On July 1, 2023, standard Universal Analytics (UA) properties will stop processing data and Google Analytics users are being advised to migrate to Google Analytics 4 (GA4). It’s critical that you immediately integrate Google Analytics 4 with your site, though, so that you actually have historic data come July!
What Is Google Analytics 4?
This is a question still burning in many marketers’ minds — and for good reason. Google Analytics 4 isn’t just an update; it’s a ground-up redesign that completely reimagines tracking and collecting data across websites and apps. The move is due to stricter data privacy laws, which will inevitably usher in a cookieless future.
Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics
This is a significant update to Google Analytics and will have a dramatic impact on the industry. Here are 6 key differences… some severely reduce the insight that marketers have grown to appreciate in UA.
- Data Collection – Universal Analytics uses the traditional method of tracking website traffic using cookies, while GA4 uses a more advanced method that combines data from cookies, device fingerprinting, and other data sources. This means that GA4 can provide more accurate and comprehensive data about your website visitors.
- User ID Tracking – Universal Analytics allows you to track user behavior across devices using a user ID, but GA4 makes it easier to track user behavior by automatically linking data from different devices and sessions.
- Machine Learning (ML) – GA4 incorporates machine learning capabilities, which can help you to better understand your website visitors and make more informed decisions about your marketing efforts.
- Event Tracking – In Universal Analytics, you need to manually set up event tracking for specific actions that you want to track on your website. In GA4, event tracking is automatic and you can use predefined events or customize your own events to track the actions that are most relevant to your business.
- Historical Data – The duration of historical data that you can report on in GA4 depends on the type of data being collected. Some types of data, such as events and user properties, have a retention period of up to 2 years, while other types of data, such as sessions and pageviews, have a retention period of up to 26 months. This is a huge difference given Universal Analytics providing full historical data.
- Reporting – Both Universal Analytics and GA4 provide a range of reports and metrics that can help you to understand your website traffic and user behavior. However, GA4 provides more advanced and customizable reporting options, as well as real-time data and insights.
GA4 offers businesses more actionable insights, as you can now get a clearer view of user behavior and a more holistic understanding of the entire customer journey.
Should a user visit your website or app, new functionalities now combine data into a single source and allow you to analyze the gathered information together. There’s also a bevy of new event-tracking capabilities and machine learning processing, opening the door for you to collect data in more meaningful ways for your business. Even if consumers opt out of data collection, AI will fill in the gaps to provide greater insight into your customer base.
What Are Marketers Losing With GA4?
For all its benefits, the GA4 migration isn’t without its drawbacks. The inability to migrate Universal Analytics information into the new platform can be especially problematic. It’s like activating Google Analytics for the first time. You won’t have any historical event data to look back on, as nothing has been captured yet.
This alone should be reason enough to commence with GA4 integration as soon as possible. In fact, you’re only guaranteed access to historical data for the six months following the end of UA’s data collection. GA4 is already considered the new standard. With no true alternative, now is an excellent time to familiarize yourself with the new system.
There are additional features that were available in Universal Analytics that are not available in GA4:
- User-ID Tracking – In Universal Analytics, you could track user behavior across devices using a user ID. This feature is not available in GA4, as it automatically links data from different devices and sessions.
- Custom Variables – In Universal Analytics, you could set up custom variables to track specific user behavior or characteristics. This feature is not available in GA4, as it has a more flexible event-based tracking system that allows you to customize your tracking without the need for custom variables.
- Visitor Segmentation – In Universal Analytics, you could segment your data by visitor type (e.g. new vs. returning visitors) and create custom segments based on various criteria. In GA4, you can still segment your data, but the options for segmentation are more limited.
- Advanced Segments – In Universal Analytics, you could create advanced segments to analyze specific subsets of your data. This feature is not available in GA4, as it has a more flexible event-based tracking system that allows you to customize your tracking without the need for advanced segments.
- Site Search Tracking – In Universal Analytics, you could set up site search tracking to understand how users were interacting with your site search feature. This feature is not available in GA4, but you can use events to track site search behavior.
- Custom Alerts – In Universal Analytics, you could set up custom alerts to notify you of significant changes in your website traffic or user behavior. This feature is not available in GA4, but you can use the anomaly detection feature to identify significant changes in your data.
Getting to Know the New Features of GA4
Because it’s a ground-up redesign, GA4 includes a brand-new interface, which can seem daunting initially, especially if you’ve grown accustomed to UA. The new interface is simplified with 5 key elements:
- Product links, help, and account management
- Edit and share options
It’s important to note that in many respects, it’s also a much more powerful tool with just a few changes.
Behavior metrics, for one, have changed due to GA4 being action-based instead of session-based. Instead of seeing average session duration or bounce rate, you’ll be tracking engaged sessions or engagement rates instead. Views are also a thing of the past. Accounts and properties are still present, but data streams (e.g., websites, apps, and so on) are now available and can be configured at the property level.
Beyond that, you’ll find new event categories, many of which are automatically collected. You can also use several enhanced measurement and custom events. Each one unlocks new reporting capabilities that you can precisely tailor to your business’s needs. However, the GA4 migration does bring fewer standard reports.
From those reports, you can export your data into Google Data Studio or go into the Explore section to build your custom explorations, like funnel reports, path explorations, and so on.
How to Commence With the GA4 Integration
Although there’s a slight learning curve, the GA4 integration is a straightforward update. To get the most out of it, just a few instances of preparation are necessary. Here’s where to focus your attention first:
- Update your data streams. With the GA4 migration, data is now collected at the stream level. That means you must set up data streams for all platforms across your business to capture information and pull reports at a later time. If, for example, your organization has a website, Android app, and iOS app, you’ll want to set up each of these platforms as a separate data stream within the same GA4 property. This allows you to follow the entire customer life cycle and provide a more comprehensive marketing campaign analysis.
- Update your events for essential goals. As you go through the GA4 integration, you’ll notice that events are similar to those in UA. However, you might need to customize any associated goals — now referred to as conversions — to ensure you track what matters to your business. Take something like a destination-type goal. You can’t just create a page view goal. The data model is very different in Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics. Because of this, you could set up a form-submit goal by creating an event in GTM that’s triggered when the page view event occurs on the desired page.
- Monitor new engagement metrics for your campaigns. One significant change is that your website’s bounce rate might no longer be available after the GA4 integration. Other engagement-based metrics, however, can now be found through Analytics. Engagement rate, which is the inverse of bounce rate, is the most obvious and allows you to determine how users interact with your content. If the engagement rate is low, you can dig deeper into different reports and explorations to see whether it’s consistently low or whether it’s the result of a specific channel, page, source, and so on.
Let’s say a few pages have a low engagement rate. You can then assess whether the content correlates well with your marketing to drive users to those pages. Perhaps one of those pages doesn’t offer an easy or logical path to the next step you want them to take. You can then make corrections thanks to insights provided by the GA4 update.
No one worked to become a digital marketer just for things to stay the same. GA4 is just another powerful new tool that offers a variety of functions to improve customer profiles, monitor trends further, and enable remarketing in new and exciting ways. By taking the time to learn it now while you still have the safety net of UA to fall back on, you’ll be one step ahead when GA4 takes over as the big kid on the block.