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Everything you need to know about Session timeout in Google Analytics

The Session timeout setting in Google Analytics lets you specify how long your website session should last, before GA automatically closes the current session.
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Setting the right session timeout for your website is really important for measuring conversions, reports, and user experience.

Session timeout can determine the success of your Analytics implementation. Session timeouts can cause serious practical problems and even data loss for many website owners who do not fully understand the impact it can have on your data.

A long session timeout could lead to a high bounce rate and a reduction in efficiency, a short session timeout could influence the quality of your information. But what exactly is session timeout and how does it affect Google Analytics? This article aims to answer this question

What exactly is a session?

The term session refers to individual interaction with your site and it shows the average time spent on your site by users over a period of time.

The time a user spends on your website is counted as a single session. If the same user returns to your site later in the day, that becomes another session.

What is a session timeout?

Session timeout represents the event occurring when a user does not perform any action on a website during an interval (defined by a web server). The event, on the server side, changes the status of the user session to ‘invalid’ (ie. “not used anymore”) and instructs the web server to destroy it (deleting all data contained in it).

In simple terms, session timeouts refer to the time the web server decides that there is no activity by a user on the website and terminates the session. 

Why do sessions in Google Analytics 4 (GA4) don't match with Universal Analytics?

You will see the drastic change in session metrics when moving from Universal Analytics to GA4.

NOTE: Google has stated that all Universal Analytics properties must migrate to Google Analytics 4 by July 2023.

So it's high time to discuss the difference between Universal Analytics and GA4.

  1. For Universal Analytics sessions, the minimum timeout setting is 1 minute, and the maximum is 4 hours. A GA4 session has a minimum duration of 5 minutes and a maximum duration of 7 hours 55 minutes. The default session timeout for GA4 and Universal Analytics is 30 minutes.
  1.  Universal Analytics sessions automatically expire at midnight, but GA4 sessions don't. That means that if you're using Universal Analytics and a user is browsing your website until 11:59:59 pm, this session will end at midnight even if he continues to engage with your website. At 12:00 am, a new  Universal Analytics session will start for the same user. 

    However, if you're using Google Analytics 4 and your user is on your website until 11:59:59 pm and continues to engage with it after midnight, then this same session will not be counted again; instead, it will be considered part of tomorrow's session data.
  1.  If a user returns to your website via a different campaign source in the middle of an active session, the existing  Universal Analytics session expires and a new Universal Analytics Session starts. 

    Whereas, if a user returns to your website via a different campaign source in the middle of an active session, Google Analytics (GA4) does not treat the session as ended, and no new GA4 Session is started.
  1. Google Analytics 4 has replaced the popular bounce rate metric with a new engagement rate, which is arguably more helpful. You can use it to get valuable information about how often users interact with your website or app instead of just measuring how many people leave it.
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Bounce rate vs Engagement rate

Because bounce rate can be affected depending on the session timeouts, it is relevant to discuss bounce rate vs engagement rate. In Google Analytics 4 bounce rate is no longer measured. As a result, you will track a new metric: Engagement rate.

Bounce Rate

When someone visits a page on your site, loads it, but doesn't click on any internal links or interact with your site in any other way and leaves without visiting any other page on the site, that is called a bounce. 

Bounce rate is calculated by single page session divided by the total session

Engagement rate

Engagement rate can be calculated by dividing the number of engaged sessions by the 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, 

  1. Engaged session, 
  2. Engaged session per user, and
  3. Average engagement time 
  1. Engaged Session 

    This 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. This metric can be helpful in identifying pages where users spend most of their time and help you prioritize which pages should receive more attention. It is possible to extend the engaged session from 10 seconds to 60 seconds.

    As per Google Analytics, An engaged session is the number of sessions that,
  •  Lasts longer than 10 seconds or
  •  Had a conversion event, or
  •  Had 2 or more page or screen views

    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!
  1. Engaged session per user

    Engaged session can be calculated by dividing the number of engaged session by the total number of users on your site.

  1. Average Engagement time 

    For Google Analytics 4, the average engagement time is calculated by adding up the engagement durations per active user.

    The number provides a lot of insight into your user's journey on your website.

Why should you revisit the default session timeout?

The session timeout lets you set how long a user can remain idle or inactive on your page before the session expires. If they return within the set period, you can count their return as one session

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 in the same day after a period of being away, Google Analytics will report it as multiple sessions although essentially it is the same person, this inflates the number of sessions and also the bounce rate for that page. 

That is why keeping the short timeframe makes no sense. Depending on the content and the type of website, it is a good idea to extend your session timeout period to 4 hours. 

Does changing session timeout affect other metrics?

The short answer is - yes. 

Based on the session, you will make decisions that significantly impact your business. That is because, if you've set the time period to 30 minutes, you'll be misled into believing you have more visits, a higher bounce rate, and a lower conversion rate than you actually do.

By changing this setting, you will have a significant impact on many Google Analytics reports, since it changes the underlying rule for commonly used metrics such as 'Session'.

In addition, ecommerce conversion rate, goal conversion, pages per session, bounce rate, etc are just a few of many metrics that use this as a basis for calculation.

If someone returns to your website within a few hours on the same day, Google Analytics will record each visit as a separate session. You can avoid this by setting the maximum session timeout to the default value in Google Analytics. 

Universal Analytics has a maximum session timeout of 4 hours, while Google Analytics 4 has a maximum session timeout of 7 hours 55 minutes. Since these are vital business metrics, it's better late than never to get them right from now on.

How to change the web session timeout in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

You can change the session timeout by following the steps below,

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 settings.

STEP 4: Then click on the adjust session timeout

STEP 5: Here adjust the timer for the session timeout and adjust the timer for the engaged sessions for your web page and save.

How to change the web session timeout in Universal Analytics?

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

  1. First, navigate to the admin section of your Google Analytics account
  2. In the tracking info section, click Session settings, and then change the session timeout settings.

How to change the campaign session timeout in Universal Analytics?

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 with respect to its goals.

Steps to change the campaign session timeout in Universal Analytics,

  1. First, you have to navigate to the admin section of your Google Analytics account 
  2. In the tracking info section, click the session setting to change the campaign session timeout.

Final Thoughts

In Google Analytics, the concept of session is the key aggregation unit of all the data you work with.

There is no compulsion to keep this default setting. In fact there are strong arguments for changing it to a significantly longer time period. Mainly because modern humans are naturally distracted when they're in front of digital devices. 

So we recommend changing this to a longer time period so that you can get a more accurate picture of activity on your site.

Measure user engagement on your website with Dataflo's Favourite Dashboard
Get a 360 degree view of your business performance with GA4 Dashboard today
Measure user engagement on your website with Dataflo's Favourite Dashboard

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