Maybe you’ve seen one of those large banners across your Google Analytics property: “Universal Analytics will no longer process new data in standard properties beginning July 1st, 2023. Prepare now by setting up and switching over to a Google Analytics 4 property.” Seems problematic, right? Such a warning rings an alarm and raises several good questions to digital marketers, including: What is GA4? Should I switch now? Why is Google making me change? How do I switch? Will I still be able to access my data from previous years? If your mind is buzzing with these questions about your marketing analytics data you’re not alone. Luckily Bluetext has done its research and is here to answer some frequently asked questions and quell any lingering fears over this transition. This article will empower you to make an informed decision about Google Analytics 4.
What are Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4?
Universal Analytics (UA) is Google’s third iteration of its popular web analytics service. If you’ve logged on to Google Analytics in the past decade, you were more likely than not using UA. When UA launched in 2012, it was quite a technological leap, adding advanced features in cross-platform tracking and custom dimensions. It shaped Google Analytics from simply being a page view tracking platform to a robust data reporting and attribution tool that could compete against some of the largest web-oriented business intelligence platforms, like Tealium. Most importantly, Google provided nearly the whole feature set free of charge.
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is simply Google’s newest iteration – think of it as a new generation of analytics technologies. The web has transformed significantly since the early 2010s, and Google is merely re-platforming analytics to match today’s realities. GA4 launched in 2019 to little fanfare but only recently gained significant traction in March of this year due to Google’s landmark announcement that GA4 will be the only analytics service it supports in 2023.
Why is Google Switching to Google Analytics 4 and Ending Support for Universal Analytics?
This is a complex question – with some good answers that Google will give you and some answers you’ll need to read between the lines to get. Google’s official statement is that GA4 better reflects the modern web. UA did a woeful job reporting on non-webpage-based metrics, such as those from web apps. It was also cumbersome if your reporting needs didn’t precisely match those of a traditional website experience – e.g., single-page or non-linear web apps. GA4 is more customizable and reflects modern data collection and attribution processes better.
The underlying message here, though, is that of data privacy. Since UA launched nearly ten years ago, fundamental shifts have occurred over how people and the law treat data privacy on the web. Think of Edward Snowden, GDPR, and the countless data breaches over the last decade. At its core, Google realizes that this enormous cache of web data collected from millions of websites, even if not strictly Personally Identifiable Information (PII), is a huge security risk to the company. GA4 is an attempt to offset some of that risk, either removing entirely or at least offloading it to individual companies. GA4’s data collection methods are more anonymized, and data retention is limited to 14 months. Overall, this is a calculated move by Google to push its analytics customers to use tools that won’t put Google in hot water.
What’s similar between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics? What’s different?
While the actual end-user experience may look starkly dissimilar, the foundation remains the same. GA4 will remain an incredibly flexible web analytics platform suitable for most websites today – regardless of whether it’s a personal blog, an online retailer, or a corporate website. Most day-to-day tasks like page view tracking, user attribution, and measuring bounce rates will remain the same. GA4 merely stores these metrics and measurements in alternative locations.
That isn’t to say everything is identical. The significant differences you’ll notice every day are rooted in the architectural shift in hit types. UA treated things like page views, events, and e-commerce tracking as separate entities or “hit types.” GA4, on the other hand, treats them all as “events”. Any tracking item will now be an event: resource downloads, page scroll, form submits. Google is thus simplifying the old event architecture by putting everything on the same level – everything is an event with associated customizable event parameters.
For example, under UA, a resource download event might have looked something like this:
- Event Category: Downloads
- Event Action: Resource Download
- Event Label: resource_file_name.doc
- Event Action: Resource Download
Note that regardless of whether it was necessary, Events always took on this three-stage hierarchy. GA4 removes this rigid hierarchy. Instead of having the arbitrary “Event Action” and “Event Category” dimensions, GA4 lets one create as many custom event parameters as necessary to communicate an event’s nature fully. GA4 can track the event instead as:
- Event: Download
- Download Type: Resource
- File Name: resource_file_name.doc
Sessions are also changing. By default, UA defined the end of a session by identifying 30 minutes of inactivity since the last event. GA4 measures the period between the first and last events in a session. GA4 also doesn’t create a new session when a user’s campaign parameters are changed. The major takeaway of these changes is that session numbers will likely be lower in GA4 than in UA.
Aside from these two critical areas, there are many other minor changes. While lesser in scope, these changes may affect your reporting, depending on what kind of features you currently rely upon regularly. For example, customizable views for properties are going away in GA4. If you depend on different views, you’ll likely have to experiment with custom audience building to replicate the reporting. As mentioned before, GA4 will also only store data from the previous 14 months.
Documenting every change is beyond the scope of this blog post. If interested in getting into the nitty-gritty, read through Google’s documentation on the significant changes.
Do I Need to Switch to Google Analytics 4?
Google states that no further data will be processed after July 1st, 2023 (Customers of 360 Universal Analytics get a small extension to October 1st, 2023). While Google may extend to a further date, make no mistake, Universal Analytics will eventually be completely deprecated. If your business relies on web analytics in any form, you need to start planning soon on what your migration plan looks like – hopefully well before July of next year.
How Can I Switch to Google Analytics 4?
For most websites, merely enabling dual tracking will be sufficient. Google has made an easy setup wizard for GA4. To access it, go to the admin panel for your UA property and click the “GA4 Setup Assistant” link. You can follow Google’s instructions here, but within a few clicks, you’ll have a tracking setup that collects both UA and GA4 data. You’ll already have nearly a year’s worth of GA4 data to review once UA goes offline next year. As noted previously, be aware that no historical data will be present in GA4, even if you use this wizard. That said, it will give an excellent basis of comparison to see the reporting differences, especially as you can compare each month between GA4 and UA up until the cutoff date.
Custom events and e-commerce will require a more personalized and custom approach. We’ll cover these in future guides here at Bluetext, but for now, you can consult Google’s guides on the matter here.
I hope this guide relieved some worries and cleared up some unknowns regarding Universal Analytics and GA4. There’s a lot to cover about GA4, and this guide only covers the surface. If you have any further questions about UA4 and GA4, be it migrating data, specific differences, or a transition plan, contact us to learn more about Bluetext’s analytics capabilities.