Have you ever lost yourself in the thicket of unique visitors, new users, pageviews, and sessions in Google Analytics?
In this article, we’re going to discuss what these numbers actually mean and how you can analyze them to make better decisions.
If you'd prefer to watch instead of read, here's a video explaining all the ways that GA4 uses to identify unique visitors:
First, let’s clarify exactly what a unique visitor is in Google Analytics: Unique visitors, or new users, describe the number of unduplicated visitors to your website over the course of a specific time period. Google uses a unique identifier (usually based on a first-party cookie) to keep track of users and identify returning visitors vs unique visitors over a specific time period.
When you open Google Analytics, the first metrics you will notice are “Users” and “Sessions.” Before 2014, Google termed Users as Unique Visitors and Sessions as Visits.
The terminology might be a bit confusing if you are just starting with Google Analytics but take a look at the screenshot below to get a better understanding of what these metrics mean:
To simplify things and understand unique visitors (users) and visits (sessions), let’s assume four people – Ben, Eva, Matt, and Cindy visit a cafe for lunch. In this example, visiting a cafe corresponds to visiting your website. Later in the evening, Ben and Eva drop into that cafe again for coffee.
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Assuming that there are no other visitors, the unique number of visitors to the cafe on that particular day is four. Google simply calls these users in most reports.
The total number of visits is six and Google usually refers to these at sessions. If you want to see an even more clear breakdown of your unique visits, you can see check out the default report under Audience > Behavior > New vs Returning.
Note that all metrics, including users and sessions, change when we change the time period. When you first log in to Google Analytics, the date range defaults to the most recent seven days, starting with yesterday’s date.
You can easily change the dates using the date drop-down box in the bottom left-hand corner.
In the above example, you can see that the number of unique visitors in the last seven days is 12k, while it shoots up to 42k when we increase the time period to the last 28 days.
The ability to view visitor data in different time frames allows you to have a more in-depth insight into user behavior – especially during events, marketing campaigns, holidays, and special days during the year.
Similarly, in Google Analytics 4 (GA4), you can take a quick look at the number of visitors in the last seven days. As you can see in the above example, the reports in GA4 focus less on session but more on users.
By default, you can easily compare all visitors (Users) with new visitors (New Users) side by side.
How to Find Unique Visitors in Google Analytics
The default Home section of the Google Analytics dashboard shows the number of unique visitors or users over a given time. It’s nice to know how many unique visitors you have but it’s even more useful to know the nature of traffic.
The Audience section of Google Analytics allows you to analyze user data based on multiple parameters such as traffic source, demographics, operating system, browser, and service provider.
You can also analyze how website visitors engage with your web pages using metrics like sessions per user, pageviews per session, average session duration, and bounce rate.
In Google Analytics 4, you can analyze your visitors by looking at the Acquisition > Audience report. You can see the metrics like Users, New users, Engaged sessions, Engagement rate, Engaged sessions, etc. You can press the “+” sign to add user segments for comparison.
You can also add extra dimensions to provide you more details of the audiences.
How Does Google Analytics Track Unique Visitors?
When a user visits your website for the first time, a unique string is randomly generated and stored as a cookie in the user’s browser. The information stored in the cookie helps Google Analytics differentiate between a new user and a returning user and keep track of the number of times each user visits your website.
Since Google Analytics uses browser cookies to track unique visitors, there are certain situations where there is inaccuracy in user data. Returning users will likely be counted as new users if they:
- Browse the website in incognito mode
- Clear cookies on their browser
- Access the website through multiple devices
- Use different browsers on the same device
On the other side of things, many unique visitors might be counted as one user, for example, a family of three using one device or a group of students accessing a shared computer.
Although Google Analytics can’t track unique visitors perfectly, the deviation is negligible and shouldn’t make much of a difference unless you’re working with a very small sample size.
Difference Between Users (Unique Visitors) and New Users
Remember when Ben, Eva, Matt, and Cindy went to the cafe for lunch? It turns out that they were so delighted by the food that they brought two more friends, Mike and Jo, with them the next day for a special Sunday brunch.
Since unique visitors are counted for a specific date range, the number of unique visitors to the cafe on Sunday is six while there are two new visitors. Similarly, new users in Google Analytics are people who have visited your website for the first time, irrespective of the date range.
Note that new users are a subset of unique visitors or users. This means that unique visitors is the sum of new users and returning users starting a new session in a defined date range.
The new users data is instrumental when running a marketing campaign – like an influencer marketing campaign or social media advertising – to measure and compare new user acquisition effectiveness.
The returning users metric is especially handy when your marketing efforts are centered around your content and you have sizable newsletter subscribers or social media followers.
What Do Pageviews and Unique Pageviews Mean in Google Analytics?
When Ben, Eva, Matt, and Cindy visited the cafe, each of them ordered a hamburger and soda. Ben and Cindy also had a dessert each, while Matt opted for another soda instead of a dessert. Here, the different items ordered in the cafe correspond to users viewing different webpages on your website.
To view pageviews and unique pageviews for your individual webpages, click on Behavior on the menu on the right side, go to Site Content, and select All Pages.
In Google Analytics, pageviews means the total number of individual pages or posts viewed on your site. If the items ordered in the restaurant were pageviews, the total count would be 11 (4 hamburgers, 4 sodas, 2 desserts, and 1 more soda).
On the other hand, unique pageviews only denote the number of unique pages visited by a user in one session. Unique pageviews weed out refreshes and revisits and paints a clearer picture of the web traffic and your content engagement.
In general, new users engage more with your webpages because the content is, essentially, still new for them. On the other hand, returning users have already visited your website at least once and probably read your previous posts.
Hence, their average pageviews per session is usually lower than returning users.
Google Analytics expert Eddie Lee explains that in Google Analytics 4, “Things are a little different. Everything is an event- including page views. By default, page view, scrolls, clicks, site search, video engagement and file downloads are tracked automatically on a default installation.”
That actually makes a lot of things much easier when compared to previous versions of Google Analytics. In order to view the performance of different pages, you can take a look at the “Engagement > Pages and Screens” report. Top performing pages are shown with the page title and performance metrics.
Why Should You Care About Unique Visitors?
With all that in mind, what’s the actual use case for unique visitors?
Let’s say you have a website that sells a product and you also have a large email list that you regularly sell to.
When looking at your conversion rate, you notice that your overall conversion rate for January is 8%
But when you look at your conversion rate for unique visitors you notice that it’s only 0.5%.
Ouch. What’s going on here?
While you should expect to have a higher conversion rate from people who are already engaged with your brand (the majority of which may be coming from your email list), depending on your product the conversion rate for unique visitors may be too low.
By segmenting out unique visitors, you can see how people who are brand new to your site interact with your brand and have a better understanding of how to grow that side of the business. Instead of just seeing your awesome overall conversion rate and moving on.
Unique visitors is just one of the many simple, but extremely powerful, concepts within Google Analytics. By paying attention to unique visitors, you can get valuable data that can help you identify the correct problems to solve!
Still have questions about unique visitors in Google Analytics? Drop a comment below and let us know.