Google Analytics 4 continues to change the way web data is measured, but while the future of data collection has started, the end is in sight for Google’s Universal Analytics (UA) property. Universal Analytics has a sunset date of July 1, 2023. That means after that date the standard version of UA will stop processing new hits, essentially rendering the property useless outside of historical data.
Google Analytics 4 has been around since 2020, and new Analytics users have been able to integrate it since then. But now customers who want to track web metrics with Google will be migrated to Google Analytics 4 to access and measure user metrics as part of their digital marketing strategy.
The Google Analytics 4 switch has plenty of implications both for your normal web metrics, and for paid media as well. So what does that mean for organizations around the world who haven’t yet upgraded? It means you have work to do.
What is Google Analytics 4?
As the world continues to adjust to the switch to mobile devices being more commonplace, it became necessary to track data streams consistently between the mobile apps and website. It was a real challenge that Google had to make. And they were kind of behind the times compared to some of the other analytics platforms out there. And so Google Analytics App + Web, or what is now known as GA4 was created, and represents the biggest change in Google Analytics since 2005 when the UA platform was released.
Why is Universal Analytics going away?
In short, between being behind from a privacy standards standpoint as well as a web tracking model that wasn’t very conducive to tracking between app and web properties, Google Analytics needed an overhaul. User privacy has emerged as a hot topic the past few years, and users have become much more aware of the importance of privacy during that time. Laws have changed significantly in some areas like Europe and ITP, and as cookies go away as a tracking device, Google needed an updated way to collect data.
They created Google Analytics 4 with privacy as a foremost concern, designing it to operate across web and app platforms through event-based data modeling rather than relying strictly on cookies. With user data protection on their minds, they created a more accurate system creating a fundamental data model difference and a more accurate attribution data model.
What are the main differences between Universal Analytics and GA4?
Google Analytics 4 is extremely different than Universal Analytics. The differences are pretty big, especially in how data is measured within Google Analytics. GA4 offers an environment more conducive to mobile apps, mobile devices, websites, and traffic in between apps and mobile devices. GA4 is based on the Firebase Analytics data model, which is Google’s mobile app analytics tool.
GA4 measures data points as events whereas UA had a variety of different hit types before that made it harder to compile data as the way we consumed data changed. As a result, there’s probably going to be some steep learning curves, as you get used to the new data model. Within your organization, you may have people who are power users in UA but have zero exposure to GA4. This underlines the importance of setting up and getting familiar with GA4 before the sunset date of UA.
Some of the most notable changes include:
- Access to the raw data exports in BigQuery. This was previously only available to GA360 customers.
- Access to insights across both app and web instead of using UA for web insights and Firebase for app insights.
- Machine learning gives predictive insights about user behavior including users who are likely to convert and users likely to churn, which can be used in audiences.
- Data-driven attribution not only for 360 customers. GA4 will allow everyone to use DDA and import this back into Google ads for optimization.
- Enhanced measurement of events – previously these had to be tracked using additional tracking via GTM/manual tagging but GA4 will include as standard:
- Page scrolls when a user hits 90%
- Outbound clicks
- Viewed search results page
- Video engagement for embedded YouTube videos
- File downloads
- The GA4 UI is different as well:
- There are a variety of new reports, and they’re not arranged by “Collection” (although most can be recreated via the Explore tab).
- The naming convention for tracking IDs have been changed from “UA-” to “G-.”
- Goals have been removed. To track conversions, just mark an event type as a conversion.
- The Real Time section on the Overview dashboard is now grouped into four macro areas: Reports, Explore, Advertising, and Configure.
How do I know which platform I have?
If you aren’t sure if you are using Universal Analytics or Google Analytics 4, the timeframe in which you joined Analytics is one way you can determine which property you have. If you created your analytics property before October 14, 2020, you most likely are using a UA property and your web and app data will not be measured properly using the new system. You will need to take action to upgrade to GA4. The property IDs for Universal Analytics also all start with “UA-” and Universal Analytics also have “Views”. GA4 has a string of numbers for the Property ID and do not have Views.
If you created your property after October 14, 2020, you’re very likely using a Google Analytics 4 property already, and you will not need to make any alterations to your platform in advance of the July 1 sunset date. Google does recommend linking your GA4 to a Universal Analytics property, however, as they have a process to help ensure your tracking is set up moving forward.
GA4 and Paid Media
Google Analytics 4 is going to make PPC marketing efforts easier and more efficient, allowing easier data driven decisions, better tracking for conversion events, and more of a focus on digital marketing strategy. Using GA4 and paid media has implications for paid earned media and paid owned media, navigating multiple properties, and generating Google ads reports.
These improvements are game changers in terms of analyzing data. Among the improvements:
- BigQuery functionality. You can use BigQuery as a centralized warehouse for all of your marketing and downstream data. This not only gives you a single source of truth, it’s inexpensive and scalable, responsive for reporting and analysis, and allows you to leverage Google’s built-in Machine Learning and predictive analytics functionality to help forecast future performance.
- Alerts and anomaly detection proactively informs you about changes in performance or surface errors before they become too much of a problem
- Improved reporting like backward pathing in GA4 helps inform how users are interacting with the site and what content they are visiting before converting
- Flexible audience building in GA4 helps activate your data in your Google Ads account through remarketing and retargeting
- Default data-driven attribution allows you GA4’s algorithm to give credit to touchpoints along the user journey. DDA used to only be available to GA360 customers when using Universal Analytics.
- Import offline data and conversion metrics back into GA4 using The Measurement Protocol. These events can then be used to show how leads/sales are converting downstream, giving a more complete view of your marketing/channel performance. This gives the end user a better view for making easier, data-driven decisions, and can be used in the attribution reporting, showing how different channels and campaigns are impacting your business-relevant goals.
- Import cost metrics for specific channels that do not natively integrate, such as Facebook Ads, Microsoft Ads, other channels. This data can also be easily imported and integrated with BigQuery data to give you more flexibility.
- Improved cross-device user data integration, improving accuracy for your audiences used for paid media.
- Increased predictive analytics functionality with your audiences, making them more effective for predicting which audiences are likely to convert in the near future, or that have a high churn probability.
How will GA4 features affect our data?
What are the new metrics that we’re looking at? What does this mean compared to what it used to mean in UA? For marketers, a lot of the transition will be getting used to the new UI, the new data model and measurements, the new metrics that are in GA4, and being able to make heads or tails of that while they’re still trying to optimize their campaigns.
There are differences in the metrics that need to be considered. For instance, in GA4, the default setting for conversion events is that every conversion during a session is counted. This differs from UA, where only one of a single Goal Completion would be counted during a user’s session. You should also expect there to be a difference in session and user metrics. Due to better identity modeling, Google should be able to do a better job of matching users across sessions without completely relying on browser cookies. This is important for several reasons:
- Attribution is more accurate when users can be stitched together across different platforms, devices and browsers
- Lifetime Value metrics are more accurate when users can be identified across a longer timeframe
- Audience targeting is more precise. For instance, users on your site from a smartphone and desktop. If they end up converting on their desktop, your campaigns won’t try to remarket to that user on their smartphone if GA4 can better match that user across devices.
Similarly, Google has made changes such as that sessions no longer expire at midnight in GA4. These types of changes will have an inherent effect on data.
Preparing for the shift
Organizations that haven’t yet made the switch to Google Analytics 4 need to start preparing now. First and foremost, getting exposure to the platform is key. GA4 has significant fundamental differences from Universal Analytics, and people who interact with metrics at a minimum should be familiar with the platform and how it works to ensure everyone is up to speed by the time July 1 hits.
If you do not have a formal measurement plan for your site for Universal Analytics, preparing one for your GA4 account is the perfect time. This way, you can be sure to formally outline what needs to be tracked on your site, both the business-relevant macro conversions, as well as the smaller micro conversions and events that can help guide marketing and UI/UX decisions.
As you’re starting, compare UA to GA4, and learn where the information you need for your website is captured. For some things, just learning hands-on, by digging into GA4’s interface, might be the way to go. Other times you may seek an instructional video from YouTube. Or if you need more support or are behind in your GA4 migration prep, you can always employ an agency to help.
Auditing your analytics
Whether you have made the transition to GA4 or not, it’s always a good idea to audit your Analytics property so you know you’re making the most of your new system. An audit will examine your current implementation and configuration to ensure it’s providing accurate, reliable information.
An audit is a critical maintenance and optimization step to take even when things aren’t changing as drastically as they are this year. Audits fine tune your data collection efforts and provide background and insights into what information is crucial to your organization and help shape your digital marketing strategy.
Audits aren’t only important to people transitioning to GA4. If you have been using it for a while, it might be time to take a look and make a few tweaks to the setup.
What happens if I don’t migrate to GA4?
If you have a GA4 auto setup and are not making adjustments to your account, you’re basically letting Google create your GA4 property. It’s almost like a passive account creation that Google does for you. And while that’s great and serves a purpose and will give you the high-level metrics you’re looking for, it is likely to not capture all those macro conversions that you really want to and should be tracking on your site.
When July 1st rolls around and suddenly you’re not receiving conversions in Google ads, you most likely did not do those imports or change over your bidding strategies. When Universal stops collecting data and you’re forced to start using GA4, not having enough data built up could cause an artificial (and inaccurate) drop in certain data. You’ll probably be questioning why your sessions have dropped by X percent or explaining why your organization has fewer users, things you should have been anticipating and correcting in advance.
So allowing Google to auto-implement GA4 and importing Google Analytics conversion goals into Google ads without optimizing isn’t the optimal way to proceed. There won’t be any thought put into consistency and continuity between UA and GA4, and that could affect paid search campaigns in Google.
To see if Google has already created a GA4 property for you, log into your Google Analytics account. If you see a property name with a string of numbers underneath that does not contain “UA-” at the beginning, it is a GA4 property. If you did not create that property, chances are that Google created it for you based off your Universal Analytics property.
To see if you were opted-in for automatic GA4 property creation, check your Universal Analytics property settings under “GA4 Setup Assistant”. The toggle will be blue if you are opted in, or faded grey if you are opted out.
Best Practices: Make GA4 work for you
These Google Analytics improvements are an opportunity to track more data in a smarter way, explore more ad groups, and build more organic traffic. Digital marketers can leverage GA4 in new ways that can increase user interactions and lead to more profitable campaigns for their paid ads.
Compare and analyze data
Remember to QA the data between UA and GA4 for accuracy and consistency and to validate that you’re collecting the right information for your marketing strategy. With GA4’s additional capabilities with things like backward pathing and more flexible funnel configuration, you have the ability to analyze and harness your data like never before.
Some Google Analytics users utilize the measurement protocol within Universal Analytics, allowing them to bring things like downstream data, qualified leads, applications, and sales into UA and see how leads are converting downstream. This can help them tie revenue back to various ad platforms to help them determine channel and allocation strategy. Setting up that new measurement protocol for GA4 is an important step to start importing that data again.
A lot of marketing teams already have a reporting suite built out for their analytics, but GA4 changes that in a few ways. If you want to see historical data, you either need to have had GA4 implemented for a while, or you will need to tie together GA4 and UA data to create continuity, at least for higher-level metrics, between the two.
GA4’s export to Google BigQuery also lends itself to a monumental change in what can be done with the data. BigQuery can be leveraged for things like machine learning to help take your business intelligence data to new heights. BigQuery also allows you to query your data at an extremely cost effective rate, even after the first terabyte of query data that Google includes for free each month.
Organizations leveraging the API or built in Data Looker Studio connector will also notice that the query limits can render their reporting useless for a while due to query limitations on GA4’s API. This limit does not apply to your BigQuery data, however, so leveraging this system will be extremely important for power users and data analysts that are using the data all the time.
Import new GA4 goal completions into Google ads
This ensures your data lines up with any UA conversions that are currently being used in Google Ads. After confirming consistency between Universal Analytics and GA4 goals, they can make the switch over using GA4 conversions to optimize their campaigns instead of UA.
FoundSM: Your GA4 Experts
As you prepare for the full GA4 implementation, you should ensure your Analytics setup is ready for the switch. FoundSM is a certified Google partner and has Analytics experts who can help you ensure that your GA will continue running smoothly and accurately after the switch. Contact us today to discuss how you can best implement Google Analytics 4 for maximum ROI.