When it comes to reporting, it can be confusing of what metrics to use to base your reports. Do I use sessions or users? They’re pretty much the same, right? Pageviews and unique pageviews...the numbers are close enough, so I can just pick one, right?
Well, there are very important differences when it comes to all of these terms. Google Analytics provides many different categories of data tracked from your website. It is vital to understand what these terms mean, especially if you want to create a custom report.
Sessions vs. Users
What’s the difference?
A “user” is an individual that visited your site in a given time period, whereas a “session” is the number of individual web sessions initiated by a user. Therefore, one user can have multiple sessions, but one session cannot have multiple users. This is why you will almost always see that the number of sessions for your site is higher than the number of users.
When does a new session start?
There are three different methods in which a new session begins. First, is a user is on a site before and after midnight, the session ends at midnight, and another session begins at that time. The second method is if there is more than 30 minutes of inactivity, a new session then begins. However, if a user leaves your site and returns within 30 minutes, any future activity is attributed to the original session. Lastly, if a session is attributed to a campaign and the user leaves the site then arrives back through a different campaign, a new session begins when the campaign changes.
When should I use one or the other?
It depends on what the goal of your report is. If you want to track the number of transactions generated by your site, you would most likely want to track sessions. Since a user can have multiple sessions, one person could produce multiple transactions. However, if you want to track how many people visit your site, you would want to track users instead of sessions. If you have 1,000 sessions and 700 users in a given time period, it is not appropriate to say that your site received 1,000 visitors, because only 700 people visited your site.
Pageviews vs. Unique Pageviews###What’s the difference? This is similar to the sessions vs. users explanation. A “pageview” is recorded every time a user visits a page on your site, whether it is their first time visiting the page, or the tenth time. In contrast, a “unique pageview” is recorded only once per user per page per session. If a user visits a page multiple times in one session, it is only recorded as one unique pageview. You can think of this as “the number of sessions that viewed a page.”
When should I use one or the other?
If you are tracking overall activity on your site, you might use pageviews to see how often your users are viewing the pages of your site. An instance when you would want to use unique pageviews in a report would be if you are tracking steps in a sequence. You would use the number of unique pageviews to see how many sessions completed each step. You may not necessarily care about the user’s behavior (if they went back and forth between steps or refreshed pages), you may only care if they completed each step.
Below is a visual example of what a checkout process might look like. The primary focus is to see if all steps of the checkout were completed at some point:
Further illustrated below, if a user viewed the cart (A), got to the payment page (B), went back to the shopping cart page to adjust the quantity of an item (A), then returned to the payment page (B) and completed the rest of the checkout process (C,D), the fact that the user visited steps A and B twice does not necessarily matter if you are reporting the number of completions, or checkouts.
In this case, the “viewed cart” page and the payment page would each ultimately receive two pageviews and one unique pageview during this specific session.
The numbers look similar enough...can it really affect reporting?
Absolutely. These are all key terms when it comes to reporting, especially for sites with high traffic volume. It is important to know these terms and the difference between them, since all reporting in Google Analytics is based on either users or sessions. Overall, it is up to you what metric to use for your reports because they can each be used for different purposes. Just keep in mind what your overall goal is and what scenarios you want to cover in your report.