If you’ve logged into Google Analytics recently, you’ll likely have noticed the banner at the top of your screen urging you to set up and switch your Universal Analytics property over to Google Analytics 4. While this is no cause to panic (yet), it’s never too early to start getting familiar with Google’s latest web analytics platform - especially because the impending phase-out of third-party cookies will have a huge impact on the effectiveness of Universal Analytics.
What is Google Analytics 4, and how does it work?
For nearly a decade, digital marketers have been relying on Google Analytics 3 - also known as Universal Analytics, or ‘UA’ - to gather, process and display user data and activity on their web properties. Whether it’s how many people abandoned shopping carts on an e-commerce site, or which landing page has the highest conversion rate, Universal Analytics provides all this information and more. However, with the explosion of digital marketing, Big Data, and third-party cookies, there has also been a sharp rise in data privacy concerns among consumers - namely, how that data is collected, stored, and utilised.
Google Analytics 4 - already nicknamed ‘GA4’ - is the newest iteration of Google Analytics that aims to provide the same benefits to marketers and web developers as Universal Analytics, while also collecting and processing data with an increased focus on user privacy.
Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics
It’s important to note that Google Analytics 4 is not an upgrade of Universal Analytics/Google Analytics 3 - it’s a new measurement model that collects data differently, and therefore will create different reports than the ones you may be used to seeing in your UA dashboard.
Session or Events?
The main difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics is that while UA tracks data as sessions, GA4 tracks data as events.
What does this mean?
In Universal Analytics, groups of interactions over a given timeframe are counted as sessions. Sessions can contain multiple types of interactions such as pageviews, clicks, e-commerce transactions, and more.
In Google Analytics 4, each individual interaction is counted as an event. Whether it’s a pageview, a link click, or a transaction, all of these interactions are interpreted and collected as separate events.
To add to the confusion, it’s important to note that ‘events’ in GA4 are totally different from ‘events’ in UA: while UA events have a Category, Action, and Label that describe the event, GA4 events don’t have any of these, and will instead use parameters to identify key aspects of an event. For example, the event ‘page_view’ would have parameters such as ‘page_location’, ‘page_referrer’, and ‘page_title’. This significantly changes not only how Google Analytics users utilise events, but also how they structure their data measurement and reporting as a whole.
Google Analytics 4 gives users a fair amount of freedom when it comes to what events they track. Along with automatically tracked events, such as pageviews and sessions, there are also optional ‘enhanced measurement’ events and the ability to create custom events with your own parameters, with the current limit being 500 custom events. So while users will have to get familiar with a new approach to events, this also opens up many possibilities for custom metrics and measurements.
Views or Data Streams?
While Views are a popular feature of Universal Analytics, Google Analytics 4 has done away with Views completely and replaced them with data streams.
Users can add data streams from their website, Android app, or iOS app, allowing them to view and compare data from different sources. Filters can be applied directly to reports, adjusting how you collect and view data from each data stream.
Each data stream will have its own enhanced measurements. For example, web data streams will also allow you to track on-page video views, scrolls, file downloads, site searches, and outbound clicks. Whereas in UA users would have had to set these measurements up in Google Tag Manager as events, they are now automatically integrated into data streams in GA4.
Another significant difference between UA and GA4 is the integration with BigQuery. BigQuery allows users to rapidly query large and complex datasets, allowing organisations to make better informed decisions for their business and be more responsive to real-time events. In short, this is an incredibly powerful - and even necessary - tool for organisations dealing with large amounts of data.
While BigQuery was previously only available to Analytics360 users, it is now completely free for all GA4 users, making large, complex datasets easier and faster to understand and report on.
Google Analytics 4 and the death of cookies
Is it coincidence that Google is sunsetting Universal Analytics just before the planned phase-out of third-party cookies?
From the European Union’s data privacy laws to Apple’s iOS14, the death of third-party cookies has been a long time coming, and Google Analytics 4 is Google’s response to this significant change in consumer attitudes to data privacy and online user tracking capabilities. This new version of Google Analytics will therefore put privacy first and rely on first-party cookie data only. According to Google themselves:
“Because the technology landscape continues to evolve, the new Analytics is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers. It uses a flexible approach to measurement, and in the future, will include modeling to fill in the gaps where the data may be incomplete.”
How to switch to GA4
Universal Analytics will stop processing data on July 1st 2023 according to Google, so we’ll all have to make the switch eventually (or risk losing years of hard-won data).
Google Analytics 4 is already available to users as a new type of property. At the moment, Google’s official recommendation is to keep both your UA and GA4 properties running, as there are still missing features and reports from GA4 that can negatively impact users’ ability to view, report, and optimise.
However, it’s never too early to start preparing for a full transition to Google Analytics 4, especially if you have custom events, goals, and reports set up in your UA properties.
The first step is straightforward: all you have to do is follow the GA4 Set-up Assistant, which you can find in the Admin section of any of your properties. You’ll still have your old Universal Analytics property, but the Set-up Assistant will create a new GA4 property with many of the same settings, such as property name. This will also automatically enable enhanced measurement on your selected data streams.
Your next step will be to customise your new GA4 property to your website’s needs. Google Analytics offers a wide range of measurements, from basic measurements such as pageviews to data stream-specific measurements such as scroll depth or file downloads. Now is also the time to set up any custom reports, where your custom events will be displayed.
As mentioned before, events work quite differently between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4. You may be tempted to simply copy and paste your events’ naming convention from one to the other, but this is likely to be incongruous with how GA4 handles events, and will ultimately make your life more difficult. Instead, it may be better to first explore the already available options in GA4, from enhanced measurement events and recommended events, before jumping into creating custom events.
While Google Analytics 4 is very different from Universal Analytics - which has been an essential tool in the Webstars arsenal for many years now - we are cautiously optimistic about the potential of GA4. While it’s missing many features that we’ve come to expect, such as bounce rates, the new features being introduced in GA4, such as upgraded UTMs and enhanced measurements, also open up so many new possibilities for tracking and optimisation. As marketing moves towards a cookie-less world, GA4 could be an invaluable tool in making this transition.
As Google continues to improve and add features to GA4, it’s likely that you will have to come back to your new property and configure new reports, measurements, and more. However, now is your chance to experiment with Google Analytics 4, while still making use of all the benefits of Universal Analytics.
Remember Universal Analytics will sunset on July 1st, 2023. This means that if you want to be able to compare your data year on year, you need to get your Google Analytics 4 account set up as soon as possible. If you're not sure where to begin - why not get in touch?