Understanding users in Google Analytics
If you heard the statement “Facebook Hit Two Billion Active Users,” you would probably understand exactly what that means: two billion people use Facebook on a regular basis. However, understanding how Google Analytics (GA) counts users isn’t quite as straightforward.
How does Google Analytics define users?
GA’s user metric shows how many users engaged with your site or app. As they explain, “in order for Google Analytics to determine which traffic belongs to which user, a unique identifier associated with each user is sent with each hit.”
In simpler terms, “users” is the number of new and returning people who visit your site during a set period of time. The first time a person visits your site, a Google Analytics cookie will be set and a unique identifier will be assigned to them. This will help distinguish the person as a “new user.” When the same user visits your site at a later time, they will be counted as a “returning user.”
However, there are instances where that same person could still be counted as a new user, even if they already visited your site. If they access your site on a different device or through a different browser than they used the first time, they will receive a new unique identifier for that browser. For example:
- If a user visits your site through their work laptop, they will be cookied and assigned a unique identifier, and counted as a new user.
- If they then head home and visit your site again on their home computer, they will be cookied on that computer as well, and receive a new unique identifier. They will also be counted as a new Google Analytics user again.
Additionally, if a user clears their cookies at any point and re-visits your site, they will be counted as a new user, even if they had previously visited your site from the same device or browser.
Why do Google Analytics users matter?
The new users metrics in GA allows you to see how many people visited your site for the first time in a specific time period. Depending on the kind of marketing efforts you executed to acquire users—such as paid advertising or social media boosts—this metric can indicate how successful you were at generating new users.
The returning users metric indicates how many people came back to your site. For sites that publish content regularly—like a publication or a brand blog—a large number of returning users could indicate that users find your content valuable and are return to consume more of it.
Is a low number of users always a bad thing?
Having a low user count could be a bad thing, but this can vary by website. While having more users is typically seen as a positive, it’s also important to consider how much time, energy, and money you spend to acquire users, as well as how engaged they are on your site.
For example, if you spend advertising dollars to bring in 50 new users, but none of them convert to regular users, then you have spent money but have no return on the investment. On the other hand, if you don’t spend any advertising dollars, but receive 20 users organically and five of them convert to become regular users, this is positive because your regular user base grew. You should aim to increase your site’s total users over time, both new and returning, as traffic is a primary indicator of site growth—although it is not the only, or necessarily the most important, goal to be working towards for all websites. Revenue from sales, for example, is likely more important for an online store than the number of new users per week.
Understanding the breakdown of your users—the percentage of new vs. returning—is also important. A disproportionate ratio of new to returning users can indicate many things about your site and business. Having a low number of returning users compared to many new users may be standard across some industries, and therefore normal. But in other industries, it could mean that your content is not resonating with your audience or reaching new users.
- For a digital publication or a business-to-consumer e-commerce retailer, acquiring both new and returning users is important to keep readership and sales up.
- However, for a business-to-business software company, acquiring new users may be more important than having returning users—you want to get new customers interested in your product.
The bottom line
When looking at your site users, always distinguish between new and returning users. You want to know how each type of user behaves, and how new users convert to returning users. You also want to understand how users interact differently between industries—acquiring new users may be more important than having a large returning user base for some companies, but may not be the best thing for you.
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