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Google Analytics sessions
The number of sessions in your Google Analytics account can tell you how many times people are returning to your website. But do they really tell you anything about the activity happening on site?
The short answer: yes.
The longer answer: yes, but you’ll also need to do some additional digging outside of GA to find out why people are behaving the way they are—and that’s what we cover on this page.
What are Google Analytics sessions?
A Google Analytics session is a group of user interactions (known as ‘hits’) with your website recorded in a given time period. Like a container, a session collects every interaction a user has with the website: for example, if someone spent five minutes on a website and loaded two pages, triggered a couple of events, interacted with a social element, and completed a transaction, all these actions would be contained in the same session:
You can find how many sessions you’ve had on your site in any given period by heading to Audience > Overview and looking for 'Sessions':
Why is it important to track Google Analytics sessions?
Tracking your website sessions can help evaluate whether your paid marketing (Google Ads) and search engineoptimization (SEO) campaigns are working.
Let’s say you have three sessions per user per day, on average. You’re doing a good job of directing people back to your site through different campaigns.
However, if your ideal customer has just two sessions per month, you might need to spend more time marketing and advertising to get them back on your site multiple times.
If you run an ecommerce site, you can also use GA’s Shopping Behavior Analysis report to monitor how sessions with key actions impact your shopping activity:
In how many sessions was a product viewed?
In how many sessions was there an ‘add to cart’ event?
How many sessions resulted in checkout?
How many resulted in a successful transaction?
Find the report by heading to Conversions > Ecommerce > Shopping Behavior:
The example above shows that people tend to exit their session if they don’t add products to cart. If that was your case, you could start thinking about how to increase the chances of a user adding something to their cart—for example through upsells, internal links to product pages, or product recommendations in the sidebar.
How long is a session in Google Analytics?
A new session starts when a visitor lands on your page. But when does it end? Typically, it’s when:
The session duration reaches a time limit: a session ends by default after 30 minutes of inactivity by the user (aka a 'session timeout') or when the day ends at midnight
A user changes campaigns: for example, if someone arrives on your site through a Facebook campaign, leaves, then returns later through organic search, those will be classed as two different sessions
A note about time limits: if the 30-minute default doesn’t work for you, you can customize the length of a session by heading to Admin > Tracking Info > Session Settings:
What’s the difference between sessions and users in GA?
In Google Analytics, ‘sessions’ is the metric that refers to the number of individual sessions initiated by all the users of your website, and ‘users’ refers to the number of unique visitors to it.
(This term isn’t as perfect as it sounds. Google stopped using the term ‘unique visitors' because... they aren’t always unique. For example, if you log in from two devices, it will show two users—even if you’re the same person. That’s why they’re now called users.)
Let’s use a practical example:
- When you land on a website for the first time, a GA cookie is set with a unique identifier that recognizes you as a new user - If you spend 5 minutes on the website, check through a few pages, then leave, you’ve just completed your first session - If you return to the website later on the same day, from the same device and browser, GA will recognize you as a returning user: if you spend another few minutes on the website, check through a few pages, and leave, you’d have completed another session. - At that point, you’d be one user who has done two sessions.
In other words: one user could have multiple sessions; but you can’t have more users than sessions, since every user starts a session the first time they visit your site.
What’s the difference between sessions and pageviews in GA?
If you’re still with us at this point, let’s clear up the difference between sessions and pageviews—which often get confused.
Google Analytics pageviews are the individual URLs that load when a user visits your site—regardless of their session. Because of that, one session can result in several pageviews.
For example: - If a user clicks your site and views five pages → they’ll have five pageviews in one session - If they come back later and view two more pages → that will be classed as another session and seven pageviews in total for that user.
How to investigate differences in sessions, users, and pageviews
“I have 1000 pageviews and 300 sessions. Is that good or bad?”
“I have 2000 sessions and 50 users. Is that a problem?”
If these are questions on your mind, you’re not alone. Technically, the first case shows that people are viewing several pages in one visit, and the second that each individual person is returning back to your website for multiple sessions. But what does that actually mean? Why are people viewing several pages in one go? Why are they coming back a lot?
Google Analytics can show you that something is happening on your website around sessions, users, and pageviews, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you why. To find that kind of answer, you need to collect additional context using a few complementary tools:
1. Session recordings: watch how people interact with your website
Recordings do what the name says: record how people interact with your website pages, and give you a video of the exact journey someone goes through after landing on your site. That’s crucial insight to their entire session.
You can use recordings to:
Find which pages users arrive on
See which links they click to visit other pages
Identify which page their session ends on
If you're using Hotjar: after you set up the Session Recordings tool, Hotjar will start collecting and recording your users’ actions. You can then start reviewing the recordings directly; if you are interested in specific pages, include them using filters such as ‘Viewed page’:
What will you learn? By reviewing and analyzing your recordings thoroughly, you might learn that certain links push people to generate more pageviews per session, and use this session data point to add more of those links within the other pages they’re viewing. Or, you might find that some pages push people away and reduce their pageviews per session. Can you edit your campaigns to stop pushing people there? Can you optimize the page and encourage them to continue their session?
2. Funnels: understand what’s causing the drop-offs
Funnels show the typical route-to-goal for your customers. You can specifically use them to measure conversion rates and drop-offs and see where users are getting stuck—which helps you prioritize which pages to optimize.
Here are some funnel examples to get you started:
Ecommerce sites: product pages > cart > checkout > thank you page
Blog: homepage > article pages > subscribe page > success page
SaaS: trial signup page > clicking on sign up button > signup event occurred
Lead generation: landing page with form > clicking on ‘submit form’ button > thank you page
See how much your conversion funnel is really converting and use filters to find new opportunities and ideas to optimize your conversion flows.
Pro tip: in Hotjar, you can tie session recordings and the funnel together and watch sessions of people who leave at each specific step of the funnel. Detected an usual drop-off rate? Simply click on the button next to the number of users who did not convert to see what really prevents your users from converting:
3. On-site surveys: ask visitors why they visited multiple times
Customer feedback is a goldmine of data—especially when investigating your Google Analytics sessions. You can use on-site surveys to ask people why they are leaving their session instead of guessing their decision:
What are you looking for on our site today?
Have you been here before? (Yes/No)
(If no) What was your goal when you first visited?
If you're using Hotjar: refer back to recordings and conversion funnel data to identify pages with high drop-off rates, and set up a survey. You’ll need to:
Enter the URL of the high drop-off page you want your survey to show on.
Set the survey to launch when a user is about to leave the page
Pro tip #1: when deciding which device to show your survey on, look at your Google Analytics sessions breakdown: do mobile device sessions last longer? If so, display your survey on desktop sessions only.
Pro tip #2: if you run a survey but neglect to go through the answers, you’re wasting both your time and your customers'. Set aside a dedicated block of time to analyze open-ended survey answers and use the insight to keep people continuing with their sessions in the future.
For example, a visitor might say they were looking for a link to see your reviews and testimonials, but there wasn’t one on the page: is there anywhere you can include them to encourage future users to continue their session?
Find your sessions using GA… then investigate them with Hotjar
Google Analytics is a staple in your tech stack when you want to know how many sessions and pageviews each user is bringing to your site. But you’ll need to dig deeper to find out why.
The tools we mentioned here—session recordings, funnels, and on-site surveys—will help to do that. Combine the extra data with your Google Analytics reports, and get a better understanding of each session: it’s the best way to get the big picture of what’s happening on your website and, more importantly, spot areas for improvement.
Editor's note: Google recently launched Google Analytics 4, which includes minor changes to some reports; however, this article is still relevant for standard GA. As more users migrate, we will release updates to this and other articles as needed, with references and steps to obtain results in GA 4.
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Content credits: this content was originally created with the help of web analytics and CRO expert Rich Page, who was interviewed by our team and talked to us about all things GA in August 2019.