Last updated Nov 20 2020
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 marketing and 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 '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’ 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.
- 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:
- Session recordings
- Conversion funnels
- On-site surveys
#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 are 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 ‘Visited URL’:
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 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. Conversion funnels: find where sessions drop off
Conversion funnels show the typical route-to-goal for your customers, and you can specifically use them to see where sessions drop off—which helps you prioritize which pages with high drop-offs need optimizing.
If you are using Hotjar: start by identifying your main goal (e.g., completed purchase or signup) and work backward to the page with the most traffic. List all the pages and include them in the funnel you build:
Here are some funnel examples to get you started:
- E-commerce sites: homepage > product pages > cart > checkout > thank you page
- Blog: homepage > article pages > subscribe page > success page
- SaaS: homepage > trial signup page > interface > upgrade page > thank you page
- Lead generation: category pages > landing page with form > thank you page
Monitor how people drop off in their journey towards a conversion. You might see that 50% of sessions end on a certain page, for example:
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. Simply click on the ‘Watch’ button below the funnel step you’re interested in:
#3. On-site surveys: ask your visitors why they visited multiple times
Customer feedback is a goldmine of data for marketers—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 are using Hotjar: refer back to recordings and conversion funnel data to identify your pages with high drop-off rates, and set up a quick survey on it. You’ll need to:
- Enter the URL of the high drop-off page you want your poll to show on.
- Set the poll to launch when a user is about to leave the page
Pro tip #1: to decide which device to show your poll on, look at your Google Analytics sessions breakdown: do mobile device sessions last longer? If so, display your poll on desktop sessions only.
Pro tip #2: if you run on-site surveys but neglect to go through the answers, you’re wasting both your time and that of your customers. Set aside a dedicated block of time to analyze the open-ended 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 tool you’ll need in your stack. You’ll be able to find 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, conversion 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.
FAQs about Google Analytics sessions
What are ‘sessions’ and ‘users’ in Google Analytics?
In GA a ‘session’ refers to the set of actions taken by a user on your site in a given time frame, and a ‘user’ is the visitor who has initiated the session.
For example, if you have an ecommerce site and a user lands on your homepage, navigates to a category page, then a product page, clicks on a CTA, and converts, each of these actions taken together by that one user equals one session:
USER → homepage > category page > product page > CTA > conversion → SESSION
Are Google Analytics visitors unique?
Not always. Google stopped using the term ‘unique visitors' because depending on where and how they browse your site, one visitor could technically be counted as several ‘users’, and can potentially have multiple sessions.
For example, if one person visits your site from multiple devices or varying browsers, or if they delete or block cookies, or they’re visiting your site in private mode, GA will randomly generate a separate Client ID string under each of these circumstances—meaning that one person will be counted as a different user each time.
How are sessions counted in Google Analytics?
As we mentioned above, a ‘session’ in GA is a set of interactions taken by one user on your site in a given time frame… but there are some caveats.
A new session begins when a user lands on your page and ends when:
1) The session reaches a time limit: by default, a session ends at midnight, or after 30 minutes of inactivity by a user. If 30 minutes is too long (or not long enough), you can adjust the default session duration to range from seconds to hours (more on this above).
2) A user exits your site and doesn’t return within a given time frame: let’s assume your default session duration is 30 minutes. If someone arrives on your site from organic search, stays for 15 minutes, exits, then searches again and arrives back to your site within another 15 minutes (before 30 minutes have passed in total), the same session will continue.
However, if they arrive on your site, stay for 15 minutes, exit, and don’t come back until 20 more minutes have passed, a new session will begin when they return.
Example 1: user lands on the site at 12:00 > user leaves the site at 12:15 > user returns to the site at 12:25 → ONE SESSION
Example 2: user lands on the site at 12:00 > user leaves the site at 12:15 > user returns to the site at 12:35 → TWO SESSIONS; one beginning at 12:00 and ending at 12:15, and another session beginning at 12:35
3) A user changes campaigns: for example, if someone arrives on your site from a Facebook campaign, leaves, and returns again through organic search, those visits are counted as two different sessions (no matter the length of time that has passed between them).
Are ‘sessions’ and ‘visits’ the same?
A few years ago, Google Analytics ‘sessions’ were called ‘visits’. This can cause some confusion around the definition, but here at Hotjar we tend to use ‘visits’ and ‘pageviews’ interchangeably. With that in mind:
A visit—known in GA as a pageview, pageview hit, or page tracking hit—happens when a user loads (or reloads) a page in a browser. There can be multiple visits or pageviews in a single session.
For example, if a user lands on your site and visits five pages before exiting, there will be five pageviews in that user’s one session.
Start investigating your sessions today
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Content credits: we created this piece with the help of Google Partner Himanshu Sharma, who was interviewed by our team and talked to us about all things GA in August 2019.