The Issue With The Google Analytics users metric

February 4, 2020

The Google Analytics users metric is used by many to track the number of visitors on their websites. I have even seen marketing departments using this to verify their own work.
Is this a viable solution? My answer is a definite NO. Not before knowing the caveats. In the following article I will try to explain why, and come up with approaches to measuring your website traffic.

The technical stuff

I can almost sense you browsing past this section, but bear with me while I try to explain this as best I can.

When talking about how the Google Analytics users metric works, we also need to talk about cookies, and not the ones your mom makes. The way Google Analytics keeps track of you is by setting a cookie once you enter a site that has Google Analytics enabled. They also assign a unique identifier to you, in order to keep track of new and returning users. So everytime you revisit a site, Google Analytics will look for a cookie stored in your browser, and marks you as a returning user.

Google Analytics also uses this cookie to track what you do while on the site. Which sub pages you visit, how much time you spent on each page and so on.

The problems

So what are the problems with the approach Google uses, as explained in the “Technical stuff” section? There are many, and I will try to go through a few of them here.

One of the problems is that cookies are not shared between browsers. So if you start using a  new browser Google Analytics cannot detect that you are a returning user, and will treat you as a new user. This issue also holds true when you access from different devices. Users can also disable, or delete cookies in their browser, leaving you with little chance to track anything.

Another problem that could have a great impact on the accuracy of your data is the new GDPR directives regarding cookies. For more information regarding cookies and GDPR compliance read this.

One major issue has already had an impact on the Google Analytics users metric, maybe unbeknownst to you. In the early 2017 Google changed their algorithm that calculates the users metric. This affects data prior to 23rd of August 2016, so if you try to get data before, chances are that you will see something similar to this:

A screenshot taken from the Google Analytics API explorer
Take notice of the start date in the link. The date is before the 23rd of August, and because of that Google Analytics cannot calculate the results correctly using the new algorithm. Therefore they have  apparently decided not to show any data at all. If you set the date after the 23rd of August, all is well and your data should reappear. Google has not at this time of writing truly acknowledged this as a bug, even though many developers around the world have reported it.

What can you do to get around these problems?

When it comes to some of the cookie issues and inaccuracies in relation to that, there is not much you can do. If you know your way around javascript there are things you can do to circumvent it. I would definitely not recommend it though, as it goes against the GDPR directives.What you can do is to account for this when looking at your data. At least now you know that the Google Analytics users metric can be relied upon only by looking at it as indicative results. This is still very useful, and it can at least give you a sense of what you are trending towards.In regard to the Google Analytics users metric and the issue with historic data not being correctly calculated, there is in fact something you can do, and it is as easy as flipping a switch. You just need to sign in to your Google Analytics account and follow these steps.
What this does is that it forces Google Analytics to apply the old calculation algorithm on the users metrics, and presto! Your data is back again. The drawback of this approach is that you won’t benefit from the optimized calculation Google implemented in 2017.If you don’t have data stretching back that far, you should not be affected by this.

In conclusion

Google Analytics is a powerful tool, but she can be a feisty lady to dance with.By now you should, at least, have an idea about what to do, and to which degree you can rely on the data collected. The Google Analytics users metric cannot be trusted as a definite truth for the reasons outlined in this blog post. Still, we can, at least, get an idea of which number of users utilize our site by using the metric.If you have experienced similar issues, or if you think there is something I have missed, feel free to comment in the comment section below. Also, if you liked this article, we have a newsletter you can sign up to receive news about future blog posts. Don’t worry though, you can always unsubscribe if it’s not to your liking. 

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