Google Analytics Users (New, Returning, Unique) Explained in Great Detail

For Google Analytics, a user is a combination of a unique random number and the first timestamp. This combination is called ‘Client ID‘.

Thus Client ID is made up of a unique random number and the first timestamp. The first timestamp is the time of the first visit by a user or the time when the Google Analytics cookie was first set for the user.

Following is an example of a Client ID: 124562358.46738999

Here, ‘124562358’ is a unique random number and ‘46738999’ is the first timestamp.

Client ID is assigned to each unique user of your website/app.

The Client ID is set by _ga cookie (which is the Universal Analytics Cookie):

chrome settings

Chrome browser

advanced chrome settings

content settings

all cookies and site data

cookies and site data

search for your domain name

cookies and site data2

client-id1

_ga cookie is made up of following four fields:

client-id2

This is what a user looks like to Google Analytics.

The first field is the version number like GA1.

The second field is the number of components at the domain separated by a dot.

By default, the _ga cookie is set on the top-level domain with the root level (/) path. So if you have set a cookie at the top-level domain like optimizesmart.com then the second field would have a value of 2 as there are 2 components separated by a dot. One component is ‘optimizesmart’ and the second component is ‘com’.

If you have set up a cookie at the sub-domain level, like analytics.optimizesmart.com, then the second field would have a value of 3 as there are now three components separated by a dot. The first component is ‘analytics’. The second component is ‘optimizesmart’. The third component is ‘com’

The third field is a random unique ID (randomly generated number). Here 667464943 is the random unique id.

The fourth field is the first timestamp i.e. the time when the cookie was first set for the user. Here 1400078288 is the first timestamp.

The third and fourth fields together make the client ID. So the client ID would be 667464943.1400078288. 

You can retrieve client ID through the ‘ga.getAll‘ method:

var clientId = ga.getAll()[0].get(‘clientId’);

and then send it to Google Analytics by creating a new custom dimension (with session scope):

 ga(‘set’, ‘dimension1’,clientId);

How Google Analytics counts New and Returning users

The first time a device (desktop, laptop, smartphone, etc) or a browser (like Chrome, Internet Explorer) loads your website content, Google Analytics tracking code creates a random, unique id called the client ID and send it to GA server.

This unique id is counted as a new unique user in GA. Every time a new id is detected, GA counts a new user.

When GA detects an existing client ID in a new session, it counts it as a returning user.

If the user deletes the browser cookies, the ID gets deleted or reset.

If the user switch device or browser on a return visit to your website, a new unique client ID is created and the returning user is counted as a new user, as client ID exists only on the device/browser where it has been set.

That’s why the client ID cannot be used to measure across devices.

Google Analytics does not report on unique users

Google Analytics does not report on unique users anymore.

If you go to Audience > Overview report, you can see a report like the one below:

include both new and returning users

According to Google’s own definition:

The ‘users’ metric includes both new and returning users.

So if the ‘users’ metric includes both new and returning users, then certainly the number of users can’t be equal to number of unique users (or unique visitors)

So where are the number of unique users? …….They are missing.

Users != New Users + Returning Users

The total number of users reported by Google Analytics is not equal to the sum of New Users and Returning Users:

dont add up

This is because Google Analytics also counts new users as returning users if they return within the selected time period. Thus there is an overlap between new and returning users.

A new user can also be labeled as a returning user by Google Analytics.

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Google Analytics does not have any ‘Returning Users’ metric

Google Analytics did not create any metric for returning users. It is missing for no apparent reason.

You can only see ‘New Users’ metric in GA:

new users

Google Analytics does not report on the number of returning users by default

You need to apply a ‘returning users’ advanced segment to see the number or percentage of returning users

percentage of new and returning

Visitor vs User

While everywhere else Google Analytics is calling website visitors as users, in the ‘New vs. Returning report’ it categorizes website visitors as new and returning visitors instead of new users and returning users:

new returning visitor

New visitor is same as new user. But, in the context of ‘New vs. Returning report’, they are technically different. The ‘New Visitor’ is a dimension and ‘New Users’ is a metric.

It seems GA couldn’t come up with a unique name for user type dimensions. Had GA used ‘New user’ as a dimension name than it would have become very difficult to differentiate between the ‘New User’ dimension and the ‘New Users’ metric.

A person can be counted as new/returning user more than once

A person can return to your website via different devices and/or browsers.

Since client ID is not shared between different devices and browsers (by default), the same person can be counted as a new user or returning user more than once by GA.

Also worth noting is that Google Analytics uses two different techniques for calculating users. Consequently, there can be discrepancies in the user count in different reports.

There is also a possibility that the same user is counted twice for different sources/mediums. For example, If a user visits your website from organic search and then later return to your website via paid search within the selected time period then both organic search and paid search would record a visit from the same user.

You need to be aware of these issues while analyzing your user’s data.

Other articles you will find useful

#1 How to Add Users Metrics to Standard Google Analytics Reports

#2 Learn about Active Users Report in Google Analytics

#3 Understanding the Difference between Client ID and User ID

Frequently Asked Questions about Google Analytics Users

How does Google Analytics define a user?

For Google Analytics, a user is a combination of unique random number and the first timestamp. This combination is called 'Client ID'. Thus Client ID is made up of a unique random number and the first timestamp. The first timestamp is the time of the first visit by a user or the time when the Google Analytics cookie was first set for the user.

How does Google Analytics counts New and Returning users?

The first time a device (desktop, laptop, smartphone, etc) or a browser (like chrome, internet explorer) loads your website content, Google Analytics tracking code creates a random, unique id called the client id and send it to GA server.

This unique id is counted as a new unique user in Google Analytics. Every time a new id is detected, Google Analytics counts a new user. When Google Analytics detects an existing client ID in a new session, it counts it as a returning user.

Does Google Analytics report on unique users?

Google Analytics does not report on unique users anymore. According to Google's own definition: The 'users' metric includes both new and returning users. So if 'users' metric includes both new and returning users, then certainly the number of users can't be equal to the number of unique users (or unique visitors).

So where are the number of unique users? .......They are missing.

What is the difference between visitor and user in Google Analytics?

While everywhere else Google Analytics is calling website visitors as users, in the ‘New vs. Returning report’ it categorize website visitors as new and returning visitors instead of new users and returning users.

New visitor is same as new user. But in the context of 'New vs. Returning report' and technically they are different. The 'New Visitor' is a dimension and 'New Users' is a metric. Had Google Analytics used 'New user' as dimension name than it would have become very difficult to differentiate between the 'New User' dimension and the 'New Users' metric.

Can a person be counted as new / returning user more than once in Google Analytics?

A person can return to your website via different device and/or browser. Since client ID is not shared between different devices and browsers (by default), the same person can be counted as a new user or returning user more than once by Google Analytics.

 

Do you know the difference between Web Analytics and Google Analytics?


99.99% of course creators themselves don’t know the difference between Web analytics, Google Analytics (GA) and Google Tag Manager (GTM).

So they are teaching GA and GTM in the name of teaching Web analytics.

They just copy each other. Monkey see, monkey do.

But Web analytics is not about GA, GTM.

It is about analyzing and interpreting data, setting up goals, strategies and KPIs.

It’s about creating strategic roadmap for your business.


Web Analytics is the core skill. Google Analytics is just a tool used to implement ‘Web Analytics’.

You can also implement ‘Web analytics’ via other tools like ‘adobe analytics’, ‘kissmetrics’ etc.

Using Google Analytics without the good understanding of ‘Web analytics’ is like driving around in a car, in a big city without understanding the traffic rules and road signs.

You are either likely to end up somewhere other than your destination or you get involved in an accident.


You learn data analysis and interpretation from Web analytics and not from Google Analytics.

The direction in which your analysis will move, will determine the direction in which your marketing campaigns and eventually your company will move to get the highest possible return on investment.

You get that direction from ‘Web analytics’ and not from ‘Google Analytics’.


You learn to set up KPIs, strategies and measurement framework for your business from ‘Web analytics’ and not from ‘Google Analytics’.

So if you are taking a course only on 'Google Analytics’, you are learning to use one of the tools of ‘Web analytics’. You are not learning the ‘Web analytics’ itself.

Since any person can learn to use Google Analytics in couple of weeks, you do no get any competitive advantage in the marketplace just by knowing GA.

You need to know lot more than GA in order to work in Web analytics and marketing field.


So what I have done, if you are interested, is I have put together a completely free training that will teach you exactly how I have been able to leverage web/digital analytics to generate floods of news sales and customers and how you can literally copy what I have done to get similar results.

Here what You'll Learn On This FREE Web Class!


1) Why digital analytics is the key to online business success

2) The number 1 reason why most marketers are not able to scale their advertising and maximize sales.

3) Why Google and Facebook ads don’t work for most businesses & how to make them work.

4) Why you won’t get any competitive advantage in the marketplace just by knowing Google Analytics.


5) The number 1 reason why conversion optimization is not working for your business.

6) How to advertise on any marketing platform for FREE with an unlimited budget.

7) How to learn and master digital analytics and conversion optimization in record time.

 
 

My best selling books on Digital Analytics and Conversion Optimization

Maths and Stats for Web Analytics and Conversion Optimization
This expert guide will teach you how to leverage the knowledge of maths and statistics in order to accurately interpret data and take actions, which can quickly improve the bottom-line of your online business.

Master the Essentials of Email Marketing Analytics
This book focuses solely on the ‘analytics’ that power your email marketing optimization program and will help you dramatically reduce your cost per acquisition and increase marketing ROI by tracking the performance of the various KPIs and metrics used for email marketing.

Attribution Modelling in Google Analytics and Beyond
Attribution modelling is the process of determining the most effective marketing channels for investment. This book has been written to help you implement attribution modelling. It will teach you how to leverage the knowledge of attribution modelling in order to allocate marketing budget and understand buying behaviour.

Attribution Modelling in Google Ads and Facebook
This book has been written to help you implement attribution modelling in Google Ads (Google AdWords) and Facebook. It will teach you, how to leverage the knowledge of attribution modelling in order to understand the customer purchasing journey and determine the most effective marketing channels for investment.

Himanshu Sharma

Digital Marketing Consultant and Founder of Optimizesmart.com

Himanshu helps business owners and marketing professionals in generating more sales and ROI by fixing their website tracking issues, helping them understand their true customers' purchase journey and helping them determine the most effective marketing channels for investment.

He has over 12 years of experience in digital analytics and digital marketing.

He was nominated for the Digital Analytics Association's Awards for Excellence. The Digital Analytics Association is a world-renowned not-for-profit association that helps organisations overcome the challenges of data acquisition and application.

He is the author of four best-selling books on analytics and conversion optimization:

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