What is a Session in Google Analytics

We often talk about visitors in the eCommerce world and it’s not always clear what is meant by that. Are we talking about users or sessions? As a first article about Google Analytics, let’s understand what a session is and how it works.

Terminology Changed Recently

You may still hear the terms visits and unique visitors at work since Google renamed them not a long ago. I won’t enter into the details on why they changed it, but here’s what you need to know:

Unique Visitors (old) = Users (new)

Visits (old) = Sessions (new)

What is a Session?

A session is a period of activity that is interrupted for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Here’s a quiz for you to learn by example:

Scenario 1 

A user visit your homepage and do a search. While browsing that’s what he sees:

what is a session in ga dog

He obviously decides to play with his dog for the next 45 minutes. Would the user be creating 1 or 2 sessions in Google Analytics?

The user would have created 2 sessions. The first one started when he was browsing your site and ended when he became inactive for a period of 30 minutes. The second one started when he came back and started browsing again.

Scenario 2

It’s 11:30 pm and we’re at a home party. A user visit your homepage and starts browsing for 35 minutes on his phone. The user gets interrupted by a friend who says he’s drunk and needs him to drive him home. Of course our user didn’t drink, and it’s a no-brainer since the car looks like this:

porsche what is a session

20 minutes later our user starts browsing again until another friend comes and ask him to drive him home. The  car is not as fancy as the first  one but… still it’s a Tesla. This friend was living further away so our user is back browsing 45 minutes later.

How many sessions did that user create?

The answer is 3. There was a little trap in this scenario: At midnight Google Analytics stops a session and creates a new one. From that new session the user leaves but comes back browsing 20 minutes after, which is below the 30 minutes mark so it still counts as the same session. Finally, the user leaves for 45 minutes and when he starts browsing again it creates the third session.

2 Things About Sessions to Keep in Mind

1. Activity is not continuous

When we talk about “activity” you need to know that it’s not tracked continuously. For example, a user could read a long article for 40 minutes, scroll down, click on tabs and Google Analytics wouldn’t know.

When the page loads GA is notified and that’s when a session starts. If there’s no event that’s fired back to GA within the 30 minutes the session will be considered over even if it’s not the case. That’s why you can add event tracking when a user scrolls or clicks in strategic places.

2. The 30 minutes period is not set in stone

The default inactivity period to end a session is 30 minutes, but you can change that in GA settings. If for some reason you believe another period length would be more relevant you don’t have to keep it at 30 minutes. Just keep in mind that most businesses use 30 minutes of inactivity to end a session.

Where are Sessions in Google Analytics

You can find sessions in almost all reports, so as an example here’s the Acquisition > Channels report:

session google analytics

Sessions is a metric you can select in dropdowns in almost all GA reports, so just look for it.

If you have more questions on sessions just leave me a comment below.

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