Understanding User Metrics in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

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GA4 - Google Analytics 4 is the newest version of Google's analytics platform. While it shares many features with its predecessor, GA4 includes some new capabilities that make it worth taking the time to understand. In this post, we'll take a look at one of the most important aspects of GA4: user metrics. We will cover the difference between four of the user metrics you can find in Google Analytics 4 (GA4); 'Total Users', 'Active Users', 'New Users', and 'Returning Users'. 

Total Users

This metric tells you the total number of people who've been to your website based on the date range selected for your reports. We referred to this as people, but really the total number of users is the total number of reporting identities that have been collected by Google Analytics.

A reporting identity can be a User ID that you've sent to Google Analytics. For example, if people can log in on your website, or app, then you can send your own identifier for each individual to Google Analytics. Or a reporting identity can be a Device ID. If you've implemented GA4 on your website, then this will be the Client ID from the Google Analytics cookie. If you're measuring an app, this will be the identifier from the app installed on the user's device, so the app-instance ID. And if you've enabled Google Signals, then this can be used to identify an individual as they engage with your website or app. You can control how GA4 handles reporting identities for your property.

To check how reporting identifiers are being used, navigate to 'Admin', choose 'Default Reporting Identity' in the property column. You can see the different identifiers Google is using to identify users on the website from here. So if you're sending your own identifier for users, that will be used first. Then if that isn't available, users will be identified by Google Signals and finally, if that isn't available, then the Device ID will be used.

What are Google Signals?

Google Signals is a feature that can give you additional insights about your users. Once enabled, your reports can include aggregated and anonymous data for people who are logged into their Google account as they browse your website. So if someone is logged in and they're opted-in to 'Ad Personalization', then you can see how they engage with your website across multiple devices. This means the feature can improve the accuracy of your user metrics. Google Signals is also required if you want to create remarketing campaigns in Google Ads using audiences from Google Analytics. And it's also required if you want to collect demographic and interest data into your reports.  

How to enable Google Signals?

To enable Google Signals, go to Admin, select 'Data Settings,' and then 'Data Collection.' If the switch at the top is off, it means Google Signals isn't enabled. You'll need to take a minute to read through the details. When you enable Google Signals you are agreeing to Google's Advertising Features Policy, so you might need to adjust your privacy policy and complete some other steps. So it is encouraged that you read through the details. Click the button to enable Google Signals. This will now mean that Google Signals can be used to identify individuals as they access your website.

If you have a smaller-scale website, then you might not see much of a difference in your reports, since only a small percentage of people will be logged into their Google account. So if, like most people, you're not sending your own User ID to Google Analytics. The total number of users you see in your reports will include the total number of Client IDs from the Google Analytics cookie and any available data from Google Signals (if you've enabled the feature).

Active users

A user is considered active when they've had a page on your website visible on their device for at least one second. So if someone navigates straight to your website and

spends at least one second viewing your content, then they will be counted as an active user. But if someone opens your website in a new tab and it's hidden (so it's not in focus), then they won't be considered an active user until they select the tab. So the number of active users is based on the 'user_engagement' event and the 'engagement_time_msec' parameter that is automatically collected by GA4. And you're likely to find these metrics are very similar, but you might have slightly fewer active users compared to total users since some people might open a hidden tab and close it before ever seeing your website.

To see this, navigate to 'Explore,' and create a new exploration report from scratch. Here, enable two metrics for the report, 'Total Users' and 'Active Users,' click 'Apply'. Now add these two metrics under 'Values'. And you may see a difference in numbers here, between the two metrics. This brings us to new and returning users.

New Users

A new user is anybody who is visiting your website for the first time. Google Analytics checks to see if a user has an existing cookie and client ID, if they don't, they're considered a new user in your reports. There are a number of impacts on the number of new users you see in your reports. The main things to consider are that people clearing their cookies will be seen as new users even when they return to your website. Privacy-focused web browsers only save cookies for short periods. And people using multiple devices will also be reported as two separate users (apart from those measured by Google Signals). 

Returning Users

A returning user is someone who has already been to your website. This means Google Analytics has found an existing cookie and client ID in their browser, so your reports will include them in the number of returning users. Since Google Analytics can see they've been to your website before, you can be confident that your number of returning users is accurate. While the number of new users you see in your report is impacted for the reasons we've already covered.

So that's the difference between the 'Total Users', 'Active Users', 'New Users', and 'Returning Users' metrics in GA4. Remember that people need to spend at least one second on your website and your website needs to be visible for them to be counted as active users. New users data can be sketchy while returning users data is mostly accurate.