Understand Session & Campaign Timeout in Google Analytics

Last Updated: May 20, 2022

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:

Session timeout in Google Analytics

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 1 minute of users’ inactivity or after 4 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 the majority of websites, a GA session that is 4 hours long is recommended.

session timeout 4 hours 2

Users these days work online while keeping multiple browser tabs opened and constantly switch between various tabs in order to work. As a result, they take frequent breaks while visiting your website.

So they browse your website for a while then switch to another tab to complete some other task. Then they come back to your website to pick up from where they left off. Then they again switch to some other tab.

The default session timeout of 30 minutes does not reflect such browsing behaviour. You just end up inflating the session count for the same user and skewing all the session based metrics (like e-commerce conversion rate, goal conversion rate, pages per session etc).

If a user is returning to your website multiple times within a few hours on the same day then all such user activities should be a part of the same session and hence only one session should be recorded by GA.

And this can be accomplished by using the maximum session timeout allowed by Google which is 4 hours.

The session timeout of 30 minutes or less is not recommended unless your website automatically signs out a user after being inactive for 30 minutes or less.

default session timeout google analytics 1

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:

timeout handling ga

I like to keep the session timeout setting to 4 hours.

What is Google Analytics campaign attribution?

Google Analytics campaign attribution denotes session and conversion attribution.

The session attribution means which traffic source should get credit for generating a GA session for a particular user.

The conversion attribution means which traffic source should get credit for generating a conversion.

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

By default, the non-multi channel funnel reports use the ‘last non-direct click’ attribution model.

So in the case of non-multi channel funnel reports, Google Analytics attributes current session and/or conversion for a user to the last non-direct traffic source.

By default, the multi-channel funnel reports use the ‘last click’ attribution model.

So in the case of multi-channel funnel reports, Google Analytics attributes current session and/or conversion for a user to the last traffic source.

By default, Google Analytics campaign attribution expires after 6 months. 

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

  1. The last non-direct traffic source actually exists.
  2. The last non-direct traffic source does not change for the user for 6 months.
  3. The user continues to use the same device 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 any traffic source that is not direct traffic.

For example, it could be organic search traffic, paid search traffic, referral traffic or traffic from custom campaigns.

The last non-direct traffic source does not exist

In the following cases, the last non-direct traffic source would not exist:

  1. If a user directly visits your website for the first time.
  2. 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:

non direct traffic source does not

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

Source: direct

Medium: (none)

Related Article: What is direct traffic in Google Analytics & why is it so high?

Let us suppose the same user returned to your website after 3 months.

He used the same device and web browser which he last used to visit your website.

But this time he visited your website via Google organic search.

Google organic search

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

Source: google

Medium: organic

Here the source and medium changed because, under the last non-direct click attribution model, Google Analytics attributes the 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.

He used the same device and web browser which he last used to visit your website.

But this time he visited your website directly:

non direct traffic source does not

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

Source: google

Medium: organic

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

The last non-direct traffic source exist

non direct traffic source does

Now GA will attribute the 1st session to Google Organic search and report the 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.

He used the same device and web browser which he last used to visit your website.

But this time he visited your website directly:

non direct traffic source does

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

Source: google

Medium: organic

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

Let us suppose the same user again returned to your website directly after 3 months.

He used the same device and web browser which he last used to visit your website.

non direct traffic source does

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

Source: google

Medium: organic

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

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

google organic 1

Now GA will attribute the 1st session to Google Organic search and report the 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.

He used the same device and web browser which he last used to visit your website.

But this time he visited your website via the abc.com website:

referral traffic

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

Source: abc.com

Medium: referral

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

Let us suppose the same user returned to your website after 3 months.

He used the same device and web browser which he last used to visit your website.

But this time he visited your website directly:

direct traffic

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

Source: abc.com

Medium: referral

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

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

google organic 1

Now GA will attribute the 1st session to Google Organic search and report the 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.

He used the same device and web browser which he last used to visit your website.

But this time he visited your website directly:

direct traffic2

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

Source: direct

Medium: (none)

Here the source and medium changed because the last non-direct traffic source (Google Organic Search) no longer exists. 

This happened because by default GA campaign timeout after 6 months.

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

By default, each direct returning visit refreshes the timeout of the last non-direct traffic source for another six months.

For example, consider the following data table:

data table

Let us suppose a user first visited your website via Google organic search on Jan 1, 2018.

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

  • Source: google
  • Medium: organic

Now for all subsequent visits, as long as the user keeps returning to your website directly, Google Analytics will continue to attribute the sessions to Google Organic Search.

So while the user has been visiting your website directly for almost a year now, Google Analytics still continues 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. 

When you do that, then on the return visit by the same user, GA will attribute the sessions and conversions to direct traffic and not to Google Organic Search. 

This would be a more accurate reporting of the user’s behaviour. 

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

When you change the campaign timeout to 1 month, you may notice the following changes:

  1. A considerable drop in the traffic and sales from non-direct traffic sources like organic search traffic, paid search traffic etc. 
  2. A considerable increase in the traffic and sales from direct traffic.

Campaign Timeout setting in Google Analytics

Campaign Timeout setting in Google Analytics

The campaign timeout setting in Google Analytics determines for how long (minutes, hours, days, months), Google Analytics should continue to attribute the current session 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 exists.
  2. The last non-direct traffic source does not change before the campaign timeout.
  3. The user continues to use the same device and web browser to return to the website.
  4. The user does not delete Google Analytics Cookies.

Decide the length of campaign timeout for your website

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

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

But in the 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.

You can also set the campaign timeout to the same amount of time it generally takes on average, for your website’s users to convert.

Why you should not set a campaign timeout longer than 3 months?

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

setting a campaign timeout longer than 3 months

This is because of the following reasons:

#1 Three months is considered a very long time period on the internet.

Most analytics tools can not correctly record attribution after 90 days (aka 3 months) have elapsed.

#2 During the 90 days period, your prospect is very likely to be exposed to multiple marketing channels and campaigns.

All these new touchpoints can considerably impact their buying behaviour and mitigate the impact of older touchpoints on the conversion path.

For example,

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 zero.

So you can’t just keep attributing the traffic and conversion to the marketing campaign which ended more than 3 months ago.

Similarly,

You can’t keep attributing the traffic and conversion to the very first campaign or traffic source which brought the user to your website esp. 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.

#3 By default, each direct returning visit refreshes the timeout of the last non-direct traffic source for another 6 months.

This action can deflate the true impact of direct traffic and branding on sales. And at the same time can inflate the false impact of non-direct traffic sources on sales.

How to change the campaign timeout setting in Google Analytics?

By default, Google Analytics campaign attribution expires after 6 months.

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

For example, you can make a campaign attribution expire before 6 months or after 6 months.

However, a campaign timeout can not be less than 0 minutes or greater than 24 months.

Follow the steps below to change the campaign timeout setting in Google Analytics:

Step-1: Navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your GA reporting view.

‘Admin section of your GA reporting view

Step-2: Click on the ‘Tracking Info’ link under the ‘Property‘ column.

‘Tracking Info link under the Property column

Step-3: Click on ‘Session Settings’.

Session Settings

Step-4: Change the campaign timeout settings and then click on the ‘Apply‘ button:

Change the campaign timeout settings

Case Study – Why organic search traffic is one of the top marketing channels for majority of websites

i am the best 1

In Google Analytics, by default, each direct returning visit refreshes the campaign timeout of the last non-direct traffic source for another six months.

Let us suppose a user first visited your website via organic search on Jan 1, 2021.

Now if the same user returned to your website directly on April 1st 2021 and then converted then GA can still attribute the session and conversion to Organic Search (instead of direct traffic).

If the same user again returned to your website directly on Sept 1st 2021 and then converted then GA can again attribute the session and conversion to Organic Search.

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

And this happens because, by default, each direct returning visit refreshes the campaign timeout of the last non-direct traffic source (in our organic search traffic) for another six months.

So organic search end up being attributed a lot of traffic and conversions than it deserves.

To fix this problem, you should set the campaign timeout setting to one month.

Frequently Asked Questions About Understand Session & Campaign Timeout in Google Analytics

How long is a Google Analytics session?

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.

How do you change GA session timeout sessions?

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

When does Google Analytics campaign attribution expire?

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 session and/or conversion for a unique user to the last non-direct traffic source provided the following conditions are met:

What is the campaign timeout 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 exists.
2) The last non-direct traffic source does not change before the campaign timeout.
3) The user continues to use the same device (desktop/laptop/computer) and web browser to return to the website.
4) The user does not delete Google Analytics Cookies.

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