Google Analytics Mystery: More Visitors Than Visits

Google Analytics Mysteries: More Visitors Than Visits

Cardinal Path article

I recently encountered a situation where a client was confused by a phenomenon that, at first glance, looks very odd indeed. They had set up a report based on a single page, meaning that they excluded everything but a particular page from their query, and were returning visits. When they, by chance, looked at unique visitors, they were shocked to find that this number was larger than their number of visits. Let's have a look at this and see what sort of explanation we can find for this bit of strangeness.

Note: if at any time you see a term that you don't quite understand, try having a look at my Web Analytics Primer.

How Are Visits And Visitors Counted?

Visits are counted on the first 'hit' or pageview for a given session and can encompass a number of unique pages and pageviews. Visits are counted on the 'session' level, and so cannot be related directly or seamlessly with stats that describe individual pages or uniquely identifiable visitors.

Unique visitors is a raw count of visitors. There is, actually, no such thing as "Non-Unique Visitors", but "unique visitors" is the term used in Google Analytics, so we'll have to live with it. Unique visitors are counted on the 'visitor' level, rather than per page or per session. There can be multiple visitors for a given page (regardless of where or how many times that page occurs across all of an unique visitor's sessions), and a visitor can have multiple sessions.

Solving The Mystery

Looking back at the introduction, it appears that the situation arose because we decided to include only the visits and visitors corresponding to a single page, and filtered out the rest. When we remove this filter, the count for visitors and visits reverts to something that makes more sense - considering all the pages on a website together, visits should always be greater than unique visitors. Because this is the norm, we expect it to apply in any case, even when we filter out everything but one page. However, things start looking differently sometimes, and it's because of the different ways in which visits and visitors are counted.

Since visits are counted just on the first pageview and are counted on the "session" level, when we try to separate one page out of it all we might find that we have fewer visits than visitors for that given page.

In this case, when looking at a single page on its own, what "visits" really means in this case is "visits where the particular page we're looking at was the first one encountered during that visit". Visitors, however, being on the "visitor" level, still means what it always means: "any visitor who ever visited that particular page or group of pages". This is why you might see a very small difference in visits and entrances (usually single-digit percentages).

Note that this differs subtly from "entrances" because multiple entrances can occur and still be counted as a single visit, as long as both entrances occur within 30 minutes of one another.

Invisible Visits - Sneaky Visitors

Visitors vs. Visits

Let's have a look at the two visits shown above. Both visitors have two visits where they viewed three pages each. The first visitor hit PG8 as their first page for one of their visits (in green), while the second visitor hit PG8 as their second page on their visit (in red).

The first visitor's visit, or session, begins on PG8, and they get counted - we'll see them as a visit when we look at just PG8 (that's why it's green - it got tracked).

The second visitor's visit begins with another page, PG5, but they view PG8 later. When we look at PG8 alone, that particular visit is not counted (which is why it's red - it didn't get tracked).

However, both of these visitors, at some point, viewed PG8, and so both are counted as visitors who have been to PG8 when we look at PG8 on it's own. For these two visitors and PG8, we will have counted 2 visitors, 1 visit, and 2 pageviews.

Mystery Solved, Level Up!

Visitors - Visits - Pages

This all just goes to show you that things are not always as they seem when you start playing around with filters. A general principle to follow is that levels adjacent to one another in the "visitor, visit/session, page" hierarchy can influence the level adjacent to it. Consider the visitor and page to be adjacent, as though each level were one of the points on a triangle, as you can see in the image above. Now to seek out another mystery to solve!

If you have an unsolved mystery, be sure to leave a comment.

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Sjors Peerdeman | August 2012

Thanks for the article. Indeed, when visits are used as a metric for the dimension 'Page', 'visits' actually means 'entry points'. For example, see the standard report Content/Site Content/Landing Pages.

I think the metric the client was looking for was unique pageviews: the number of sessions in which a certain page was viewed. GA is strange like that sometimes.

Moot | September 2012

Sjors, you are correct! Thanks for this.

Alvaro | August 2012

Hello Jordan, excellent article, very informative! Thank you for sharing.

Only one question: you say that "... considering all the pages on a website together, unique visitors will always be greater than visits ..." It's not the oposite, visits greater than unique visitors?

Reg Charie | August 2012

->considering all the pages on a website together, unique visitors will always be greater than visits.

I am sorry , I do not see how this can be.
A unique visitor can visit more than one page.
That would make visits the greater.

->However, both of these visitors, at some point, viewed PG8, and so both are counted as visitors who have been to PG8 when we look at PG8 on it's own. For these two visitors and PG8, we will have counted 2 visitors, 1 visit, and 2 pageviews.

That does not make sense. IF 2 visitors looked at PG8 that would count as 2 visitors, 2 visits, and 2 pageviews.

Ian | September 2012

No, if you read the article again you'll see that a visit is only counted at the page level if it was the first page the visitor visited in that visit/session. So it would indeed be 2 visitors (who viewed that page), 1 visit (who visited that page first in this session) and 2 pageviews (self-explanatory).

Jordan Louis (Cardinal Path) | August 2012

Alvaro, Reg Charlie - You're absolutely right on that point. I edited the text to correct that little typo. Thanks for spotting that!

Reg Charlie - In most cases, that would be absolutely right. But in this particularly mysterious case, when we're filtering out traffic from all pages but one (P8 in this example), only one visit would appear in the report, despite two visits having technically been counted. It is at this confusing scenario that this article is aimed. I may arrange to have some clarifying edits done to the passage you quoted.

YoraY | September 2012

sorry this is not true.
the results of the following 2 example above are:

for each visitor no matter which profile: 1 unique visitor, 1 visit
visitor 1 landing page: PG8
visitor 2 landing page: PG5

Jordan Louis | September 2012

Hi YoraY - thanks for your comment. What you have described is how it should work in 95% of cases, and in that I agree with you. What my article covers, however, is a relatively rare exception where the Google Analytics interface will display a result that contradicts this general rule, and why it happens.

Take care!

YoraY | September 2012

Jordan, sorry i had to disagree with your post a bit. i did say that after testing it.
few days ago i saw something briefly on potential client reports that could show what your talking about - so now im not that sure :S

anyway i did test it - and that's sure a weird behavior by GA - thanks for bringing this up.

Joel | September 2012

Wow, very helpful! Was scratching my head when I saw this data myself.

Will need to remember this whenever I filter data, which is often! Haha

Michael Hayes | October 2012

You say, "Note that this differs subtly from "entrances" because multiple entrances can occur and still be counted as a single visit, as long as both entrances occur within 30 minutes of one another."

I always thought the definition of an entrance was the first visit of a session. So under what circumstances does a pageview within 30 mins of the previous one become an entrance rather than a continuation of the current session?

Is it when it comes from a different campaign/traffic source? (Though I believe Google changed the definition of a session so this starts a new session)

Rubens | January 2013

This happens only in Custom reports, like stated in http://support.google.com/analytics/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2934985&t... ?

Because I did a controlled test in a blog and all the visits were counted in the filtered profile including only '/mydir' pages (and I made visits where 'mydir' wasn´t the first page).

I have another unsolved mistery:
1) I have a filtered profile to '/mydir'
2) I created an advanced segment to '/mydir' in the main profile.

The visits and unique visitors numbers match between 1 and 2, day by day.

But the deduplicated number of unique visitors, for the period, is much higher in the number 2, the main profile with the advanced segment.

BleacherViews | January 2013

Thanks for this post. I am also at a loss on how to determine actual number of unique visitors to my site. I embedded a hits counter but when I cross checked the numbers given by the hit counter with a website grader, the number does not match and the difference is quite wide actually. This is even considering the days difference between the grader and my hits counter. At nay rate, your post clarified a few things for me so Thanks a lot for that.

Mre POwer!!

aokuk | February 2013

Interesting article indeed! but i'm facing a problem and don't know how to make the correct interpretation. I've extracted analytic data for a specific page in a specific day, and i get:

Example1.html (analytic data for 01.24.2013)

Pageviews: 61
Unique Pageviews: 52
Entrances: 22

So, according to Jordan has been 22 direct visits and 61 surfing visits to Example1.html, but I don't know how to interpret the 52 unique pageviews.

Unique Pageviews= number of visits during which the Example1.html was viewed at least once.

Pageviews= total number of pages viewed. Repeated views are counted.

That means the difference is in repeated visits? So:

Visit Visitor 1= Example1.html then goes to OtherPage1.html and the back to Example1.html

then we'd get (for Example1.html):

Pageviews: 2
Unique Pageviews:1
Entrances:1

Visit Visitor 2= HomePage.html then goes to OtherPage2.html, then Example1.html

then we'd get (as total for Example1.html)

Pageviews: 3
Unique Pageviews: 2
Entrances: 1

is it correct?

Jaswinder | December 2013

I am just beginner with Google Analytics, so don't know much about these things. As you explained very clearly, it seems easy to understand and thanks for explaining briefly.

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