“Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.” — Charles Babbage, the iconic English mathematician, and inventor.
Imagine walking into a supermarket, picking out several items, and then noticing that the store executive is following you around with pen and paper.
Now imagine if they only followed you for 30 seconds before concluding that you weren't interested in making a purchase. That's exactly what can happen when your session timeout setting in Google Analytics is set too short.
Session timeout determines how long a user's session on your website is recorded before it's considered inactive. If your bounce rate threshold is set too low, your analytics data may be skewed—leading to a falsely high bounce rate and short session durations.
But what is a session, exactly? And how does session timeout impact your website's analytics data?
In this ultimate guide to session timeout in Google Analytics, we'll answer those questions and more.
We'll take you on a journey through the mysterious world of sessions and show you how to change the session timeout setting in both Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and Universal Analytics.
Do you know how Google Analytics tracks user behavior on a website?
The answer lies in the concept of sessions.
A session is a group of interactions with your website that happen within a specific time frame.
Let's take a look at the same supermarket analogy again.
Think of a session as a visit to a supermarket, just like how a customer's visit starts when they walk in the door and ends when they leave. A session in Google Analytics begins when a user lands on your website and ends after a period of inactivity.
The information collected during a session can be used to improve your website's user experience and make decisions based on real-world usage patterns.
But how does Google Analytics know when a session should start and end? That's where session timeout comes in.
Session timeout determines the length of time that a user's session on your website is recorded.
The default setting on Google Analytics is to have sessions last 30 minutes of inactivity. A new session begins if no user interactions take place for 30 minutes.
For instance, if a user spends 15 minutes on your website and then leaves for an hour before returning, their two visits will be recorded as two separate sessions.
Session timeout is crucial in providing you with an accurate picture of how users interact with your website. It ensures that Google Analytics only tracks a user's active session—giving you clear insight into their behavior.
For example, if your session timeout duration is set too short, a user's session may expire before they have had a chance to complete a conversion on your website.
However, suppose you set your session timeout duration too long. In that case, it will skew your data—inflating the average user session time and artificially extending how long a person spends on your site.
When setting up your Google Analytics account, it's essential to consider the session timeout duration so that you collect accurate data.
When setting the session timeout in Google Analytics, be sure to pay attention to the default value and how it works. By default, a user's session expires after 30 minutes of inactivity—but that can be changed based on your preferences.
If a user visits your website and doesn't engage with any of your web pages for 30 minutes, Google Analytics will consider that session to be ended. However, you don't have to stick to this default setting.
It's worth noting that the default session timeout setting applies to both Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 (GA4).
Now that you have a better understanding of what a session is and how it's timed out, it's crucial to understand how sessions are tracked in Google Analytics.
Basically, Google Analytics keeps track of every time a user visits your website. This includes page views, events, and any other interactions they have with your site.
Once a user leaves your website or the session timeout is reached, Google Analytics logs that session. This information can then be used to generate various reports—including audience overviews and behavior analysis.
It's worth noting that sessions are not tied to individual users but are a way to measure user behavior and engagement on your website.
Setting session timeout in Google Analytics 4 (GA4) can be confusing, especially if you're new to this platform. But don't worry! We'll guide you through the process and provide you with some helpful tips to optimize your session timeout settings.
Step-by-Step Guide to Changing the Web Session Timeout in GA4:
STEP 1: To change the web session timeout, navigate to your Google Analytics 4 property and click on the admin tab.
STEP 2: Select data streams, then click the name of the data stream for which you want to change the web session timeout.
STEP 3: Scroll down and click on the configure tag settings under the Google tag menu.
STEP 4: Then click on the adjust session timeout.
STEP 5: To change the web session timeout, simply click the "Edit" button and enter the desired value in minutes. The minimum session timeout in GA4 is one minute, while the maximum is four hours.
STEP 6: Once you've made your changes, don't forget to click "Save" to ensure that your new session timeout setting is saved and applied.
It's important to note that changing the web session timeout in GA4 will only affect new sessions, not existing ones.
And it may take a little time for your changes to fully take effect, especially if you have a lot of active sessions.
The default session timeout in Universal Analytics is 30 minutes. However, this could be changed anywhere between a minimum of 1 minute to a maximum of 4 hours.
This can be accomplished by changing the session timeout setting in your Universal Analytics property by deciding the ideal length for your Google Analytics session.
Steps to change the session timeout in Universal Analytics:
It's essential to keep in mind that the web session timeout setting affects all website tracking in Universal Analytics, so be careful when making changes.
The default campaign session timeout in Universal Analytics is 6 months. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to campaign timeouts. Every business needs different time frames concerning its goals.
Steps to change the campaign session timeout in Universal Analytics:
By adjusting the campaign session timeout in Universal Analytics, you can fine-tune how user sessions are tracked in specific campaigns.
This is useful for tracking the effectiveness of different marketing campaigns and making informed decisions about future campaigns.
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and Universal Analytics sessions do not match because there are significant differences between the two session metrics.
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the latest version of Google's analytics platform, while Universal Analytics (UA) is its predecessor. While both GA4 and UA provide insights into your website's traffic and user behavior—there are some differences between these two products that we'll explore below!
GA4's design emphasizes privacy and data security. Its machine-learning algorithms automatically mask and group data—ensuring that individual user information remains confidential.
Additionally, GA4 collects data more flexibly and scalably than earlier versions do, allowing you to track information from a broader range of sources—such as mobile apps and internet-connected devices.
Unlike Google Analytics, UA relies on cookies to track user data. However, UA provides robust data tracking but is more limited in data privacy and security than GA4.
GA4 offers real-time reporting and the ability to segment data in new ways, giving you a more comprehensive view of your website's performance.
UA provides a more limited set of reports and analytics capabilities. While it provides basic insights into your website's traffic and user behavior, it doesn't offer the advanced insights and reporting capabilities of GA4.
GA4 is tightly integrated with other Google products, like Google Ads and Tag Manager. This integration makes it easier to create marketing campaigns, track conversions—and access real-time data.
While UA has limited integration with other Google products, data sharing between UA and other Google products is less seamless than GA4.
For a more comprehensive understanding, check out our detailed blog post on the differences between Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and Universal Analytics.
In GA4, when setting your session timeout settings, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you're collecting accurate data and providing the best possible user experience.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your GA4 session timeout settings:
Evaluate your website traffic: Before making changes to your session timeout settings, you should understand the behavior of your website traffic. In other words, how long do visitors typically stay on your site? Are they spending time on a single page or navigating through multiple pages?
This information will help you determine an appropriate session timeout duration.
Consider the user experience: The goal of session timeout is to ensure that you're collecting accurate data about user behavior—but you should also consider the impact on users.
Monitor session duration data: After setting your session timeout duration, regularly monitor data to ensure the setting is accurate. This can be done through GA4 reports like Sessions Overview (which tracks information on session durations and other key metrics).
Experiment with different timeout durations: If you're unsure of the best timeout setting for your website, experiment with different session durations. This will help you determine which provides accurate data and the most user-friendly experience.
Short answer: Yes!
Altering the session timeout can significantly impact other metrics in Google Analytics.
The session timeout is crucial as it decides how long a user's activity on your website will be considered a single session. If the session timeout is set to 30 minutes, for example, the analytics data will show an incorrect picture of more visits, a higher bounce rate, and a lower conversion rate than what actually happens.
Therefore, changing the session timeout will noticeably affect various Google Analytics reports as it changes the underlying calculation for common metrics like “Session.”
Other metrics like eCommerce conversion rate, goal conversion, pages per session, bounce rate, etc., are also dependent on the session metric, so a change in the session timeout will inevitably influence their calculation as well.
The session timeout lets you set how long a user can remain idle or inactive on your page before the session expires. You can count their return as one session if they return within the set period.
Undoubtedly, while browsing, we all get distracted by our screens or at work. It's easy to lose track of time and forget what we were doing by keeping all the tabs open.
Google Analytics counts a user’s return to a website after an inactive period as a new session.
Based on this, if a user returns to the website several times on the same day after a period of being away, Google Analytics will report it as multiple sessions.
Although essentially it is the same person, the user count remains the same, and the session count increases based on the number of times they log in after inactive sessions.
This can also result in an inflated number of sessions and a higher bounce rate, which may give you an inaccurate picture of user engagement.
To ensure that your analytics data accurately reflect user engagement, it's a good idea to revisit the default session timeout regularly.
Depending on the content and purpose of your site, consider extending the session timeout to 4 hours, which is a more reasonable timeframe for most websites.
When you're trying to optimize your website’s performance, two important metrics that come into play are Bounce Rate and Engagement Rate.
Bounce Rate measures the number of visitors who leave a website after only visiting one page, while Engagement Rate measures the level of engagement that a user has with a website.
Understanding the difference between these two metrics and how they are impacted by session timeout is crucial for optimizing the user experience and analyzing user behavior.
Bounce Rate is a metric in Google Analytics that measures the number of visitors who visit your site but don't click on any internal links or interact with your site in any other way and leave without visiting any other page on the website. In other words, the visitors who leave a website after only visiting one page.
The bounce rate is calculated by a single-page session divided by the total session.
Bounce Rate = Single page Session / Total session
A high bounce rate usually indicates that the website or landing page is not providing the information or experience the user was looking for.
In Google Analytics 4, the bounce rate has been removed and replaced by a new metric called Engagement Rate.
Engagement Rate is a metric that measures the level of engagement a user has with a website.
It measures the amount of time a user spends on a website, the number of pages they view, and the number of interactions they have with the website, such as clicking links or filling out forms.
A high engagement rate indicates that a website provides valuable content and a good user experience, leading to users spending more time on the website.
The engagement rate can be calculated by dividing the number of engaged sessions by the total number of sessions over a specified time period.
Engagement rate = Number of engaged sessions / Total number of sessions over a specified time period
In addition to engagement rate, other metrics in GA4 that are based on engagement rate include,
You can deep dive and stay on top of all Google Analytics metrics in one place on our MetricBase page.
Engaged Session metric shows the average time spent on your site by users who are actively engaged in some way, such as scrolling down the page, interacting with a popup, or clicking a link.
The engaged session metric can help you identify pages where users spend most of their time and help you prioritize which pages should receive more attention.
According to Google Analytics, an engaged session is the number of sessions that:
This metric shows how many active sessions each user has on your site compared to others in your dataset. The higher this number is, the better!
The engaged session can be calculated by dividing the number of engaged sessions by the total number of users on your site.
Engaged session per user = Number of engaged sessions / Total number of users on your site
Average engagement time is the average amount of time visitors spend on a website during an engaged session.
In Google Analytics 4, the average engagement time is calculated by adding up the engagement durations per active user.
The number provides much insight into your user's journey on your website.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for setting session timeout duration. It depends on the type of website, user behavior, and other factors—so you'll need to experiment with different durations until you find out what works best in your situation.
However, here are some general guidelines that can be followed to determine the right session timeout duration:
This means that if users spend an average of 5 minutes engaged with your site, setting a 10-minute or longer timeout duration is recommended.
To choose the right session timeout duration, consider the following factors:
User Behavior: Analyze the user behavior on your website to determine the average engagement time. This will help you determine the right session timeout duration.
Website Type: Different types of websites have different user behaviors. For example, a news website may have a higher session timeout duration compared to an e-commerce website.
Conversion Goals: If your website has conversion goals, such as filling out a form or making a purchase, the session timeout duration should be set to at least the average time it takes for a user to complete a conversion.
The following are examples of common mistakes that can lead to inaccurate data collection and analysis when setting session timeout duration.
Setting the Session Timeout Duration Too Short: A session timeout that is set too short will result in a high number of sessions and low engagement time, which can lead to inaccurate data analysis.
Not Revisiting the Session Timeout Setting: As web users' needs change over time, it’s important to regularly review the session timeout setting on your website.
Not taking advantage of monitoring tools: One of the most common mistakes businesses make is neglecting to regularly monitor website performance and analytics data.
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The session timeout in Google Analytics is a critical aspect of website data analysis. It impacts the accuracy of the data collected, the user experience, and the analysis of user behavior. Understanding how session timeout works and how to set it appropriately is essential for SaaS founders and digital marketers.
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