Understanding Google Analytics 4 Sessions

Last Updated: May 12, 2022

The best way to understand Google Analytics 4 sessions is to compare them with Universal Analytics (GA3) sessions.

Following are the key differences between GA3 (Universal Analytics) and GA4 sessions:

#1 In GA3, a session is a group of hits recorded for a user in a given time period. Whereas in GA4, a session is a group of events recorded for a user in a given time period.

#2 Both GA3 and GA4 define a user as an individual who performs actions on your website or mobile app in one or more sessions.

These actions could be like viewing a page, scrolling a page, clicking on add to cart button, making a purchase etc.

#3 A user can generate one or more sessions in a single day or over several days, weeks, or even months. As a result, the session counts in your GA3/GA4 property are likely to be higher than the user counts.

Note: Unlike in GA3, the user activity is detected automatically in GA4. This may lead to higher active user counts for GA4.

#4 Both GA3 and GA4 sessions can be categorized into app sessions and web sessions.

#5 A web session in both GA3 and GA4 starts as soon as a user views a page and no previous session is currently active.

#6 An app session in both GA3 and GA4 start when a user either opens your app in the foreground or views a screen and no previous session is currently active.

#7 Since a GA3 session starts as soon as a user views a page/screen, the GA3 session is almost always a session with a pageview/screen view.

Whereas a GA4 session can start with or without a pageview/screenview.

For example, a GA4 session can start with user engagement. So you could end up with views or user engagements with no sessions.

Consider the following scenario:

A user landed on your website but then immediately navigated to another browser tab.

He returned to your website after a couple of hours, consumed the content and then closed the tab.

In this scenario, GA3 will likely count only one session with a pageview. But GA4 would count two sessions. One session with pageviews and one session with user engagement.

The session with user engagement started when the user returned to your website hours later and started consuming content.

As a result, GA4 sessions do not accurately reflect user engagement and you would be better off focusing on users and events.

#8 The duration of a GA3 session is calculated as the time elapsed between the first and last hit in the session. Whereas, the duration of a GA4 session is calculated as the time elapsed between the first and last event in the session.

#9 By default, a GA3 session expires if no new hit is sent to the GA server within 30 minutes from the time when the last hit was sent. This period of no new hit sent is called ‘user inactivity’.

Similarly, by default, a GA4 session expires if no new event is sent to the GA server within 30 minutes from the time when the last event was sent.

#10 By default, a GA3 web session expires after 30 minutes of users’ inactivity. However, you can change this setting by changing the session timeout settings in your GA3 property.

For example, you can make a GA3 web session expire after 3 minutes of users’ inactivity or after 3 hours of users’ inactivity.

ga3 session timeout

By default, a GA4 web session expires after 30 minutes of users’ inactivity.

However, you can change this setting by changing the session timeout settings in your GA4 property.

For example, you can make a GA4 web session expire after 10 minutes of users’ inactivity or after 5 hours of users’ inactivity:

ga4 session timeout

#11 A GA3 session timeout can not be less than 1 minute or greater than 4 hours. Whereas, a GA4 session timeout can not be less than 5 minutes or greater than 7 hours and 55 minutes.

#12 Unlike GA3, A GA4 session begins to time out when a website or app is moved to the background. However, you have the option to extend that session.

#13 A GA3 session expires if a user returns to your website via a different campaign source in the middle of the active session.

The campaign source could be search engines, referring websites, and URLs with campaign parameters.

Every time a campaign source is changed in the middle of an active session, the existing GA3 session expires and a new GA3 session starts.

Whereas, the GA4 session does NOT expire if a user returns to your website via a different campaign source in the middle of an active session.

As a result, the session counts in your GA4 property could be lower than the session counts in your GA3 property.

And you could also see a single GA4 session from multiple traffic sources.

#14 A GA3 session automatically expires at midnight (11:59:59 pm).

For example, if a user is browsing your website since 11:45 pm, his session will automatically terminate at 11:59:59 pm even if he continues to engage with your website. At 12 am a new GA3 session will start for your user.

Whereas a GA4 session does NOT automatically expire at midnight (11:59:59 pm). However, the same GA4 session would now be counted twice, once for each day.

#15 Unlike in GA3, the GA4 property reports on ‘Engaged Sessions’ and ‘Engaged Sessions Per user’.

GA4 defines an ‘engaged session’ as the one that:

  1. Lasted 10 seconds or longer or
  2. Had one or more conversion events fired or
  3. Had two or more pageviews or screenviews.

GA4 defines ‘engaged sessions per user’ as the number of engaged sessions / the number of users

#16 GA3 counts sessions by counting the sessions metric. Whereas, GA4 counts sessions by counting session_start events.

#17 The session count of GA3 and GA4 are unlikely to match as they are calculated and adjusted differently.

How to adjust the web session timeout in GA4?

Follow the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate to your GA4 property and then click on the ‘Admin’:

ga4 admin

Step-2: Click on ‘Data Streams’:

ga4 Data Streams

Step-3: Click on the name of the data stream whose web session you want to configure:

ga4 Data Streams 2

Step-4: Scroll down until you see the ‘More Tagging Settings’ under ‘Additional Settings’:

More Tagging Settings ga4

Step-5: Click on ‘More Tagging Settings’ and then click on ‘Adjust Session timeout’:

Adjust Session timeout ga4

Step-6: Set the session timeout in hours and minutes:

Set the session timeout in hours and minutes ga4
Set the session timeout in hours and minutes ga4 2

Step-7: Adjust the timer for ‘engaged sessions’ by selecting the number of seconds it takes for a GA4 session to be considered an ‘engaged session’:

Adjust the timer for ‘engaged sessions

Step-8: Click on the ‘Save’ button:

Save

Where to see the Sessions metrics in GA4?

You can see the various sessions metrics in the following GA4 reports:

#1 Acquisition overview report

Acquisition overview report ga4

#2 User acquisition report

User acquisition report ga4

#3 Traffic acquisition report

Traffic acquisition report ga4

#4 Engagement overview report

Engagement overview report ga4

#5 Demographic details report

Demographic details report ga4

#6 Tech details report

Tech details report ga4

#1 Google Analytics 4 Intro

  1. What is GA4 (Google Analytics 4) – The Apps + Web Property?
  2. Key Benefits of Using Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  3. How to upgrade to GA4 (Google Analytics 4)
  4. Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs Universal Analytics – What is the difference?
  5. Google Signals GA4 – See demographics (gender, age) in Google Analytics 4
  6. Understanding Google Analytics Measurement ID (GA4)
  7. Google Analytics 4 training & tutorial with FREE GA4 ebook
  8. Using the GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Test Property

#2 Google Analytics 4 Integrations

  1. How to connect GA4 (Google Analytics 4) with Google Data Studio
  2. How to link GA4 (Google Analytics 4) with Google Ads
  3. How to link Google Search Console to Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  4. How to Install Google Analytics 4 on Shopify

#3 Google Analytics 4 Events

  1. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Event Tracking Setup Tutorial
  2. Understanding Event Parameters in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  3. Recommended events in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  4. Enhanced measurement events in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  5. Automatically collected events in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  6. How to set up GA4 Custom Events via Google Tag Manager
  7. Events Report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  8. How to rename events in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  9. How to use Google Analytics 4 Event Builder

#4 Google Analytics 4 Conversions

  1. Google Analytics 4 Conversion Tracking Guide – GA4 Goals
  2. How to import conversions from GA4 property to your Google Ads account

#5 Google Analytics 4 Dimensions

  1. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Dimensions Tutorial
  2. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Custom Dimensions Tutorial
  3. GA4 User Properties (User Scoped Custom Dimensions) – Tutorial
  4. Event Scoped Custom Dimensions in GA4 – Tutorial

#6 Google Analytics 4 Metrics

  1. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Metrics Tutorial with Free Google Analytics 4 Ebook
  2. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Custom Metrics Tutorial
  3. What are predictive metrics in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

#7 Google Analytics 4 Ecommerce

  1. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Ecommerce Tracking via GTM – Tutorial

#8 Google Analytics 4 Specialized Tracking

  1. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Enhanced Measurement Tracking Tutorial
  2. Cross Domain Tracking in GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Setup Guide
  3. GA4 Site Search – Tracking Site Search in Google Analytics 4
  4. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Scroll Tracking Tutorial
  5. Self-referral Google Analytics 4 – Referral exclusion GA4
  6. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Data Import Tutorial
  7. Google Analytics 4 Content Grouping – Create Content Groups in GA4
  8. How to track single page apps in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

#9 Google Analytics 4 filters

  1. GA4 filters – Understanding data filters in Google Analytics 4
  2. How to create and test filters in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?
  3. Exclude internal traffic in GA4 (Google Analytics 4) via IP filter

#10 Google Analytics 4 Explorations

  1. Free Form Report in GA4 (Google Analytics 4) – Exploration Report
  2. How to use the user lifetime report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  3. How to use Path exploration report in GA4 (Google Analytics 4) – Path analysis
  4. How to use Segment Overlap Report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  5. How to use the Funnel Exploration Report in GA4 (Google Analytics 4) – Funnel Analysis
  6. Cohort Exploration Report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  7. How to Create Landing Pages Report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

#11 Google Analytics 4 Advanced

  1. Understanding Google Analytics 4 Sessions
  2. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Measurement Protocol Tutorial
  3. How to build comparisons (advanced segments) in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  4. Understanding Automated Insights in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  5. Understanding Channel Groupings in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  6. Understanding Data Sampling in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

#12 Google Analytics 4 Reporting

  1. How to create custom insights in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  2. How to use Debug View report in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

#13 Google Analytics 4 Attribution

  1. Guide to Attribution Models in GA4 (Google Analytics 4)
  2. How to Change Attribution Models in GA4 (Google Analytics 4)?
  3. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Conversion Paths Report in Attribution
  4. GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Model comparison report in Attribution
  5. Advertising Snapshot in GA4 (Google Analytics 4) Attribution

#14 Google Analytics 4 Audiences

  1. GA4 Audiences – Creating custom audience in Google Analytics 4
  2. How to create a remarketing audience in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  3. Understanding Audience Triggers in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
  4. Google Analytics 4 (GA4) Predictive Audiences – Tutorial

#15 Google Analytics 4 BigQuery

  1. GA4 BigQuery – Connect Google Analytics 4 with BigQuery
  2. How to connect and export data from GA4 to BigQuery
  3. events_ & events_intraday_ tables in BigQuery for GA4 (Google Analytics 4)

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