What is the Difference Between a User, Session and Pageview in Google Analytics

Data Tutorial Marketing Analytics

Users, sessions and pageviews are related metrics in Google Analytics that tell you slightly different but key information about what’s going on with traffic on your site. This tutorial will explain these metrics and show you how to monitor them in Google Analytics.

Definitions of User, Session and Pageview

At a high level, a user is a distinct person on a website, like you on this site. While you are on the site actively browsing around, you’re in a session. In that session you could be clicking around, loading multiple pages and, thus, generating many pageviews. If you come back a few hours later (or days later), you will still be you (same user), but will kick off a new session and will be generating more pageviews.

Let’s get more precise:

A user (once known as a unique visitor) is a distinct person, or, more accurately, a distinct clientID identified in the Google Analytics tracking cookie. As long as a person comes back on the same browser and device and doesn’t clear cookies, Google Analytics will be able to identify that person as the same user

A session (once known as a visit) is the browsing period of a user. A session starts when the user first comes to your site and ends when any of the following happen:

  • Inactivity - as a natural timeout, Google Analytics ends a session when the user hasn’t been active on your site for 30 minutes (by default)

  • Midnight - to facilitate aggregating metrics by day, Google Analytics automatically ends all sessions at midnight. Even if the person is still browsing at 11:59:59 pm and at 12:00:01 am has another pageview, Google Analytics will generate a new session. Note the timezone is defined in your GA view settings.

  • The user’s campaign source changes - to facilitate aggregating metrics by traffic source, Google Analytics automatically ends a session if the user has a new campaign source (unless that source is direct). For example if a user comes to your site from a Facebook ad, then checks their email and clicks back to your site from one of your emails, even if mere seconds have passed between the Facebook click and the email click, Google Analytics will end the Facebook session and start a new session. More details on Google Analytics marketing attribution here.

A pageview is very simply the act of loading a page. If a user visits 3 pages or reloads the same page 3 times - that counts as 3 pageviews, irrespective of sessions.

Examples

The best way to understand the differences in the metrics is with examples.

Example 1

Hannah visits an online news site at 11am having found an interesting sounding news story from a Google search and clicking through. She navigates to two more news stories on different pages in the first 15 minutes. She then takes a break for lunch and resumes reading from where she left off at 2pm and she goes back to the original news story for one last review 12 minutes later. All of her actions were on the same browser and device and she didn’t clear her cookies.

Users: 1 - Google Analytics knows it was the same person all along since Hannah used the same browser and device and didn’t clear her cookies

Sessions: 2 - The first session ended when there was a period of inactivity where there were no actions for at least 30 minutes (during Hannah’s lunch break). Her actions after her break are tracked in the second session

Pageviews: 4 - Hannah loaded the first news story that she clicked through from Google’s search results (1), then two more news stories on different pages (2), and the first news story for a second time (1)

Example 2 Ankit is shopping for a sweater and lands on an online retailer from clicking through a Google search result at 11:45pm. He browses through that retailer for a half hour, clicking through to view eight different sweaters on different pages. He then checks Facebook and sees an ad for that same retailer, linking him to yet another sweater, which he clicks on. He continues to browse two more sweaters on different pages before calling it a night. All of his actions were on the same browser and device and he didn’t clear his cookies.

Users: 1 - Google Analytics knows it was the same person all along since Ankit used the same browser and device and didn’t clear his cookies

Sessions: 3 - The first session ended at midnight even though Ankit was actively browsing, the second session ended when he clicked from Facebook, changing his campaign source from Google search to a Facebook ad. His browsing from then on is tracked in the third session

Pageviews: 12 - Ankit loaded the first sweater that showed up in Google’s search results (1), then eight more pages (8), then the page the Facebook ad linked to (1), then two more pages (2)

Track Metrics

Users, sessions and pageviews are among the key metrics Google Analytics provides, and they’re very easy to find in your Google Analytics dashboard. Simply go to the Audience - Overview report. At the top is a line graph tracking users over time. You can toggle to see sessions and pageviews, among other metrics. Scrolling down to the middle of the page you get a summary of these (and other) metrics for the selected time period.

You can also use Chartio to view your Google Analytics data. A key advantage of this is that in one place, you can get stats from your internal systems, Google Analytics and many other 3rd parties so you only have to go to one place to understand traffic on your site.

Conclusion

Google Analytics gives very powerful information about traffic to your site, but you need to understand what the different metrics mean.