions and page views.
Sites with a commitment to mobile will want to use this report to track progress in growing total mobile audience, which should outpace desktop growth over time.
Clients who look at the unique visitor numbers in analytic reports often compare the current month with the previous one to see if the numbers go up or down.
Month over month comparisons are often misleading because many factors go into the final results for a month. They include:
Although month over month changes are worth watching, an even better insight comes from year over year because that comparison compensates for some of the above factors.
The rate of growth for each year-over-year comparison provides a trend line that also reveals the success or failure in growing audience.
Finally, the YOY breakdown by segment — geography, technology or demographics — also is important in targeting the growth of valuable niches and letting less valuable niches languish or decline.
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