ga4 users

GA4 Users Defined: Active Users vs. Total Users vs. New Users and Returning Users

Updated: 11/7/23 Users are unique individuals who are doing things on your website or app. In this article, we’ll define GA4 users and demystify Active Users vs. Total Users vs. New Users vs. Returning Users.

We’ll also show how to build an audience of returning users. If you make it to the end, there’s a 1-page PDF with all of the consolidated information on all the user groups.

To understand GA4 users, we need to understand New Users, Total Users, Active Users, and Returning Users. Click each heading to go directly to each group of GA4 users, including where you see the metric in your reports and the technical definition.

Table of Contents

Let’s review in detail. Or kick back and click below for the same information in video format.

Users in GA4 vs. Users in Universal Analytics

Like many things in Google Analytics 4, the “Users” metric is different compared to the prior version of Google Analytics.

In Universal Analytics, there were New Users, Returning Users, and Total Users. This was pretty simple. The count of “New Users” plus the count of “Returning Users” was equal to the count of “Total Users.” Returning users were users that Google Analytics recognized by a tracking cookie in their web browser that had been placed during a prior visit to the same site.

In Google Analytics 4, the primary user metric is “Active Users.” In addition to “Active Users,” there are “New Users” and “Total Users.” And we can still see “Returning Users” but this dimension isn’t as easily accessible as it used to be.

Let’s explore where we can find all of these user groups in GA4 and explain how they are determined. We’ll start with “New Users.”

GA4 New Users

New users is the number of unique individuals who have not visited your site before.

If you go into your Acquisition reporting area within the GA4 standard reports, you’ll find New Users within the “User acquisition” report.

You can see this below for the Root and Branch GA4 property where the first column contains the “New users” dimension. The number is hidden, but there are 7,915 New Users on the site during the analysis time period.

new users in ga4

How Are New Users Defined in GA4?

New Users are the number of people who interacted with your website or launched your app for the first time. It is a sum of the new unique user IDs that logged the first_visit or first_open event in GA4. The first_visit event is logged on both websites and Android apps, while the first_open event is logged on iOS apps. These events fire if Google Analytics 4 does not see a pre-existing Google Analytics cookie in the browser, so it recognizes that this is new visitor. You can read more from the Google support article if you’re interested.

How Are New Users Defined in UA?

In Universal Analytics, a New User is logged on a visit to your site when the visitor does not have a cookie present that identifies them as someone who has been on the site before. If they do have a cookie from Google Analytics from a prior visit to your site, the visitor will be categorized as a Returning User. All Users who are not Returning Users are New Users.

Total Users in GA4

Total users is the total number of unique individuals who visited your website or app during the time frame you’re analyzing.

You can find Total Users in your Event reporting in GA4. Click into the “Engagement” reporting area on the left-hand navigation and then select “Events.” This will show you a total list of all logged events during the time period in question. You’ll also see “Total Users,” which is used to calculate metrics like the one shown at the far right below: “Event count per user.”

As you can see, there were 8,362 Total users during the time period in question. It makes sense that this is more than the 7,915 New Users we saw previously, but it’s not as immediately obvious why it’s more than the Active Users that we’ll define further below. 

total users in ga4

How Are Total Users Defined in GA4?

The Total Users metric is defined as the total number of unique users who logged any kind of event during the time period in question. Unlike in UA, Total Users is not the primary way to define Users in GA4.

How Are Total Users Defined in UA?

Total Users is the primary user metric in Universal Analytics. It is the sum of New Users (visitors on your site without a cookie identifying them as someone who has visited before) plus Returning Users (visitors on your site who do have such cookie identification). Note: returning users that were previously counted as new users within the time period are not counted twice but only once (thank you Antonin, for the helpful comment and guidance!).

GA4 Active Users vs. Total Users

An “active user” is a person who has had an engaged session OR fits the definition of an new user during the time period in question. An engaged session means the user engagement event fired, indicating the user either viewed multiple pages and / or had a conversion event and / or engaged with the page for at least 10 seconds.

Active users is a new user metric in GA4 and it’s important to know the difference between Total Users and these Active Users. Unlike the Total Users metric that we saw in the GA4 Event reporting, we see the “Active Users” metric in some of our Traffic Acquisition reporting.

We can see there were 8,272 Active Users during the analysis time period, which compares to 7,915 New Users and 8,362 Total Users. Clearly, the Active Users count is quite close to the Total Users. What’s the difference?

active users in ga4

How Are Active Users Defined in GA4?

Active Users is the primary user metric in GA4. A website user is defined as active if they have an “engaged session” OR when GA4 collects the first_visit event or the engagement_time_msec event parameter. The percentage of engaged sessions relative to total sessions is the GA4 engagement rate.

An “engaged session” is defined as a session that is 10 seconds or more, or involves more than 1 pageview or at least 1 conversion. [Although, you can change this engaged session calculation as part of this 10 step GA4 setup and configuration process.

This Active User definition allows GA4 to provide insight into User activity during specific time frames. Check out an example below of 1 Day Users, 7 Day Users, and 30 Day Users.

ga4 7 day active users

How Are Active Users Defined in UA?

There are no Active Users in UA. This is new in GA4. Check out the big ‘ol “N/A” in the bottom left in the comparison report below from this Google article.

ga4 users vs ua users

GA4 Returning Users

A Returning User is a user who has been to your site (or app) before. There is limited data on Returning Users in GA4 standard reports. As we’ll see below, we can use the Explorations feature to build a custom report and get additional detail on our users who have previously visited on our site. We can also build an audience of our GA4 returning users for further analysis and remarketing.

In GA4 standard reports, the limited information that we do have on returning users is in the “Retention” reporting area. You can see that below in the red box. From there, you can toggle between “New users” vs. “Returning users” to have different information displayed in a chart. You can also see user retention by cohort and user engagement by cohort in this same section of standard reports.

ga4 user retention report

You can do more with Returning users by using audiences in GA4.

How to Create a GA4 Audience of Returning Users

I got this question from a reader (thanks Heather) and this is what I’d do.

First, go to your Admin section using the gear icon in the bottom left of the screen. Then, click “Audiences” under your Data display settings.

ga4 admin users

Then, click “New audience” to create a new audience.

new audience

Then, click the button to “Create a custom audience.”

create ga4 custom audience

You can then create your custom audience.

Next, you will configure your returning users audience. Here’s how.

Configure Your GA4 Returning Users Audience

I gave my audience a name. You can see my creative name in the blue box in the top left.

I am including Users with the session_start event parameter. Check that out next to the green arrow. At the same time, I’m excluding users with the first_visit event parameter. This should give me all the users who are beginning a session a session during the duration window of the audience who aren’t there for the first time. In other words, the returning users.

create ga4 returning audience

As you can see in the green box in the bottom right, this audience segment represents 21.6% of all users on the Root & Branch and accounts for 37.3% of all sessions.

You can finish creating your audience by setting your membership duration. You can see I’ve set this for 30 days. Please note: the preview box in the bottom right (in green) will show you 30 days worth of data regardless of what length you set for your audience membership duration.

Update: Google added its own functionality for New and Returning Users if you don’t want to create your own. Check the June 5, 2023 update if you want more info.

Established Users vs. New in GA4 Explorations

One other way to report on returning users in GA4 is to use the Explorations reporting feature and the predefined “New / established” user dimension. You can create a custom report with this dimension to separate your users into New vs. Returning (established) users. When we use this particular dimension, we need to keep Google’s definition in mind, that established users first visited more than 7 days ago. Here it is below. So this is a different definition than a “normal” returning users definition, but you can certainly still use it should it suit your purposes.

new established user dimension google analytics

Let’s see how to do that.

First, click into the “Explore” reporting area from the left-hand GA4 navigation.

ga4 exploration

Hit the plus button to create a new exploration.

google analytics 4 explorations

Now, it’s time to build your exploration. The key is to add the “New / established” dimension to your report. You can see that I have added this in the solid red box in the image below at left. If you hit the small plus sign immediately above that dimension, you can search for “New / established” to add this dimension to your own report.

In this report, I’ve added metrics like Sessions, Conversions, Average engagement time per session, and Session conversion rate. I’ve also added Landing page as an additional dimension, so I can view performance by page for New vs. Returning users. You can add whatever combination of metrics and dimensions you need for your reporting needs. But you’ll be able to separate you audience into groups of “new” vs. “established” (returning) users as you can see in the red dashed boxes.

established users ga4

Pro Tip: You can also use the ga_session_number event parameter that is passed with the session_start event to create segments and audiences based on how many times your users have been on your site. Check out the previously linked resource to see how.

GA4 Users: One Page Resource

If you want a consolidated view of New Users, Active Users, Total Users, Returning Users, and the New vs. Established users dimension, you’ve come to the right place.

You can get the free download below.

GA4 Users Grid – Root and Branch

Users FAQ

Some common questions about GA4 users.

How to See New Users in GA4

You can find GA4 new users in the “User acquisition” standard report. You can also build a custom exploration and pull in the “New users” metric to your report.

How to See Returning Users in GA4

You can find GA4 returning users in the “Retention” standard report. You can also build a custom exploration and pull in the “Returning users” metric.

What if New Users Plus Returning Users Don’t Equal Total Users?

Consider your date range and where you are viewing your data. The same user can visit your site multiple times during a given date range. It’s possible a visitor could be both a new user and a returning user during a given time frame.

GA4 Users vs. New Users

The default users metric in GA4 is “Active users”, so GA4 users vs. new users is really a question of comparing active users to new users. New users are unique individuals who are visiting your site or app for the first time (i.e. Google Analytics doesn’t recognize a pre-existing cookie in their browser). Active users include all new users and also include all unique individuals who were “active” during the time period in question. A user can count as active if they had at least one session where they viewed multiple pages or had a conversion or spent at least 10 seconds engaging with a page.

What are Unique Users in GA4?

The users metrics all refer to unique individuals. It’s just a question of how you want to look at those unique individuals.

  • Total users: all unique individuals
  • Active users: all unique individuals who were active on your site
  • New users: all unique individuals who came to your site for the first time
  • Returning users: all unique individuals who came to your site and had been on your site before

What Else Do I Need to Know About GA4?

If you have 1 hour to invest, this comprehensive beginner’s tutorial will teach you Google Analytics and get your property installed and configured correctly.

google analytics tutorial for beginners

If you are confident that you have the big picture down, here are a couple targeted resources that should make things easier for you. Feel free to check out the linked blogs and video tutorials.

Event Parameters in GA4

A “parameter” is a piece of data that adds additional context to a web interaction (an “event”). For example, the GA4 click event will register and record data each time an external link click occurs. But if you want to see additional information like the specific link that was clicked or the text of the link that was clicked, you’re talking about event parameters.

Event parameters are handled very differently in GA4 than in UA. And any comprehensive understanding of reporting requires understanding GA4 event parameters.

ga4 event parameters explained

Campaign Reporting With UTMs in GA4

Do you know how to access your UTM tagged campaign traffic in GA4? This is necessary to track how your marketing campaigns are performing. It’s also useful for measuring traffic mediums (like email) that Google Analytics can’t classify on its own. New parameters like utm_content and utm_term were only added in July of 2022. In other words, effective campaign reporting is a relatively new feature in GA4. Check out the guide to Google Analytics 4 UTM parameters here.

google analytics utm parameters

Looking for something else? Feel free to leave a note in the comments or on the Root and Branch YouTube channel at youtube.com/@rooted-digital. We’re always looking for new ideas.

Wrapping Up

Thanks for reading! If you found this helpful, you might consider signing up for the free monthly newsletter or clicking to subscribe to the Root and Branch YouTube channel. I’ll see you there!

About Root & Branch

Root & Branch is a certified Google Partner agency and focuses on paid search (PPC), SEO, Local SEO, and Google Analytics. You can learn more here.

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21 replies
  1. Antonin
    Antonin says:

    Hi there

    Thanks for the article and insights.
    You might want to correct this sentence though: “Total Users is the primary user metric in Universal Analytics. It is simply the sum of New Users (visitors on your site without a cookie identifying them as someone who has visited before) plus Returning Users (visitors on your site who do have such cookie identification).”

    Total User are not the sum of New Users + Returning User — returning user that were previously counted as new users within the time period are not counted twice nut only once.

    Best, Antonin

    Reply
    • Zack_Duncan
      Zack_Duncan says:

      Thanks Antonin. I appreciate the kind words and I especially appreciate the updated info. I’ve corrected the blog and given you the credit. Drop me a line on LinkedIn (just sent you a connection request), if you’d like to be a guest blog author at some point. It’s clear you have knowledge that others (like myself) could benefit from on this path of learning GA4 and all that comes with it.

      Zack

      Reply
  2. Luiz Gustavo Coelho Filizzola
    Luiz Gustavo Coelho Filizzola says:

    Hi there

    I’ve been facing a problem with GA4 that I didn’t face in GU. The number of new users is higher than the number of total users. My hypothesis is that, as I have more than one website (different domains) they would count first_visit on all of them, but not in total users. Did you ever face this problem?

    Thanks for the article, it was really enriching!

    Reply
    • Zack_Duncan
      Zack_Duncan says:

      Luis,

      Hello! My apologies for the delay in responding. The short answer is “no”, I haven’t seen this problem before. But that’s likely because I only have a single domain here.

      I think your theory certainly seems plausible. Google’s documentation seems to leave this is rather vague when it describes how the first_visit event is collected (source: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/9234069?hl=en): “the first time a user visits a website or launches an Android instant app with Analytics enabled”

      Based on this definition, it seems like this *could* very much be the situation you’re seeing. Have you been able to make any further progress? Curious if you still think your theory may be accurate.

      Best wishes.

      Zack

      Reply
    • Zack_Duncan
      Zack_Duncan says:

      Good question, Heather. I hadn’t done this before but I’ve been playing around with it and I think this is what I’d do:

      – Include users with the session_start parameter
      – Exclude users with the first_visit parameter

      I am about to update the blog with a diagram of the Audience builder. Let me know if this works for you.

      Reply
  3. Julian
    Julian says:

    In your example above you have 8362 Total users and out of these 7,915 = 94% are New users. Is this a new website? Or if not does this mean that, if you had similar numbers in the previous period, only 6% of these people returned? I have similar % for my website – it seems very low, does it mean that only 6% of people like the website enough to come back?

    Reply
  4. Gideon Delayahu
    Gideon Delayahu says:

    I think Established is not the same as Return users…
    Google defines ‘New / Established’ as ‘New and established users who first opened your app or visited your website within the last 7 days.’
    If you build an Explore report with ‘New / Established’ dimension looking at ‘Total Users’ metric you will find a raw of ‘(not set)’ value – I suspect these are users that have visited the site, but not in the last 7 days they.
    When you add the ‘return users’ metrics the ‘(not set)’ raw disappears, and the Total Users value changes, dropping those users.

    Reply
    • Zack_Duncan
      Zack_Duncan says:

      Thank you, Gideon. This is very helpful and new information for me. I’m going to keep poking around here and will update the blog to reflect the idea that “Established” likely means returning users, excluding those who visited the site in the last 7 days. So much to learn with GA4 and I am grateful for the assist.

      Cheers!

      Reply

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