Website Creation & Hosting

Google Analytics Basics: Users, Sessions & Pageviews

If you work with websites at all, you have probably seen reports from Google Analytics detailing how your site, or some part of your site, is performing in terms of users, sessions and pageviews. Maybe you even produce such reports for others. But what, really, do those numbers mean, and how accurate are they?

You can think of Users, Sessions, and Pageviews as nested elements of each other: Users have sessions, and each session has pageviews.

Chart showing a how pageviews are nested inside sessions and sessions inside users

Let’s take a look at a visit from an actual user—let’s call him Frank—and see how Google Analytics counts his interactions with your site. Frank has never been to your site before, but yesterday looked at your homepage, then clicked a link in your navigation menu to go Page 2, clicked another link to go to a Page 3, then went back to Page 2.

Frank goes from Home to Page 2 to Page 3 and then back to Page 2

We can visualize Frank’s trip through your site like this:

Translating this visit to your site into Google Analytics numbers, this is what Frank added to your reports:

  • One user (Frank himself)
  • one session
  • four pageviews (three unique pageviews)

Google Analytics counts each user and session by using cookies—small bits of text that browsers write onto a computer’s hard drive that record information about any past activity on a site.


Frank has never visited your website before. So when Frank’s browser loads the first page of your site, the Google Analytics javascript looks to see if the browser already has a User cookie from a previous visit. If there is no user cookie, the browser creates one, assigning a unique number, or Client ID, to this user, that looks something like this: 1748447953.1518541752.

This cookie will expire after two years of inactivity. If Frank visits your site once again, more than two years after his first visit, he’ll be counted as a new user. But if he visits even once before two years have elapsed, Google Analytics will see the preexisting user cookie, count him as a returning user, and add another two years to the user cookie’s expiration date.


When Frank loads the first page of your site, the Google Analytics javascript will also look for a session cookie. Just as user cookies group different visits together, session cookies group together visits to individual pages. By default, session cookies expire after 30 minutes of inactivity on your site, or at midnight. (You can adjust the session length in your Google Analytics admin, if you want, but most people just leave it at 30 minutes.)

So let’s say Frank goes to your site, then goes to get lunch but leaves his browser open at your homepage, and doesn’t come back for another 35 minutes. When he gets back and clicks to visit another page on your site, it will be counted as the beginning of a new session, because the first one will have expired.

Conversely, if Frank gets really absorbed in your site and spends three hours clicking from page to page, all of that activity will be recorded as part of a single session. Unless Frank’s marathon visit extends past midnight, in which case the session cookie will expire and a new one will be created. The session cookie will also expire if Frank spends more than 30 minutes looking at a single page, without clicking to visit a new page. The session cookie is only renewed when new data is sent to Google Analytics, and usually that’s only when a new page is loaded.

Google has a more detailed explanation of how sessions are counted, if you’re interested.

Pageviews and Unique Pageviews

A new pageview is recorded whenever a page with the Google Analytics javascript loads in the browser. This includes when the current page is reloaded, or refreshed. Let’s say Frank visits your homepage, then refreshes the page six times to see all of the randomly-loaded background images, or something. Google Analytics will count that as eight pageviews, even though Frank is just looking at the same page over and over again.

Unique pageviews are way to get around this double-counting. A unique pageview counts pages viewed at least once during a session. So, Frank’s refreshing the page over and over again will create eight pageviews, but just one unique pageview.

How accurate are these numbers?

In short, not very accurate, but probably good enough as estimates of your actual users’ activities and how they are changing over time. Relying on cookies to track users and sessions has some serious flaws.

First of all, cookies are browser and device specific. If Frank visits your site on his laptop computer, then on his phone, and then later on his work computer, he’s counted as three users. Similarly, if he uses different browsers on the same machine, he’s counted as a different user for each. Use of multiple devices and multiple browsers like this can systemically inflate your user and session counts.

Some users may routinely erase their browser’s cookies as well, which will also inflate your user and session counts. If Frank clears his browser’s cookies, the next time he visits your site he will be counted as a new user with a new session. No one knows exactly how many people routinely delete their cookies, and how often they do so. But the usually-cited figure, based on a study by Comscore in 2006, is that “3 in every 10 Internet users delete their cookies in a month.”

Some unknown number of users employ ad-blockers or disable javascript in their browsers, which can mean that their visits to your site aren’t captured at all by your analytics.

All these sources of inaccuracy (and there are more, too) don’t mean, however, that your Google Analytics numbers are meaningless. The count of users and sessions from your analytics dashboard almost definitely does not equal the number of actual people who are using your site, and the number of times they visit. But if you consider that the sources of inaccuracy are largely constant from site to site, and from month to month, then your analytics numbers are a roughly accurate gauge of your site’s performance relative to other sites and time periods. So they are still useful for comparing one site to another, and one month or year to another.

Resource Sharing

Spotlight on Sharing: CVL Shares!

We’ve had a lot of new visitors to Colorado Virtual Library lately. If this is your first visit, welcome! We hope you keep coming back to read new and interesting content.

CVL is the product of contributions by many members of the Colorado State Library, and even though we all have different specialties, one thing we all love is sharing resources. Here are a few of our favorite resource sharing posts.

How and where to get free images for your website

Every image you find online is fair game to post on your website, right? Not so. Learn how to find good images that you can safely use without running the risk of copyright infringement.

6 things you can do to make your website more accessible

You wouldn’t build a library that didn’t have a wheelchair ramp, so why design a website without considering accessibility? This post gives you tips on improving your website to make it easier for screen-readers and other adaptive technologies.

Take advantage of E-rate funding

If you’re a small or rural library, you might be considering applying for E-rate funding to expand your broadband capacity. The application process can be cumbersome, but in this post we provide some hints that can make it a little easier.

Free backchannel chat service

CVL has lots of free resources for teacher librarians and students. This post is an introduction to TodaysMeet, a free app for having discussions during class. Who said that passing notes had to be a bad thing? Try it in the classroom or in your next meeting to extend the conversation.

Send group text messages with Remind app

Here’s another resource that is appropriate for everyone, and especially teachers. Many of us prefer to communicate via text, but what if you want to text a large group, like parents, without giving out your cell number? This post gives an overview of Remind, a group text app.

Free online resources

Here’s a fun one: a big ol’ collection of all kinds of free resources, organized by category. Whether you’re looking to replace an existing tool or just want to know what’s new in the world of free stuff, there’s something here for everyone and every skill level.

Do you like what you see? Remember to subscribe on the right-hand side of the page to receive new posts like these in your email.

This post is part of our Spotlight on Sharing series, which aims to increase the visibility of resource sharing in Colorado. How is YOUR library sharing? Let us know by filling out this super short form. If you’re on Twitter, tweet @hitchlib or use the hashtag #spotlightonsharing.

Resource Sharing

NRS Services Across Colorado

The Networking and Resource Sharing (NRS) unit supports Colorado libraries through a variety of technology-related services. The map below, while not a comprehensive representation of all that we do, is a visualization of our reach across Colorado’s public libraries. For more information about these and the other programs and services offered by the Colorado State Library, please visit the Colorado Virtual Library website.

This map is interactive: you can zoom in and out, click and drag to re-position, and click the markers for more information about each library. For even more features, view the full-sized map.


The colored markers indicate how many NRS services are connected to each public library.

White = 0 services (52 libraries)
Green = 1 service (115 libraries)
Yellow = 2 services (76 libraries)
Blue = 3 services (19 libraries)
Red = 4 services (1 library)

Services Represented

  • SWIFT: A statewide interlibrary loan (ILL) service. The SWIFT software is provided at no cost to participating libraries.
  • Colorado Online Libraries (CO Libraries): Website authoring, training, and hosting service, free of charge to eligible Colorado libraries.
  • Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection (CHNC): A database of 199+ digitized historic Colorado newspapers. The map indicates which public libraries have contributed newspapers to CHNC.
  • Book Club Resource: Book club kits available to loan to Colorado libraries.
  • FindIT Colorado: A mobile app that connects Coloradans to online resources at participating public libraries.

*Please note: This is not an exhaustive list of our services. Visit Colorado Virtual Library to see more of what we do.

Bonus Tip!

Would you like to make your own custom map? It’s free and easy to do with Google My Maps.

Resource Sharing Technology

Free online resources

The web abounds with resources for learning, productivity, and sharing. Here are some of our favorite free online tools—this is by no means an exhaustive list, but everyone from the beginner to the seasoned pro will find something to help them learn, work, or play.