Am I the only person worried about Google Analytics’ Session Timeout being abused?

Google Analytics

So Google Analytics is updating itself and taking us all with it. Universal Analytics is now out of beta and the times, they are a-changing.

Unique visitors are now users. Visits are now Sessions. And the customisable session timeout clock means that you too can now manipulate your site settings to artificially inflate your web traffic.

Other people see this as a problem, right? It’s not just me?

Or maybe it is just me, but either way, I’m concerned.

Google defines a visit (sorry, a Session) as a period of time when a user is interacting with your site. Which I guess explains why they changed the name of the damn thing because Visit sounds like it’s, you know, the whole of the visit, whereas Session is more nebulous and the kind of language people use when they don’t want to admit that their Analytics software is no longer tracking everything I do on a site as one activity.

Visits/Sessions end when a user either:

  • leaves the site
  • closes the browser
  • does nothing for 30 minutes

30 minutes is a fairly arbitrary number, which is probably why Google wants the site owners to customise it to reflect the nature of their site. Site with lots of content may want to expand the time limit, sites with little content, reduce it. Or at least that’s the idea.

But when you reduce the length of time a session can last, won’t that lead to more sessions being recorded by Google Analytics?

As Google says:

When a user, say Bob, arrives on your site, Analytics starts counting from that moment. If 30 minutes pass without any kind of interaction from Bob, the session ends. However, every time Bob interacts with an element (like an event, social interaction, or opens a new page), Google Analytics resets the expiration time by adding on an additional 30 minutes from the time of that interaction.

Which makes sense – it’s always 30 minutes of dead time before a session is considered closed.

But it is sensible? People use the internet now a lot differently than they used to do. I never have less than eight different tabs open in two browsers, and most of those stay open all day. If I interact with each tab roughly once an hour in my work day I’m going to end up racking up eight sessions per tab, at least.

If I go twice an hour, that could stretch to up to 16 sessions, and that’s only if the site is using the default 30 minute window. If they are, shall we say, less concerned with accuracy and more concerned with selling online ad space they might decide to reduce their time out window down to 5 minutes, at which point my standard daily use could stretch into the dozens or hundreds of sessions.

And that’s an analytics stat a less than scrupulous sales manager can really sell in.

My main problem here is not that I want to do this – I have some scruples – but that I have up until this point I considered the Visits/Sessions metric as the most important one in Google Analytics and now it has to be considered unreliable.

Because yes, anyone could have manipulated this before with some basic java script and I guess some people probably did, but now ANYONE can manipulate this. There’s a damn dropdown menu FFS.

And if the Sessions stat is unreliable, what does that leave us with?

Users/Unique visitors has always been an odd one because people access websites from so many devices – phones, tablets, work and home computers – it could be tracking me as four different users. And I’m still not clear how well GA differentiates multiple devices on the same shared system.

Pageviews is the closest to the old term “hits” and the biggest number on the board so I guess I can still use that. But one of my sites had a recent error which boosted pageviews to the 404 page by a factor of about a million (strangely user experience was unaffected, it was just in the analytics tracking) and massively distorted all analytics reporting for two months. And so, that’s hardly reliable either.

Pages per visit (or Pages/Session as it’s now termed) is tainted, Average time spent on site has never been a favourite of mine as it counts all bounces as 0 second visits, and surely Bounce rate will suffer from those one pageview sessions it tracks when I refresh or otherwise interact with one of my tabs.

My Google-fu failed me on finding any commentary on this issue, so maybe it just hasn’t registered with the wider digital sphere yet. Universal Analytics only just came out of beta here, and I can’t be the only digital person who’s reluctant to instantly apply an upgrade to my many many analytics properties. Or maybe I’m over worrying. But as we go forward I really do wonder if I’m going to have to provide my sales contacts with long explanations that that other competitor site might say they have X thousands of visits more than us, but they may well be cooking the books. It’s not an accusation I want to level at anyone, but I really don’t see how I could trust any published data that uses Google Analytics Session numbers as its backbone.

Lies, damn lies and statistics indeed.

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