Google Analytics Basics Series - All About Visits


Happy New Year to you all! I thought I would start the new year level setting when it comes to the key standard metrics you will see in Google Analytics.

This is the first of four posts in which I’ll be walking you through what makes these basic metrics important and how you should go about using them in your analyses.

The Basic Metrics Series will cover:

  1. Visits, Visitors, New & Returning Visits

  2. Bounce Rate and Page Exit Rate

  3. Time on Site

  4. Pageviews

First up, we’re diving deep into all things Visits!

Blog - Google Analytics Basics - Visits.jpg

These are very important metrics and ones that you will use with just about every dimension to understand the amount and type of traffic visiting your website.

In this post, I’ll be walking you through the following Visit metrics:

  1. Visits

  2. Visitors

  3. New and Returning Visitors

1. Visits

Google Analytics moved from reporting on Visits to reporting on Sessions, don’t get thrown by the change in name, it means the same thing, they just wanted to make sure it was more descriptive of what the metric truly is.

Google Analytics has defined Sessions, as the group of interactions with your website over a specific time frame.

What does this mean you ask?

Well, you can think of a session as the grouping of all the different actions that the person who visited your site did. These actions could be, the pages they looked at, the purchases they made or perhaps the video(s) that they watched.

One person can have multiple sessions, and those sessions can happen on the same day, or even different weeks, months or years.

A Session will expire in the following ways:

  • Time based expiration

    • After 30 minutes of a visitor not doing anything on your site. Perhaps they left it open in a browser tab but moved on to another site and either came back after 31 minutes or not at all

    • At Midnight every day

  • Traffic source change

    • When a person arrives on your site from one traffic source (i.e organic), they leave and the next time they come, they have clicked on your Facebook link, this would register as two sessions.

One thing to note about Sessions is that they are browser and device specific, this means that a different session will be counted if the same person visits your site from a different browser (Firefox and Chrome) and device (Desktop and Tablet).

This is not something that should be of major concern, as what’s important is looking at trends, percentages and understanding what the person did when they visited your site. We can always break down the data by browser and or device if needed to understand the differences in user behaviour.

2. Visitors

Visitors or ‘Users’ as it’s reported in Google Analytics are those who have started a Session within a given time period, the key word here is ‘time period’.

Best way to understand this is by looking at an example of how the Users metric would be calculated.

Let’s say Maria visited your site on  May 5, 20, June 10 and July 28 and Will visited April 10, May 6, July 25 and September 10.

If you request Google Analytics to give you your User count for:

  1. May 1 - May 30th → Users = 2 (Maria (May 5 & 20) and Will (May 6) were the two users that visited your site during that time period)

  2. May 1 - May 5 → Users = 1 - only Maria visited the site in that time period

  3. Jan 1 - May 1 → Users = 1 - only Will visited the site in that time period

Now, this is where the differences in browser and devices comes into play because if Maria visited your site on May 5 on her desktop and then May 20th from her tablet and Will visited your site on May 6 from his desktop, the User count would be 3 as Google Analytics can’t distinguish that it was Maria who visited, but was on a different device.

Just like with Sessions, we can segment the data by devices and browsers if this is an issue, but in the big picture, you will have enough aggregate data that identifying patterns will not be greatly impacted by some double counting of users.

Reporting Tip:

A reporting tip when it comes to Users. If you are reporting the total number of users by a specific time frame (let’s say monthly), you should NOT add the monthly users to get your yearly number.

If you want to report on your total number of Users for the Year, you will need to pull that number from Google Analytics and choose the appropriate time frame.

3. New and Returning Visitors

A New Visitor is someone that visits your site for the first time, this means that Google Analytics has not previously issued a tracking cookie to this person before.

Similar to Sessions and Users, the cookie is browser and device specific but it will last much longer than the Session cookie...a total of 2 years from the first visit unless a person clears all their cookies.

Returning Visitors are those that have returned to your site within 2 years from the same device and browser.

Something to note, New + Returning Visitors ≠ Users. The reason being is that ‘New Visitors’ will only be those that are in fact new for the time period you specify. If they are both ‘New’ and ‘Returning’ within the time period you ask, they will be placed in both categories but only counted once as a User.

Now that we have defined the basic Visit metrics, it’s time for the fun stuff…
applying the information

Understanding how the metrics are calculated in your Google Analytics implementation is key when it comes time to reporting and analyzing your data.

So, what can you do with your Session and Users? Well, as I mentioned previously they form the basis of all your analyses.

At the most basic level, you should be tracking your Sessions on a monthly basis to get an understanding of the volume of traffic that is coming to your site.

An important metric that successful entrepreneurs track is the Sessions/Users metric.

This will give you an idea of how many times a person returns to your site. It’s important because we know that it takes more than one visit for a person to convert on your site, this means that it will take more than one visit for them to either sign up for your newsletter and/or make a purchase of your product or service.

If your Sessions/User number is low, you will need to understand what is driving this number down? Is it the traffic source of your visits? Is it where they are landing? Is it a particular browser? These are all dimensions that you can pull with your Session and User data within Google Analytics to help you understand what is going on.

A similar analysis can be done with your New and Returning Visitors. If you find that a very high percentage of your visitors are new, I would recommend understanding why this is the case. If you are a new business or have launched a new campaign it’s expected that you’ll have a higher percentage of New Visitors.

Conversely, if you find that the majority of visitors to your site are Returning, you need to determine whether this is beneficial or not. If you are a B2C (Business to Consumer) organization, you may want a more balanced distribution given that you are looking for more people to sign up to your newsletter or your programs.

While if you are B2B (Business to Business) perhaps having a larger percentage of Returning Visitors is what you want as it shows interest in your content.

Determining the right balance of New vs Returning will be unique to your business offering and even the time of year and the marketing initiatives in play.

What will make all this even more valuable is when you tie it with the actions that these visitors perform on your site, if you have set up Google Analytics Goals to track these key actions, you can get a deeper understanding about how many visits it takes for those who come to your site to convert. With this information you can see if you need to make changes to your content, your marketing initiatives or both.

Having a clear understanding of what constitutes a Visit (aka Sessions), and a Visitor (aka User) in Google Analytics is the starting point. It will ensure that you are using the correct numbers when doing your performance analyses.

Next week, I’ll be walking you through what Bounce Rate and Page Exit Rate are and what makes them important when it comes to your performance analysis.

As always Happy Analyzing!


Hi, I’m Karla

I’m here to help small business understand and use their website data to take the guess work out of growing their business.

I’ll love to help you start using your valuable website data to help you grow your business, book a FREE 30 minute discovery call with me and let’s get started.