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Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs Universal Analytics: Preparing for the Shift

Fri 31 Mar 2023

After more than a decade in service, Google made the announcement last year that Universal Analytics (UA) will no longer collect data from July 2023 and will be replaced by Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

The UA version of Google Analytics set the standard for the collection and organisation of user data but, according to Google’s Product Management Director, Russell Ketchum, it is not future-proofed.

“Universal Analytics was built for a generation of online measurement that was anchored in the desktop web, independent sessions and more easily observable data from cookies. This measurement methodology is quickly becoming obsolete,” said Ketchum.

The Shift from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4

As the era of Universal Analytics comes to an end, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) takes center stage.

Although GA4 has been the default option for new Google Analytics properties since 14 October 2020, many marketers and web developers have been hesitant to adopt GA4. This can be attributed to the significant differences between the two platforms, as well as some initial criticisms of GA4’s perceived bugs and missing features from UA.

In March 2022, Google announced that Universal Analytics would stop processing hits on July 1st, 2023 for standard UA properties and October 1st, 2023 for UA 360 properties. The low adoption rates for GA4 may have influenced Google’s decision to introduce a sunset date for Universal Analytics sooner than anticipated.

Improved User Tracking with Google Analytics 4

Google Analytics 4 has been created with the aim of streamlining journey tracking, improving data privacy, and making data collection more valuable. Advanced machine learning tools open up powerful predictive insights about users and their behavior, while country-specific privacy controls improve compliance efforts.

Perhaps one of the most impactful changes from UA to GA4 is the ability for companies to better understand users across a range of touch-points. Instead of models that are fragmented by platform or sessions, GA4 can show a complete customer lifecycle by offering cross-device tracking and providing a more comprehensive picture of user behavior across all devices.

In practice, this can reduce the time it takes for firms to analyse the user journey.

Google offers the example of activewear brand Gymshark, which used GA4 to measure data across its website and app. Using this data, the brand could more clearly see the purchase funnel and reduced user drop off by 9% and increased product page clickthroughs by 5%.

With the increasing focus on user privacy and data protection, GA4 also comes with enhanced privacy features to help businesses comply with data protection regulations like GDPR and CCPA. GA4 provides tools for data minimisation, user consent management, and IP anonymisation.

Event-Based Data Model in GA4

The key difference between the two is the way Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 tracks user behavior.

UA uses a cookie-based system to track user behavior, while GA4 uses an event-based model. This means that GA4 tracks user behavior based on specific events or actions taken on a website, whereas Universal Analytics tracks user behavior based on pageviews.

“In a new online landscape dominated by new digital devices and the first-party future for cookie collection, Universal Google Analytics is due for a mass upgrade. In order to serve a new generation of multi-functional site structures and an influx of mobile-based traffic, GA4 is just the start of a streamlined future,” said Ketchum.

As the online landscape shifts towards first-party data and cookie-less tracking, GA4’s event-based model offers a more adaptable solution for understanding user behavior.

What is missing from Google Analytics 4?

One of the most notable differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics is the absence of the bounce rate metric in GA4. Bounce rate is a metric that measures the percentage of visitors to a website who leave after only viewing one page. It is a crucial metric that helps website owners understand how engaging their website is and how well it is performing.

In GA4, the bounce rate metric has been replaced by an “Engagement Rate” metric. This takes into account several different factors, including how long users spend on your website or app, how many interactions they have with it, and how deep they go into your content.

GA4 still provides other metrics that can be used to understand user engagement. For example, engagement time metrics measure how much time users spend actively engaging with your website or app, including how much time they spend watching videos or scrolling through content.

Preparing for Migration to GA4

The migration from UA to GA4 may take some time and effort, as new models will need to be created and data can be interpreted in more ways. But after the initial learning curve, GA4 is able to significantly enhance the experience for users. Establishing a comprehensive migration plan is essential, as waiting until July to make the move is likely to result in tracking and analysis challenges.

Your migration plan could include reviewing your data collection strategy and website structure, updating your tracking codes and maintaining existing UA codes, setting up cross-domain tracking if you have multiple websites, establishing conversions and goals, getting familiar with new machine learning and privacy controls in GA4, training your team, and staying abreast with the latest updates announced by Google.

By taking the time to understand GA4’s capabilities and preparing for the transition, your business can stay ahead of the curve and harness the power of GA4 to drive data-driven decision-making and improve your digital marketing strategies.

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