Google Analytics is a free web platform that tracks traffic and engagement across your website and apps. Using statistics and analytical tools, it creates reports that provide insight into your business and customers. Google Analytics is primarily used for marketing and SEO purposes.
The first Google Analytics platform (GA1) was developed in 2005. Since then, there has been GA2 (2011) and GA3 (2012). Known as Universal Analytics, GA3 remained the go-to version of Google Analytics (with a few updates, of course) for nearly a decade.
But in 2020, Google released its fourth and latest version of Google Analytics—GA4. In March of 2022, Google announced that standard Universal Analytics properties will soon stop processing new hits and that users will need to fully upgrade to GA4 by July 1, 2023.
Introduction to Google Analytics 4
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) was built to collect analytics data for the present and the future. It represents a shift towards multi-platform function and user-centric measurement—and away from older generation methodology that was designed for desktops, independent sessions, and cookies.
For this reason, GA4 is substantially different from its predecessor, Universal Analytics. Migrating to GA4, navigating its new user interface, getting used to its new metrics (and adjusting to not having the old ones you’d gotten used to that no longer exist) all represent a steep learning curve. GA4 is not necessarily an upgrade you can hit the ground running with on your first go. For this reason, many users are hanging on to their GA3 properties and running GA3 and GA4 parallel for as long as possible.
Change is never easy. That being said, GA4 opens up a whole new world of tracking capabilities, and once you’ve adjusted to it, you’ll find that it’s a powerful and relevant upgrade.
Let’s take a look at some of the core differences between GA4 and its predecessor:
GA4 Vs. Universal Analytics
As with any new release, GA4 comes with a host of new features and is different from GA3 in many ways—from small details to major game-changers. In this post, we’ll highlight a few that really stand out to us:
Integrated Website & App Data Tracking
Universal Analytics was built around website tracking, and app data had to be accessed and analyzed separately. With GA4, website and app data analytics are completely integrated.
Practically speaking, this means that it’s much easier to track an entire customer journey across multiple devices and platforms—and to make informed marketing decisions based on comprehensive data.
Different Measuring Models
While Universal Analytics measured and categorized specific “hits” (user interactions) within a session (a given timeframe), GA4’s measurement model is based instead on standalone “events”. Rather than being automatically connected with a category, action, and label, GA4 events encompass all user interactions (hits) but can contain customized parameters—up to twenty-five of them, in fact.
GA4’s event/parameter reporting model allows you to truly zero in on the granular information that’s most relevant to your specific marketing needs. You can create distinct parameters for up to five hundred trackable events per GA4 property.
No Monthly Hit Limits
The limit of five hundred trackable hit types mentioned above is the only limitation you’ll have when collecting hit-based data. Universal Analytics’ monthly limit of ten million hits has been completely removed in GA4. This allows you to develop and refine your marketing strategy with unlimited flexibility.
Many of the reports you may have grown accustomed to accessing in Universal Analytics are missing from GA4. In some cases, this is because they’ve been replaced with more contemporary counterparts. In others, it’s because Google is promoting the use of Google Data Studio for reporting purposes. You do have the option to create your own reports from scratch using Explorations Report templates.
Transitioning From Universal Analytics to GA4
Truth be told, transitioning over to GA4 is a bit of a process. We would have appreciated a smoother, more intuitive experience. But, with Universal Analytics being completely phased out by July of 2023, there’s not much choice but to dive in and start swimming.
Google does offer some formal training resources that we’d recommend checking out. We also suggest taking the plunge sooner rather than later for the following reasons:
- Historical data won’t be transferred over to GA4, which means you’re effectively starting your analytics data collection from year zero again. Running GA3 and GA4 side by side for as long as possible will give you a record of historical data collection to rely on when Universal Analytics is no longer accessible.
- The more time you take to familiarize yourself with the GA4 platform in advance, the more expertise you’ll have when GA3 ultimately disappears.
- Side by side comparison of the two platforms can help you identify gaps (and perks) that you’ll need to factor into your future analytics strategy.
Now that you understand the basics of GA4, let’s take a closer look at some of its unique features:
As we already mentioned, GA4 tracks every user interaction as an event. Analytics tracking for any event can be refined using highly customizable parameters. In GA4, events are grouped into four broad categories:
- Automatically Collected Events, which are automatically tracked when you install the GA4 base code. Examples include Page View, First Visit, and Session Start.
- Enhanced Measurement Events, which can be enabled or disabled after being automatically collected alongside the base code. Examples include scrolls, outbound clicks, site search, and video engagement.
- Recommended Events, which are events that Google recommends you to set up based on industry type (e.g., e-commerce).
- Custom Events, which are events and parameters you can customize and implement yourself. They max out at five hundred per GA4 property.
Accurate forecasting is the key to targeting high-value users and converting them to customers. GA4’s machine learning algorithms and cutting-edge AI technology allow you to predict revenue amounts and conversion probabilities with a higher degree of precision than ever before.
Improved Privacy Controls
One of the major foundations of GA4 is privacy. The platform helps you remain GDPR compliant without compromising the quantity or quality of your data collection. Every country has its own data protection laws, and GA4 will help you to measure engagement and conversions safely, but without compromising the potency of your data.
Free BigQuery Export
This is a great one. In earlier iterations of Google Analytics, you had to pay for the premium version (GA360) in order to access BigQuery. With GA4, all users have free access!
Combined App & Web View
We already talked about this earlier, but it’s worth a second mention. Having web and app data integrated is a game-changer for tracking your customers’ entire journeys.
Knowing that the same user visited your website on their phone, returned later to browse on their desktop, and ultimately downloaded information or made a purchase from your app is highly valuable. Tracking with such detailed continuity gives you the opportunity to refine your marketing strategy accordingly and gain more traction in your niche.
A data stream is simply a source of data. With GA4, you can add multiple data streams to your property. Data streams may be from websites (web data streams) or from mobile apps (app data stream).
GA4 automatically detects and identifies unusual occurrences on your website or app and will deliver reports on statistically significant findings. Using historical data (which takes a minimum of about ninety days to accrue sufficiently for this feature to function), GA4 draws comparisons with current statistics.
Examples of significant anomalies might include a major drop or rise in engagement or lead generation.
GA4 Pros & Cons
GA4 is here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future. But it’s still a valuable exercise to highlight its strengths and weaknesses. Knowledge is power, and it’s always possible to augment Google Analytics with statistical reports from a different analytics platform.
Also, on the plus side, we’ve identified substantially more GA4 benefits than drawbacks. Let’s dive in!
Tracks Complete User Journey
We’ve said it already, but let’s say it again. This is a major plus for GA4 that really jettisons it into a whole new dimension of the analytics tracking universe. Whereas tracking an individual customer across multiple devices, platforms, and time periods used to be a fragmented and frustrating endeavor (when it was possible at all), with GA4, it’s a breeze.
Having experienced the relative marketing benefits of being able to track users so comprehensively, it would truly be hard to go back.
AI Predicts User Actions
GA4’s new predictive metrics allow you to better understand your audience and make data-driven decisions on a larger scale. Using these metrics, you can create audiences based on predictive behaviours and reach them with precisely targeted advertising campaigns (Google Ads or social media).
GA4’s highly customizable event tracking software also enables you to improve your website’s performance and create custom funnels for different audiences by making tweaks based on verifiable data.
Highly Accurate Engagement Metrics
GA4 reporting includes a robust selection of new and improved engagement metrics that include Engaged Sessions, Engagement Time, Engaged Sessions Per User, and more.
Engagement Rate is a GA4 metric that measures engaged sessions and replaces Universal Analytics’ Bounce Rate. An engaged session is defined as a user actively interacting with your app or website for a minimum of ten seconds. It also includes conversion events on two or more page views.
Since the Engagement Rate doesn’t rely exclusively on page views, it effectively measures user engagement across multiple platforms.
Designed To Scale With Your Business
GA4 is designed with the capability to meet enterprise-level governance needs. Whether you need to outsource your GA management or provide access to various teams, GA4’s got you covered. If you upgrade to Analytics 360, your scalability options expand even further.
As previously mentioned, GA4 is built around privacy protection. It helps you employ effective data collection strategies while still ensuring you’re safely in compliance with all data collection standards in your country or region.
Advanced Analysis Reports Available to All Users
Google Analytics Explorations are a set of higher complexity reports that enable you to complete more advanced analytical data analysis. Previously available only to GA360 users, Explorations are now available to all users in GA4.
Increased Efficiency & Value
GA4’s machine learning and AI capabilities let you pinpoint your target audience with more precision than ever before. This allows you to refine your marketing strategy and make your advertising dollars stretch further for higher reward. Definitely a win-win!
Historical Data Not Available
As we mentioned earlier, your historical data will not transfer over from Universal Analytics. This is frustrating, especially for users who have built up a long history with Google Analytics and rely on it as a reference for their current marketing strategy (which includes many of us).
To avoid starting from scratch, begin building a new data record with GA4 as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, we at First Rank haven’t found the GA4 interface particularly intuitive or user-friendly. This is a major drawback and makes (re)learning Google Analytics a substantial investment of time and energy.
On the plus side, having to get familiar with GA4 from the bottom up means that you’ll gain competency with all aspects of the platform, and this in itself should minimize future analytics headaches.
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