What is the Difference Between First User and Session Data in Google Analytics?

It’s important that you report SEO tracking correctly to clients. That means you need to know how first user and session data differ in your analytics.

Video Transcript

David: Tricia, you’d asked, and I want to summarize your question in a different way if that’s alright?

Tricia: Good, because I don’t remember what it was.

David: You had asked: in Google Analytics, what’s the difference between first user and session data, as it relates to the source of traffic? Is that a good summary?

Tricia: Yes, I think so.

David: Yeah, this is a good question because it relates to how we report to clients. I found the nomenclature in Google Analytics I find very confusing. It’s really very technical, but the people who use Google Analytics aren’t typically developers.

Tricia: Yes, exactly.

David: So, let’s just get to the terminology first. A user, in Google Analytics parlance, is a visitor, a person. So, if you have ten users, you have ten visitors. Ten people who visited. And if it’s first user, that means it’s the first time those users have visited your site. Okay? It doesn’t include repeat visitors. It includes first. And so, when we’re talking about this in terms of source or medium, or default marketing group, each of the first users is going to have a way they found you, and that’s associated with them as a user. So, this user came because of Google Organic. That is attached to them as the first user, Google Organic. Right? So, that’s the user. Then there’s something called sessions. Sessions is not a user. It is not a visitor. It is a visit. It is the time that they visited your site. So, every user has a session for every time they visit your site. A first user would only have one session because we’re only tracking the first session they visited. And just as every user or visitor has a source, so does every session have a source. So, if I click on a Facebook ad and visit a website for the first time, my first user source will be Facebook. My first user medium will be CPC or Ad or whatever they tag. Right? And if you were to look at me from a session perspective, there’d be one more session. You wouldn’t know it’s my session because that gets added to all the sessions. There’d be one more session that came from Facebook as a source and paid as a medium if I came back again. It wouldn’t be first user. It would be returning user. But it would add an additional number to the total number of sessions or visits to the website from whatever source I came from the second time. So, these numbers are valuable for different reasons. So, when I do SEO, SEO does a great job introducing someone to our website for the first time. So, I like to report on first user acquisition source. Because I know I’ve introduced them. Also, I like to use it from an SEO perspective because I don’t want to take credit for someone who already knows the company name and has already been to my website. And so, typically, that’s going to come direct. Right? Because they’re going to type in the domain name. Or they’re going to look more at my site or something like that, come from an email. So, it kind of weeds out some people who already know about my clients. So, I don’t take double credit for an introduction. So, I like using first user data when I report for SEO because, to me, it’s more honest. But the reality is that conversions don’t always come from the first user. Right? And so, you know how important it is to me that we report the conversions because this traffic needs to do something. And so, for conversions, sessions numbers actually end up being a little bit more helpful because now I’m taking a number of visits to the website that produced a conversion. But you would ask this in the context of someone suggesting to you don’t use this, use that. I don’t know if I want to fight that battle.

Tricia: Or use both, I guess.

David: Yeah. Just make sure you understand the distinction and make sure you’re reporting consistently and using the right words. I went into my reports and actually changed them. So, it no longer says users and sessions. It now says visitors and visits. Because I think it’s a little easier to get my brain around and then. When I talk numbers to clients, I try to make sure I’m using the right number.

Tricia: Yeah, because they can understand.

David: Because you’re always going to have more sessions than users because users come more than once, typically. And that’s the distinction. So, I guess the right answer is… Which one should you report? Well, be honest, transparent, and consistent, and don’t confuse visitors with visits. Or users and sessions. So, you are always comparing apples to apples rather than confusing. Boy, we got a lot of sessions this week, but last week, we had a lot of visitors. That’s a hard conclusion to come to.

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