Why Don’t the Number of Clicks Equal the Number of Website Sessions?

by | May 16, 2019 | Impressions

Generally, during a campaign, the number of clicks you drive from your digital ads will not match the number of sessions you track via website analytics. Understanding this relationship between clicks and website sessions will give you a better view of campaign performance and the digital advertising landscape as a whole.

First, it’s important to understand that clicks and website sessions are two different metrics. Clicks are measured via ad servers (the technology that puts the ad in front of the user), whereas sessions are measured via website analytics tools (like Google Analytics). Clicks from a digital ad typically lead to website sessions, but it isn’t a 1:1 relationship.

The core reason for this is that clicks do not always lead to website sessions. Let’s go a little deeper.

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Newbie Note
Clicks measure when a user clicks your ad. That’s it. Sessions measure sets of time spent on your page. Clicks often lead to sessions, but there is much more nuance to it, which we’ll dive into.
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Reason 1: Short Clicks

Even though it only takes a few seconds, a surprising number of events happen between a user click and its subsequent session (Google wrote a whole article about this phenomenon).

Things like server requests, data downloads, and security checks all stand between that click and the coveted website session. If a user closes out of the website before passing through all of the checkpoints, they will not record a session.

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You’d expect that users would have to act pretty fast to close their browser quickly enough to not register a session, but it happens more often than you realize. Google even has a name for it: short click.

Short clicks happen because humans are amazingly quick when navigating computers and phones, and the page loads aren’t happening as rapidly as we’d like to think they are. Add in a number of accidental, coerced, and fraudulent clicks and you can understand why not all clicks turn into website sessions.

In my experience (assuming Google Analytics is installed properly), the biggest reason for the disparity between clicks and website sessions is simply that paid media clicks just don’t always turn into bonafide website visits.

There are plenty of other reasons why your clicks might match your website sessions.

Setting the Right KPI Expert Guide Subhead: Educate

Reason 2: It’s Not Set up Properly

The website analytics code is not installed properly.

If your website analytics code isn’t installed properly, it can’t track website sessions. We see this most frequently when advertisers make a new landing page for the campaign but forget to add the analytics code to the new page.


Ads are using improperly tagged website URLs.

If you’re comparing website traffic to paid media clicks in Google Analytics, you’re probably using UTM parameters. If those UTM parameters improperly set up, that can lead to a discrepancy between the number of clicks and website sessions. 

For example, if you forget to add UTM parameters to a specific creative, any clicks from those ads would not be correlated via website analytics.

Additionally, if you use the wrong UTM parameters on a group of creative, those particular website sessions would get attributed to an entirely different set of clicks. This would lead to both over-reporting in one data set and under-reporting in the other.

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Reason 3: A Single Click Can Lead to Multiple Sessions.

I mentioned earlier that clicks and website sessions don’t have a 1:1 relationship.

Typically, questions arise when the number of sessions is lower than the number of clicks, but there are times where the opposite is  true—the number of sessions is higher than the number of clicks.

It seems impossible and marketers typically assume the worst, but this can usually be attributed to a user who visits your site multiple times after initially clicking through a paid media campaign.

For example, if a user clicks on a paid media ad, records a session, leaves, and then returns directly (from their browser history, from a bookmark, or any other source), that second session gets attributed to the original click. One click, two sessions.

Imagine a scenario where a user visits a dozen times off of that one initial click—you have a highly engaged customer providing some potentially confusing data! This is also the reason you might see sessions attributed to a campaign after it has stopped running.

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Not So Newbie Note
If you’re using auto-tagging in Google Ads, this type of discrepancy could be due to gclid values being reused thanks to link sharing or bookmarking. More on that here.
Setting the Right KPI Expert Guide Subhead: Educate

Reason 4: Multiple Clicks Can Lead to a Single Session.

The opposite of the previous example is that sometimes a user might click on your ad multiple times but still only register a single session.

Google Analytics sessions default to 30 minutes, so if multiple clicks happen in that single session from the same source, it will only be counted as one session.

An example of this would be a user who clicks on a paid search ad, navigates to a website, records a session, navigates back to the search results, clicks on different advertiser’s ad, registers a session on that website, then navigates back to the search results again and clicks on the initial paid search ad one more time (Phew!).

After all that indecision, the second click would still be attributed to the original website session because it was within the 30-minute window.

Setting the Right KPI Expert Guide Subhead: Educate

Reason 5: Redirected Landing Page

This one is pretty straightforward—if your click-through URL redirects to a different page, there’s no guarantee the UTM parameters will pass through as well.

Whenever possible, avoid using redirects as click-through URLs—just use the intended final destination instead.

Setting the Right KPI Expert Guide Subhead: Educate

Reason 6: Ad Formats Better Suited for Other Metrics

Sometimes, the ad format you’re running isn’t expected to drive sessions at a high rate, or even at all.

For example, video ads are typically reserved for awareness and branding campaigns. Users exposed to these ads might accidentally click the ad in an attempt to skip it, or click it and immediately close the window in order to get to their desired content faster.

In general, someone watching a video ad is more interested in the content set to play after the ad than the ad itself. It’s normal to see a larger discrepancy of sessions to clicks in video units, and I’d argue you shouldn’t even monitor clicks on video campaigns to begin with.

Ad formats that support interactive clicks like “click-to-call” or “click to get directions” are not intended to drive users to a website and thus would not register a website session.

There are also ad units that register a “click” but then display some sort of native module (like Facebook lead gen ads) or require a user to take another action to get to the website. Both of those ad formats would eliminate or reduce the ratio of sessions to clicks.

Understanding the purpose and relationship behind your campaign’s metrics will go a long way to making sure you’re measuring and understanding performance correctly. Clicks and sessions are perhaps one of the easiest illustrations of this with all their surface-level similarities and inherent differences.

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