Google Analytics New Labels: Mystery of the Returning Visitors

mystery-man

Picture from Getty Images

No, this isn’t the new horror movie by M. Night Shaymalan, but there is a twist at the end!

A couple of weeks ago, Google Analytics made slight changes to their labels. They changed “Visits” into “Sessions” and “Unique Visitors” into “Users”. While intuitively this makes a lot of sense, many of our clients have been confused by the affect this has on the math and the metrics presented by GA, particularly the total visitors aren’t adding up to the total users.

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New Visitors and Returning Visitors Don’t Add Up to Total Users

Let’s pretend you’re an analyst for the California DMV and you’ve been asked to find out how many people have renewed their vehicle registration online for a given time-period. Easy – you create an advanced segment to filter converted traffic (in this case, traffic that ended in registration renewal) and you look at the Sessions/Users reports to find out.

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You have a total of 7875 users.
New Visitors + Returning Visitors = (7007 + 1316) = 8,323!

Which one is the correct answer of how many people signed up? First the long lines at the DMV were killing you, now the data discrepancy makes you want to poke your own eyes out.

(Note: often times sampling may cause mathematical errors, so if you’re a Google Analytics Premium subscriber, you can look at the unsampled data to triple-check and make sure it’s not being sampled.)

So, what the heck is the issue here?

New Labels, Old Definitions

Before we can figure out what’s happening, we need to understand the Google Analytics definition of each term.

Sessions
A session is the period time a user is actively engaged with your website, app, etc. All usage data (Screen Views, Events, Ecommerce, etc.) is associated with a session. “Sessions” then represent the total number of Sessions within the date range.

Users
Users that have had at least one session within the selected date range. If you think about it, this is a little easier to intuitively grasp than the difference between a “unique visitor” and a “visitor”.

New Users
The number of first-time users during the selected date range.

User Type
New (first-time) or Returning user.

New Sessions
An estimate of the percentage of first time visits. What this really is saying is “sessions that are of a new user”. This is the part that’s a bit confusing. If you’re a Returning Visitor coming for your second session, in plain english, this might be another “new” session, but in GA, it’s not. So by definition, returning users will not have new sessions.

Solving the Mystery: Returning Visitors and Double Counting

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So to get the amount of DMV users that have renewed their registration online, looks like it’s between one of two things – adding New and Returning Visitors (different from “new and returning users”) or use the User total?

Looking at the Returning Visitors (and taking into account the date-range) is key here when making that decision and why the totals don’t match.

Users may be doubled as both New and Returning Visitors within a given date-range.

Meaning that if a New Visitor came during this time period and returned during this same time period, they’d be counted twice (within a given date-range, both as a New Visitor and a Returning Visitor.

Returning Visitors may also be “unique” within a given date-range.

What if visitor X came before the given date-range, but then later returned within the given date-range? How would they be counted? They would be counted as a Returning Visitor but that first visit would not be counted as a New Visitor within the specified date-range.

While sessions can increase indefinitely, a User can only be counted a maximum number of twice as a visitor.

What if visitor X returned 3 times within a date-range? They would be counted once as a New Visitors (if it was their first time), once as a Returning Visitor, but that 3rd visit, they already have been counted as a Returning Visitor, so while the sessions would increase, the Returning Visitor metric would NOT increment!

Calculating the New Visitors who were doubled as Returning Visitors within a date-range

To get the true number of visitors who were doubled within the date range, you’d need to separate the unique Users from the Visitors aggregate (New + Returning Visitors). Adding up the New and Returning Visitors will include:

  • New Visitors
  • New Visitors that may have doubled as Returning Visitors if they came back within the date-range
  • Returning Visitors whose New Visits aren’t within the date range, and thus only counted once within Returning Visitors.

So the Visitors aggregate (New + Returning) is 7007 + 1316 = 8,323. Subtract the unique Users from that (7875) and you get 448.  Again, since the Users are unique, you are basically getting rid of all Unique Visitors. The Returning Visitors with New Visits outside of the date range is actually a “Unique Visitor” respective to the date range, and since you are getting rid of all the Unique Visitors, whatever is left has to be the doubled visitors, which is 448.

Calculating the “Unique” Returning Visitors

Then to get the Returning Visitors that have New Visits outside of the date range, just take the Returning Visitors and remove the doubled visitors that we calculated above. So 1316 – 448 = 868. Those are “Unique Returning Visitors” if you will.

Conclusion

So, to the original question – in this particular case, how many individual users renewed their registrations online? Intuitively you may have thought, “Just add New and Returning Visitors”. As you can see now, those metrics may not add up the way you think it should. You’re better off going with the round number of users, and thus, the number of users who have converted (renewed their registration online) according to this report is 7875.

For more information on how users are calculated in Google Analytics, click here.

15 thoughts on “Google Analytics New Labels: Mystery of the Returning Visitors”

  1. Hi,

    Like the article as new and returning visitors does cause a lot of misunderstanding.

    However I think your last point is incorrect unless I am misreading it! :-)

    My understanding of the User dimension is that they are unique. So those 1316 returning visitors are according to GA 1316 unique (people/unique cookies). As you say 868 of them visited the site before the time period you are currently reporting. However I would then say your point about them returning several times is incorrect. Yes some of them may have returned several times but that activity is captured in the sessions metric. The other 448 returning visitors is made up of new visitors (in this time period) who then visited at least once again after their first visit.

    Cheers,

    Al

  2. Thank you for your article and it is really helpful to understand the GA change. Just a quick question regarding to the term of New Users.

    I understand from you and GA that New Users = The number of first-time users during the selected date range.

    While Users = New (first-time) or Returning user.

    If that’s the case, what makes the difference on the New Users (7,011) to the New User (7,007) under “User”?

    Thank you for your advice

    Kenneth

  3. This is a great article and the examples were very helpful in helping me to understand the changes & core concepts behind the Users metrics.

    I’ve happily shared this with my colleagues and will reference clients to it as well when they have questions.

    Thanks for taking the time to spell everything out clearly!
    Cory

  4. This is really very helpful post. But could you please tell me how this screenshots are taken from GA?

  5. This is excellent! My only question now is, what is the difference between a “New User” and a “New Visitor”? In the New Visitor row, what is the difference between 7,007 and 7,011?

  6. The calculus part is unnecessarily complicated.
    Returning users/visitors = Unique users – New Users/Visitors = 868.

    No need for aggregating to then subtract what was aggregated earlier!

  7. Hi, I had a different understanding – every visitor must start as a New Visitor and some visitors will convert to Returning Visitors. The discrepancy lies in that when a New Visitor turns into a Returning Visitor, the number of New Visitors may not be decremented by 1 in a timely manner.

    So the number of ‘unique’ Returning Visitor I believe is still 1316, though the number of ‘unique’ New Visitor is “7875 – 1316 = 6559″.

    Regards,
    Jason

  8. I keep seeing people saying that “New User” = “first-time users during the selected date range”… That doesn’t make sense to me. Any user entering a date range will by definition be a first-time user. I believe the definition is “first time visitors to the site EVER”… If “Returning User” is someone who has first come to the site AT ANY TIME before the selected date range, then a “New Visitor” must be someone who has NEVER visited the site prior to the given date range. I’ve read reputable answers to that effect. That said, when I run a New Users segment on Day 1 and then on Day 2, the total of the separate days doesn’t equal the whole range of Day 1 to Day 2. If I were right, then the date filter should not be affecting New User calculation at all. Can someone provide a definitive answer, hopefully quoting Google.

  9. A visitor is considered returning if the _ga cookie for your website is present in the browser, even if the previous visit occurred prior to the date range selected. If, for instance, Rebecca visited your website once in November and once in December – Rebecca will appear as follows (not by name, of course):

    Nov. 1 – Nov. 30 reporting time period
    1 new visitor
    1 user

    Dec. 1 – Dec. 31 reporting time period
    1 returning visitor
    1 user

    Nov. 1 – Dec. 31 reporting time period
    1 new visitor
    1 returning visitor
    1 user

    The other circumstance in which a session would be attributed to a returning visitor, even without the _ga cookie, is if you have implemented cross-device tracking and the visitor has previously logged in to your website from any device, the visitor would be considered returning, however, only in the user id-enabled view for cross-device tracking.

    For New Visitor in the screen shot above, the number of Sessions and Users should be identical. We can basically disregard the discrepancy between 7,011 sessions and 7,007 users – it’s statistically insignificant.

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