If you use Google Analytics, you’ve probably seen this before:

Then that begs the question: what’s the difference between these three?

I’m going to save sessions for last because they’re probably the most confusing. So we’ll come back to that one. Let’s start with users…

Users are the number of unique individuals that visit your site.

You have a time period of let’s say, one month. The number of “users” in that month is the number of unique individuals who visit your site.

We don’t care how many times the same person comes back or how many pages they visit. All we care about is the number of different people who visit.

Here’s an example:

Person #1 comes by and visits three pages on your site today. Then, tomorrow, that same person comes by and visits two more pages. Then, a week from now, they come back and visit one more.

All of that adds up to one user. Even though they visited multiple pages, it was all done by one single individual. When we’re looking at users, that’s all we care about—the unique individual.

So then person #2 comes by and visits four pages. That’s another one point, giving us a total of two users now.

Determining the number of users is like counting the number of people at a party.

You don’t care how many times each person goes back to refill their drink, or how many times a person steps out to use the bathroom and then comes back, because we’re not looking at what they’re doing or what their activity is. All we’re looking for is a headcount.

How many people showed up to the party over the course of the evening?

Pageviews are the number of times your pages get a “hit”, regardless of who’s doing them.

In some ways, pageviews are the opposite of users. User are all about the unique individuals and we don’t care about what they’re doing. On the other hand, pageviews are all about the actions and nothing to do with the people.

  • Person #1 comes by and visits 5 pages of your site.
  • Person #2 comes by and visits 2 pages.
  • Person #3 comes by and visits 1 page.
  • Person #1 comes back and visits 3 more pages.

That’s three different users, right? But how many page views?

On page views, we care about the number of overall hits. We don’t care who does them or if they’re done by the same people. We just add up the hits.

In this case, that’s 5 + 2 + 1 + 3, which equals 11 pageviews.

Sessions refer to individual browsing “sprees” without interruption.

As soon as someone visits your site, a session begins. Sessions don’t track how many pages the person visited or what they’re doing, they only track the period of activity. This one, single session will continue until the person is inactive. By default, the required period of inactivity is 30 minutes. That means the session will keep going until the person is inactive for 30 minutes (which might suggest they’ve left your site or are no longer browsing around).

Here’s an example:

Person #1 visits your site. This triggers the beginning of the session (one session). They browse a page, read for 2 minutes, click to another page, read for 3 minutes, click to another page, then they leave. As soon as they stop navigating around, the counter starts. If 30 minutes go by and the person hasn’t clicked around the site any more, that triggers the end of the session. So this session #1 is officially over.

Then, two hours later, Person #1 comes back. This triggers the beginning of the session (session #2). They browse around for 5 minutes, then they stop. But 20 minutes later, they click to a new page. Since 30 minutes haven’t gone by yet, this session is still active. But after reading one more page, they leave completely, so we start counting back from 30 minutes again. Once 30 minutes of inactivity have elapsed, session #2 is officially over.

Sessions don’t differentiate between unique individuals. They only count the number of sessions, regardless of who’s doing them.

So, building from our example, if Person #2 (a totally different person) stops by, that triggers the beginning of session #3. We don’t start back from 1 because it’s a different person, we keep counting from where we left off. This is because sessions don’t care about different people. They only track the long periods of browsing, regardless of who’s doing them (whether they’re the same person or different people).