The manager’s guide to Google Analytics 4 (your business questions answered)

Google Analytics 4 business guide
If you're still scratching your head about how Google Analytics 4 will impact your business, this post is for you. Find out how and when to plan for the transition.

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The news about the launch of Google Analytics 4 has sent ripples through the marketing and optimisation world. The new incarnation of the web analytics industry favourite came out on October 14th 2020.

While there’s been a fair amount of posts published about how to implement the new version and what the technical features are, these articles might not be addressing some of your business questions. If you’re a manager, you likely have other pressing questions relating to how it will affect your organisation and your team.

Here are the questions I hear you ask:

  • Should I upgrade now?
  • How will my existing data be affected?
  • What are the key differences between the old and the new Google Analytics?
  • What do they mean for the level of insight I will be able to get?
  • How will this change affect my measurement and optimisation plans?
  • How do I budget for the upgrade effectively?
  • How long do I have to make the switch?
  • What training resource will I need to support my team?
  • Can my team handle the switch or do I need external resources?
  • How will existing processes and ways of working change as a result of this new development?

In this blog post I’ll address these and more questions to help you figure out the implications for your team and for your business, so you can plan ahead effectively.

As someone used to developing website measurement plans and producing insight reports based on Google Analytics data, I know how important it is to plan ahead upgrade activities and to get your team involved.

I won’t cover the detailed technicalities of setting up Google Analytics 4. Instead, I will be referencing specific features and how they may affect your organisation. I will give a top-level overview and include references in case you want to learn about the more technical aspects.

What is Google Analytics 4?

Google Analytics 4 interface

Google Analytics 4 is the fourth incarnation of the popular web analytics platform from Google. The previous versions were Urchin, classic Google Analytics and finally Universal Analytics which has been reigning since 2013. The latest version evolved directly from the Google Analytics beta product called App + Web, which has been around since 2019.

When comparing it with Universal Analytics, the new version of Google Analytics is fundamentally different: from data collection and user infrastructure, to reporting and data analysis (for a feature comparison, check out this great resource from Google). I won’t lie, there is a learning curve and the race to understand the intricacies of the new platform has started. Keep reading to find out what all these variations could mean for your team as I digest the new features and how they affect configuration and analysis.

Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics – the key differences that will affect your business planning

Google Analytics 4 new features

Google Analytics 4 can capture user interactions better

The main difference has to be the event-driven data model for collecting information relating to User behaviour.

Universal Analytics collects data based on Sessions and Page Views and this is done by default. Where it gets challenging is when it comes to mobile and web applications where the page URL itself doesn’t change as the users interact with the site. In fact, apart from merely visiting page after page, there are a lot of additional ways users can potentially interact with modern websites and mobile apps. Some of these are:

  • progressing through multi-step checkout funnels,
  • opening tabs and accordions,
  • scrolling up and down the page,
  • watching videos,
  • being shown pop-ups and inputting an email address to sign up to a newsletter,
  • downloading files.

While all of the actions above have to be specially set up in Universal Analytics, some can be collected in Google Analytics with a mere flick of a switch. Configuration specialists have to be mindful though that these Events are then preconfigured in a way that might not be aligned with the rest of their measurement plan (the solution is to replace them with equivalent custom Events).

Google Analytics 4 Event tracking

On top of capturing preconfigured Events, both Page Views and Events are collected into the same Events bucket inside of Google Analytics 4. This makes for easier analysis of User visits where a User went through a combination of Page Views and Events.

Tracking Page Views and Events separately in Universal Analytics is symptomatic of a wider mindset of having a markedly prescriptive measurement platform. Configuration specialists have to navigate within clear guidelines for how different pieces of data are collected and presented.

Google Analytics 4 allows for more flexibility and creativity. How well your data is organised lies in the hands of the person developing your measurement plan. More so than with Universal Analytics, they need to carefully think ahead to what information and in what format will be relevant for future insight generation.

If you think that your team might need a help developing a measurement plan and implementing it (using Universal Analytics or Google Analytics 4) – get in touch to book a demo.

The factors above are important to realise when you want to develop a web analytics function within your business that can actually support your traffic and conversion optimisation teams. I’ll return to this point in more detail later in the post.

Ecommerce and conversion tracking in Google Analytics 4 is… complicated

Google Analytics 4 Ecommerce tracking

One great feature of Universal Analytics is Enhanced Ecommerce. While it does require custom code, many platforms have plugins specifically developed for them to add these scripts for transaction and funnel data to be displayed in your reports. For many situations, it can almost be a plug-and-play solution.

These plugins have not yet been developed for Google Analytics, as the code required is markedly different. Simo Ahava created a great implementation guide for Enhanced Ecommerce, so if you’d like to learn about the intricacies of transaction tracking implementation, I’d invite you to head there.

For now, what you probably need to know is that the new implementation will require considerable technical effort.

If you run on a platform like Shopify where your backend customisation abilities are limited, you may not be able to implement Ecommerce tracking until Shopify themselves develop it.

For other platforms where you have control, you will need a web analytics implementation specialist to liaise with your development team and customise your GTM to implement the feature.

When it comes to conversion tracking, the story is not much better. You are able to mark Events as Conversions, but reporting on them is not easy. The feature needs further development for sure.

These challenges mean that conversion and Ecommerce reporting will take considerable effort for your team and some features you’re used to seeing may not even be available yet. For this reason alone, waiting to implement Google Analytics 4 might be your best bet.

Google Analytics 4 requires more customisation

Google Analytics 4 customisation

Google Analytics 4 comes with an entirely new interface.

Report groupings are completely updated with new labels. There are far fewer metrics and dimensions and far fewer preconfigured reports. Part of it must be due to its infancy – but a lot of it has to do with how Google wants us to use the new platform.

Users are supposed to take ownership of the data they collect and the reports that they use. This is a great opportunity to build a measurement machine that is truly fit for purpose for your business. But it does also mean that anyone using the new interface will need to learn how to use it to its full potential.

This is highly effective if you are used to doing web analysis and know exactly what you’re looking for. It’s not that great if you’re just finding your feet in an analytics software. Bear this in mind if you ask your existing team to start using the new platform. You may need to invest in training to get them up to speed and using the tool comfortably.

If you want to continue reporting on the same metrics as you used to in Universal Analytics your team may need to rebuild these reports. Include that in your planning if you have a bunch of various teams using Google Analytics for different reporting needs: marketing, social media, operations, optimisation, etc.

To help build these reports, it’s even more important than ever to make sure that your data is collected in a meaningful way. Google Analytics 4 is more flexible but that puts more pressure on the person configuring it to make reports useful and avoid data overwhelm.

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Google Analytics 4 makes it easier to track users, even across platforms and devices

Google Analytics 4 tracking users

Users are at the centre of all tracking in Google Analytics 4. Journeys are no longer fragmented across sessions and devices. Instead, Google has made a series of features and functionalities to make user journeys as complete as they can be:

  • Combining data sources in a single view, including websites and Android and IOS apps,
  • Ability to add your CRM-generated User IDs, which becomes the default identifier (deprecating Client ID),
  • Using Google signals to recognise individual people and join their movements together across idfferent browsers and devices,
  • Better integration with Google Ads, including creating Audiences directly inside Google Analytics 4.

These changes will make reporting on lifetime values and attribution better, helping your teams make more data-driven decisions. It’s definitely a great selling point for switching to Google Analytics 4.

Google Analytics 4 has advanced data analysis opportunities thanks to the BigQuery connection and Machine Learning

Google Analytics 4 machine learning

One of the great new features is the ability to export your data to BigQuery as standard. BigQuery is Google’s data warehouse that allows you to analyse the data you collect in a much easier and faster way. Previously reserved only for enterprise businesses, the technology is now available to even small businesses. The integration will also likely resolve previous issues related to data sampling in Universal Analytics.

BigQuery might become the standard way to store your web analytics data. There is a new 14 month data retention limit which may push more people to save their data this way. In fact, the new feature is probably showing signs of Google’s new pricing model. BigQuery itself is not a free product (although costs involved are negligible for most businesses): it has pay-as-you-go pricing where the more data you store, the more you pay. With that, you get better access to your data, native integrations with Data Studio, Power BI and other visualisation tools, and access to machine learning.

But you don’t need BigQuery to take advantage of some machine learning functionality – available directly inside Google Analytics 4. Some cool uses are:

  • Predictive audiences that can be used in Google Analytics 4 reports and in your Google Ads campaigns,
  • AI insights that can discover data anomalies and rank your channels based on churn probability,
  • This feature is bound to deliver even more benefits in the future rollouts – I’ll be watching this space.

Machine learning capabilities have the potential to make your team’s life easier. With BigQuery, there will be new skills to learn for your staff that are sure to pay off significantly when in comes to data quality.

Google Analytics 4 and privacy features

Google Analytics 4 privacy

Privacy is a contentious topics in the digital world. On the one hand, Users’ privacy should be protected – we all want to freely browse the web without our data sold to companies and governments so we can be treated like marketing assets and political pawns. On the other hand, data is important to inform marketing decisions and help companies grow and serve their ideal customers better. With a combination of regulations and companies being proactive, we have guidelines, laws and browser functionalities to stop us abusing privacy.

Google Analytics 4 has to find a way to fit into this complex landscape in both respectful and useful ways. And because it is so complex, there are some conflicting notions in Google Analytics 4 with regards to privacy.

Google Analytics 4 has implemented some security features. All IPs are anonymised by default. The new data retention rules also aim to protect Users.

At the same time, we have Google Signals and machine learning helping identify Users and patterns of behaviour better.

The discussion is still alive and well and it’s good to see that Google is embracing privacy while allowing us analysts to do our job.

In terms of what you do in your own organisation, you need to decide how strict you want to be within the confines of the law and whether you and your team will apply settings that respect privacy more or less.

Google Analytics 4 doesn’t have an enterprise version equivalent to Google Analytics 360

Google Analytics 4 enterprise

Even though Google Analytics 4 is now the default version for new installations, Google have not yet made any steps towards encouraging their enterprise clients to switch. It shows that even they know the platform is not ready.

Google Analytics 4 is still lacking features and reports. Some key ones are already mentioned above. Another one is no ability to create views to show different aspects of data. It’s not known if this feature is in the roadmap or if Google wants everyone to jump on the BigQuery bandwagon and manipulate their data there.

On top of that, there are restrictions and limitations that might not fly with larger businesses, not least the 14 month data retention policy or the 500 Events per app instance. For a list of all collection and retention limits, see the guide here.

All in all, if you’re currently using Google Analytics 360, you’d lose a lot of functionality by moving to Google Analytics 4.

What does upgrading to Google Analytics 4 involve?

Google Analytics 4 comes with a brand new tracking code. If you’re using GTM to manage your tags, your team will need to create new tags and apply them to all your pages.

To start the process in Google Analytics, look out for the “Upgrade to GA4” option and follow instructions from there:

Upgrade to Google Analytics 4 screenshot

Now, I think the word “Upgrade” here is a little misleading. It makes you think that you might be applying some irreversible changes to your existing Universal Analytics property. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

When you click the button, you get a wizard that helps you create a new Google Analytics property in addition to your existing one. No data or functionality is lost – it’s perfectly safe to do it.

You have to be aware of the fact that settings don’t transfer over when you upgrade to Google Analytics 4. Your team will need to reconfigure everything from scratch.

While creating the basic data collection tag is simple, you’ll also want your team to add extra tags to correspond with any extra Events you want to set up. Your team will need to use the platform settings to customise functions and set conversions. And before they do all that, they should develop a measurement plan, like with any other web analytics implementation.

If you have the necessary skills to do it within your team, it’s a great situation to be in. Otherwise, outsourcing the new implementation will likely trove more efficient and cost effective. You should plan this into your roadmap and budgeting.

Should you switch to Google Analytics 4 now?

Switching to Google Analytics 4

Drum roll!

The verdict time has come… and the answer is…

There is no benefit to “switching” to Google Analytics 4. But you should certainly install it and get your team to start using it and getting familiar with it.

Google Analytics 4 is still in its infancy. Google is investing heavily into it and it is likely to grow and develop into something beautiful in the coming months and years. For now, it’s still lacking features. Universal Analytics is a much more mature product.

With the new retention policy companies will need to adapt to a major culture shift where the data they collect will not necessarily stay in the platform forever.

But the culture shift doesn’t end there. Google Analytics 4 and Universal analytics are drastically different. The scope of the change resembles moving from Universal Analytics to Adobe Analytics or Mixpanel rather than simply “upgrading” a system.

My advice is run to the two systems in parallel and let your team gradually embrace the new features and ways of working. Most organisations are not able to switch products overnight. I have my measurements road maps with clients planned out. Will I drop everything and stop developing new tracking for Universal Analytics? No! I developed these solutions for a reason and they still have plenty of value.

Universal Analytics is likely here to stay for a while longer: and I’m talking years, not months. You only have to look at classic Google Analytics and how it’s still being used and supported after years of not being the default solution. The latest change will require implementation and training resources – but you can plan it in properly and take your time.

The final argument for waiting with the full transition is the level of support you can get from consultants like myself. The product is new for everyone so we’re all learning and practicing. If someone says they are an expert in Google Analytics 4, I’d be inclined not to believe them at this point in time (unless they worked on developing the product themselves). I have started implementing the product for clients and I’m learning as I go along.

Which platform should I invest in if I haven’t customised my Google Analytics yet?

Google Analytics 4 is now the default solution for new installations.

But, it’s still being released. Universal Analytics is a more mature platform and it remains the more reliable and feature-packed software for collecting and analysing user behaviour.

I’d suggest you should still implement Universal Analytics as you main web analytics software and use Google Analytics 4 as a secondary source of data.

Final thoughts on the future of Google Analytics 4

The future of Google Analytics 4

Web analysts and marketers can’t stop drooling over Google Analytics 4 – and there are good reasons for it.

While it’s far from being the final product it shows us the future of web analytics data measurement, with companies tracking Users, not Sessions – and Events, not Page Views. This will improve attribution modelling and journey mapping, with more User touchpoints recorded and measured.

The future also likely means that data will be stored in BigQuery as standard and analysts will be creating more custom reports and dashboards in Data Studio. Machine learning and the use of Google Signals are also exciting features that will likely improve analysis.

Because of how flexible it is, with Google Analytics 4 it’s even more important to have a tracking plan. You need to put in much more thought into the set-up of your web analytics environment so that it works for your business.

For someone like me this is great news and I can see the vast possibilities of how this will improve the quality of the services I provide and the speed of analysis in the future.

If you’d like to discuss your data collection and reporting challenges, get in touch and book a consultation here.

Do you still have questions that were not covered? Add them in the comment section below and I’ll respond to them.

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Business Ahead support marketing and optimisation teams with their website tracking and reporting needs – so that when you start your optimisation programme, you can achieve even better results. 

We help clients build the foundations for better website optimisation and traffic increase. We use website analytics to access and visualise data and discover new ways to improve website experiences. 

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Based in Manchester, UK, we work with businesses all over the world. We are flexible and can act as consultants only or partners that can support your digital strategy implementation. 

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