What is the difference between new and returning users in Google Analytics? What do these metrics mean and what should you do with that data? Here is everything you need to know about new vs returning visitors in Google Analytics.

The Difference Between New vs Returning Visitors

New visitors (or new users) are people who have never been to the website before. Whereas, returning visitors (or returning users) are people who have visited the website previously and have come back.

That’s the idea behind the metrics. Yet, there are times when the data may not be a perfect representation of new vs returning.

When the Data Could Be Wrong

There are four instances where the tracking could incorrectly assign a returning visitor as a new visitor.

  1. User Switches Devices
    • If someone switches devices, such as laptop to mobile phone, it is likely the tracking code will identify both sessions as new visitors. GA4 has addressed this issue but it is still imperfect. It works best when people log into the website and are tracked with a user ID. In most cases, one person using multiple devices will appear as a new user for each device.
  2. User Switches Browsers
    • Similar to switching devices, switching browsers will also cause Google Analytics tracking to assign a new user for each browser. Even if it is the same person.
  3. User Deletes Cookies
    • This tracking relies on cookies. So, if people delete their cookies the next visit would count as a new user even if they had visited before deleting the cookies.
  4. User Uses Private Browsing
    • If someone uses incognito mode or private browsing then no cookie is set. Because of that, each visit counts as a new visitor.

Other than these four instances that could cause the tracking to be off, there are a couple other discrepancies to be aware of.

These Numbers Aren’t Unique

The new vs returning visitors numbers do not equal the total number of unique users to the site. A person can count as a new or returning user many times in the same reporting period. This happens if they have visited the site more than once so there are multiple sessions for that person. One person can count in the new visitor metric, and then also have several sessions that count in the returning visitor metric.

These Numbers Likely Have Duplicates

It’s important to understand that some of those new users are likely duplicates. If any of the four scenarios above happened, people can count multiple times in the new visitor metric.

Where Can You Find New vs Returning Users in Google Analytics?

New vs Returning Visitors in Universal Analytics

In Universal Analytics, navigate to Audience > Behavior > New vs Returning.

You can also use segments at the top of the Google Analytics interface to view any of the Universal Analytics reports with the new and returning visitors user segments.

To enable the new and returning user segments:

  1. Select the Choose segment from list box at the top.
  2. Then, select System.
  3. Then, select New Users.
  4. Next, repeat steps 1-2 and then select Returning Users.

You can even remove the All Users segment to view the data with only the new and returning user segments.

New vs Returning Visitors in GA4

In Google Analytics 4 (GA4), this report has changed a bit. Like the majority of GA4 reports, it has improved. But, since it is different, there is a learning curve. If we’re coming from the Universal Analytics version of Google Analytics, we need to better understand the new report before we can gain insight from it.

In GA4, find the new vs returning visitor information under Retention. The Retention Overview screen has multiple charts that help to visualize new vs returning users. Google provides more information about each of the retention charts so you can become familiar with them and gain more insights.

You can also create a table that resembles the data you would see in the Universal Analytics version of Google Analytics.

To create a new vs returning visitors table in GA4:

  1. Go to Explore.
  2. Then create a Free form report.
  3. Under Dimensions select New / established.
    • New / established is like new vs returning. Instead of new meaning it is the first visit, it means the first visit is within the last seven days. And established is like returning. It means the first visit was more than seven days ago.
  4. Select any Metrics you’d like to measure. I’d recommend Sessions, Conversions, and Engagement Rate.
  5. Drag the Dimension into Rows and the Metrics into Values.
  6. Look at the table to view and analyze your data.

View the video clip below to see how to create the New vs Returning report in GA4.

What to do with the New vs Returning Visitor Data

Okay, so now we know what new vs returning users are, and we know where we can find the data, but what insights can we learn from looking at this information?

Does your navigation have a learning curve?

Do new visitors spend more time on your site than returning visitors? If so, you’ll want to confirm that your navigation doesn’t have a learning curve. You want to make sure people are spending their time effectively and not spending extra time trying to find what they’re looking for.

To dig into the specific cause behind the difference in times you’ll want to leverage conversion optimization tools such as session recordings. The Google Analytics data can help you identify there could be room for improvement. Session recordings let you confirm and gain insight into that suspicion.

Do returning users convert higher?

If returning visitors convert higher, make sure you’re doing what you can to get more of your visitors to return. Revisit your lead magnet strategy. Make sure the lead magnet is bridging the gap between a new visit and completing the primary site goal. The lead magnet should help a new user get over a hurdle stopping them from converting. It should also be something that does not feel too overwhelming. A lead magnet should be a simple step onto the bridge that eventually gets them to the end goal.

If you can get more new users to sign up for your lead magnet, that will allow you to get in their inbox. Once they’re on your email list and become familiar with your brand, they are more likely to move into the returning users bucket.

Do returning visitors have a higher bounce rate?

Are new visitors more engaged than returning visitors? In Universal Analytics, check to see if returning visitors have a higher bounce rate. In GA4, check to see if new visitors have a higher engagement rate. If either of those are true, revisit your content strategy. Your audience could be learning with you and they could now be ready for more advanced topics.

Do new or returning visitors come from particular sources?

Check to see if there are particular traffic sources that bring in new or returning visitors. In Universal Analytics, use the segments on the Acquisition > All Traffic > Source / Medium report to view the data. In GA4, add the Dimension of Source / medium to the free form report. Then add Source / Medium to Columns.

If you notice a particular source brings in a particular type of user, you can try and create content to cater to that user on that channel. For example, if a particular social network only brings in returning visitors you can create content on that network that speaks to someone familiar with your brand.

Are new or returning visitors attracted to particular content topics?

Review content reports to see who’s looking at what content. In Universal Analytics, go to Behavior > Site Content > All Pages and use the segments to view the data by new and returning users. In GA4, add a Dimension of Page Title to the free form report. Use Page Title for rows and New / established for columns. If there are particular content topics that attract a specific type of user you can use that information to improve your content strategy.

In Summary

New vs returning visitor data can help you better understand how your website caters to different types of users. Google Analytics can help you identify some key differences so you can improve your site and adjust your strategy. That way you can move more new users into returning visitors.

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Google Tag Manager and Google Analytics are two completely different tools. They don’t rely on each other. Yet, they do work well together when you choose to use both. Here’s the difference between Google Tag Manager vs Google Analytics.

Let’s first understand how these two tools work on their own.

What is Google Analytics?

Google Analytics is a software tool that tracks website data. It gives you visibility into what’s happening on your website. It allows you to see how many people visit, what pages they go to, and how long they look at each page.

What is Google Tag Manager?

Google Tag Manager is a Tag Management System (TMS). What that means, is it puts an empty container on every page of your website. Google Tag Manager provides you an interface that you can use to control the code that appears within that container. That means, someone other than a web developer can change the website within that specified container. That allows marketers and website owners to be able to add and modify tracking codes. And they can do that without having to dig into the code or bother a web developer.

How are Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager Better Together?

In order for Google Analytics to collect data, it needs a tracking code added to every page of the website. This code can be manually added. It doesn’t need Google Tag Manager or any other TMS to add it.

Although it isn’t required, adding Google Analytics tracking using Google Tag Manager simplifies the process. Since they are both Google products, Tag Manager is already set up to add Google Analytics tracking with the click of a button.

And configuring Google Analytics tracking isn’t always a one-time process. To get the most value out of Google Analytics you’ll want to set up events and goals. Depending on how you want to set up your account you may find you want to customize the tracking code. The easiest way to add customizations is with Google Tag Manager. That way, you can make custom edits using the pre-built interface instead of writing custom code. This makes customizations as easy as drag and drop.

In Summary

Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager are two very different tools with unique use cases. When you leverage both tools together, Google Tag Manager makes it faster and easier to customize and configure Google Analytics.

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Collecting Google Analytics data is great, and important for all website owners. And when you first start out, sometimes simply collecting data is all you can handle without getting overwhelmed. Once a decent amount of data has been collected you need to start analyzing it in order to get a benefit. You need to make sense of the data and understand what story it’s telling in order to make improvements. An easy way to get started with analyzing your data is to focus on the Google Analytics automated insights. We’ll go over three simple ways to analyze data using automation built into Google Analytics.

Automated Insights

For a quick way to identify dips and peaks in your data look at automated insights. The automated insights detect unusual changes and emerging trends. The insights are listed in an easy to access menu in Google Analytics so you can at a glance review the biggest changes.

The automated insights can be found both in Universal Analytics and GA4.

  • In Universal Analytics, you can find the automated insights on the Home screen and then click Insights in the top right corner.
  • In GA4, scroll down to Insights on the Reports Snapshot screen. Then click View all insights.

Custom Insights

To get even more value out of the automated insights, you can create custom insights. Custom insights allow you to monitor the metrics that are most important to your business. When they trigger you can even be notified via email or text message.

Custom insights can be created in either version of Google Analytics.

  • In Universal Analytics, click on Customization and then Custom Alerts.
  • In GA4, once you click View all insights you can click Create in the top right corner to create a custom insight.

Ask Any Question

If you have a question about your data and it hasn’t triggered an automated or custom insight, that’s no problem. At the top of Google Analytics you can type in any question you have. You use plain English to create a question, and then it directs you to the data.

Some of the questions you can ask are:

  • On what days do I get the most users?
  • What devices are used the most?
  • How many users from organic search in the last 30 days?
  • What are my top products by revenue?
  • What’s my average page load time?

In GA4 you can even click on the insight icon in the top right of any of the overview dashboards. That pulls up a list of questions you can click on and immediately get the answer.

When you ask a question you’ll be able to jump right to the report with the data. This not only makes it easy to navigate the system when you are unfamiliar with the reports, it also puts you in the right mindset. Whether you’ve been using Google Analytics for years or you’re new to it, you should always have a question in mind that you are trying to answer with data.

In Summary

Collecting data is great, but you will get to a point when you need to figure out how to analyze it. These three automated features make it super simple to make sense of your data. The insight is there, take the time to review it so you can make data-driven decisions.

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You need to be able to identify the pages on your website that need improvement. This is important to improve conversion, boost SEO, and enhance the user experience.

To identify the problem pages, you need to look at the data. Look at pages that are popular (high pageviews) with a high bounce rate. This means people had an interest in the content and found the page, but they immediately left. That page needs improvement because it’s not meeting the reader’s expectations.

You can find this data in Google Analytics. The method to locate the data does differ depending on the version you’re using. Universal Analytics and GA4 each have a different process.

Finding Problem Pages with Google Analytics Universal Tracking

Here’s how to find the pages that need improvement using the Universal Analytics version.

  1. In Google Analytics, go to Behavior > Site Content > All Pages.
  2. Click on advanced to open the advanced search.
  3. In the search field, select Pageviews as the first search metric.
  4. Leave the operator as Greater than.
  5. Enter in a value that makes sense for your website. A good place to start is 50. If this provides too many results, raise it to 100 or 200. If it’s not enough results, lower it to 20 or 25.
  6. Add another metric. This time select Bounce Rate as the metric.
  7. Again, keep the operator as Greater than.
  8. And just like with pageviews, you’ll want to add a value for bounce rate that makes sense for your site. Start with the average bounce rate for your site. (You can find this in the bounce rate column header where it says the average for the view.) You can adjust this based on results as well.

Improving popular pages with a bounce rate higher than the site average is a great place to start. Perform this advanced search and you’ll have a list of the top pages that need improvement.

Finding Problem Pages with GA4

Finding the same information with GA4 is different because bounce rate isn’t tracked. Instead, GA4 has an engagement rate metric.

To find this data, I like to build my own report in the Analysis Hub. To create the report:

  1. Go to Analysis > Analysis Hub.
  2. Click Blank to create a new analysis.
  3. Drag the Page Title and Screen Name dimension to Rows. (If you don’t see it as an option, click on the plus (+) icon next to Dimensions to add it.)
  4. Under Values, select the metrics:
    • Total users
    • Sessions
    • Engaged sessions
    • Engagement rate
  5. Then apply the filters you’d like to use to narrow down the data. I choose Total Users > 50 and Engagement Rate < .5. (Remember engagement rate is a percentage so the value needs to be represented as a percentage such as .5 for 50%.)
  6. Adjust the filters until you’re happy with the amount of results.
  7. Add a name to your report so it’s easy to come back and review the data next time.

In either version it’s important to be able to identify which pages on your site need improvement. This will give you a good place to start to do split tests, improve your content, and boost your search rankings.

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Google Analytics has released a new version that completely overhauls the system, called Google Analytics GA4. But, what is Google Analytics GA4? This update includes AI, increased security, and a new user interface. We’ll dig into what’s changing, what you need to know, and if it’s worth setting up on your website.

Now, before we dig into all the details, I want to share my experience when I initially used GA4. I’ve been using Google Analytics for well over a decade. Changes and updates to the system excite me, they don’t scare me. So, when I saw that I could upgrade my Google Analytics profile to the new GA4 system, I eagerly agreed.

Once the simple setup wizard was complete, I viewed my new GA4 profile. I was immediately overwhelmed. Everything was one-hundred percent different than what I was used to. I’m normally excited about change but this was so drastically different I didn’t even know where to begin. So I didn’t. I looked it over briefly, then decided I’d let this collect data but I’d go back to my Universal Analytics version and revisit this another day in the future.

Well, I let a few months go by, then I decided I really needed to figure this out because it’s the future of Google Analytics. I read through documentation and watched YouTube tutorials until I finally felt like I had a firm grasp on exactly how GA4 works. And now, I love it. These changes are very exciting and seems like a great new direction for Google Analytics. But, I do feel the transition has a bit of a learning curve to feel comfortable with it.

So, this article will summarize the most important findings that I discovered, explain simply yet clearly how to configure it for your website, and guide you through the transition so you aren’t stumbling to find your way like I was.

What is different about Google Analytics GA4?

GA4 consolidates data from websites and mobile apps, allowing cross-platform analysis. Instead of your website and mobile data living in two different Google Analytics properties, everything is combined in one place so you have a more complete picture of the customer journey.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to have a mobile app to benefit from GA4. Even if you only have a website, there are still several new features you will benefit from. We will go through each of those in detail below.

AI to Fill in Data Gaps

The new GA4 version of Google Analytics includes Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help fill in the gaps. This will become more and more useful in the future. With security improvements such as GDPR and increased 3rd party cookie constraints our Google Analytics data is going to get more and more holes. AI allows Google Analytics to focus on a privacy-centric design. Using AI, Google Analytics is able to fill in those gaps so it’s easier to make sense of the data you have and continue to improve your website using data-driven decisions.

Focused on the Customer Journey

GA4 introduces a completely new User Interface (UI). The entire interface is now focused on giving marketers a better way to understand the complete customer journey. The primary navigation items now include the stages in a customer life cycle: Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization, and Retention.

Everything is Based on Events

Another big change in GA4, is now everything is based on events. And I mean everything. Even pageviews are now considered an event. And, GA4 events are completely different from Universal Analytics events.

In Universal Analytics, every event had to include a category and an action. Events had to be configured in one very particular and specific manner. In GA4, you have different attributes depending on the event.

In Google Analytics GA4 there are three types of events: automatically collected events, recommended events, and custom events.

Automatic Events

Automatically collected events do exactly that. They collect events automatically just from having GA4 configured on your website. There is no code that needs to be added for these events. Automatic events include items such as page title, screen resolution, and page referrer.

For websites (not mobile apps) there are additional automatic events that you can enable. They are called enhanced measurements. And they also require absolutely no code. They can track items such as page scroll, outbound link clicks, and file downloads.

To enable enhanced measurements, go to Admin > Data Streams. Click on your website stream. At the top you’ll see a toggle to enable enhanced measurements.

Recommended Events

GA4 also includes several recommended events. The recommended events are similar to the custom events, except Google has predefined event names and suggested attributes. It is not mandatory to use their recommended events. However, if these are events you wish to add regardless, it’s recommended to use their predefined naming convention so the system can use the data more intelligently. Using their names will allow Google Analytics to understand the data type and leverage the data in standard reports.

Some recommended events include login, sign up, and share. We’ll provide a step-by-step guide to setup recommended and custom events later in this article.

Custom Events

And lastly, are custom events. Custom events are events that aren’t included in the automatic or recommended events. Whenever possible, it’s preferable to use an automatic or recommended event. Custom events won’t show up in the standard reports so you’ll have to create custom reports to analyze the data.

Includes YouTube Measurement

Another automatic event GA4 is able to track, are metrics to measure YouTube videos. If you have embedded YouTube videos on your website you can now track video plays automatically. We’ll walk through how to set this up later in the article.

Easily Mark Anything As a Conversion

So, every item in GA4 is an event, and any event can be marked as a conversion. It’s as easy as reviewing a list of your events and enabling a toggle to identify that event as a conversion.

No More Bounce Rate

The bounce rate metric has been completely removed in GA4. Since GA4 encompasses both websites and mobile apps, bounce rate no longer made sense. Bounce rate only applied to websites.

Additionally, bounce rate didn’t apply to every website. Bounce rate was never an accurate metric for one-page websites and sites where the primary goal was an offline action such as a phone call.

Instead, this has been replaced with engagement metrics.

Access to AnalysisHub

GA4 includes AnalysisHub. This is a feature that’s been available in the paid Google Analytics 360 version, but has never been included in the free Google Analytics product.

AnalysisHub allows you to create custom reports. You can choose from a variety of charts including cohort, funnel, and path analysis. Then, you can drag and drop the metrics, dimensions, and filters that you want applied to the chart.

When you’re done the report with your configurations is saved so you can come back and easily refer back to it.

Debugging Included

And lastly, Google Analytics 4 includes a debugging interface. This combined with real-time metrics makes it much easier to test your changes and confirm everything is tracking properly. To find out exactly how the debugging feature works, continue to the end of the article.

Is Google Analytics GA4 Worth Setting Up?

The short answer is yes! You can have both GA4 and Universal Analytics set up. There’s no reason not to set up GA4 because it doesn’t do anything to interfere with your existing Universal Analytics set up.

If you’re setting up Google Analytics for the first time, GA4 is now the default configuration. Although the setup wizard includes a checkbox to easily add a Universal Analytics profile as well. For now, it’s best to set them both up.

Even if you don’t use it, adding it will allow GA4 to start gathering data. It won’t pull in any historical data so the data will start the day you set it up. It’s best to get it configured and collecting data so it’s there for you when you’re ready to use it.

Google is encouraging people to create a new Google Analytics 4 property alongside existing properties. That way, you can start gathering data and benefit from the latest innovations as they become available. While keeping the current implementation intact.

How to Add GA4 Events

There are a few different ways to add events in Google Analytics 4. You can add them directly in Google Analytics, through Google Tag Manager, or add code to your website. We’ll discuss how to add them through the Google Analytics interface and through Google Tag Manager.

If you’re adding a recommended event, make sure to refer to the Google documentation to get the event name and parameters.

Here are the various predefined event tags:

Both Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager allow you to add an event without any code. If your event is simple, it’s going to be easiest to add it directly in Google Analytics. If your event requires special firing conditions or a variable then it will be best to set it up in Google Tag Manager.

Setting Up GA4 Events Directly in Google Analytics

To set up an event in Google Analytics:

  1. Go to Events > All events > Create event.
  2. Click Create.
  3. Enter a Custom event name. Remember to check the Google predefined event tags to see if there is already a naming convention you should use for this event.
  4. Then add in your matching conditions. The event will trigger when all of your matching conditions are true. So, if you want to track when people visit a particular page on your website so you can mark it as a conversion just select page_title as the parameter, then equals or contains as the operator, and then enter the title of the page you want to track as the value.
  5. When finished, click Create.

Setting Up GA4 Events in Google Tag Manager

To demonstrate how to set up a GA4 event in Google Tag Manager, we’re going to walk through how to set up the predefined login recommended event.

To configure an event using Google Tag Manager:

  1. In Google Tag Manager, navigate to Tags > New.
  2. Click the pencil icon in the Tag Configuration box to configure the tag.
  3. Under Choose tag type select Google Analytics: GA4 Event.
  4. Under Configuration Tag select Google Analytics GA4 Configuration.
  5. Under Event Name, enter the name for your event. Since we’re setting up a predefined event, we will name it the name specified by Google, which is login.
  6. Then we enter in any parameters. On the same table we got the predefined event name, we can also see predefined parameters. For login, the parameter is method. So, under Parameter Name enter method. The value can vary depending on your site. It can either be static text or a custom variable. If your website has multiple login types such as logging in via Google, via Facebook, or email then your parameter should be a variable. Since our site only has one login type, we simply entered in email as the value.
  7. Next you need to configure the Triggering section. Click on the pencil icon in the Triggering box to choose a trigger.
  8. Select an existing trigger from the list or click the + icon to create a new one.
  9. There are multiple ways you can choose to trigger your login (or any) event. The best option just depends on how your website is configured. It can be based on a button click, a form submission, or a pageview. For our site, I decided to trigger it based on pageview.
    • I created a page view trigger type that triggers on some page views.
    • I specified that the Page Path equals the page URL that people see when first logged in. I also specified that the Referrer contains the login page URL. Both of these need to be true to trigger the event. (Page Path and Referrer are both built-in variables but make sure that they are enabled in the Variables section.)
  10. Once your trigger has been added click Save.
  11. Then Preview your changes (we’ll talk about this more under the debugging section) and Submit.

How to Mark an Event as a Conversion

To mark the event as a conversion:

  1. Go to Events > All events.
  2. You can click the toggle under the Mark as conversion column to set any event as a conversion.
  3. If the event you want to mark as a conversion isn’t yet displayed under the events list, go to Events > Conversions > New conversion event. Follow the prompts to add your event as a conversion through that menu instead.

How to Track Embedded YouTube Videos in GA4

Tracking YouTube videos embedded on your website is a built-in function with Google Analytics 4. However, depending on how your website is configured, there still could be a few adjustments you need to make before you start seeing the data come through.

Enable Video Engagement Enhanced Measurement

First, you need to make sure the enhanced measurement for Video engagement is enabled. To do this, go to Admin > Data Streams and click on your web stream. At the top you’ll see a toggle to enable enhanced measurement. Once that is enabled, click the gear icon to confirm video engagement is enabled.

Make Sure JS API is Enabled

Next, you need to make sure your embedded YouTube videos have jsapi enabled. By default, this value isn’t included in the iFrame embed code, which disables it. If you have this value but it is set to 0, that also means it is disabled. To enable it, append ?enablejsapi=1 to the end of your YouTube URL.

Here is an example:

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ay0uLEwb_uY?enablejsapi=1" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen=""></iframe>

Make Sure YouTube API Loads with Initial Page Load

Lastly, you need to make sure the YouTube API loads when the page is loaded. If the system doesn’t see a YouTube video when initially loading the page it won’t activate and track the video engagement metrics on that page.

The instances where this would happen is if your video plays in a lightbox modal or appears in a lazy load. If you can’t see the video from the first page load, if an additional action is required to load the video then your video metrics won’t be tracked by default.

To fix this, add the YouTube API to the page load. The easiest way to add this is with Google Tag Manager. Add a Custom HTML tag with the following HTML:

<script src="https://www.youtube.com/iframe_api">

Then, set it to trigger on all pages.

To test it out, continue on to the debugging section.

How to Use the DebugView and Test Configurations

To use the DebugView in Google Analytics 4, you have to also use Tag Assistant. You’ll use Tag Assistant to load your website in a new window, and actions you perform in that instance of your site will be monitored in DebugView.

Tag Assistant is the same thing that launches when you click Preview in Google Tag Manager. So, if you are previewing a change in Tag Manager you can open DebugView in Google Analytics to get additional information about the change you’re testing.

When you add a new event, you can test it by performing the action that should trigger the event on your website using Tag Assistant. Then you can look at the Tag Assistant interface, Google Analytics DebugView, or the Google Analytics realtime report to confirm it is tracking properly and pulling in the expected data.

In Summary

Hopefully this gave you the information and confidence you need to get started with Google Analytics 4. If it’s still a bit overwhelming, just start by setting it up, and worry about fine-tuning it later. You can rest easy knowing it’s gathering data and go back to using Universal Analytics for now.

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If you’ve looked at your acquisition sources in Google Analytics, you’ve probably seen Direct traffic or (direct) / (none) listed towards the top. What does that mean, where are those people coming from? What is Direct traffic in Google Analytics? Is it possible that many people are directly typing in the URL into the browser? While that’s certainly some of it, it is not the only cause of direct traffic. Let’s discuss what direct traffic is and the many different factors that cause it.

Direct Traffic is Traffic from an Unknown Source

When Google Analytics can’t identify where the traffic is coming from, it categorizes it as Direct traffic. Direct traffic is the fallback when the acquisition source is unknown.

Direct traffic is a normal part of website behavior, however, it isn’t terribly useful when reviewing your digital analytics. It makes it hard to make decisions about your data when it isn’t clear where that person came from.

Because of this, Google Analytics uses last non-direct click attribution. What that means, is if someone visits your site from an organic search, then the next day they directly type in your URL, Google Analytics attributes that session to organic search, not direct traffic.

This makes the data more meaningful and easier to understand the value of various acquisition sources. It also means, although direct type in is a potential source of direct traffic, it doesn’t account for as much of the direct traffic as it would if last non-direct click attribution wasn’t used.

By default, Google Analytics has a campaign timeout of 6 months. What that means, is that original organic search would then cause that next URL direct type-in to count as organic traffic for 6 months. You can change the campaign timeout to be anywhere between 1 day to 2 years. You can edit this setting under Admin > Property > Tracking Info > Session Settings.

If your buying cycle is long, you may want to increase this. If it’s short, you may want to decrease this. If you aren’t sure, just leave it at the default. For most people the 6 month default setting will provide accurate data.

Causes of Direct Traffic

Direct Type in or Browser Bookmark

As we’ve already discussed, one of the possible sources of direct traffic is when people type the website URL directly into the browser. The same thing can be accomplished by the user creating a bookmark for the website and clicking the bookmark. This type of traffic would be counted as direct traffic in Google Analytics.


HTTPS websites can’t send referrer data to HTTP websites. Instead of referral data, it shows up as direct traffic. This is how HTTPS should work, this is not an error. HTTPS is secure data, whereas HTTP is not. So, HTTPS can not send it’s secure data to HTTP.

What this means is, if you have an HTTP website (not HTTPS), and you get referrals from sites using HTTPS, you won’t be able to see that traffic in Google Analytics. It will be clumped together with your direct traffic. This only happens when HTTPS tries to send to HTTP. HTTP can send referrer information to HTTPS with no issues.

If your website isn’t using HTTPS yet, this is a good time to look into it. It will only become more and more important in the future.

Missing Tracking Code

If one or more of your site pages doesn’t have the Google Analytics tracking code and someone visits it, then clicks a link to another page on your site which does have the tracking code, Google Analytics would attribute this as a self referral from your own website. And by default, your website is listed in the referral exclusion list. If this is the case, then the visit would be attributed to direct traffic instead.

To avoid this, make sure whenever a page gets added to your website it has the tracking code added. Make sure this is part of the default page creation process and you aren’t required to manually add the tracking code.


Meta refreshes and javascript redirects can wipe referrer data. Be very specific with any redirects. Try to avoid redirect chains on your website (where you have an internal link pointing to an outdated URL which redirects to the current URL). Whenever possible, it’s best to link to the current URL instead of relying on a redirect.


Just like with redirects, when you create a shortlink or use a URL shortener system such as bitly, you lose your referral data. To compensate, make sure you add UTM tags on the URL you are sending the traffic to. That way, you have a shortlink that is easy to share and remember, but when people use that URL they are redirected to a page that is your full URL plus all of the UTM tags appended to the URL to be able to track where the click came from. To learn exactly how to add those UTM tags, follow our complete UTM tag guide.

Offline Documents

Do you have any downloadable freebies on your website? These are things such as PDFs or Microsoft Word files that people download in exchange for an email address. If those documents have any links in them, clicks from those links will show up as direct traffic. Since those documents are not part of your website, they are local assets downloaded onto people’s computers, Google Analytics can’t attribute those links to the appropriate source. That can be fixed by adding UTM parameters to those links, just like we discussed for shortlinks.

When you add UTM parameters you’re able to specify the source, medium, and campaign. That way, you can track that information under your Google Analytics acquisition sources, instead of clumping it all under direct traffic. To learn exactly how to add those UTM tags, follow our complete UTM tag guide.


Another common source of direct traffic is from email campaigns. When someone clicks a link an email you sent them, it counts as direct traffic. Google Analytics can’t by default identify that the click came from an email campaign.

Just like with the shortlinks and offline documents, this can be fixed by adding UTM tags to specify the campaign attributes. Most email providers even have an option to enable UTM tracking so each link automatically appends the UTM parameters needed to track the campaign data in Google Analytics. If this is an option with your email provider, I would enable it so you can get all the data without the headache of creating a UTM tag for every single link.

Dark Social

And lastly, is what is referred to as dark social. Several forms of social traffic end up being counted as direct traffic. It’s very hard to attribute these visits properly, and instead, you should just be aware that this is likely accounting for a big chunk of your direct traffic (provided you’ve addressed any possible issues outlined above).

Now, this doesn’t apply to links that you post on your social media accounts. Or links other people post on their public facing social media accounts. For the most part, Google Analytics is able to associate those links properly as social referrals. They can identify the URL the link is coming from and that it is a referral, and can also identify that the referral type is a social network.

Where this applies is with the authentic social sharing from brand advocates to their friends and family. This is a great problem to have, people are sharing your brand. But, you can’t easily tell all those people to use UTM tags to track the data.

If someone shares a link to your website in an email, text message, facebook messenger, or slack message it’s going to count as a direct link. This is essentially a digital word of mouth channel. Word of mouth has always been difficult to track, this is just the digital version.

In Summary

Direct traffic is a normal part of your digital analytics. If more than about 25% of your traffic is from direct traffic, then start looking into the potential problems outlined above. Is your site HTTPS, are pages missing tracking code, is traffic being redirected? Create a plan to leverage UTM tags on external traffic sources.

If your direct traffic is equal to or less than about 25% of your website traffic, this is pretty common. So, make sure you understand what it means, these aren’t just a total number of people typing your URL directly into the browser.

Either way, it’s a good idea to review the direct traffic causes outlined above and make sure your direct traffic number is not being overly inflated by poor tracking.

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There seems to be some confusion between UTM and GTM. We’re going to first explain what UTM means, then GTM, then go into UTM vs GTM. The two are completely separate systems and can be used independently of each other. They do not rely on each other. However, there are advanced Google Analytics configurations that can be made when these two are used together. Here is what you need to know about UTM vs GTM.

UTM tags and a tag manager sound like two items that would be related, right? Although they sound similar they are not related to each other.

UTM Tags are Added to a URL to Track External Links

UTM tags are attributes (or parameters) added to the end of a URL. These attributes record additional information in digital analytics tools, such as Google Analytics. When you add a link to your website in an email or an ad, UTM tags allow you to add insight about that particular campaign so you can better understand where people are coming from and which campaigns are having the biggest impact.

GTM is Used to Load and Maintain Website Tracking Tags for Various Software Programs

GTM, on the other hand, stands for Google Tag Manager. It is a tool that is completely separate from Google Analytics. Although, it can help with Google Analytics setup and maintenance, as well as other non-Google related tools.

Tools, such as Google Analytics, require a tracking tag to be added to every page on your website in order to capture the data used to populate the tool. Depending on what you want to track on your website, you could have multiple tracking tags. You can have one for Google Analytics, Google Ads, Facebook, and a user analysis tool such as Hotjar. Instead of adding each of those separate tags to your site, you can add just one tag for a tag manager, such as Google Tag Manager (GTM).

That helps in two ways. First, it improves page speed because instead of loading multiple tags, your site only loads one tag and the other tags load asynchronously. Second, when you want to add a new tag you now have one place to add it to get it to appear on every page.

UTM and GTM are Not Linked to Each Other

These two systems do not need to be used together. Adding UTM tags to your URL will allow you to track those metrics in your Google Analytics account regardless if it is set up using Google Tag Manager or not. GTM does not provide any analytics. It can be used to deploy Google Analytics tracking, but using a UTM tag does not rely on GTM in any way.

UTM tags aren’t configured in Google Tag Manager because they aren’t deployed on your website. UTM tags are added onto your existing URLs, they aren’t added to or configured on your website.

You do not need Google Tag Manager installed to use UTM tags. You do not need any tag managers to implement UTM tags. To find out exactly how to create a UTM tag, we have a complete guide to UTM tags you can follow.

Advanced UTM and GTM Configurations

If you want to get into some advanced configurations, there are some customizations you can make to UTM tracking using GTM. By default, UTM tags allow you to track the campaign, medium, source, keywords, and the campaign content. If you want to add an additional parameter such as audience, you can do that with GTM. Here is a guide you can follow to use GTM to create additional UTM attributes to track more data.

In Summary

Whether or not you have Google Analytics set up with GTM, you should still use UTM tags to track external links in your marketing campaigns.

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Setting up Google Analytics is simple and a no-brainer for any business. It’s free and provides valuable insights about website visitor activity. Let’s walk through exactly how to setup Google Analytics. We’ll even explain the benefits of using Google Analytics and how to get the most value out of it.

The leading marketers leverage Google Analytics to gain visibility into their website. To take full advantage, you’ll want to make sure you set up goals, funnels, events, and dashboards.

Let’s start with the why and then we’ll dig into the details.

Why Should You Use Google Analytics?

Google Analytics provides you with data about your website visitors. You’ll be able to see insights such as:

  • How many people are on your website, as well as what pages they viewed, what page they entered on, and what page they left on.
  • How many people converted.
  • What traffic source they came from including organic search, referral, and social.
  • Visitor information such as geographic location, browser, operating system, and device used to access the website.

All of this insight and data is free with Google Analytics.

Without visitor data you are operating your website blind.

If you don’t know how many people are on your site, where they came from, and what they did when they were on your site, you can’t make intelligent changes. This data is pertinent to optimizing your website, and lucky for you, it’s free and easy to set up.

How to Setup Google Analytics

  1. Sign up for a Google Analytics account.
  2. Enter an account name. You’ll want to keep this generic enough to apply to any additional web properties you would want to add to the account in the future.
  3. Review and enable any account data sharing settings, then click Next.
  4. Enter in your Property name, which is likely your website name.
  5. If you’d like to enable Universal Analytics, click Show advanced options and enable the toggle.
    • The default Google Analytics account uses the GA4 version. This is the newest and most advanced version of Google Analytics. It combines app and website data and includes machine learning to provide more metrics than we originally had access to. I would recommend still configuring the Universal Analytics option for now. You can add both versions so you have access to all available data.
    • If you choose to enable Universal Analytics, enter in your website URL. Then make sure you click Create both a Google Analytics 4 and a Universal Analytics property.
  6. Click Next and then enter in any business information you’d like to provide.
  7. Agree to the Terms of Service Agreement.
  8. Now you will be shown all of the information you need to add Google Analytics to your website. You can click Global Site Tag to get the code to copy and paste in your website. Or you can click Google Tag Manager to add it through your Google Tag Manager account instead.

Using Google Tag Manager to add Google Analytics to your website is the preferred option. This will make maintenance a little easier, but more importantly it can improve your website page speed.

Tag Manager can be used not only to add Google Analytics but any other tags you need to add to your website. This can include Hotjar tracking, Google Ads tracking, and the Facebook pixel. Adding all of your various tags through Tag Manager optimizes your site speed because they can all load asynchronously.

Utilizing Tag Manager is not only easier to implement and maintain these systems, it’s also more efficient for your website.

Now It’s Time to Optimize Your Google Analytics Account

So, you got Google Analytics installed on your website. It’s verified and your data is being tracked. That’s great, but you aren’t done. Don’t stop at the beginning, take full advantage of your Google Analytics account.

Add Events

You can track website interactions such as downloads, video plays, and outbound link clicks in Google Analytics with events.

If you set up Google Analytics using a plugin or module, events might be automatically created for you. Most Google Analytics plugins can be easily configured to set up event tracking on key elements.

For directions on how to configure events in Google Analytics, view the Google Analytics Event Tracking guide.

Setup Goals and Funnels

Having all of your visitor data in Google Analytics is great, but it isn’t very meaningful without goals. It’s important to know what the goal is for your website and track it so you can easily understand the value of each page on your website.

Some goals have a natural flow that the user will likely follow. That process can be setup as a funnel so you can view the full conversion path for the goal. If the goal has a specific path that must be followed, you can see where you’re loosing people in the path.

Google Analytics allows you to track a wide variety of goals. The right goals for your website varies depending on the business model. Common goals include making a payment, filling out a form, subscribing to a newsletter, playing a video, downloading a file, or sharing content on a social network.

Each of those goals can be configured in Google Analytics. View the full guide on how to set up goals in Google Analytics for more information.

Configure Dashboards

Creating dashboards makes it easy to keep track of your key performance indicators and keep an eye on the metrics that matter to you. You can even configure dashboards to be emailed to you or others on a regular basis.

Dashboard configurations can be shared. This is really nice because you can save time by fine-tuning an existing dashboard instead of starting from scratch. It also can save you time if you have dashboards you like on one account, you can go to Share > Share template link, then simply access the link to add to other Google Analytics properties.

Here are my favorite dashboards:

Bonus: Use a Segment to Filter Out Spam Referral Traffic

Sometimes you’ll see spam referrals and fake data in your Google Analytics account. Most often, you’ll notice this when looking at your referral traffic. You’ll see a site as a referral but when you go to the site they don’t actually link to your site anywhere. This is ghost referral spam.

Fortunately, there is a pretty simple way to clean this up. You can download a custom spam filter segment created by Loganix for free. Filtering traffic with a segment is great because it only temporarily modifies the data. This custom segment catches about 97% of the spam and Loganix keeps it regularly updated. Using this segment helps clean up your data and improves your insight.

Do you have any tricks to help get the most value out of your Google Analytics setup? Please share them with us in the comments!

Do you want to listen to this article? Here’s the podcast episode:



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