New or Returning, Visits or Visitors

Peter O’Neill
Reading time: 2 minutes
2nd November 2009

Note: This post has moved from to Ayima as part of the 2018 acquisition.

Everyone likes to know if the people visiting their website are seeing it for the first time or are regulars.  This is even more important when they are paying for the traffic, if the money is going on acquiring new visitors (potential new customers) or is it just providing a convenient entry point for people who would be coming to the site anyway.

Due to cookie deletion and multiple computer usage, it is difficult to get a true picture of the split between people who have never seen a website before and those who have.  However, recording whether the visitor had a cookie from this website previously does at least give an indication of this new/returning split.

What I like to be able to do is to segment out new visitors for a time period (week or month) and examine their behaviour on the website compared to visitors who had visited previously.  The new visitor segment should include all visits during that time period by these visitors, not just their initial visit.

Frustratingly, this information is usually not available as default in a web analytics tool unless you can segment at visitor level.  However, as long as you have one of the four metrics from New and Returning Visits or Visitors, you can calculate the other three.  And most tools will give at least one number.   As examples:

  • Google Analytics gives New Visits and Return Visits
  • SiteCatalyst provides Return Visits
  • HBX contains Returning Visitors

The key to this is knowing that the first time a site is visited, that is both a new visit and a new visitor.  And as any subsequent visits by these people will be reported as a return visit, the number of new visits equals the number of new visitors.

With that logic in mind, it is simple to calculate all four metrics once you have a single one.  For example, assume that the tool available is SiteCatalyst (without access to visitor level segmentation via Data Warehouse or Discover):

  • The number of Return Visits is available but none of the other three metrics
  • Total Visits minus Return Visits gives New Visits
  • New Visits equals New Visitors
  • Total Unique Visitors minus New Visitors gives Return Visitors

And now it is easy to calculate the proportion of Visits that were New or Returning or to calculate the proportion of Visitors that were New or Returning.

The same principle can be applied to Google Analytics:

  • New and Returning Visits is available (note that this metric is visits, not visitors as it is titled in the report)
  • New Visits equals New Visitors
  • Total Unique Visitors minus New Visitors gives Return Visitors

Of course, these numbers don’t mean that much on their own but do become more useful when trended over time or across different segments.

An interesting thing to look at can be the split in New and Returning Visitors for different time periods – day, week and month.  This can indicate the scale of the issue with cookie deletion, but more on that another time.

This post was originally published on AussieWebAnalyst on 2nd Nov ’09

Written By Peter O’Neill
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