Understanding Sessions and Campaigns Timeout Settings in Google Analytics

Session Timeout in Google Analytics

When you navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your GA account, you see the link called ‘Session Settings’ in the ‘Tracking Info’ section under the ‘Property’ column:

Click on this link to change the session and campaign timeout settings.

By default a Google Analytics session expires after 30 minutes of users’ inactivity.

You can change this setting by changing the session timeout settings in your GA property.

You can make a session expire after 3 minutes of users’ inactivity or after 3 hours of users’ inactivity.

However, a GA session timeout can not be less than 1 minute or greater than 4 hours.

Before you change the GA session timeout setting, you need to decide the ideal length of your GA session.

For majority of websites, a GA session which is 30 minutes long is all right.

But in following cases, you may need to change the GA sessions timeout setting:

#1 If for some reason, an average user has to spend lot of time on your website (say 2 hours on an average) to engage with your website content or complete a specific task (file an application, play a game etc). If that is the case then you should set the session timeout to match the length of the time spent.

#2 If your site automatically sign out a user after being inactive for a certain period of time. If that is the case then you should set the session timeout to match the length of the active time.

To change session timeout settings, follow the step below:

Change the session timeout settings under ‘Timeout Handling‘ via the drop down menus and then click on the ‘Apply’ button:

I like to keep the session timeout setting to 30 minutes.

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Google Analytics Campaign Attribution

Session Attribution => Which traffic source should get credit for generating a GA session.

Conversion Attribution => Which traffic source should get credit for generating a Conversion (transactional or non-transactional conversion).

Google Analytics uses attribution models to determine sessions and conversions attributions.

In case of non multi channel funnel reports, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source through an attribution model (i.e. set of rules) called the ‘last non-direct click’.

In case of multi channel funnel reports, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last traffic source through an attribution model called the ‘last click’.

By default a Google Analytics Campaign attribution expires after 6 months.

What that means, for the next 6 months, Google Analytics will attribute each and every sessions and/or conversion for a unique user to the last non-direct traffic source provided following conditions are met:

#1 The last non-direct traffic source actually exist.

#2 The last non-direct traffic source does not change for the user for 6 months.

#3 The user continue to use same device (desktop/laptop/computer) and web browser to return to the website.

#4 The user does not delete Google Analytics Cookies during the 6 months period.

#5 You look and draw conclusions from the data in the non multi channel funnels reports in GA.

A non-direct traffic source could be: organic search traffic, paid search traffic, referral traffic or traffic from custom campaigns.

The last non-direct traffic source does not exist

The last non-direct traffic source won’t exist, if a user directly visit your website for the first time or if GA wasn’t able to record the original referrer of the very first visit to your website for some reason.

Let us suppose when a user first visited your website, GA wasn’t able to record the referrer for some reason.

And since GA wasn’t able to record the referrer data, the user’s visit will be attributed to direct traffic:

So GA will report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: direct

Medium: (none)

Related Article: Complete Guide to Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

Let us suppose the same user returned to your website after 3 months (using same device and web browser) but this time via Google organic search :

Now GA will attribute the 2nd session to Google Organic search and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Here the source and medium changed because under last non-direct click attribution model, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source and the last non-direct traffic source is ‘Google Organic Search’.

Let us suppose the same user returned to your website after 3 months (using same device and web browser) but this time directly :

Now GA will attribute the 3rd session to Google Organic search and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Here the source and medium did not change because under last non-direct click attribution model, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source and the last non-direct traffic source is still ‘Google Organic Search’.

The last non-direct traffic source exist

Let us suppose a user first visited your website via Google organic search:

Now GA will attribute the 1st session to Google Organic search and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Let us suppose the same user returned to your website after 3 months (using same device and web browser) but this time directly:

Now GA will attribute the 2nd session to Google Organic search and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Here the source and medium did not change because under last non-direct click attribution model, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source and the last non-direct traffic source is still ‘Google Organic Search’.

Let us suppose the same user again returned to your website directly after 3 months (using same device and web browser):

Now GA will attribute the 3rd session to Google Organic search and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Here the source and medium did not change because under last non-direct click attribution model, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source and the last non-direct traffic source is still ‘Google Organic Search’.

The last non-direct traffic source changed for the user within 6 months

Let us suppose a user first visited your website via Google organic search:

Now GA will attribute the 1st session to Google Organic search and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Let us suppose the same user returned to your website after 3 months (using same device and web browser) but this time via abc.com website:

Now GA will attribute the 2nd session to referral traffic and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: abc.com

Medium: referral

Here the source and medium changed because under last non-direct click attribution model, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source and the last non-direct traffic source is now ‘Referral traffic’.

Let us suppose the same user returned to your website after 3 months (using same device and web browser) but this time directly:

Now GA will attribute the 3rd session to referral traffic and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: abc.com

Medium: referral

Here the source and medium did not change because under last non-direct click attribution model, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source and the last non-direct traffic source is still ‘Referral traffic’.

The last non-direct traffic source does not change for the user for 6 months

Let us suppose a user first visited your website via Google organic search:

Now GA will attribute the 1st session to Google Organic search and report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Let us suppose the same user returned to your website after 8 months (using same device and web browser) but this time directly:

Now GA will attribute the 2nd session to direct traffic and report following values of source and medium for the user:
Source: direct

Medium: (none)

Here the source and medium changed because under last non-direct click attribution model, Google Analytics attribute current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source but the last non-direct traffic source (the google organic search) no longer exist as by default GA campaign timeout after 6 months.

Each direct returning visit refreshes the timeout of the last non-direct traffic source

Each direct returning visit refreshes the timeout of the last non-direct traffic source for the duration equivalent to the campaign timeout setting (default value is six months).

For example, consider the following data table:

Let us suppose a user first visited your website via Google organic search on Jan 1, 2018. So GA will report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Now if the same user returned to your website directly on April 1st 2018 then GA will report following values of source and medium for the user:

Source: google

Medium: organic

Now for all subsequents visits as long as the user keep returning to your website directly, Google Analytics will continue to attribute the sessions to Google Organic (under the last non-direct click attribution model).

So while the user has been visiting your website directly for almost a year, Google Analytics continued to attribute the sessions and conversions to Google organic search.

That’s why I recommend that you reduce the campaign timeout from the default 6 months to 1 month.

If you reduced the campaign timeout to one month then what will happen is when the user visit your website for the second time directly say after one month then GA will attribute the sessions and conversions to direct traffic and not to google organic search.

This would be a more accurate representation of the user behavior.

If the user is actually returning to your website directly then that should be reflected in the GA reports.

So if at present majority of your traffic and sales is being attributed to organic search traffic then after implementing this correction, you should see a drop in the traffic and sales from organic search traffic and increase in the traffic and sales from direct traffic.

Similarly, if at present majority of your traffic and sales is being attributed to paid search traffic then after implementing this correction, you should see a drop in the traffic and sales from paid search traffic and increase in the traffic and sales from direct traffic.

Campaign Timeout Setting in Google Analytics

The campaign timeout setting determines how long (minutes, hours, days, months), Google Analytics should attribute current sessions and/or conversion for a unique user to the last non-direct traffic source provided following conditions are met:

#1 The last non-direct traffic source actually exist.

#2 The last non-direct traffic source does not change before campaign timeout.

#3 The user continue to use same device (desktop/laptop/computer) and web browser to return to the website.

#4 The user does not delete Google Analytics Cookies.

You can change the campaign timeout by changing the campaign timeout settings in your GA property.

Campaign timeout can not be less than 0 minute or greater than 24 months.

Before you change the GA Campaign timeout setting, you should decide the ideal campaign timeout.

For majority of websites, a campaign timeout of 1 month is all right.

But in following cases, you may need to change the GA campaign timeout setting:

#1 If your sales cycle is longer than 30 days.

#2 If your sales cycle is shorter than 30 days.

Set the campaign timeout to the same amount of time it takes for a user to convert on your website after being exposed to a marketing campaign.

I do not recommend setting campaign timeout longer than 3 months regardless of how long your sales cycle is.

This is because:

#1 Three months is a very long time period on the internet during which your prospect is very likely to be exposed to multiple marketing channels and campaigns which impact his buying behavior.

So you can’t just keep attributing the traffic and conversion to the very first campaign or traffic source which brought the user to your website when the user is repeatedly visiting your website directly and or being exposed to other marketing campaigns/messages. It is equivalent to relying on the first touch attribution model.

#2 Once a marketing campaign has stopped running, its relevancy in impacting the buying behaviour of your prospects starts declining over time. And after 3 months the relevancy of your marketing campaign in impacting the buying behaviour is as good as dead.

So you can’t just keep attributing the traffic and conversion to the marketing campaign which ended more than 3 months ago. It is equivalent to relying on the first touch attribution model.

#3 Each direct returning visit refreshes the timeout of the last non-direct traffic source for the duration equivalent to the campaign timeout setting (default value is six months). This action deflate the true impact of direct traffic and branding on sales and at the same time inflate the false impact of non-direct traffic source on sales.

Follow the steps below to change the campaign timeout setting:

Step-1: Navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your GA account and then click on the link called ‘Session Settings’ in the ‘Tracking Info’ section under the ‘Property’ column.

Step-2: Set the campaign timeout to 1 month or whatever you think is relevant for your business:

Learn about the Google Analytics Usage Trends Tool

The Google Analytics usage trend is a new tool which is used to visualise trends in your Google Analytics data and to perform trend analysis.


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Himanshu Sharma

Certified web analyst and founder of OptimizeSmart.com

My name is Himanshu Sharma and I help businesses find and fix their Google Analytics and conversion issues. If you have any questions or comments please contact me.

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