What are visits and how are they different from visitors? What do new vs returning visitors mean? Read on as we make sense of the most basic Google Analytics data to help you better understand your audience.
When you check your Audience Overview report, you would see something like this:
Visits vs Visitors
Visits are defined as individual sessions initiated by all the visitors to your site. Analytics counts visits everytime someone enters your site, regardless of the time spent browsing or the number of pages visited. If a visitor times out, that is, stays inactive on your site for at least 30 minutes, any further activity is considered a new session. If a visitor exits your site and returns within 30 minutes, it is still considered part of the original session.
Visitors, on the other hand, represent the users. Unique visitors are tracked using cookies which are planted onto the device used to access the website. If a person visits a website using a laptop, then later on visits the same website using a smart phone, Analytics will record that as 2 unique visitors.
In the example above, there are 1,865 visits and 1,164 visitors within the three-month period. Visits should be greater than or equal to the number of visitors. If there are more visits than visitors, it means some of the visitors are returning and are no longer counted as unique visitors.
New vs Returning Visitors
Analytics records new visits everytime a unique visitor enters your site for the first time. This means Analytics has no previous record of the user stepping onto your site, which would’ve been tracked by a cookie. In contrast, returning visitors are those who have been on your site before and whose devices already have the tracking cookie, which would enable Analytics to recognize them. Take note that if these cookies are deleted from the device, Analytics will record the visit as a new visitor.
To illustrate further, let’s have this example. On Monday, Mary visits a Website for the first time using her laptop. Analytics counts this as the first, and therefore new visit from a unique visitor. On Tuesday, Mary visits the Website again using the same laptop. Because the tracking cookie is already in that laptop, Analytics then counts that session as a returning visit, and no new unique visitor is recorded.
Later that Tuesday, Mary decides to check out the Website using her smart phone. Even though in real life she is not new to that Website, her device is, so Analytics counts that as another unique visitor and records a new visit. From that point on, each succeeding visit using either the laptop or the smart phone is counted as a returning visit.
Unique Visitors vs New Visitors
In the pie chart example above, there are 1,150 new visits and 715 returning visits recorded. Take note that these add up to 1,865 visits.
Now here’s the tricky part – shouldn’t there be an equal number of unique visitors and new visitors, as each unique visitor’s first session should be recorded as a new visit?
The answer is no. This is because the data depends on the selected date range. Each visitor who entered the website within the specified date range is counted once as a unique visitor, but their first time visits which should count towards new visits may not fall within the specified date range, and therefore not counted.
Let’s go back to Mary. If the Website’s analyst extracts the report for Tuesday to Saturday, her visits using her laptop and her smart phone would record 2 unique visitors. Her first time visit using her smart phone on Tuesday would be recorded as 1 new visit. But since her first time visit using her laptop was on Monday, this visit is not part of the selected date range and therefore would not appear on the report. Her visit using the laptop on Tuesday is not recorded as a new visit because Analytics already tagged her as a returning visitor.
In the pie chart example above, the difference between unique visitors and new visits is 14. This means that 14 unique visitors who have visited the website prior to June 1 returned to visit within June 1 to August 31.
What Visit and Visitor Data Are Telling You
Now that you know what these numbers mean, how can it help you?
The number of visits and visitors depend on your website and traffic sources. At a glance you should be able to gauge if you are getting traffic, and see if it is a good enough yield compared to your traffic generating efforts.
New vs Returning would tell you if you are reaching new users, or if the same users are frequenting your site. If your goal is to get as much exposure as you can, then you want a high number of new visitors, and should focus your effort on introducing your website to the world and attracting fresh traffic. But if you want people to come back to your site, which you means having a high number of returning visits, you should probably focus on making ways to encourage them to check out your site regularly.
This is just the very tip of the Analytics iceberg. There’s still a lot more data that you could get from Analytics, each with various explanations as to what they represent, that you could use to better understand your audience and make the most of your online marketing.
If you aren’t using Analytics yet with your AdWords, we strongly suggest that you start right now.