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What are users in Google Analytics?

Google Analytics, Metrics
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This is a basic concept but a good portion of analysts and professionals who consume Google Analytics data don’t know exactly what the “Users” metric within GA means.

Not understanding how this metric is handled by GA can lead to errors in analysis, which in turn can lead to wrong business decisions.

To understand a little better, let’s look at how a user is defined within Google Analytics.

How are “Users” defined in GA?

“Users” in Google Analytics is the number of new and recurring people who visit your website during a given period.

On the first visit a person makes to your site, a GA cookie will be set and an identifier assigned to them. If the same person accesses your site 10 times through the same device/browser (preserving cookies) they will still be considered as a single user.

Notice that I commented that an identifier is assigned to the visitor. This identifier lets you know if this is a new or returning visitor. I find it convenient to talk a little more about this identifier to clarify some topics in the sequence of this article.

“Client ID” in Google Analytics

The “Client ID” is formed by combining a random number plus a first timestamp of the visitor’s access.

You can see this identifier from the GA cookie, by accessing your cookie history through your browser or a specific extension.

Google Analytics Cookie
Google Analytics Cookie

The first field, GA1, refers to the version of GA used.

The second field, 2, refers to the number of dot-separated components of the domain. By default the GA cookie is set to the top-level domain dilmarames.com. Since we have two components (dilmarames and with – separated by the dot) the value is 2. If we had for example, analytics.dilmarames.com, we would have 3 components (analytics, dilmarames and com) and the value of this field would be 3.

The third field of the Google Analytics cookie, 413566523, refers to a random ID that is generated.

The fourth element, 1568150771, is the timestamp, which is generated at the time of the user’s first access.

The third and fourth elements form the “Client ID”, which in this case will be 413566523.1568150771.

How does GA count new and returning visitors?

When a visitor first accesses your site, the Google Analytics tracking code generates a “Client ID” and sends it to the GA servers.

This ID identifies a new user. Every time a new ID is detected, a new user is counted in Google Analytics. If GA identifies a pre-existing ID in a new session, it will be considered a returning visitor.


  • If the user deletes the cookies from his browser the ID will be deleted. Consequently, on your next visit you will be classified as a new user;
  • If the user accesses your site through another browser/device, it will be counted as a new user, since the ID exists only in the browser/device where it was created. For this reason we cannot use “Client ID” to track users across multiple devices.

Also read: What are sessions in Google Analytics?

Google Analytics does not report unique users

Contrary to what many people think, Google Analytics does not report unique users.

We often see clients and analysts presenting commercial materials and reports indicating “unique users” and referencing Google Analytics as the source. This is a misconception.

According to Google itself, the “Users” metric refers to new users and returning users.

Of course, if the “Users” metric refers to new and returning users, then it cannot refer to unique users.

But then, where are the unique users?

In GA no single users are reported. That’s it.

To identify a user across multiple devices/browsers you can use the“User ID” feature (not to be confused with the “Client ID” generated in the cookie).

The “User ID” is a code linked to a single user from that user’s engagement (usually through an account/login) in one or more sessions initiated on one or more devices. GA interprets each “User ID” as a separate user, which results in a more accurate user count in reports.

When you submit a Google Analytics code (Client ID) and related data from multiple sessions (User ID), your reports tell a more unified holistic story about a user’s relationship with your company.

New users + returners does not match the total

The number of total users reported by GA will rarely equal the sum of new users and returning users.

Total users differs from the sum of new users and returning users.

This is because Google Analytics also counts a new user as a returning user if he visits the site again within the observed interval. There is an overlap of new and returning users.

Many analysts subtract from the total number of users the number of new users thinking they have found the number of returning users. This methodology is not correct.

Google Analytics does not provide any metrics for returning users by default. If you want to analyze navigation data of these users you will need to apply one of GA’s standard segments.

Google Analytics Segments
Returning Users” Segment

Same user classified as new and returning

As I mentioned before, a user can be classified as a new user and as a returning user.

Suppose you are analyzing your audience report for the period from 03/01 to 03/31. A visitor accesses your site on 03/05 and again on 03/20. He will be counted as a new user (03/05) and as a returning user (03/20). We are assuming a normal condition where the user does not delete the cookies, does not use any kind of cookie blocker or browsers that remove this information after a few days.

Read also: The age of browsers in digital advertising

This is also true for the source and medium of the traffic. Going back to the previous example, if our visitor accesses on 03/05 through organic search and on 03/20 through a Google Ads campaign, we will have one session started via organic (03/05) and one from paid origin (03/20) accounted in GA.

Always pay attention to the scope of the metrics and dimensions in your analysis.

Remember that in GA “Users” have scope of “User” and “Sessions” have scope of “Session”. To learn more read the article“Dimensions and Metrics in Google Analytics“.

Why are “Users” important in Google Analytics?

I think it is redundant to talk about the importance of the “Users” metric within Google Analytics. Virtually all business analysis is tied to this metric.

The new users metric allows you to see how many people visited your site for the first time in a specific period. This metric can indicate the success or failure of your marketing actions from the generation of new users.

The recurrent users metric indicates how many people have returned to your site. For sites that publish content regularly, a large number of returning users may indicate that they find your content valuable and are coming back to consume more.

In conclusion

We have seen how users are defined within Google Analytics and how the “Client ID” is generated.

I pointed out the fact that GA does not report unique users and that to view the metrics for returning users we must apply segmentation.

We delve into how GA accounts for the “Users” metric and that a user can be either classified as a new user or a returning user within a given period.

I hope this article will help web analytics professionals to better understand user metrics in Google Analytics, thus avoiding errors in their analysis.

Also read: What are pageviews in Google Analytics?

Read also: App + Web Properties of Google Analytics: 8 things you need to know

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