Google Analytics is a powerful tool for marketers. It provides incredible insights and helps inform sound decisions. But the Google Analytics we know – Universal Analytics – is going away. On July 1, 2023, Universal Analytics will stop processing new hits. It will be replaced by Google Analytics 4 (GA4), Google’s next-generation measurement tool.
GA4 represents an essential milestone in data-driven decision-making for marketers. With features such as enhanced measurement, expanded reporting functionality, and multi-channel attribution, GA4 provides a much more modern and flexible approach to uncovering actionable intelligence about user activity on websites and mobile apps.
This post dives into what every marketer needs to know about GA4, and how to prepare for a seamless transition.
What is Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?
Universal Analytics (the version replaced by GA4) met the needs of marketers when it was introduced in 2012, but a lot has changed in ten years. The prevalence of mobile apps, the evolution of machine learning, and new privacy legislation like GDPR meant Universal Analytics couldn’t keep up with the needs of modern marketers.
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is a next-generation analytics platform designed to provide marketers with an enhanced user experience and deeper insights into their digital audiences. It also introduces several new features designed to help marketers better understand user behavior and build more effective marketing campaigns.
Improved User Interface
GA4 introduces a new user interface that is optimized for modern marketers. The platform features improved navigation, an updated color palette, and intuitive icons, giving users easier access to the data and insights they need.
There are effective new features for audience segmentation included in GA4. This feature allows marketers to divide their users into different segments based on their behavior, demographics, interests, and more. Marketers can then use these insights to create targeted campaigns that are tailored to specific user segments in order to maximize engagement and conversions.
Combined Data Sources
With deeper integrations with other Google products and a more sophisticated API, it’s easier to share data between Google Analytics and other platforms, especially those controlled by Google, to gain a more comprehensive view of user behavior. This feature helps marketers make better informed decisions by giving them access to a unified view of all their customer data. Marketers can use this data to understand what’s working, where there are opportunities for improvement, and which strategies are most effective.
Improved Event Tracking
GA4 has improved event tracking, giving marketers an expanded view of user engagement and activity. GA4 records any type of interaction a user has with a website or mobile app, including pageviews, clicks, scrolls, downloads, video plays, and more. This data can be used to measure the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and optimize them for better results.
An impressive new feature for multi-channel attribution is part of GA4’s improvements. This feature allows marketers to track user behavior across multiple channels, such as organic search, social media, and paid advertising campaigns. The data gathered from these sources can then be used to attribute conversions and other site goals to specific marketing channels.
GA4’s AI-powered insights feature is designed to give marketers a deeper understanding of user behavior. It uses machine learning algorithms to analyze patterns in user data, and generate alerts that can be used to optimize marketing campaigns. The feature also provides predictive insights, which allows marketers to anticipate customer needs and proactively develop strategies for addressing them. With AI-powered insights, marketers have the opportunity to make data-driven decisions about their business quickly and accurately.
GA4 includes customizable dashboards, allowing marketers to easily access data and insights tailored to their individual needs. The dashboard feature allows users to create custom reports and track the metrics that are most important to their business. Users can also add widgets, such as maps, graphs, and tables to their dashboards in order to visualize data more effectively. With customizable dashboards, users have quick access to all the information they need in one organized place.
The incorporation of combined data sources for a holistic view of customer behavior across touchpoints, along with new insights and powerful tools, makes GA4 an optimized platform for giving marketers the necessary data to make informed decisions on how best to engage customers and create highly personalized experiences.
What To Expect When Comparing Metrics Between Universal Analytics and GA4
There is another core difference between Universal Analytics and GA4, and that is the measurement model used to collect and classify data. It is important to understand this, as it means that both Universal Analytics and GA4 can collect, process, and report the same data differently. This means that marketers can expect to see big differences when comparing Universal Analytics metrics to GA4 metrics.
Below are a few examples of what metrics marketers are used to seeing in Universal Analytics, and how they will be different in GA4.
Universal Analytics defines a user as a visitor who has initiated a session on your website. While the definition is the same for GA4, how this is tracked is very different. Universal Analytics uses Client ID, which represents an unknown browser or device, to count the total users on the site in a given period of time. The Client ID is made up of unique random numbers with a timestamp, and is randomly generated by the universal analytics cookie. Client ID is assigned to all unique devices on your website, but cannot identify unique users across multiple devices.
GA4, on the other hand, relies on User ID that are alphanumeric characters, which can exist across multiple devices and browsers to identify engaged users. Since it represents a unique logged-in user, it can identify unique users across multiple devices, making cross-device tracking possible in GA4. The downside is that User ID can only be applied to logged-in users; you cannot track a non-logged-in visitor like you could in Universal Analytics using Client ID.
What can marketers expect when comparing user data from Universal Analytics versus GA4?
In addition to Total Users and New Users, marketers will have access to a third metric – Active Users. Active Users include only those who either stuck around for more than a few seconds or took an action on your site. This provides a much better signal of the right traffic but will result in a lower number than Total Users.
While the term “Users” is used to label graphs and columns in both versions, GA4 considers “Users” to be Active Users, while Universal Analytics considers “Users” to mean Total Users. As a result, the “User” metric may be lower on GA4.
Pageviews in Universal Analytics are the total number of pages viewed, with repeat views of a single page being counted more than once. As a secondary metric, Universal Analytics also counts “Unique Pageviews,” which is the total number of pages viewed where duplicates are NOT counted.
In GA4, this metric has been renamed “Views.” Views represent the total number of app screens and/or web pages your users saw, and repeated views of a single screen or page are counted.
What can marketers expect when comparing pageview data from Universal Analytics versus GA4?
In general, pageviews should be fairly similar between Universal Analytics and GA4. The exception will be if you are tracking both web and app data in GA4, in which case you should have both combined in the same property (unlike Universal Analytics, which forces you to break them out in separate web versus mobile-specific properties).
Universal Analytics defines a session as “a group of user interactions with your website that occur within a given time frame.” The session begins with a user’s first pageview on your website and continues until the user exits the site, picks up new campaign parameters, is inactive for up to 30 minutes, or if the user is on the website when midnight arrives.
GA4 defines, and handles, sessions very differently. In GA4, a view (pageview) is the same as any other event, so a session is a group of events recorded for a user in a given time period. The technical details for why this is are complex, but in basic terms, GA4 blew up the entire way a session is recorded under the hood, and this means differences and limitations on what can be reported on, compared to Universal Analytics.
What can marketers expect when comparing session data from Universal Analytics versus GA4?
There are several factors that could impact your session data between Universal Analytics and GA4. This includes:
- Geography: Consider the time zones of your users and how often they are to cross the midnight threshold. If you are a global business, your session counts may be lower in GA4, as a new session is not automatically created when visitors cross midnight.
- UTMs: If you put UTM parameters to track campaigns on your URLs, you may see higher session counts in UA than GA4, since a new campaign doesn’t force a new session.
- Filters: Both built-in (bot) and custom filters are different in GA4. Since GA4 doesn’t allow custom filters at this time, you can expect this will drive sessions up in your GA4 property if you had filters in Universal Analytics. That said, differences in bot exclusion could drive this the other way.
- Estimation: GA4 is designed to estimate sessions when actual data is not available (usually due to browsers or extensions pushing privacy to the max). Universal Analytics did a little bit of this estimation, but not nearly as well, so this will drive sessions down in GA4 compared to Universal Analytics, especially for privacy-minded audiences.
Universal Analytics defines “Average Time on Page” as the average amount of time users spent viewing a specific page or screen, or set of pages or screens. In truth, Universal Analytics only looked at the time between pageviews and events. This meant, when calculating Session Duration, it often ignored any time spent on the last page in a session. It also meant that it counted all the time your visitors had your pages open in a non-active tab, which skewed session durations much higher than reality.
GA4 has redefined Session Duration as Average Engagement Time per Session, and measures it differently, attempting to count all the time that your web page was the main focus, or that your app screen was in the foreground.
What can marketers expect when comparing Average Time on Page data from Universal Analytics versus GA4?
Average Session Duration does not exist in GA4. Instead, marketers will look for Average Engagement Time per Session, a number which will be lower than Average Session Duration since it doesn’t count all the time the tab is not active and/or the browser is not the active window.
There are a number of differences between Universal Analytics and GA4 that make it hard to compare conversion counts: use of goals versus conversions, the number of times a conversion can be counted, and the amount of time it takes to process the data.
Universal Analytics supports five goal types: destination, duration, pages/sessions, smart goals, and event goals. However, GA4 only supports conversion events, and it may not always be possible to use a GA4 conversion event to duplicate a Universal Analytics goal type. For example, you cannot duplicate a smart goal using GA4 events, and duration goals require some serious Google Tag Manager gymnastics to reproduce.
Another difference is in how goals and conversions are counted. In Universal Analytics, marketers define a goal to indicate that a specific user action should be counted as a conversion, and it can only be counted once per session.
In GA4, you specify a conversion event for each action that you want to count as a conversion. For example, you would specify that the “Form Submit” event is a conversion event. Since GA4 counts every action, a second submission of the form (even in the same session) would result in two conversions (whereas the example above would have only resulted in one conversion with Universal Analytics).
And finally, since GA4 relies on User ID to create a more holistic view of the user’s action on the website, conversion metrics can update for up to seven days after a conversion is recorded.
What can marketers expect when comparing goals in Universal Analytics versus conversions in GA4?
Goals and conversions are not apples to apples between the two versions. Before you try to cover your Universal Analytics goals into GA4 conversions, you will need to understand the GA4 data model. Click here for help on replicating the most common UA goals as conversions in GA4.
Regardless of how you map them, you can count on GA4 conversions being higher than your Universal Analytics goals because multiple actions will be counted.
In Universal Analytics, Bounce Rate is the percentage of sessions consisting of a single pageview in which there was no interaction with the page.
GA4 replaces Bounces (and Bounce Rate) with Engaged Sessions (and Engagement Rate). Engaged Sessions measure how many of your sessions drove user engagement, rather than measure how many of your sessions only included one pageview. This is a much more helpful metric in that marketers can better understand when a visitor is engaging with content, and when they are dropping off.
Engagement Rate is simply the percentage of your sessions that were engaged sessions.
What can marketers expect when comparing bounce rate in Universal Analytics versus engaged sessions in GA4?
If you consider engaged sessions to be non-bounces, and the remaining sessions to be bounces, then you can calculate your bounce rate as 100% minus your engagement rate (which, by the way, is how Google calculated it when they added it into limited reporting in June 2022).
However, if you do this, you’ll find a significant difference in the numbers from Universal Analytics to those from GA4.
The reason for this difference is that GA4 includes dwell time on the page along with a whole host of other built-in events when it decides if a session is engaged, regardless of the number of pages or screens viewed. So, a lot of single-page sessions that get counted as bounces in Universal Analytics get counted as engaged sessions in GA4, because the visitor either stuck around for ten seconds or more, or engaged with the content of the page in a way that GA4 measures.
This means any bounce rate you find or calculate from engaged sessions, or engagement rate, will be much lower in GA4 than the native bounce rate in Universal Analytics, because it’s a much more accurate measure of traffic quality.
In Universal Analytics, Events are user interactions other than pageviews. An event, which is often created with the help of Google Tag Manager (GTM), includes a category, action, label, and value (optional). Total Events increase each time a Category/Action/Label event is triggered.
In GA4, all actions (including pageviews) are events and consist of only a simple name. They no longer follow the familiar Category, Action, and Label hierarchy, but instead give marketers much more power by allowing you to pass additional data as parameters along with each event. Therefore, it is important that marketers rethink data collection in terms of this new model rather than trying to fit the Universal Analytics event structure into GA4.
What can marketers expect when comparing event counts in Universal Analytics vs. GA4?
If you were to copy over your events exactly as you had them in Universal Analytics, this is the one place you should expect only minor variations in your metrics, due primarily to how GA4 distinguishes users and sessions.
But, if you were to copy over all your events as you have them in GA4, you’d be missing out on some of the amazing power of the new platform.
Some of your events might be better off as custom metrics. Some events should be consolidated and differentiated with parameters or dimensions. This is your chance to not only rethink your data collection, but take advantage of a much more powerful platform to do it.
How To Prepare for a Seamless Transition to GA4
While Google Analytics 4 (GA4) offers marketers and website owners new opportunities and insights, it also presents several challenges. Making sure your marketing team is prepared for a seamless transition from one analytics platform to another can be daunting, but is essential if you want your team to take full advantage of all of the features available.
Effective preparation begins by proactively planning for, and setting up, your GA4 instance. With the upcoming end of support for Universal Analytics on July 1, 2023, now is the time to make the switch to Google Analytics 4. This transition isn’t as easy as setting up a new instance and calling it a day. Considering that its underlying measurement framework is different when compared to UA, you need to proactively plan for your GA4 migration. This includes setting up a GA4 instance, mapping events, migrating goals and conversions, creating reports and dashboards, and running parallel reports on both platforms for better comparison.
Plan Your Implementation
What are the key drivers of your business? What leading indicators can you detect from web activity? How do you want to be able to slice your data to get actionable insights?
Take the time to answer these questions and start looking at your migration with the end in mind. This will help you understand what needs to be a:
- Custom Dimension (a way to slice your data)
- Custom Metric (something you tally or sum up by user or session)
- Standard Event (something you want to know when it happens and what leads up to it)
- Conversion Event (something that indicates success in Google Analytics and other Google products)
Update Tagging Structure
One of the first steps in preparing for GA4 is updating your tag structure. This means making sure all data is being collected accurately and efficiently across all channels, including website tags, mobile app tags, and any other tracking codes you might be using.
If you are currently using a WordPress plugin or hardcoded analytics integration to get data from your website into Google Analytics, this is the time to implement Google Tag Manager (GTM). A good tagging strategy should be based on analytics best practices and GTM implementation. It’s also important to make sure that you are collecting all necessary data points at each stage of the customer journey, and that your implementation respects current privacy regulations and is prepared to handle new ones.
Once your tagging structure is in place, you’ll need to update your reporting processes. With GA4, there are a few new features that can help you better understand user behavior and optimize campaigns accordingly. For example, GA4 includes an enhanced version of cross-device reports that can provide valuable insights into how users interact with different devices during their customer journey. Additionally, there are several new metrics available with GA4, such as lifetime value (LTV). These metrics will help you better understand user engagement on both a high level and granular level so that you can target users more effectively.
You will want to customize the stock reports to meet your organization’s needs. Thankfully, GA4 makes this easy to do.
You may also consider creating some Looker (formerly Google Data Studio) reports for stakeholders outside the marketing organization. GA4 is significantly more powerful, but along with that power comes complexity that may not be worth the training for infrequent users.
Finally, once your tagging structure and reporting processes have been updated for GA4, it’s important to ensure that all employees understand how to use the new platform properly so they can take advantage of its features and benefits. This means providing training sessions on topics such as segmentation strategies or user flow analysis so everyone knows how best to utilize the tool for their specific needs. It’s also helpful to provide resources such as video tutorials or ebooks so employees can reference them later if they need additional assistance with navigating the platform’s features or interpreting data insights correctly.
The power of this new platform lies in its ability to provide unprecedented insights into user behavior — and by preparing ahead of time for a seamless transition, marketers can start leveraging these insights immediately. By taking the time upfront to update your tagging structure, update reporting systems, and invest in training for team members who will be using GA4 on a daily basis, you can ensure a smooth transition to GA4. Once you are confident that GA4 is configured correctly, collecting the right data and generating actionable insights, you can pick a date to fully switch over from Universal Analytics to GA4.
Ready To Transition to GA4?
Google Analytics 4 is the next step in Google’s measurement tool — and it’s a powerful one. With features like improved cross-device tracking, event measurement, and data visualization, GA4 is set to revolutionize the insights that marketing teams can derive from data. If you’re still using Universal Analytics, now is the time to make the move to GA4. And we can help. Our team of experts will guide you through every step of the transition process, ensuring a seamless implementation that doesn’t disrupt your workflow or negatively impact your business. Ready to get started? Contact Brilliant Metrics today.