Change to Definition of a Visit in Google Analytics

Google announced on Thursday that they were changing the definition of a visit/session in Google Analytics – http://analytics.blogspot.com/2011/08/update-to-sessions-in-google-analytics.html.  The key difference is that a new visit will be recorded whenever a visitor re-enters a website with different traffic source information.  Previously, there had to be 30 min of inactivity before a new visit could commence.  There is a second change with closing a browser no longer ending a session.

There was announced as a small change by Google with most users seeing less than a 1% change.  That doesn’t tie in with the data I am seeing over a number of accounts and feedback from other sources where changes of 10%+ have occurred.  This impact on data is most obvious in ratio metrics such as conversion rate, bounce rate and average time on site.

Which metrics are affected?

One thing to make clear is that the only absolute metric that should have changed is visits.  There should be no impact on unique visitors, page views, conversions, time on site, etc.  Any change here is due to different factors not relating to this change in the definition of a visit.

As visits have increased, any metric which is an absolute number divided by visits will have decreased.  This can be seen in metrics such as page views per visit, conversion rates and average time on site.

It is a different situation for bounce rate.  If a visitor has clicked through to a website on one traffic source, viewed a single page and then re-entered on a different traffic source, this is now counted as a bounce for that first traffic source.  As such it is likely that the bounce rate will have increased for many websites.

Another metric with a unique impact is % New Visits.  Any visitor who re-enters the website and creates a second visit will be treated as a Return Visit for that second visit.  Therefore the % New Visits will decline.

What will the impact be on my metrics?

The scale of the change will vary from website to website.  It depends on whether visitors will be re-entering the site from multiple traffic sources or not.  Some websites will see no impact.  A website which has visitors using Google or a 3rd party website (aggregators) as their internal search tool will likely see a big change as visitors are constantly re-entering the website.

I am not certain which traffic sources will be most affected by this.  There was no clear trend in my admittedly brief investigations that I could see.  The more cynical people out there are sure to suggest that Google Adwords will report a lot more traffic and conversions.

Can I still use Google Analytics data?

Let’s get to the key question, how much is this likely to impact your understanding of business performance and your ability to use Google Analytics data to improve performance? In the long term, not at all.

Neither definition of a visit is inaccurate; the numbers were correct previously and are correct now based on the definition at the time.  It makes it difficult to compare week on week numbers right now but that won’t be a problem after a few weeks.  After that, you should be looking at your current numbers when evaluating performance, the change will have no impact on your understanding of performance.

The biggest issue is for people who have just launched a new marketing campaign or website tool/feature.  It is going to be very difficult for them to evaluate the impact of this launch.  They are the big losers here.  For everyone else, we are just going to have to grit our teeth and ride it out for a couple of weeks.  Arguably there is even an opportunity here to get a better understanding of business performance by comparing data from the two definitions.

How do I check my numbers?

The change happened on the 11th Aug but it will hit your numbers at different times depending on your time zone.  I recommend extracting data for key metrics at daily level and checking the week on week change.  If your numbers are affected, you should see a step change occurring on either the 11th or 12th Aug which will continue for seven days before settling down.

Excel example of how to check on change in data

Why has Google done this?

As to why Google has made this change, I think it is an attempt to make the web analytics data easier to understand, particularly for marketers.  The definition of visits is simpler, every time someone enters the website, it is a visit.  As mentioned in the announcement, it will align with data for multi channel funnels which was likely a key factor in this decision.  So better for marketers and light users of web analytics, maybe not so good for experienced web analysts who disagree that this is the common definition of a visit.

Given the outcry we are already seeing, I can understand why this was not announced in advance or available for testing.  It is a change that Google wanted to make, they knew there would be some unhappy people out there and so just made this a quick rather than drawn out process.

My conclusion

This is going to be very annoying for a few weeks and then shouldn’t matter.  There will be some difficult discussions with senior management over why/how the numbers have changed and getting them to understand that this doesn’t mean the website is performing any differently.  To make these discussions easier, I recommend using unique visitors and even page views as a measure of traffic for the next couple of weeks until you have a clear view of the data.

As someone has said in the comments on the announcement, make sure you annotate your GA accounts with the date of this change.  If Google wants to make everyone’s life a bit easier, they could push out a global annotation stating this.

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33 Comments

  1. Alistair August 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    Another aspect of this change that marketers need to pay attention to is campaign tracking internal traffic. Before this change, while not a good idea – plenty of people still chose that route for tracking internal traffic. After this change, depending on your site architecture and how often users might click a link that changes their campaign tracking data, it could vastly affect the figures reported by Google Analytics.

    • Peter O'Neill August 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

      Thanks Alistair – the perils of writing a blog post quickly, you forget details that you want to include. Definitely agree with what you have said here, while it was never a good idea to track internal campaigns using GA campaign parameters, now it will really mess with your numbers. Clicks on internal campaigns should be captured using event tracking.

  2. dan barker August 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    hi, Peter,

    I agree with pretty much everything here – and it’s a great post as always.

    I think there are some extra, fiddly little intricacies worth bearing in mind.

    Eg: one aspect is their definition of “changing traffic source”. It make sense to me that if source switches from (say) email to (say) PPC you may want it to track as a new visit. But if every different utm_content fires a new visit, it becomes a bit of a mess. eg: I send out an email with 20 products on, each tagged with its own utm_content parameter. Customer A clicks 15, before making a purchase, customer B clicks 5, and bounces, Customer C clicks 1 and bounces. If I read the GA blog post literally, that would equal 21 visits, 20 bounces (ie. 9X% bounce rate from the channel), 3 visitors, 1 transaction, and ‘pages per visit’ approaching 1. Tough to use that kind of information to judge the effectiveness of email.

    Another unfortunate element is companies that have several ‘satellite’ sites surrounding their main site – eg, blogs, microsites, etc. Whereas the ‘old’ system didn’t track these perfectly, it was easier to use it in an actionable way ‘out of the box’. Under the new system, it’s very difficult to judge “traffic acquired by the blog” vs “traffic acquired by the main site” – as the detail gets lost as they jump back and forth.

    And if you work across several clients, it becomes messier, as you have to intimately familiarise yourself with what they’re tagging, what their channels are, and many other things, before you can begin to analyse what’s going on. (eg. The ‘basket’ page exit rate suddently jumps, because people are heading off to voucher code sites and being classed as ‘new visits’ on their re-entry).

    Again – this is all if you read their blog post literally. To me there are some ambiguities in the announcement I hope they’ll clarify.

    While this may make things easier around multi-channel attribution, etc. I wish they’d just launched it as a new metric – eg ‘Inroads’. My guess/hope is that there is something else new around the corner that plugs the holes this creates. Perhaps making it easier to analyse at a ‘visitor’ level, vs the current default of analysing at ‘visit’ level.

    dan

    • Peter O'Neill August 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

      Hi Dan, getting to your last point first, I agree that this could have been better if launched as a new metric rather than a new definition of a visit. They could have called it hits and I still wouldn’t have minded. Nice prediction that this change is setting up something bigger in the future, that would be great apart from just making it a simpler definition right now.

      I have the feeling you are safe to read their blog post literally. And that these messy situations you have described are now the world we have to deal with. It does put more emphasis on setting up subdomain or cross domain tracking instead of just looking at satellite sites as traffic sources. And maybe on the use of utm_nooverride=1 as a way of ignoring certain methods of travelling back and forth between related sites/verification emails.

      I wonder if possible/useful to set up a visitor based custom variable that expires based on the traditional method of defining visits…

  3. mitch August 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    This is a great article. Thanks. I thought I had a panda recovery only to find out the metrics changed, not the true panda effect. Quick question. You mentioned that only visits would be effected or anything measured as a percent of visits.

    Questions:

    Is there anyway this change could have bumped up Organic Search Revenue?
    I am assuming that the change effects all forms of traffic Google sees (including Yahoo and Bing)

    Finally, There are different consequences here for E-eCommerce sites where visitors leave alot and come back, vs info sites or blogs where people look for information. You may want to write on the E-eCommerce effect of this change in more detail.

    • Peter O'Neill August 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

      Hi Mitch, glad you found the article useful. In response to your questions, this change should impact all traffic sources, not just organic/ppc Google but other search engines and emails, display, affiliates, social media, direct entry, referrals, etc. As to which it will affect the most, I am not sure. I need to do some investigations and I suspect it will vary by website.

      The change could have increased the proportion of revenue attributed to organic search. If a visitor was accessing the site and researching the product, left to find a voucher code and then re-entered via organic search to complete the purchase, then that purchase would be attributed to organic search and not the original method of entry.

      I do actually need to get my head around the impact of this change on different types of sites properly myself. Once I have then I think it is likely I will be writing one or two follow-up posts.

      Cheers

      Peter

  4. Tyson August 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    Peter,

    Thanks for the great discussion. For the most part I understand and agree with this update, however I’m seeing a few instances where the % of new visits is plummeting. I understand that there should be more returning visits resulting from this change, but I’m seeing a sharp decline in new visits. Any idea why that would be? I expected the number of new visits to remain relatively stable.

    Tyson

    • Peter O'Neill August 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

      Hi Tyson,

      I can’t explain that one. I would expect an increase in the number of Return Visits but no change to the number of New Visits – resulting in the decline in % New Visits. Could that be due to some other factor? Which is difficult to identify given the change in definition…

      I would check on the date the decline in New Visits commenced and which traffic sources it is affecting – using absolute numbers, not the % New Visits. Knowing that New Visits = New Visitors and therefore % New Visitors = New Visits/Unique Visitors, I would check into the trend for the % New Visitors too.

      Thanks for the comment

      Peter

  5. Jon Whitehead August 16, 2011 at 12:09 am #

    Hi Peter

    good post and overview – presumably this means the end of the dreaded 0 visits *some* page views problem when a couple of searches are performed with different keywords within 30 minutes.

    I can see where Google are going with this, as they seem to be making GA in general easier for marketers and as you say we will have to ride it out. Typically I had a big client launch on the 12th so I’m still working it out how much effect this has had as the figures where going to be different anyway. In another case, added code to a third party search on Thursday so hard to judge there as well – ah well such is the life of a web analyst :)

    There are some very angry people on the original post over the weekend, be interesting to see what Google replies with. Could there be differences depending on which version of GA you have? I wouldn’t have thought so but it would be interesting to see the effect on custom implementations

    I totally agree with your last point on a mass notification from Google, its going to take a while to go through manually updating. I’m hedging my bets that the change here was sometime on the 12th as I’m in Australia.

    cheers
    Jon

    • Peter O'Neill August 16, 2011 at 11:49 am #

      Hi Jon,

      Always good to hear from a fellow Aussie. Appears you got hit with needing to compare pre and post at just the wrong time, sorry about that. Best I can recommend is to look at unique visitors rather than visits. And then try and estimate what visits would have been and apply that to all the other metrics.

      Agree with number of angry people but I just can’t see Google rolling the change back as long as they haven’t made any mistakes. The communication could have been better, would love to see an update but not sure that is going to happen. I am not technical enough to get into the finer points of what happened, I am curious to know if there were different impacts based on version of GA and browser.

      Apparently not possible but can you imagine if someone gets a cookie but no pageview/visit. Then re-enters the website and starts their actual visit. Previously the visit would have been attributed to the original cookie and would be a new visit. Now is it a return visit. But no idea how this sequence of events could occur.

      Cheers

      Peter

      • Jon Whitehead August 19, 2011 at 1:05 am #

        Hi Peter thanks for the reply, I see Google identified links with spaces as being the problem – have other people verified this? It would explain why I didn’t see to many issues.

        Also the clients I have at the moment are predominantly public service, so traffic was low at the weekend immediately after the change. Another factor is higher use of IE than may occur on other sites between government agencies – all in all an entertaining few days!

        I also feel this could have all been communicated better by Google, but at the same time some of the vitriol aimed at them is over the top – if you are so reliant on analytics, why not pony up for a paid solution so you have support?

        oh and btw I’m actually a pom in Aus, but the citizenships on the way!

        • Peter O'Neill August 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

          Hi Jon, I can confirm there appeared to be a bigger impact of search terms of 2+ words. It is one of the customisations I apply when configuring accounts and when I checked (only after hearing of the fix), there was minimal impact to search terms containing a single keyword compared to search terms of 2, 3, 4 and 5+ keywords. They are all trending in similar directions now.

          Agree with your thoughts, communication could have been a lot better. The one comment from Google was they are investigating when we later discovered they had already rolled out a fix. But the responses are over the top, it is a free tool.

          Congratulations on improving your lot in life…

          Peter

  6. Yehoshua Coren August 16, 2011 at 12:49 am #

    Hi Peter,

    I too agree with many points in your post. But things still aren’t sitting quite right for me. I have noticed some things that simply do not make much sense which I’d like to add to the discussion.

    1). A 2000 visitor / day ecommerce site whose %New Visit dropped from 85% to 35%. According to the recency report, it would appear that on a users’ first visit to the site, they were actually visiting twice or more from two distinct sources (according to new tracking)… I dunno, the discrepancy seems too large. Still, I guess it is possible that the **majority** of site visitors are doing some level of back and forth between the web and our site which is no longer being reported as new visit when it previously used to be considered as the same session. But again, the numbers are pretty dramatic.

    Additionally, I’m see a similar drop in new visits as Tyson described. (About 35%)

    More challenging is this:

    2). Same 2000 visitor / day site –> I noticed visits to PPC increased 35%, but clicks stayed the same. It would make sense if the PPC clicks where now causing more visits in other channels due to session updates, but clicks have always been calculated in a manner similar to the current session paradigm, namely, a click is a click is a click. So if someone came from organic and then clicked on a paid ad within thirty minutes, now it will be 2 visits in GA, as opposed to one organic visit. But in the previous session calculation method the click would have also been recorded (1 organic visit, with one click noted in Adwords with a visit of 0). I don’t have a good explanation for the new click / visit discrepancy.

    3). Last point, I haven’t seeing GA cookies updating as I’d expect. As a test I did the following:

    a). cleared cookies
    b). Entered site using ?utm parameters
    c). Typed in Google.com to address bar
    d). returned to site via branded search.

    Should be 2 visits, ya? The UTMA cookie wasn’t updated at all, including the session counter. The UTMZ session counter wasn’t updated, but the campaign counter was… How is it that GA would not update the session counters in those two cookies?

    Best,

    Yehoshua

    • Peter O'Neill August 16, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

      Hi Yehoshua,

      You have definitely delved into this more deeply than I have. The drop in New Visits and the discrepency between Adwords clicks and visits and the two things I would most like explained. As I said in my reply to Jon, I wonder if there is a way where ppl are receiving a cookie in one visit but page views are not recorded until what is technically a second visit. I would love to compare the change in metrics for two similar sites, one with the traditional code and one with async. Also to know if this is impacted by redirects, subdomain tracking or cross domain tracking.

      One comment on the Google blog said that metrics stayed constant for IE but have reported big changes for other browsers, I am not seeing that pattern myself. For seeing more visits than click, I assume this must relate to Direct Entry not being recorded as the traffic source if a campaign cookie exists – this visit being attributed to the previous campaign. I am hoping Google will publish an update in the next day. Will provide any updates if I find something useful myself.

      Peter

  7. Dave Culbertson August 17, 2011 at 3:43 am #

    Hi Peter,

    Have you been following the posts and tweets about this? This change seems to have derailed the data for a lot of profiles in unexpected ways.

    • Peter O'Neill August 17, 2011 at 9:09 am #

      Hi Dave,

      Following as much as I can, had a few discussions on twitter and keep on playing with the data I can access to understand changes. I think a key point to remember is that a lot of the metric changes are expected given the change in definition that was made. The unexpected ones are the decline in new visits for some accounts and vists > clicks for Adwords – although I think I have an explanation for the latter. This change will be useful in some ways, it is just painful right now. Let me know if you have any specific questions, either via email or on twitter.

      Cheers

      Peter

      • Dave culbertson August 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

        Thanks for reply, Peter. The manner in which google announced and rolled this change is troublesome. As top notch web analyst here in Ohio told me, google should have allowed users to choose which session definition they want. With the huge data swings, this is going to cause a lot of trouble for web analysts when the marketing department starts asking “what happened to the numbers?”

        • Peter O'Neill August 17, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

          I think this is a change Google felt they needed to make for the long term value people get out of Google Analytics. The new definition should be simpler for marketers to understand and it does make sense in various ways.

          I totally agree with your points about communication but I am guessing it was just not possible to manage two versions – they thought best to just go ahead and do it and deal with the shouting afterwards.

          Ben Gaines has written an excellent post comparing the approaches taken by Omniture and Google with their latest releases, highlighting some of the issues the companies faced trying to keep everyone happy and manage the process – http://www.bengaines.com/2011/08/in-2011-good-changes-take-time/.

  8. Tyson August 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    Peter,

    The accounts I was following that showed extreme drops in new visits all had one thing in common: they were all either running GA & GWO together, or multiple instances of GA. I did some debugging and found, in fact, in those cases when arriving to the site via a search engine, the GA visitor cookie got incremented improperly and automatically set your first visit as though it were your second visit to the site (thus the spike in returning and drop in new visits). Google seemed to roll out a fix for this bug yesterday, and my numbers are returning to normal.

    The session calculations are still slightly different, but folks should not be seeing a drop in new visits anymore.

    Tyson

    • Peter O'Neill August 17, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

      That’s great news Tyson and thanks for keeping me updated. The drop in New Visits definitely looked like a bug and top analytical work pinpointing the common factor across websites impacted by it.

      Hopefully it will make a lot of people’s numbers make more sense.

      Cheers

      Peter

  9. Brian Greenberg August 18, 2011 at 1:29 am #

    Interesting. I personally love Google Analytics. It is amazing how good the program is and they give it away for free! I think this new rule to count visitors is very good. Thank you for the great information.

  10. Pali Madra August 18, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    After Google rolled out is update are the drops in first visits still being reported?

    • Peter O'Neill August 18, 2011 at 11:59 am #

      Hi Pali,

      Based on what Tyson wrote in the comments, no, this fix has solved that issue.

      Cheers

      Peter

  11. Mick August 19, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    Hi

    In relation to Tysons comments, as of today our massive loss in traffic has still not reverted on GA. On the 15th Aug at about 9pm GMT, our traffic literally fell by 80%

    - Traffic down 80%
    - Returning vists up 20%
    - Bounce down 13%
    - Page view up 30%

    This has caused havoc on our stats. As of today our stats have still not recovered. What do I need to look at on my GA reports before this change to see what traffic I lost.

    Rgs
    Mick

    • Peter O'Neill August 19, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

      Hi Mick,

      I think something totally different has happened to you, not this change made by Google. Even the bug was only reporting new visits as return visits, nothing to suggest a drop in traffic. Someone mentioned another Panda update sometime recently or have you made any website changes that could have led to the GA code dropping off some pages? The changes in other metrics could just be due to a different traffic mix – only 20% of normal traffic.

      I would check which traffic sources. If organic traffic, check which keywords and where you are ranking now for key ones which have dropped off. Also check your pages to see if any pages have disappeared from the list. Maybe see if Google Intelligence has anything useful to add.

      Good luck

      Peter

  12. Jarek Swiecicki August 19, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    Hi, thanks for excellent post and following discussion.
    Unfortunately I do not agree this is a change for the better.
    In our case (we manage few sites with around 2-3 Mio visits/month) the change was dramatic (sudden 30-40% growth in number of visits). We used to track and compare data on our sites across several years – to look for trends – like seasonal spikes in depth of visits and effects of various changes in design on depth of visit or visit/transaction ratio. This will be largely impossible now (historical data will be useless). In any analysis continuity of data is extremely important, lack of continuity makes analysis a waste.

    Whats more – several of our deals with traffic providers are based on visit count. Now we have a problem – it seems fortunately that most of the difference (huge spikes of 50-70% in visits count) are in traffic from google (organic + SEM) – but we cannot be sure – if and how much more we now be paying for same traffic.
    Additionally – it seems that together with change of definition there was some error in count of traffic from adwords (we noticed in a week after change 80k clicks and 170k visits from Adwords). Now it seems to improve – but don;t know what was the reason for this.

    Most of our yearly marketing planning was somehow based or related to visits count and it will be extremely difficult now to recalculate this (especially that stats of different traffic sources reacted in different way to this change)

    Whats more on 10th we’ve had a new release/ version of our websites and at the begining we wasted lot of time trying to find out problem on our side.

    All in all this change was/is an extreme problem for us.

    The worst for me is that we/I have to learn what really happened not from google but from other users who try to make sense and have to investigate what really happened.
    I am really furious we wasted a lot of time to even learn that google changed something in so dramatic way. It would have been enough to post a clear message within google analytics panel.

    After this experience we’ve made a decision to:
    a) use other, paid tools to measure deals with traffic providers
    b) install internally on our servers tools for data analysis.

    We will continue to use google analytics – but rather as backup tool.
    Rgs
    Jarek

    • Dave Culbertson August 19, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

      A well-reasoned post, Jarek. At this point, if your business relies heavily on web analytics, Google Analytics now seems like a back up rather than the primary tool. It’s no longer reliable from a business perspective.

    • Peter O'Neill August 19, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

      Hi Jarek,

      Thanks for the long and detailed post, you have raised some excellent points. Have you read the recent update on the google analytics announcement regarding the bug they found and have apparently fixed? It only affected search terms or websites with dual tracking, it might have contributed to the more recent changes in metrics you have seen.

      I agree communication could have been a lot better and your point about some sort of message (banner?) within the GA interface is a great idea – would have made this so much easier. Even the update was only made to the original blog post rather than being a new post.

      I have a different approach to analysing data myself, I don’t value historical data anywhere near to the extent that you do. Most companies I have worked with are constantly releasing new features and changing marketing campaigns – with this matched by external market changes. As a result, I don’t feel continuity of data is possible. I do agree that an seasonal impacts is useful but, given there was a step change, this is still very possible to identify once you have calculated the scale of the step change.

      In terms of paying traffic providers based on visits, I generally recommend using other tools to calculate payments. Web analytics tools are not designed to be 100% accurate as for example, people who don’t accept javascript are not counted. This change will actually make visit counts from traffic providers more accurate though as every click through will be counted, not just the ones which are the first one for a visit.

      I can’t argue with your decision, a paid tool is the best solution if reliability of data is essential. Everyone does need to remember that GA is a free tool and there is no SLA in place (an SLA was the biggest thing that I argued companies would be paying for if a paid version of GA is released at some stage). Hopefully you will find the benefits of the paid tool offset the costs of it.

      Cheers

      Peter

  13. Jarek Swiecicki August 20, 2011 at 12:34 am #

    Hi Peter, thanks for your answer.
    I noticed update on google blog and some improvement in the last 2 days. Still difference is from visits to clicks ratio in google adwords traffic going down from 180% to 120%. Better but still impossible to me – no matter what is a definition of a visit. BTW – we run a single instance of GA tracking.

    Unfortunately I don’t know how big errors/changes are in stats from other traffic streams as I don’t have internal data from partners providing us with traffic.

    Best
    Jarek

    • Peter O'Neill August 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

      Hi Jarek,

      Sorry, only just noticed your response. I believe the reason for more visits than clicks from Adwords is the GA setting where if a visits is via Direct Entry and there has previously been a different traffic source, this source is reused for the new visit. I guess the idea is to attribute the visit/conversion to whatever attracted the visitor to the website in the first place. Therefore a visitor who clicks through from Adwords and then returns at a later date via Direct will have 1 click and 2 visits.

      Note this setting has been there for a long time, it is not a new change.

      I personally totally disagree with it, I want to know the actual method of entry for all visits. But don’t fancy my chances to getting Google to change it. I think I have a workaround whereby you reduce the length of the campaign cookie to the expire with the session – therefore there can never be a prior method of entry. But I have not tested this.

      Peter

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