GA4 Users Defined: Active Users vs. Total Users vs. New Users and Returning Users
The users dimension: it seems so innocuous and so obvious. Users are individuals who are doing things on your website or app. But like many things in the new Google Analytics, GA4 users are not exactly intuitive. In this blog post, we’ll define GA4 users and demystify Active Users vs. Total Users vs. New Users vs. Returning (established) Users. We’ll explore how we can see GA4 returning (established) users through a little custom work.
We’ll also show how to build an audience of returning users.
First of all, I want to say “thank you” to Hillary who left a great question on the GA4 vs. UA explanation on the Root and Branch YouTube channel. She was seeing different numbers for the Users dimension in her Traffic Acquisition reporting compared to her Event reporting. This blog post is the product of the research I did trying to answer her question.
To understand GA4 users, we need to understand New Users, Total Users, Active Users, and Returning (established) Users. They are briefly defined immediately below, and we’ll explain them in depth here.
- New Users: users who interacted with your site for the first time
- Total Users: total number of unique users who logged an event of some kind
- Active Users: Any user who has an engaged session OR when GA4 collects the first_visit event or a specific event parameter relating to time (more detail below)
- Returning Users (established Users): A user who has previously been on your site and is now returning to your site is a Returning user. Returning users are identified by the “New / established” dimension in GA4.
Users are one of the key parts of understanding how GA4 works. If you want to get a full grasp on more of the building blocks of your GA4 data, check out this explanation of hits, events, sessions, and users. You can also watch this embedded video below for this same blog content in more detailed, video format.
Otherwise, let’s keep on rolling and establish how Users are different in GA4 compared to the prior version of Google Analytics.
Users in Google Analytics 4 vs. Users in Universal Analytics
Like many things in Google Analytics 4, the “Users” dimension is different compared to how things had been in UA. In fact, it is one of the many differences between GA4 and UA and it’s related to the fact that the data model is exclusively event-based in GA4. It also seems related to the fact that GA4 is built to be less reliant on cookies than UA.
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, 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,” although as we’ll see they are referred to as “established” users in the most helpful reporting area.
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.”
New Users in GA4
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.
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. They are both automatically collected events in GA4 and 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
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.
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 butt only once (thank you Antonin, for the helpful comment and guidance!).
Total Users are the primary user metric in Universal Analytics.
Active Users in GA4
The key distinction in understanding GA4 users is knowing the difference between Total Users and these Active Users. Unlike the Total Users metric that we saw in the GA4 Event reporting, Active Users are the metric that we see 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?
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.
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.] The first_visit event is what identifies a User as a New User. The engagement_time_msec event parameter simply means that *any* amount of time was logged along with any event from the user during the time period in question. In other words, an Active User is any user who is a New User plus any user who spent any amount of time on the website during the time period in question.
The other potential criteria for Active Users refer to app users instead of website users. 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.
How Are Active Users Defined in UA?
Surprise! 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 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.
To get more detailed information on your Returning Users in GA4, you’ll need to use the Explorations reporting feature. From there, you can create a custom report that access the “New / established” dimension to separate your users into New vs. Returning (established) users. Let’s see how to do that.
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.
You can then create a Custom User Segment. Check it out at the left below.
Now it’s time to configure your user segment so you can isolate visitors who have already been on your site.
Configure Your GA4 Returning Users Audience
I gave my audience a name. You can see my creative naming convention 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.
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. Nice!
You can finish creating your audience by checking the “Build an audience” box in the top right and 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.
For a video review of New vs. Returning users, segments, and audiences, this 9 minute tutorial has the details.
How to See Returning Users vs. New in GA4 Reports
First, click into the “Explore” reporting area from the left-hand GA4 navigation.
Hit the plus button to create a new exploration.
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.
What Else Do I Need to Know About GA4?
The Universal Analytics sunset date is quickly approaching. The era of Google Analytics is upon us.
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.
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, an internal link click might be called internal_link_click event. The event will register and record data each time the event 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.
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.
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 content ideas!
Don’t forget that Universal Analytics data will no longer be processed in that platform beginning July 1, 2023. In other words, now is the time to get more comfortable with GA4.
If you’re still someone learning about GA4 (as I am), I’d recommend checking out this list of updated GA4 questions. You can also subscribe to the Root and Branch YouTube channel for an updated video every week or so. I’ll see you there! There are explainers and tutorials for tracking and key actions like these.
- GA4 page timer tracking
- Bounce rate in GA4 vs UA
- How to set up a GA4 form submission conversion
- How to link Google Ads and GA4
- How to link Google Search Console and GA4
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 about us here. Or hit the button below to check out YouTube for more digital marketing tips and training resources.
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.
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.
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!
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.
How do you create a GA4 audience for returning users?
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.
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?