How To Reconcile Differences Between Ad Clicks and Website Sessions

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Most marketers have encountered a situation in which a campaign’s clicks and associated website sessions don’t quite line up. Sometimes, it’s a minor discrepancy. Other times, there’s a major difference. In this post, we’ll address the common and less-common causes behind these mismatches starting with the differences between how clicks and website sessions are defined and recorded. (Hint: they’re not the same!)

Clicks ≠ Website Sessions

Although clicks and website sessions seem to represent the same action, and therefore result in a 1:1 ratio, they are completely separate metrics that are recorded in different ways.The definition and process of recording a click is fairly straightforward: a click is registered once for each time a user clicks on your advertisement or asset.A website session, however, represents the number of unique sessions that are initiated by your users. Google defines a session as follows: “A group of user interactions with your website that take place within a given time frame.“ Google Analytics sets this time frame to 30 minutes by default although its other analytics services may differ.While each click is captured rather instantaneously, the recording of a session is more of a process. As Google details, all of the following events must take place before a Google Analytics session is recorded:

  1. The browser points to the asset’s landing page.
  2. The advertiser’s website responds to the request and starts to transfer data from the web server to the user’s browser.
  3. The user’s browser starts to download the landing page and requests several files including JavaScript, CSS, images, video, audio, etc. The analytics tracking code is contained within the requests for the JavaScript.
  4. The JavaScript file is downloaded and interpreted by the user’s browser.
  5. Analytics may not be able to record a session if the user’s browser, device, or security settings don’t support cookies, JavaScript, or images. If they do, the browser sends a separate request to Google’s Analytics Servers and a session is recorded.

As you may have surmised, many technical elements may prevent a session from being recorded.Let’s explore why clicks may be higher than sessions and vice versa.

Why Are There More Clicks Than Sessions?

Due to the instant capture of clicks, it’s more likely that clicks will outnumber sessions. Take a look at the following reasons why this might happen -- keeping the process for recording a session, which we defined above, in mind.

  • If a user clicks on your ad multiple times within the same session, the advertising platform will record multiple clicks while the analytics platform will only record one session. This scenario happens frequently when users are comparing products online and clicking on several ads or assets, which are all feeding into a single session.
  • If a user clicks on an ad but prevents the advertiser’s landing page from loading, or navigates away from the page before it can load, the session will not be recorded. A click will still be registered.
  • Speed in general, whether it concerns site speed or server latencies, are common culprits in preventing a page from loading quickly enough, and therefore recording a session. Fixing site speed issues will not only reduce the clicks to session imbalance, but will provide a host of additional benefits to your business—especially those concerning SEO.
  • If the analytics tracking code isn’t installed on the advertiser’s landing page, sessions can’t be recorded.
  • If the advertisement’s URL redirects when it points to the advertiser’s landing page, URL tracking parameters are often stripped out and lost along the way. This means that the session will not be attributed to the advertisement as intended, and may be wrongly labeled as referral traffic, etc. However, the click(s) on the ad will still be recorded. These redirects may occur over a difference as small as a missing backslash between your advertisement’s URL and the landing page URL so be careful. You can avoid this problem by wrapping your advertisement’s full URL, tracking parameters and all, with a link shortener such as Bitly.
  • As we discussed earlier, a user’s browser or device must support cookies, images, and JavaScript, or a session likely won’t be recorded. If a user’s settings disallow any of these, the clicks to sessions ratio will dip, which unfortunately, is out of your control.
  • If you don’t tag your advertisement’s URL manually with UTM parameters and Google Ads' auto-tagging isn’t enabled, sessions will not be attributed to your campaign. Instead, they will wrongly fall within the referral or organic traffic buckets.
  • Lastly, if your analytics filters and profiles are configured incorrectly, you run the risk of filtering out relevant traffic, and therefore failing to record those sessions. Take the time to review the settings and filters within your analytics account to make sure you’re not excluding any traffic by accident.

Why Are There More Sessions Than Clicks?

  • Luckily, most advertisers, such as Google Ads, filter out invalid or fraudulent clicks from reports automatically. However, analytics reports will still report the associated sessions to give insight into the full set of traffic data. This results in more sessions than clicks.
  • A user may click on an advertisement and visit its landing page just to become distracted by something outside of that session. If they resume their activity on the site after their initial session has timed out, a new session, still associated with the advertisement, will be recorded. This results in two sessions and one click.
  • If a user clicks on an ad, visits the advertiser's landing page, bookmarks the landing page, and then returns to the landing page through the bookmark in the future, each distinct session through the bookmark will be associated with the campaign. The quantity of sessions generated through these means may add up over time, but only the first initial click will be captured.

Troubleshooting In The Future

While this post offers a comprehensive look at most of the causes behind differing click and session counts, it’s not an exhaustive list. Try using Google’s awesome Google Ads Clicks vs. Analytics Sessions Troubleshooting Tool the next time you’re confused to narrow it down.A thorough understanding of how clicks and sessions are recorded, and the reasons why they differ, will not only help you to troubleshoot differences in the future, but also prevent them from occurring when possible.Aware of any other common culprits that are missing from this list? We welcome you to add them in the comments section below.

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