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An Ultimate Guide to Session Timeout in Google Analytics

Understand the importance of session timeout in Google Analytics and how to optimize your settings for better data analysis.
Session timeout
Session timeout

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“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.

Understanding Sessions in Google Analytics

Do you know how Google Analytics tracks user behavior on a website?

The answer lies in the concept of sessions

What is exactly a Session in Google Analytics?

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.

Google Analytics tracks these sessions to give you a better understanding of how users engage with your website. The interactions can include pageviews, events, and e-commerce transactions.

A visual representation that outlines Google's definition of a session
A visual representation that outlines Google's definition of a session

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.

How Session Timeout Works in Google Analytics

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.

Default Session Timeout Setting in Google Analytics

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). 

How Sessions are Tracked in Google Analytics?

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.

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

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.

Data Streams on Google Analytics

STEP 3: Scroll down and click on the configure tag settings under the Google tag menu.

Configure tag settings on Google Analytics

STEP 4: Then click on the adjust session timeout.

Adjust session timeout on Google Analytics

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.

Adjust session timeout on Google Analytics

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. 

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. Navigate to the "Property" settings in your account.
  3. Click on the “Tracking Info” option, and select “Session Settings.”
  4. Adjust the default session timeout setting to your desired length of time.
  5. Save your changes.

Session settings in Google 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.

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 concerning 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. Navigate to the "Admin" section and select the desired property.
  3. In the property settings, click on "Tracking Info" and then "Campaign Settings."
  4. Modify the "Campaign timeout" to the desired time period (in minutes).
  5. Save your changes.

Session settings in Google 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.

Why do Google Analytics 4 (GA4) sessions not match with Universal Analytics?

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and Universal Analytics sessions do not match because there are significant differences between the two session metrics. 

As Google has announced that all Universal Analytics properties must be migrated to GA4 by July 2023, and it's high time to understand the differences in session metrics.

  1. The minimum session timeout in Universal Analytics is 1 minute, and the maximum is 4 hours, while in GA4, the minimum is 5 minutes, and the maximum is 7 hours and 55 minutes.The default session timeout for both GA4 and Universal Analytics is 30 minutes.
  1. In Universal Analytics, sessions automatically expire at midnight, while in GA4, they do not. This means that if a user is browsing your website until 11:59:59 pm and continues to engage with your website after midnight using Universal Analytics, a new session will start for the same user at 12:00 am. However, if the same scenario happens in GA4, the session will continue and not be considered a new session for the next day.
  1. In Universal Analytics, if a user returns to your website via a different campaign source in the middle of an active session, the existing session expires, and a new session starts. In GA4, the session is not treated as ended, and no new session is started.
  1. GA4 has replaced the bounce rate metric with an engagement rate, which provides more valuable information about how often users interact with your website or app rather than just measuring how many people leave it.

What are the Differences between Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and Universal Analytics?

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!

Data Collection and Privacy

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.

Reports and Analytics

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.

Integration with Other Google Products

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.

Tips for Optimizing Session Timeout Settings

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.

Does changing session timeout affect other metrics in GA4?

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.

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. 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.

Bounce rate vs. Engagement rate

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

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

Formula of Bounce Rate
Formula of Bounce Rate

A high bounce rate usually indicates that the website or landing page is not providing the information or experience the user was looking for.

To learn more about bounce rate in detail, be sure to check out our MetricBase, a place to learn all SaaS Metrics under one roof.

In Google Analytics 4, the bounce rate has been removed and replaced by a new metric called Engagement Rate.

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 

Formula of Engagement Rate
Formula of Engagement Rate

In addition to engagement rate, other metrics in GA4 that are based on engagement rate include, 

  1. Engaged Session 
  2. Engaged Session Per User
  3. Average Engagement Time 

You can deep dive and stay on top of all Google Analytics metrics in one place on our MetricBase page.

Engaged Session

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:

  • 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!

Engaged Session Per User

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 

Formula of Engaged session per user
Formula of Engaged session per user

Average Engagement time

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.

Best Practices for Session Timeout in Universal Analytics and GA4

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:

  • For Universal Analytics, it is recommended to set the session timeout to 30 minutes. This is a standard default setting that works well for most websites.
  • For GA4, the session timeout duration is based on the average engagement time of a user on your website. 

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.

How to Choose the Right Session Timeout Duration?

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.

Common Session Timeout Mistakes to Avoid in GA4

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. 

With tools like Dataflo, businesses can monitor and visualize their website's analytics in real time and receive alerts about website performance, allowing businesses to detect and resolve any issues quickly.

You can integrate Google Analytics using Dataflo in just two simple steps and have your own Google Analytics Dashboard with valuable insights for your essential KPIs and metrics that need attention and regular monitoring in an all-one-single dashboard.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Google Analytics provides you with a wealth of information. But it can be hard to find it all in one place. With Dataflo, you can monitor your website's performance and get real-time alerts about your north star metrics—ensuring that it stays up-to-date and accurate.

Dataflo offers robust features for creating a KPIs dashboard and real-time alerts that let you stay on top of your website's performance—and make informed decisions based on accurate data. So what are you waiting for? Get started with Dataflo today and take your website's analytics to the next level!

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Suvedha loves creating compelling and effective content by using data to inform the content strategy and writing process. She began writing as a way of expressing her ideas and soon the act of writing became cathartic for her. Now this impulse has turned into a full-blown career. Apart from writing, she likes to haunt local bookstores and make impromptu plans with friends and then questioning this decision.

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Suvedha loves creating compelling and effective content by using data to inform the content strategy and writing process. She began writing as a way of expressing her ideas and soon the act of writing became cathartic for her. Now this impulse has turned into a full-blown career. Apart from writing, she likes to haunt local bookstores and make impromptu plans with friends and then questioning this decision.

Get your metric right inside your slack workspace.