Update Made To Definition Of A Google Analytics Session

Google Analytics announced a change on the way a sessions are calculated on the tool. While this change will not affect the majority of the accounts significantly (according to the official blog post “most users will see less than a 1% change”), it is an important change.

Below, I will describe why it is important and how this can affect some Google Analytics accounts (mostly companies that misuse Google Analytics campaign parameters), and what you can do to make sure you are on the right track.

What Is Changing & Why?

According to the official post, here is a summary of how Google Analytics has ended a session up till now:

  • Greater than 30 minutes have elapsed between pageviews for a single user
  • At the end of a day
  • When a user closes their browser

In the new model, Google Analytics will end a session when:

  • Greater than 30 minutes have elapsed between pageviews for a single user
  • At the end of a day
  • When any campaign information for the user changes. Campaign information includes: utm_source, utm_medium, utm_term, utm_content, utm_id, utm_campaign and auto-tagging from AdWords (gclid)

This change is an interesting move as it will provide more accurate data when it comes to Multi-Channel Attribution. This will happen because visitors that visit a website multiple times during a time period that would originally be considered as one single session, will now have their cookies updated to a new session in some specific situations.

For example, if someone visits a website from a PPC ad and then leaves the site and within 10 minutes get back to the website through an organic link would be considered as one long visit from PPC in the old model. In the new model, we would have two short visits, each attributed to its own source.

Do Not Use Campaign Parameters For In-Site Tracking

One of the mistakes I have seen when it comes to implementing Google Analytics is the usage of Campaign Parameters for in-site tracking (mostly tracking navigation usage or internal campaigns).

This practice produces inaccurate numbers for those analyzing in-site behavior and also heavily affects traffic sources accuracy and, therefore, should never be used. Now even more. With the current update to how sessions are defined, each time a visitor clicks on an internal link that uses campaign parameters, a new session starts; this will artificially increases the number of visits in addition to the issues I described above.

If you are currently using campaign parameters to track in-site behavior, here is what you should do:

  1. Remove all campaign parameters from your links. For example, if you have a link on your site such as searchengineland.com?utm_source=story&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=launch , you should simply use searchengineland.com
  2. If you are tracking navigation elements on the site. Using Event Tracking is the best way to go: add an onclick event to the “a” tag that would include the following: onclick=”_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'navigation', 'link', 'launch']);”
  3. If you are tracking internal campaigns. Using Custom Variables is the best way to go: add an onclick event to the “a” tag that would include the following: onclick=”_gaq.push(['_setCustomVar', 5, 'internal_campaign', 'banner', 2]);” . It is important to note that you should check with other people involved in setting Google Analytics to be sure spot 5 (the first value on the function above) is available for campaign tracking.

The above techniques will certainly provide you with accurate numbers in the best possible way without affecting your reports.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Features | Google: Analytics | How To | How To: Analytics | Intermediate


About The Author: is the Founder of Conversion Journey, a Google Analytics Certified Partner. He is also the founder of Online Behavior, a Marketing Measurement & Optimization website. You can follow him on Google+ or Twitter.

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  • don

    Less then a 1% change! “Based on our research” I would love to know how they conducted this research.

    I am seeing 20% increase in visits, and I don’t use campaign tracking internally. If you take a look at the comments on webmaster world and the official blog post, it is clear that this is a large problem that is effecting way more then 1%.

    How I am supposed to evaluate these new metrics on steroids vs my previous metrics?
    Today vs Yesterday
    Visits (+19.59%)
    Pages/Visit (-17.66%)
    Bounce Rate (+13.80%)
    Avg. Time on Site (-22.62%)
    % New Visits (-18.03%)

  • http://www.jeremypost.com/ Jeremy Post

    This GA update has inflated our organic search traffic 30% and caused our engagement metrics (PPV, Bounce Rate, Time on Site) to drop in proportion. While we have a couple of UTM campaign codes scattered on internal links, the sheer volume of “phantom” visits this update has created is beyond the scope of those few links.

    The bottom line: I agree with the spirit of this GA update, but it seems like Google dropped the ball on testing — and should have considered implementing this as an account option — not forced all GA users to treat sessions the way Google sees fit.

  • http://europeforvisitors.com Durant Imboden

    I’m seeing a big difference, too, which means that comparing new data with historic data is like comparing apples and oranges. To make matters more confusing, Google just deployed Panda 2.4 worldwide, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what traffic changes are real or the result of GA’s new methodology.

  • http://www.gamerstube.com Joe Youngblood

    website optimizer conversion rate just plumnetted for all my clients, seeing insane spikes in returning users segment, massive drops in new user segment. basically i can’t compare this to any historical data at all.

  • http://www.joshuahedlund.com joshuahedlund

    I am also seeing severe increases in pageviews without any increase in visits, along with severe increase in bounce rate, decrease in average page views, time on site, conversion rate, etc. This is only affecting one of my sites, and only in Search traffic (not DIrect or Referral) but the affect is visible across multiple browsers, search engines, and other discernible metrics. I am not using any campaign parameters discussed above. Comparisons are useless and I also hope Google doesn’t decide to penalize me because my bounce rate went up…

  • http://www.christopherryanparker.com/ Chris Parker

    I’m seeing a 25-30% increase in sessions from search only. Seems as if a user coming in from search is being calculated as 1 visit, then once they click a link, another visit. Thus, my bounce rates are skyrocketing, time on site plummeting and PV per session dropping as well.

    Google is ignoring the hundreds of tweets being sent to @GoogleAnalytics, while many webmasters are seeing similar results. Analytics is now garbage. I’m not using any tracking parameters either, and very, very low PPC.

  • ldeibler

    Has Google rolled this change? I know there was a lot of blow back, and starting yesterday, numbers seem to be more in line with numbers prior to the change.

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