Digital Analytics

New vs Returning Visitors in Google Analytics

new vs returning

Updated on November 15, 2021

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 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.

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.

About the Author

Jennifer Rogina is the Co-Founder & Lead Marketer of ClearPath Online, a DIY SEO tool for entrepreneurs to grow their own website traffic. Jennifer has been a digital marketing specialist since 2008. In that time she has focused on search engine optimization, digital analytics, and conversion optimization.

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