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Google Analytics: New vs Returning Visitors

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Come Back Soon

Photo: “Come Back Soon” by Omar Omar on Flickr

I’m looking at the Audience tab of Google Analytics. In particular, the simple pie chart over at the right of the Audience Overview page that has a key showing ‘New Visitor’ and ‘Returning Visitor’.

This may seem like so simple a metric that I can almost hear you sigh and say “well, duh! A new visitor is someone who hasn’t been before and a returning visitor is someone who has!” – and you would be right.

However, this isn’t the whole story. Being a machine, Google has to put a system in place to determine who is new and who is coming round again. And once it’s worked that out, what does that mean for how your site is performing?

In its simplest form, Google Analytics creates a cookie (a small text file) on a visitor’s computer when they visit your site. They will only do this with the visitor’s permission. Then when that visitor returns, Analytics reads the cookie and says “AHA! Returning visitor!”. But if the visitor has not given permission for a cookie to be stored, or is on a different computer, or on their phone, or is using a different browser on their computer, or if they had a problem deleted all their cookies… or… or… or… then Google won’t find the cookie and will nod sagely to itself and say “Welcome, new visitor” and put a mark in the ‘New’ column.

So it is almost guaranteed that these figures will be at least a little inaccurate, and always weighted on the side of having too many New rather than too many Returning Visitors listed.

How does this help you then? Well, even if the exact numbers are a little off, the New vs Returning chart can still alert you to the success of a campaign or potential problems in your site.

If, for example, you have a really high number of New Visitors this month, it could be because you have been publicising heavily – or it could mean that you’ve been linked to by another source that’s sending you a lot of traffic, or that some content on your site is performing particularly well in search engines at the moment.

To work out what’s causing this, you need to explore the other reports in Google Analytics because no one report in Analytics gives the whole story. You can see a detailed report of New vs Returning under Audience > Behaviour > New vs Returning – but you might also want to…

  • look at your Bounce Rate – how many of those new visitors were arriving and then going away again immediately?
  • check how long visitors stayed on the site for if they looked at more than one page. Have a look at the report you’ll find at Audience > Behaviour > Engagement
  • review location-specific numbers – you can find these under Demographics > Location (or Language) then use the Secondary Dimension dropdown to choose Visitors > Visitor Type which will show you how many new and returning visitors are coming from each country.

Secondary Dimension - Visitor Type

You can use the Secondary Dimension dropdown on other reports too.

Mostly you’ll be happy to get more visitors, of course. However, a flood of new visitors who aren’t returning might indicate that you need to look at:

    • are the search terms bringing in visitors appropriate to the content? Review the report at Traffic Sources > Sources > Search > Organic + Secondary Dimension

has someone linked to your content in a misleading way that you might need to ask them to adjust? Traffic Sources > Sources > Referrals + Secondary Dimensionare you making the most of opportunities to send visitors on to other relevant content on your site – whether that’s other blog posts, or highlighting related products and services you offer?

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