Google Analytics Updates How Visits Are Calculated
In a recent blog post, the Google Analytics team made announced that they are changing the way that visits (sessions) are calculated. Interestingly, they said that, “Based on our research, most users will see less than a 1% change.” Unfortunately (imho), they didn’t cover their bases with that statement as the comment section of the above cited blog post shows that lots of people are going pretty crazy about these changes.
**Update** On August 16th, the Google Analytics Team announced that there was a bug in the way visits were recorded after they launched the change. Now, people should be going less crazy as numbers are making a bit more sense. Nevertheless….
Bottom line, this is really a significant change and it seems that people aren’t understanding what is going on. The main things that people seem to be complaining about are:
- Increase in visits
- Increase in bounce rate
- Decreased average time on site
- Decreased pages per visit
Surprisingly (maybe), I didn’t see a lot of people complaining about a decrease in conversion rate. Hmm… In any case, one comment that I saw rise above the negative spew in the GA blog comment section was by Peter at L3 Analytics. He linked to his blog post which does a nice job discussing some of the implications of the change to the way sessions are calculated. I decided to add to the discussion with this post. Some of what I’ll be saying has already been formulated by Peter. Other things will hopefullly be new , including a number questions I have based on some data in GA that I am still not understanding based upon my current knowledge of the change.
**Side Note** It upsets that people can get so negative in their comments made in forums and blog posts, especially since most of their complaints stem from a lack of understanding. Simple questions in the comment section such as “I don’t understand why 123xyz is happening….” would be nicer to address than “this data is useless, (sarcastic) thanks alot!!”
Understanding the change.Google Analytics receives hit level data and then calculates all metrics based upon that hit level data. Every time there is a pageview, event, or transaction, a gif request is sent to the Google Analytics servers with information about that hit. Part of that gif request includes session information, and other parts of that gif request include visitor level information. I’m not going to go into the UTM gif requests in depth here, but if you really want to know what is going on check out the RUGA (Really Understanding Google Analytics) series of posts from Cardinal Path. (Kent – it would be great if you could add inner linking between posts on the blog, it’s a great series).
Here is a graphic I quickly put together. (As you can tell, I’m not much of a graphic designer).
The idea that this is trying to illustrate is a visit (session) is made up of hits. A visitor can visit the site multiple times. When a “visitor” has two or more visits, they change from being counted as a “New Visit” to a “Returning Visitor.”
**Side note: We use the term “visitor,” but technically this means “__utma Cookie.” Cookies are browser specific. So if I, Yehoshua Coren, visit example.com in a 5 minute span from 3 different browsers, GA reports that 3 “unique visitors” came to the site. Similarly, if 3 different people in my household visit example.com at different times throughout the day, this is 1 “unique visitor.” Lastly, if I visit a website repeatedly using Private Browsing (Firefox) or Incognito Mode (Chrome), etc, my cookies are cleared on browser close so I’ll be an additional “unique visitor” (with a ‘new visit’) on every subsequent visit.
So how does Google Analytics calculate visitors and visits?
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