When Google Analytics 4 was originally launched back in October 2020, it sent ripples through the marketing and optimisation world. Since then, a lot of posts were published about how to implement the new version and what the technical features are. However, these articles might not be addressing some of your business questions as a marketing manager or a business leader.
This is a new version of the post that was originally posted soon after the launch. It was time to revisit the advice and outline the features, as we’ve been using Google Analytics 4 more and more with our clients. Whilst a lot of the original content was relevant, I’ve added and updated information on everything from the difference between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 to the verdict of whether to switch over to the new platform.
Here are the questions I still 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.
In this post…
What is Google Analytics 4?
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.
For example, there’s a limited number of default reports in Google Analytics 4. Outside of these default reports you have to configure the platform to fit your requirements and also feed the data into the platform correctly so that you can build meaningful reports. 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
Many companies didn’t start excited about migrating from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4. But embracing the new platform is one of the latest digital analytics trends.
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 single page 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 4 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).
Some of these Enhanced Measurements are good. However, some I’ve decided to switch off and recreate as custom configurations when setting things up for clients. Remember, this depends on your measurement plan and how detailed you want to be. For example, “Scrolls” in Enhanced Measurements is by default tracking when users scroll 90% of the page. 90% is generally considered as the user having seen the entire page. But you may want to add extra increments or see if people reach a specific point in the page.
If you want to see if users scrolled to a custom amount, like 25% or 50% of the page, you wouldn’t be able to see this with Enhanced Measurements. Instead, it would need to be set up with custom configuration. Similar decisions may need to be made when working with other Enhanced Measurement events.
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.
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
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 always been developed for Google Analytics 4, 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.
You will need a web analytics implementation specialist to liaise with your development team to update your website code. Then they’ll also need to customise your Google Tag Manager (GTM) to implement the feature.
When it comes to conversion tracking, Google Analytics 4 has improved with updates since its release. It is now a very useful and usable feature in Google Analytics 4. You also get extra functionality where you’re able to create funnels, which was a bit more complicated to set up in Universal Google Analytics.
The challenges mentioned mean that conversion and Ecommerce reporting will take effort for your team. It’s important to have a measurement plan in place, and it will require some expertise in terms of customising the setups so that it’s useful to your business.
Google Analytics 4 requires more 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. Since writing the original post, there have been improvements in the default and custom reporting. Google Analytics 4 now offers a lot of features, however, the key is in having the expertise to configure it.
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, then your team may need to rebuild these reports. Include that in your planning if you have a bunch of various teams or functions using Google Analytics for different reporting needs: marketing, social media, operations, optimisation, etc.
I may sound like a broken record by now, but 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
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 then becomes the default identifier,
- Using Google signals to recognise individual people and join their movements together across different browsers and devices,
- Better integration with Google Ads, including creating Audiences directly inside Google Analytics 4.
These changes will make reporting on lifetime return on investment 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
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. In Google Analytics 4, 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 continue to 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 it comes to data quality.
Google Analytics 4 and privacy features
Privacy is a contentious topic in the digital world. On the one hand, Users’ privacy should be protected – we all want to freely browse the web without our data being 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 on privacy 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 has an enterprise version equivalent to Google Analytics 360
Google Analytics 360 offers increased features for Google Analytics 4, including more scope for data collection and reporting. For example, the standard Google Analytics 4 account allows you to track 25 event parameters per event, compared to 100 per event for an Analytics 360 account. For all feature limits you can take a look at Google’s guide here.
As with Universal Analytics 360, this is for companies that have much higher levels of traffic. They also have higher requirements in terms of what they need and want from their web analytics platform. If your company used to be on Universal Analytics 360 then it makes sense to upgrade and take advantage of the features offered by Google Analytics 4 360.
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 (and you should), 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:
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 prove more efficient and cost effective. You should plan this into your roadmap and budgeting.
Should you switch to Google Analytics 4 now?
Yes! Google has announced that they will discontinue Universal Analytics in July 2023. That means that switching to Google Analytics 4 has become inevitable. I’ve written a blog post that covers 15 recommendations for making the switch – you can find it here.
As part of the switch to Google Analytics 4 I highly recommend training up your team in the new platform. Why? Because there are a lot of differences, including the interface, the terminology, the infrastructure, and the reporting. The basics will need to be understood in order to make the most of Google Analytics 4.
When I create Google Analytics governance documents for companies, I usually configure at least the most important features of Google Analytics 4 (i.e. conversions, ecommerce and key events) before doing a workshop on how to use it. It’s much easier for marketers to study the platform when the configuration is already in place. That way, they can focus on how to use it for their individual roles and for analysis, rather than learning what could and should be done with the configuration.
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.
However, I’d suggest using Universal Analytics as a backup. A key benefit is the fact that they have no limit to data retention so your data will stay there forever.
So, I’d suggest using Google Analytics 4 for your day to day reporting and have Universal Analytics mainly as a backup source of your data. There may also still be situations where a Universal Analytics report will be easier and quicker to use to get to the data you’re looking for.
How to make the switch to Google Analytics 4 seamless for my organisation?
So how can you make the switch as seamless as possible? The key thing is to break it down into stages.
The first stage is to create a new property in Google Analytics 4 and set up enhanced measurement along with basic tracking to start collecting data as soon as possible.
In the second stage I recommend setting up a Google Analytics Data Governance document, if you don’t already have one. This document will help your team understand where to find what information on the new platform. As part of the data governance document you should set up your measurement plan where you list your most important KPIs and how you will measure these. The document is also a great way to audit the way your team currently collects and reports their data.
In the third stage, once the fundamentals are set up, add additional features such as micro conversions or setting up more advanced audiences and configurations – in line with what you planned as a result of your governance.
In the fourth stage, review everything and check it against your original Universal Analytics setup. Lastly, make sure to use the Google Analytics Data Governance document to train your team on how and where to find insights and follow a regular data maintenance process.
Final thoughts on 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.
With companies tracking Users, not Sessions – and Events, not Page Views, Google Analytics 4 shows us that the future of web analytics and data measurement is here. This is improving attribution modelling and journey mapping, with more User touch points recorded and measured.
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 already see the benefits of how it improves the quality of the services I provide and the speed of analysis in the future. Therefore, my verdict is to start learning Google Analytics 4 as soon as possible. Use the migration as an opportunity to make practical steps towards better data-driven decision-making. To make the most of this opportunity, I recommend creating a Google Analytics Governance Document that will help keep your data organised, reliable, and clean. It’ll also ensure your team know how and where to look for insights in GA4.
If you’re interested in implementing Google Analytics Governance, I recently created a cheat sheet that shows you what should be included in it and how it will help your team find valuable insights in Google Analytics faster. Click the button below to download it.