There’s been a lot of talk recently on some forums and message boards about what kinds of cookies Google Analytics sets on a person’s computer, what they do, and how long they last. So, I’ve decided to blog about it. However, be warned – there is a lot of “geek” talk here, but I’ll try my very best to break it all down in the simplest language possible.
The Very Basics – The Google Analytics Cookies
When someone visits a website that is properly coded with Google Analytics Tracking Code, that website sets four first-party cookies on the visitor’s computer automatically.
…Wait a Minute, What’s a “First-Party Cookie”?
A “first-party cookie” is a cookie that is set by that same website. This term exists because there are also “third-party cookies”, which are cookies that are set by other third party websites (you don’t even need to visit that third party website to have a cookie set – don’t worry, Google Analytics ONLY uses first-party cookies).
So, What Are These Four Cookies?
Well, there can be up to five different cookies that a website with Google Analytics tracking code sets on your computer. However, four of them are automatically set, while the fifth one is an optional cookie. Let’s take a look at each one.
The __utma Cookie
This cookie is what’s called a “persistent” cookie, as in, it never expires (technically, it does expire…in the year 2038…but for the sake of explanation, let’s pretend that it never expires, ever). This cookie keeps track of the number of times a visitor has been to the site pertaining to the cookie, when their first visit was, and when their last visit occurred. Google Analytics uses the information from this cookie to calculate things like Days and Visits to purchase.
The __utmb and __utmc Cookies
The B and C cookies are brothers, working together to calculate how long a visit takes. __utmb takes a timestamp of the exact moment in time when a visitor enters a site, while __utmc takes a timestamp of the exact moment in time when a visitor leaves a site. __utmb expires at the end of the session. __utmc waits 30 minutes, and then it expires. You see, __utmc has no way of knowing when a user closes their browser or leaves a website, so it waits 30 minutes for another pageview to happen, and if it doesn’t, it expires.
The __utmz Cookie
Mr. __utmz keeps track of where the visitor came from, what search engine you used, what link you clicked on, what keyword you used, and where they were in the world when you accessed a website. It expires in 15,768,000 seconds – or, in 6 months. This cookie is how Google Analytics knows to whom and to what source / medium / keyword to assign the credit for a Goal Conversion or an Ecommerce Transaction. __utmz also lets you edit its length with a simple customization to the Google Analytics Tracking code.
The __utmv Cookie
If you are making use of the user-defined report in Google Analytics, and have coded something on your site for some custom segmentation, the __utmv cookie gets set on the person’s computer, so that Google Analytics knows how to classify that visitor. The __utmv cookie is also a persistent, lifetime cookie.
That’s all Great, but What if Someone Deletes These Cookies from their Computers?
Unfortunately, you cannot do anything about someone deleting their cookies from their computers. The __utmb and __utmc cookies are gone before you know it, but the __utma, __utmz, and __utmv cookie (when applicable) will remain for a long period of time. Whenever someone deletes the __utma cookie, they are in essence deleting their history with your website. When they visit your website again, they are considered a brand new visitor, just as they were the first time they came around.
How Concerned Should I Be about This?
My thanks to Justin Cutroni’s “Google Analytics Shortcuts” book for the inspiration on this post :).
Last week, one of our clients confessed to me that they were extremely surprised at the high amount of traffic their “Leadership” page had been receiving. They were surprised that so much of the traffic that had been landing on their homepage eventually found its way to their “Leadership” page.
My response to that statement was “…don’t be surprised by that – I’ve also noticed how much traffic some of our other client’s “About Us” pages receive, too…”. Now, I ask the readers of this blog to start to take notice of where your traffic is going as well. Chances are good that your traffic is going to your “About Us” / “Leadership” / “Executive Team” pages.
What does this mean?
In my opinion, this means that, at some level, the visitors to your site are interested in your company. They are trying to learn more about the people in charge of your company, whether they are simply curious, or checking credentials as some sort of measuring stick. They probably want to know the story of your executive team, and their roles within your organization before contacting you, and (hopefully) doing business with you.
What should be on my “About Us” page?
This is of course going to be different for each company. There are also no set rules or guidelines, so I can only tell you what I like and what I expect to find. When I visit a company’s “About Us” page, I like to be able to clearly and fully understand what the company is and what the company does. Depending on the type of company, I also like to see a brief list or summary of main services offered. Then, I scroll down or look back at the navigation of the site and locate a “Executive Team” page, where I can see the names, faces, and short bios of the people in charge of the company that I am interested in or curious about. An “Executive Team” section or page adds trust and credibility to your business in the online world, and a company gets those extra “Trust Points” with me.
How should I market / how should I put together my “About Us” page?
The concept of “different strokes for different folks” applies here. If you consider your business a serious one, you should keep your “About Us” / “Executive Team” page(s) that way as well. Keep the bios of the executive team short and to the point, but highlight whatever accomplishments, certifications, and degrees the person has. A nice color photo of each member wearing a suit also adds a clean-cut professional touch. On these pages, I would let the content speak for itself – there is no need to slap on your huge-orange-flashing “FREE QUOTE” feature graphic here. Keep the paragraph about each executive brief, but loaded with current responsibility and biographical information. A good experiment here would be to see what happens when you add a calm, inviting call-to-action image to this page. Depending on the nature of your visitors, it may not have any affect, or they may react positively to it and pursue the call-to-action.
What if I don’t have an “About Us” page? Do I even need one?
Whether you sell bean bags or real estate, I would strongly recommend you integrate an “About Us” page on your website that explains who you are and what you do in a very clear manner. Or, if your “About Us” page is cryptic and uninformative, I would advise a clean-up project on that page.
Remember, these points are merely my opinions. All that I know is that websites with an “About Us” or “Leadership” page seem to find a very high amount of traffic going there, generating a lot of pageviews. Therefore, as the saying goes, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Another good experiment that someone could conduct would be to see what happens to the traffic as a whole when the “About Us” page is removed from the website navigation. I have a strong feeling that your traffic will visit less pages as a result, and you may even find yourself with fewer leads or conversions, as well.
A very popular Google Analytics report amongst the Campaign Management and Campaign Strategist teams here at MoreVisibility is the AdWords Campaigns report, located within the Traffic Sources section. This report is fantastic, as it pulls in click, impression, and click-through rate data straight from your Google AdWords account, and integrates it within the Google Analytics system.
This report really makes our lives easier, as we don’t have to toggle back and forth between two different systems. All of our Google AdWords Campaigns, Ad Groups, and Keywords are all in GA, and we can even see how much we spent! This report is probably one of the most under-rated features of all of Google Analytics.
Anyway, let’s talk about the title of this post, which is another very common question that I get asked. First of all, let’s define both “Visits” and “Clicks” – this is exactly how Google Analytics defines them:
Visits – The number of Visits to your site
Clicks – The number of Clicks on your search ad(s)
Clicks are pretty simple to understand – a person clicks on your ad, a click is registered, and counted as such. Visits is the tricky one. Visits counts the number of unique sessions created by your visitors. A unique session is basically a connection between a user and a webserver (your website).
There are a few different reasons why these two metrics are always different from each other, in the exact same date-range:
Multiple Clicks – There is nothing stopping a person from clicking on your ad multiple times in a specific date-range. No, it’s not click fraud, it’s probably comparison shopping. They click on your ad once, they go back and click on a competitor’s ad, then they go back again and click on your ad again, because they liked your offer or website better :). AdWords will record both clicks in that same session; however, Analytics only counts that as one visit, as the session was never terminated (they left your site, but the connection was still alive / their browser was still open). AdWords = 2 Clicks, Analytics = 1 Visit.
Multiple Visits – This is very close to the opposite of the first reason. Someone can click on your ad, close their browser or shut down their computer. Later, they can come back to your site via a bookmark, or if they remember your URL, they’ll type it in manually in the address bar. In this case, AdWords = 1 Click, Analytics = 2 Visits.
The Impatient Visitor – There’s also nothing stopping someone from clicking on your AdWords ad, and while your website is loading, they may get tired of waiting around for your website to load and go back to Google Search, or hit the “Stop” button on their browser. AdWords will count that click, but chances are that Analytics will not have had enough time to register that person as a visitor. Here, it’s AdWords = 1, Analytics = 0.
Invalid Clicks – There is always the issue of invalid clicks on your AdWords ads. The Google AdWords system automatically filters out invalid clicks from your account before you even see them. However, if these clicks land on your website, Analytics has no choice but to count those as visits. Analytics can’t automatically filter out “invalid visits” like AdWords can filter out “invalid clicks”. Therefore, the score here can be something along the lines of AdWords = 4, Analytics = 9.
The best possible answer that I can provide for the question “Why are my Visits different from my Clicks?” would be that both metrics are tracked and calculated differently by two completely different systems. Remember, you’re charged for the clicks – the visits are free ;).