Google Analytics: New Users vs. Returning, Not What it Seems

Google Analytics

I’m not the expert on Google Analytics, but I did stump two of the Google Analytics customer service agents, so I was feeling pretty savvy about my Google Analytics skills. 🙂 I want to share what I learned with you about New Visitors versus Returning Visitors. I thought it was really interesting because I’ve been using Google Analytics for years and somehow never realized this.

Here’s what happened. I created a Google Analytics Dashboard with the ‘Users: New Users versus Returning Users’ widget thinking this would match what was showing up under the Google Analytics Audience section for ‘New Visitor versus Returning Visitor,’ but it was completely different. I tried changing the date range, thinking the dashboard was pulling the users from the beginning of when the site was launched, but that was not the case. I did multiple Google searches on my question and came up with no answer, that’s when I resorted to contacting Google directly.

After having the Google Analytics customer service agent tell me he’ll call me back because he had to check with his strategist, I thought I had stumped them. I called them again later and after being on hold for about 10 minutes, the agent came back with my answer. Under the Audience section, the number of new vs. returning visitors is based on the number of sessions, not just individual users. When you create a ‘Users by User Type’ widget in the dashboard, you can see the true number of users (or visitors) that are actually new or returning. That’s the only place in Google Analytics where you can see the actual new vs. returning users.

So in Google Analytics, all of these years, I thought that under ‘Audience’ (on the left side), then under ‘Overview,’ the pie chart with ‘New Visitor’ and ‘Returning Visitor’ was the percentage of new visitors and returning visitors that had come to my site, but it’s not the case.

Just to explain a little further, in case you are confused, because I had the Google Analytics guy explain it to me twice, just to be sure.

When you’re looking at the Google Dashboard widget pie chart titled, ‘Users by User Type: New Visitor vs. Returning Visitor,’ this is the actual percentage of new visitors to returning visitors.

When you’re looking at the Audience Overview section that shows the pie chart on the very right, ‘New Visitor vs. Returning Visitor,’ this percentage is based on the number of sessions. A session is the period time that a user is actively engaged on your site. Users are those that have had at least one session on your site (including both new and returning). Based on the number of sessions during the time period you specified, this pie chart shows how many had more than one session (returning visitors) and how many only had one session (new visitor).

So the reason the two pie charts are different is because an actual returning user (or visitor) would have come to your site more than once and a new user would have only come to your site once. But when looking at sessions, that actual returning visitor could have had multiple sessions within one visit, so it would account for having more sessions, but not more actual visits to the site.

If you want to see the ACTUAL percentage of New Users vs. Returning Users on your site, just click on Dashboards, create new (or open one you’ve already created). Click on ‘Add Widget’ toward the top, select ‘Pie,’ then click to ‘Add a Metric,’ then start typing in ‘Users,’ and select that one. Then click to ‘Add a Dimension’ and start typing ‘User Type,’ then select that one and click ‘Save.’ You’ll then see the widget for your actual new and returning users (visitors) for your site!

Hopefully this sheds some light the actual number of new users (visitors) and returning users that come to your site. What other questions do you have about Google Analytics?

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