As digital marketers, we have the tools to collect specific data from every interaction an online user will have with a brand, from their initial click on social media, to what they did and how long they spent on each webpage. Being the analytical pros that we are, we often get questions from our clients about what certain metrics mean and why they are important for their business. Some of the most common analytical questions we get are questions about the inconsistencies between sessions and clicks, especially since they appear to mean the same thing. The difference between the two boils down to how they are both recorded.

When you use Google AdWords, your interface will tell you how many clicks were recorded during a time period. Your clicks, CTR (click through rate), and converted clicks are arguably your most important metrics, depending on your goals and how you are being billed. However, in Google Analytics, sessions are one of the most important metrics being recorded. So what’s the difference?

The Difference in Clicks vs Sessions

Clicks are very straightforward; every time someone clicks on your AdWords ad, a click is immediately recorded. Occasionally there are invalid clicks, such as when someone repeatedly clicks your ad, however these are automatically filtered out of your report and you aren’t billed. On the other hand, a session is recorded when someone interacts with your website. These interactions can include multiple page views, social interactions, and transactions to name a few. There are two ways in which a session will end:

  1. By default, a session will end after 30 minutes of inactivity or at midnight.
  2. A campaign source (organic, paid, referral, etc) change happens when a user leaves your page then returns via a different campaign source.

Sessions are recorded in a much more complex way than clicks. A lot of things happen when someone enters your webpage or clicks on your ad. There are a series of requests, requirements, and checkpoints that need to take place to not only record a session, but also to bring a website to a browser. When a click is recorded, your website starts the process of transferring data from your server and onto the user’s browser. As the page downloads, files are being requested, such as audio, video, images, JavaScript, etc. The browser then sends a request to the Google Analytics server and a session is then recorded. The whole process of recording a session usually takes a few seconds; however in that time a lot can happen that causes discrepancies between data.

Reasons for Discrepancies

There are numerous reasons you might see discrepancies between your clicks and sessions. You can control a few of those, such as making sure auto-tagging is turned on and making sure you’re properly tracking your landing page. Other situations may be out of your control, such as reasons related to a user’s browser preferences, if they bookmark your page, and how they access your site. There are also a few situations that are out of your control, but you can help avoid, such as issues with server latency.

Auto-Tagging

If you didn’t manually tag your destination URLs and your auto-tagging is turned off, then Analytics is unable to attribute clicks coming from AdWords. When this happens, analytics will attribute your traffic as coming organically or as a referral.

Landing Page Issues

Make sure your tracking code is installed properly. If your tracking code is correct and there is still a big difference, there may be an issue with certain IP addresses. You will want to make sure your hosting servers are working properly if this is the case.

Browser Preferences

Analytics will be prevented from recording traffic if the user has images or JavaScript turned off in their preferences. Changing these preferences will not affect the way AdWords are reported.

Bookmarking

Analytics tracks traffic from your AdWords ads by using the gclid parameter that is in your destination URL. If a user bookmarks your page after coming directly from an ad, then Analytics will record the traffic as coming from AdWords whenever that user accesses your site. AdWords will not record a click though, so you are never charged when this happens.

User Activity

Perhaps the most common can be related to how a user happens to interact with your website. If a user clicks on your ad and leaves, then clicks on your ad again within 30 minutes, then two clicks and one session are recorded. Sometimes a user will be inactive on your website for thirty minutes, then return and interact with your website again. When this happens AdWords will record one click, but Analytics will record two sessions.

Server Latency

Server latency occurs when a user clicks on your ad and leaves before your page fully downloads. Analytics will then not be able to record a session, while AdWords records a click. You can potentially reduce the amount of times this happens by increasing your site loading speed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the main takeaway here is to understand that the two metrics are recorded differently between platforms, which will mean your numbers won’t always align together perfectly. It is important to understand what to look for if there are large discrepancies between your clicks and sessions. If there are large discrepancies, it can potentially be a big indicator that your accounts aren’t set up properly or you need to increase your site loading speed. Analytics is one of the most powerful tools a marketer can use, and understanding the technicalities of specific metrics can make a measurable difference in the long run.