If you haven’t already started using Google Analytics 4 (GA4), there’s no time like the present. We’ve said it before and said it again—there’s no reason to delay the switch from Universal Analytics (UA), the tool 99% of our partners use as default. In a recent webinar, we gave answers to some of the GA4 FAQs we’ve been asked and showed partners a step-by-step process to getting started. Here we’ll summarize those questions and answers. You can watch the webinar anytime for more details, and please get in touch for more guidance—we are ready and able to help.
What is Google Analytics 4?
Understanding the history of Google’s analytics suite is useful in better understanding GA4.
Google wasn’t the original creator of what’s now known as Google Analytics, a company called Urchin Software Corporation was. (That’s right, trivia lovers: UA originally stood for Urchin Analytics! Google changed it to Universal Analytics after they acquired it in 2005.)
Needless to say, a lot has changed since 2005. In June 2007, Apple launched the iPhone, and in subsequent years we saw the rise of apps as a competing method to websites for how people interact with organizations. For nearly a decade, Google has been developing and maintaining two different analytics solutions: Firebase, mostly used by developers to focus on app development and analytics, and UA, mostly used by marketers for website metrics.
For organizations using both apps and websites, there were challenges in seeing how the data interacts—are web visitors the same people using the app? Which visits lead to engagement? Google answered these challenges with a system that ultimately became GA4, and announced no further development of UA.
It’s important to understand GA4 as a replacement for UA. The migration is not like updating an iPhone from iOS 15 to 16: it’s more like switching from an iPhone to an Android phone (or vice versa).
Why is Google making this change?
Google undoubtedly grew tired of updating and developing two tools that couldn’t accurately reflect the type of complex user journeys we see today, where people switch between apps, mobile browsers, and desktops frequently. Google believes GA4 better predicts audience needs and provides better data.
Another complication of continuing UA was that it works through cookies. Browsers are increasingly placing limitations on cookies, and recent legislation like GDPR and CCPA have led more users to opt out of cookies. GA4 is designed to be far less reliant on cookies, using AI and data modeling to help fill the gaps in data caused by privacy restrictions.
What are the differences between UA and GA4?
The biggest change in GA4 is the shift from a model based on sessions and pageviews to a model based on events.
In UA, the basic unit of collected data is referred to as a hit; UA records one pageview hit each time someone views a page. In contrast, the event model records the actions people take, for example clicking or scrolling. It might record that the user clicked play and then clicked pause after 16 seconds, or that they searched for the hours of a museum, clicked through to the information page, and stayed for 40 seconds. GA4 will still capture the pages your visitors view, but with configuration, it has the capability to track much more about what your users are doing.
GA4 also provides few built-in reports, compared to UA. Moving toward providing more do-it-yourself tools for reporting, “Explorations” in GA4 is a collection of advanced reporting techniques that help you uncover insights about your customers’ behavior. It provides more customization but requires greater analytical skills.
Moreover, GA4 is optimized for collecting lots of data, with much of the analysis taking place outside the platform. Since the ready-made GA4 reports are limited, many users are building their GA4 reports in Looker Studio or exporting their data to BigQuery.
How do I switch from UA to GA4?
If you’re currently using UA on your website, Google has developed the ‘GA4 Setup Assistant’ which will guide you through the process. In your UA instance, you’ll find it via the Admin area (the gear icon). In our webinar, we provide step-by-step instructions! Watch now.
Remember, though the switch may feel scary, UA and GA4 will run in parallel until UA stops collecting data (currently the cutoff is July 1, 2023). So start now, if you haven’t already: your GA4 instance doesn’t need to be perfect right out of the gate. The next five months can be your learning phase.
What happens to my existing data?
Google has announced two key dates. July 1, 2023 is the date when new data will no longer be added, but site admins will be able to continue to look at the data recorded before that date for an additional six months: up to January 1, 2024. If you want access beyond January 1, 2024, you’ll need to export your data and store it somewhere.
We often find organizations want to back up and keep everything. However, we generally recommend keeping just one to two years’ worth of data. Beyond that timeframe, the data is less connected to your internal functions, like site structure and content, and to external realities, like changes in the ways people demand, access, and use communications tools.
How will my organization benefit from making the shift to GA4?
Used correctly, GA4 really does bring exciting new capabilities, including access to machine learning that can help organizations both predict future behavior and track actions back to determine causality.
For example, it can determine things like donation probability, which calculates the likelihood that a user who was active in the last 28 days will log a donation conversion event within the next seven days. Or, it can show you the path that a user who completed a form took before landing on and completing the form. Did they watch a video, or read a blog post? This kind of information can help organizations develop meaningful content.
Also for the first time, GA4 can show how long it takes someone to move between steps. For one organization, this helped us notice that audiences in the United States were completing a form in under a minute, but international users were taking much longer and abandoning the form. This insight led to the realization that international users were being asked for a zip code they couldn’t provide, and the form was redesigned.
How do I get started?
It may sound cliché, but the first step is really to embrace the change. In working with organizations, we’ve learned that those who try simply to replicate their UA experience in the new environment aren’t setting themselves up for success.
It’s important to both rethink what’s possible, and what you’re really measuring. What do you want to learn from analytics? Focus on the questions you want to answer, and then determine how GA4 can help answer them.
With that approach, there are steps we encourage:
- Start by exploring the new user interface using Google’s demo account. Get comfortable with the tool before you’re forced to use it in July.
- Implement it. Google recommends, and we agree, having UA and GA4 run parallel for the same period, so installing sooner is better.
- Within GA4, you’ll need to determine a plan for tagging events, as “events” are the pathways for the value that GA4 provides, and determine if you’ll need any custom reports.
- Finally, you’ll need to determine what your needs are around backing up and storing your UA data.
There is much more complexity—and opportunity!—within GA4 to explore. But remember, you aren’t alone: nearly every organization with a website is going through the same process. We’ve already helped many organizations get started on a path to more meaningful, valuable data. Get in touch today to start or continue your own process.