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How to Understand Sessions in Google Analytics

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Website analytics

Sessions in Google Analytics is a report that shows the number of visits to a website over a specific period of time by a group of users.

In GA, a “user” is a person. That person “visits” a website for a “session”. So visits and sessions mean essentially the same thing. They both track the same event.

For example, John Smith visits a website while at work. In Google Analytics, he counts as one user and one website session. He comes back later in the day at work. At that point, Smith is still one user in GA, but now he has had two sessions.

John Smith goes home and visits the same site from a home computer instead of a work computer. He is now two users in Google Analytics because the software usually tracks visitors according to the IP addresses it detects. Home and work computers have different IP addresses.

In total, GA now reports two users and three sessions from one person.

There is one exception to this rule. If John Smith is logged in to Google and has a profile via the same two computers, Google will know he is only one user.

Why Sessions Are More Important Than Users

Total site users — also sometimes known as unique visitors — are important because they come closest to measuring the actual number of people who come to a website. But in the example above, analytics often will report two users when in fact the user is only one person.

For that reason, the sessions report is often more important than the user report because it is a more accurate and real-world number. The sessions number is almost always higher than the user number because of repeat visits by the same user.

A site with 10,000 monthly sessions and 5,000 monthly users has a sessions to user ratio of 2 to 1. Higher ratios reflect a good user experience, better brands and higher quality information.

Successful website publishers seek higher ratios because repeat visitors increase the odds of more advertising clicks, ecommerce transactions and other financial benefits.

The accuracy of the sessions reports isn’t 100 percent because some visitors block tracking cookies. But it remains one of the three major metrics in the Google Analytics report, which also include page views in addition to users.

How to Find the Sessions Report

The default “Home” page in Google Analytics will show the total sessions as a number over the last seven days. (The chart below the numbers will show users over the last seven days versus the previous seven.) Click on the Sessions number to see that seven-day chart.

Likewise, the number will display in most of the other GA reports. For example, click on Acquisition and Source / Medium. The chart defaults to Users again. Click on that dropdown to show the Sessions total. Scroll down to the columns to see Sessions from each source.

How Best to Use the Sessions Report

The Google Analytics sessions report is especially useful when comparing different periods of time.

The default seven-day view is least useful because one good or bad day can skew the numbers. The longer the time period, the more useful it becomes.

Better options include comparing:

  • An entire month to the previous month
  • The most recent 30 days to the previous 30 days
  • An entire month or previous 30 days to the same periods a year ago

The last one is the best way to track year over year growths or declines in total site traffic. Even better, the breakdown is helpful when analyzing specific sources of traffic such as search engines, social media accounts and mobile versus desktop.

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