What You Need to Know About Google Analytics’ Change to Visit Calculations

On August 11, Google made a major update to Google Analytics, its free web metrics software (which we use here at Innate Agency for all of our clients).

What makes the update major is that it changed the way visits to a site are calculated—as well as any other metrics that use visits. As a result, many users saw a big change in those metrics in their Google Analytics reports and now have to figure out what the new numbers mean.

Here’s what you need to know about Google Analytics’ change to visit calculations, and what we’re telling our clients.

What’s a visit, anyway?

First of all, let’s make sure we understand what a “visit” is. Google Analytics uses anonymous cookies to track sessions of activity on a site. When a session begins, it signals the start of a visit to that site.

After a certain period of inactivity within a defined time period (typically 30 minutes) or closure of the browser window the session terminates and the visit ends—even if the user is still on the site and even if the user leaves and comes back several times during the session. Any activity after that point is recorded as a new visit.

(Keep in mind that this is different from a visitor. In a very rough sense, one is a session of time spent on a site, and the other is the person spending the time. So one visitor can have several visits.)

What’s changed (or solving the problem of ghost visits and attribution)

The problem with the previous way Google Analytics tracked visits is twofold: it assigned the visit to the first page and associated referral source, but it gave credit for conversions to the last referral source for any visit. Huh?

Let’s say you searched on Google for “purple stilettos” and clicked on a result that took you to Zappos. You’ve now initiated a visit session there with a referral source of “organic search.” You looked at 1 page, then you remembered you had a coupon in an email from Zappos. You went to your email inbox, clicked on the link in the email and came back to Zappos (adding a new referral source of “email”), looked at 2 more pages, then bought a pair of shoes—conversion, yay! You’re speedy, so all this takes place in a 30-minute session.

Google Analytics previously counted this as 1 visit, 3 pageviews, 2 referring sources and 1 conversion. The referring source for the visit is “organic search,” because it was the first. And that visit is associated with the first pageview. The referring source for the conversion is “email,” because it was the last.

But wait, there’s only 1 visit. That means that the 2 other pageviews as well as the conversion will have 0 visits. Ghost visits!

To solve this problem, Google Analytics changed the way it starts a new visit session. Now, in addition to 30 minutes of inactivity, a new visit starts every time the referring source changes. In our example above, there would now be 2 visits: 1 visit with 1 pageview for organic search with 0 conversions, and 1 visit with 2 pageviews for email with 1 conversion.

Same number of pageviews, same number of conversions, but more visits and precise conversion attribution.

What it impacts

Changing what a visit means also changes every metric that uses visit as part of its calculation. This includes such top-level metrics as Pages Per Visit, Average Time On Site, Bounce Rate, Percentage New Visits, % New Visitors and % Returning Visitors. (Even though these last two are ostensibly visitor metrics, they are calculated based on the total number of visits.)

Most of these are self-explanatory formulas. They are ratios of a metric to total number of visits. But let’s take a look at two of the more complex ones:

Bounce rate

Any visit with only 1 pageview is considered a bounced visit. You arrived and didn’t get any further inside the site. Bounce rate is the percentage of total visits with 1 pageview. With the new way visits are calculated, pageviews within a longer visit will get divided up between the referring sources. This may result in more visits with just 1 pageview—a bounce. Think of our shoes example. Previously, the 1 visit had 3 pageviews; not a bounce. Now it becomes 2 visits and the organic search visit has 1 of those pageviews; this is now a bounce.

New and returning visits

Before, you started your visit as a new visitor. All of the pageviews in our original scenario were associated with a new visitor and new visit. In our updated example, the first visit is new—but the second visit after you clicked on your email is a returning visit.

What it doesn’t impact

There are two main metrics that remain untouched because they are independent of visit numbers: unique visitors and total pageviews. This makes them good benchmarks for comparing data in your Google Analytics reports in the short term before and after August 11.

What you need to understand

It may be disconcerting at first to see changes in the metrics you’re used to looking at, such as bounce rate—seemingly overnight. But this update is creating cleaner tracking of visitor behavior, giving a more accurate picture of how visitors are interacting with your site.

Month-to-month data comparison will be challenging at first, but once the new formula has been in place for 60 days, we’ll be looking at a consistent baseline.

In addition, a relatively new feature of Google Analytics called Multi-Channel Funnels has gotten significantly more accurate. Out of the total number of conversions on your site, you’ll see how many of them were assisted—that is, had a referring source prior to the final source that got the credit.

In our example, the purple stilettos purchase was an assisted conversion because it included both organic search and email. This is a highly valuable insight into which marketing channels drive conversion alone or in combination with others.

Want to know more?

Innate Agency helps our clients make sense of their Google Analytics reports and we can help you, too. Contact us to see how.

Or read these detailed articles:

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