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Why Ad Clicks Don’t Match Sessions in Google Analytics

April 18th, 2023 | 4 min. read

By Julia Elliott

Dive Deeper into Digital Analytics
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Picture this: You're looking at the results of a recent digital ad campaign. It shows 510 clicks — nice. Next, you go to Google Analytics and view the data for the webpage your ad sent people to. And the number here is ... only 463.

Wait a minute. Why is it less? Is one of them "wrong"?

This mismatch between clicks and "sessions" is confusing, frustrating and typical. But if it's new to you, it can feel like an unpleasant jolt. And this gap may widen as Google Analytics moves from Universal to GA4 starting July 1, 2023.

It's a common concern we hear at Zoe Marketing & Communications. We crunch campaign results for hundreds of clients each year. After 15+ years on the job, we have a firm grip on the differences between these numbers — and why they're nothing to worry about.

In this blog, we'll cover the basics of "clicks vs. sessions," including:

By the end, you'll feel less concerned. You'll also gain a deeper understanding of why these data points are different — and both insightful.

The difference between clicks and sessions

They track two different things. In a nutshell, clicks (ad server data) measure how many total clicks your ad got. Sessions (Google Analytics data) count how many times the webpage you sent them to fully loaded.

Think of it this way: Clicks are accurate but basic and thus higher. Sessions are smarter, pickier and lower. Let's take a closer look at each one.

Clicks (the ad server data)

You may be managing Google Ads yourself. Or perhaps you're working with a marketing agency that uses an "ad exchange" to serve your ads. Either way, they all measure clicks the same way:

One click = one click

There's no nuance. It doesn't matter if the same person clicks many times. It doesn't matter if they click accidentally and "jumped ship." That ad was tapped. And that means one click.

Clicks are rudimentary. They're accurate, and they're true. But they don't tell the entire story.

Sessions (aka, Google Analytics data)

Google Analytics is more sensitive. To do its "brainier" work, it waits for a special tag to fire. This happens when your targeted webpage loads — and a "session" officially begins.

Six specific technical things happen before a session is officially recorded, Google notes. But to put it simply, Google Analytics:

  1. Does not register people who click an ad but abandon the destination page before it fully loads. It takes a little time to register.
  2. Only counts visitors in 30-minute windows. If someone clicks your ad two or more times in a half hour and makes it to your page each time, they only count as one session.

These two factors are mainly why sessions are always lower than ad clicks.

In essence, Google Analytics says, "This person actually arrived." Clicks say, "This person departed" — and ignore what happens next.

What a 'typical' discrepancy looks like

Again, your Google Analytics sessions will always be lower than your clicks. Ideally, 10% margins are in "normal range." Let's look at the example in our introduction.

Say you got 510 ad clicks and 463 sessions in Google Analytics. That's a margin of 9.2% — which is within bounds. Put in even simpler terms: If you get 100 clicks, you should see around 90 sessions. 

We've never seen a 1:1 ratio. It's safe to say it's impossible. The ad-serving side will always show more clicks. That's because it tracks every "departure" but not every "arrival."

Changes to watch for with GA4

With the dawn of GA4, you might see your session numbers — now called "session starts" — dip even lower than the old Universal data. There are a few reasons for that:

  • If you use UTM codes on your website, it triggers more sessions in Universal vs. GA4.
  • Sessions used to restart at midnight with Universal; they don't with GA4.
  • If someone visits your page from several sources — say, Facebook and Google — in that 30 minute-window, it no longer counts as several sessions in GA4. Just one.
  • GA4 has a more nuanced method of estimating the actual number of sessions.

All this cuts out some "inflation" you might've seen in Universal.

It's worth noting that while GA4 still offers "sessions" data, its bigger focus is on engaged sessions — where someone spends 10 seconds or more on page. It also puts more emphasis on identifying where your traffic came from (i.e., quality traffic).

3 other factors that can skew sessions

Page-loading and the "30-minute visitor window" still account for a good chunk of Google Analytics' lower session numbers. That said, there are other pesky reasons, too.

1. Browser and security settings

"Bailing out" isn't the only reason sessions don't "complete." Some people disable their devices' settings for things like images, audio and coding like CSS or JavaScript.

Another possibility: Does your page have cookies or images from a third-party source — in other words, they're hosted on another site and not your own? People can block these, too.

If your page has any of these elements, it might not fully load and register for some.

2. The 'Opt-out Browser Add-on'

Yep: Some folks are tired of Google's tracking and opting out. Nothing you can control: They've explicitly told Google Analytics not to follow them — so it doesn't.

3. Tracking code set-up issues

This issue can cause the most profound discrepancies. Luckily, it's also the easiest to address. If your Google Analytics tracking code isn't set up properly, your data will be slim to none. Explore this article to learn more about using Google Analytics correctly.

The benefits of clicks and sessions

It's easy to assume that sessions — the "smarter" data — is better. But the reality is both clicks and sessions provide valuable insights.

What clicks tell us

Ad clicks give a good flavor of total engagement. Even when people don't make it to your landing page, they still see your branding and messaging.

Some of them found your ad engaging enough to click (several times, even). And, if they did make it to your landing page, you can (and should) set up a pixel on that page to retarget them with reminder ads later on.

What sessions tell us

Almost everyone wants to get people to their website and "convert" them somehow. Google Analytics gives a solid snapshot of how many actual people may be interested in you. They're more likely to consider what you offer if they stick around long enough.

That's why, again, setting up a retargeting campaign on your landing page is crucial. Remind these "arrivals" that you exist and are here to help solve their problems.

Next steps for tracking your metrics like a pro

Clicks and sessions are different. You now know that that's completely normal!

This blog unveiled that click reports track every ad click or "departure." Sessions, meanwhile, account for every full page load or "arrival." Typically, you'll see about 10% more clicks than sessions (but don't be alarmed if the gap grows a bit with GA4).

Looking for some help managing your campaign data? Talk to us. Zoe Marketing & Communications can help you grow your reach to engaged prospects in your digital marketing efforts.

Meanwhile, what other campaign metrics are you tracking — or should you be monitoring? Read on to discover:

Confused by Google Analytics?

Let our digital marketing experts guide you through the maze of analytics for clearer insights.

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Julia Elliott

For 17 years, Julia Elliott crafted strategies and stories for Zoe, along with its sister companies, Metro Parent and Chicago Parent. A deep background in journalism helped her create customized content marketing to drive client success.