Although analytics shine a light on the people viewing your website, some mystery will always remain. Who is viewing your site today? What are they hoping to find? Have they visited before? Using Google Analytics, you can actually answer that last question. Google Analytics distinguishes between people who have visited your website before and people who are visiting for the first time: new vs. returning users. This data is valuable, but is it completely accurate and dependable? Does it tell you exactly what you assume it’s telling you? Let’s explore new vs. returning users in Google Analytics.
Review the Data with a Grain of Salt
The key thing to keep in mind is that when Google Analytics describes certain users as “new” users who are visiting your website for the very first time or “returning” users who have visited at least once before, they’re relying on data from Google’s tracking snippet. This doesn’t mean that the data is worthless, but it does mean that it’s not 100% accurate.
How Does the Tracking Snippet Distinguish New vs. Returning Users?
When a person visits your website, Google’s tracking snippet searches for a tracking cookie on their device. A small text file saved to the person’s browser by the website, a tracking cookie provides data about the person’s online browsing activity. The presence or absence of a tracking cookie is how Google decides whether a person is a new user or a returning user. It’s a very simple process:
- If the tracking snippet cannot locate a cookie, it creates one and deems the person a “new” user.
- If the tracking snippet can locate a cookie, it considers the person a “returning” user and begins a new session.
Currently, Google has a two-year expiration date for new visitors. So, if someone visits your website and returns six months later, they’ll be marked a returning visitor. But if a person visits your website and stops by two years later, they’re considered a new visitor again.
This all sounds reasonable, but several situations can cause issues that make the process imperfect and lead to misinterpretations of the data.
What Factors Make the Data Unreliable?
Let’s explore some situations that could cause Google’s tracking snippet to view a returning user as a new user:
- Multiple Devices: If someone previously viewed your website on their laptop and now they’re pulling it up on their smartphone, Google will categorize them as a “new” user. If that person browses your website on their tablet tomorrow, they’ll be deemed a new user for a third time. And if they hop on your website using their desktop next week . . . You get the idea! The tracking snippet doesn’t recognize when one person uses multiple devices to access your website.
- Multiple Browsers: In a similar vein, imagine that a person has numerous browsers on their laptop, and they like to use them interchangeably. If that person views your website on Chrome this morning, Safari this afternoon, and Firefox tonight, each browser will receive its own tracking cookie and be considered a unique user. This means that the person will be considered a “new” user three different times.
- Deleted/Cleared or Blocked Cookies: Users delete/clear or block cookies for various reasons. Perhaps you’re in the habit of regularly clearing your cookies yourself! When a person does this, Google’s tracking snippet considers them a new user every time they return to your site after clearing their cookies.
- Incognito or Private Browsing Mode: When a person chooses to use incognito mode or private browsing on their web browser, their browser won’t save tracking cookies or site data. Therefore, Google’s tracking snippet will always perceive them as a new user.
The Bottom Line
Clearly, there are many situations in which Google Analytics will mistake a returning user for a brand-new user.
Does this mean that the data on new and returning users is useless? Not exactly.
Overall, Google’s method of distinguishing new vs. returning users is relatively accurate. It’s not perfect, however, and it shouldn’t be viewed as precise and infallible data. Review it if you like, as an interesting tidbit regarding your site’s general performance, but don’t rely on this data when making important decisions.
If you’re hoping to build a beautiful, effective website that will rank on Google, contact 417 Marketing for help. Our team of knowledgeable, creative, and passionate professionals specializes in SEO, web design and maintenance, and Google Ads, and we have successfully completed over 700 websites since our inception in 2010. Contact us and learn more about what we can do for your company.