Migrating to GA4: 15 recommendations for a smooth transition

Migrating to GA4: 15 recommendations for a smooth transition
Migrating from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 is an opportunity for business managers to review their organisation’s current data goals and setup. From using a phased approach to customising the layout: Here are 15 things to keep in mind for a manageable and successful transition.
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If you’re reading this post, then chances are you’ve already decided to migrate your business’s analytics platform from Universal Analytics (UA) to Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Now comes the crucial stage of making sure you have everything included in your migration plan to ensure nothing important is missed.

Unfortunately, switching from UA to GA4 isn’t so straightforward. Why? Because many of the elements have changed. For example, in UA users are tracked via sessions and GA4 is based around users. And the key reports you’ll be analysing from now on will centre around events, not page views.

There are a lot of positive things when it comes to switching from UA to GA4. It presents a great opportunity for businesses to reevaluate their current measurement plans and identify which data they need in order to track their business goals.

To help you in the migration process, and ensure you aren’t missing anything from your plan, I’ve compiled a list of 15 recommendations for a smooth transition. These are based on the migrations I’ve already done and the learnings I took away from them. With my phased approach and additional support, my clients’ marketing teams have grown to enjoy working with GA4 and they have become more data-driven when it comes to website optimisation.

So without further ado, let’s get started. One thing to note: this article doesn’t show you how to migrate from UA to GA4. Instead, it’s aimed at business leaders and marketing managers who need to make sure the transition is as seamless and as effective as it can be.

In this post…

15 recommendations when migrating to GA4 from UA

Let’s explore the  recommendations to make sure your transition to GA4 goes smoothly and you aren’t missing anything in your plan.

1. Create a measurement plan 

A measurement plan is a document that outlines: 

  • the business objectives for your website,
  • what tactics you’ll use to achieve them, 
  • and what KPIs will help you measure the success of your website.

It’s crucial to identify exactly which customer interactions you should track and how.

Even if you already had a measurement plan for UA, I suggest this is the perfect time to re-evaluate it. Because, how the data is collected is different and therefore might not work exactly the same.

Your GA4 implementation specialist might ask questions like:

  • Is the way you’re measuring your goals the best way?
  • Are the KPIs you’re measuring against still the right KPIs?
  • Are the interactions you’re measuring still the right ones?
  • Which micro-conversions should you track?
  • How should you structure data in reports to make analysis user-friendly?

Migrating from UA to GA4 is an opportunity to reevaluate what metrics you’re tracking. Remember to update your measurement plan regularly to ensure it continues to be relevant to your business goals.

2. Have a phased approach 

Be aware that the entire implementation can take time. Depending on the complexity involved, how big a website is, and how much tracking is needed, it can take between 3 and 12 months. If the company doesn’t need a lot of optimisation and just wants to simply switch to GA4, then the process will take less time.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t start seeing the benefits of transition early on.

No matter how long it takes, I recommend using a phased approach when doing the migration. This ensures that you address the most important business requirements early and build from there. 

Here’s an example of how you may want to structure each phase:

Phase 1: In the beginning, you’ll need to implement the basics. Create a new property, set up enhanced measurement, and create basic tracking. This allows you to start collecting data from the beginning.

Phase 2: Decide what your most important KPIs are. Set up eCommerce metrics as soon as you can if your website or app has an eCommerce element to it. If you have a SaaS or lead generation website then choose your conversion events and set these up.

Phase 3: Implement “nice to haves”. Add any additional interactions, micro conversions, set up audiences and other more advanced configurations.

Phase 4: Review everything, check it against UA, and organise training for your team.

3. Rethink the structure of your Events

Events play a crucial role in both UA and in GA4. But the way you report on them has changed dramatically. For this reason, you can’t simply recreate the same events you were used to in the new version.

UA events had a hierarchical structure made up of category – action – label. In GA4, events are distinguished by their names and they can have numerous parameters assigned to them. Your implementation engineer will need to translate the old structure to make sure your future reports are meaningful. 

Implementation engineer restructuring events in GA4

Ideally, the new structure should be written into your web analytics planning and documentation to help with both implementation and future analysis.

4. Restructure your eCommerce data

If you have an ecommerce website, you’re probably used to reviewing your Shopping and Checkout funnels in Universal Analytics. You can also see which product categories are more popular and how users arrived at the purchase.

In GA4, you have access to similar reports – but the data needs to be configured differently. You’ll need changes to the code and to the GTM configuration. Make sure you allow enough resources from web developers and your web analytics engineers to restructure your eCommerce data.

5. Adjust enhanced measurement as needed

Enhanced measurement is a new feature in GA4 that allows you to automatically track pre-built interactions, like what people search on your website or if they scrolled to the bottom of the page when reading a blog post. Previously, these interactions had to be specially configured in GTM – now you get the information with just a flick of a switch and no complex configuration. 

However, depending on your measurement plan, you may need to replace some of these default events with custom ones. So, if you’re planning to actively optimise your customer experience and need more detailed data to get more insight, then you may find it beneficial to tailor the measurements to your needs. 

One way to illustrate the difference between an Enhanced Measurement default event and a custom one is by looking at scroll events. With Enhanced Measurement switched on, an event is triggered when a site visitor scrolls 90% of the page. But, with a customised event it’s possible to track other thresholds, such as people scrolling 50% of a page. This extra information could give you more insight into whether people started reading a blog post but failed to read it to the end, so you can rethink your content to be more engaging if needed.

6. Convert your Universal Analytics goals to Google Analytics 4 conversion events

One big change in GA4 is that all conversions are measured via events. In UA, your most important conversions would likely have been based on page views. This means that the goals you had setup in UA need to be reconfigured. 

Your implementation specialist will need to ensure conversions are tracked correctly and follow any changes identified in the measurement plan. You and your team will need to learn where in the reports you can analyse performance based on conversions. You may want to set up funnel explorations as shared reports between your team to quickly get to the right data in the GA4 interface.

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7. Customise the Google Analytics 4 layout

When it comes to the user interface, GA4 and UA are strikingly different. So if you’re used to navigating the UA user interface, GA4 may appear confusing to start with.

Luckily, GA4 is made for flexibility and customisation. But this does mean that the default layout might not be the most effective for many companies.

If you’re migrating to GA4, make sure that your implementation includes customising the GA4 layout so that it makes it easier for you and your team to navigate. If this is well done, it can motivate your team to do more analysis and explore the opportunities by themselves.

Ideally, your customisation should complement your measurement plan and make it easy to identify your KPIs and micro conversions in your reports. It’s great to also include some explorations, like funnel visualisation to monitor your key website visitor journeys.

8. Allow resources for GTM configuration

GTM (Google Tag Manager) is the preferred way for setting up both UA and GA4. It’s an extra platform where you configure all your tracking code.

Because of how data is collected has changed between UA and GA4, the entire configuration needs to be redone. From the page view tags to event tags, each one needs to be set up from scratch, meaning you’ll need to allow for the resources to do this work.

9. Adjust data retention

In UA, your data was kept indefinitely. This means, you could easily do a year-on-year analysis and track performance trends over multiple years directly inside the platform. The only limitations were sampling thresholds that often required you to stitch data together manually. But at least the data was there to work with… 

In GA4, your data is only stored for 2 months by default. This is a considerable limitation – but there are things you can do to retain your data for longer.

Firstly, you can adjust the setting to 14 months as this is the maximum available in GA4.  It’s one of the first things I do when configuring new GA4 accounts. This quick action will allow you the ability to compare how you’re doing with the same time last year.

Adjusting data retention in GA4

Secondly, you should seriously consider exporting your data and storing it outside of GA4 via BigQuery. More on this later in this post!

10. Migrate audiences

Your custom audiences set up in UA aren’t automatically transferred over to GA4. Therefore, if you’re looking to identify the same groups of visitors, you’ll need to recreate those audiences manually in GA4. 

If your audiences in UA are built on custom dimensions then you may need to recreate those custom dimensions in GA4. Be aware that GA4 now has a limit of 100 audiences per property. If you require more audiences then you’ll need to upgrade to Google Analytics 360.

11. Export data to BigQuery and create dashboards in Data Studio 

As I already mentioned, your data can only be stored for a maximum of 14 months in GA4. That makes it difficult if you’re looking to compare metrics over a longer time period.

However, there is a way to mitigate this. One big upgrade from UA to GA4 is that Google makes it easy for you to export your data to BigQuery. If you’re not sure what BigQuery is – it’s a data warehouse that can be your central space to store all of your data from places like Google Analytics, your CRM and your social media platforms – so you can connect all of it together and build a 360° view of your customers. 

BigQuery offers a free version which is sufficient for most analytics accounts. Beyond that, you pay on a pay-as-you-go basis, which is also fairly inexpensive.

So what do you do once your data is inside BigQuery?

Because it’s essentially a large database, it’s not the most user-friendly place for most marketers. To help your teams get stuck in, visualise your BigQuery data using Data Studio. I recommend building a series of dashboards where you can track your KPIs and long term trends. The exact dashboards could be as basic or as detailed as you like and you can build extra features over time. 

12. Set up analytics insights

Analytics insights is a new feature in GA4 that uses machine learning to detect patterns in your data to help you make decisions. If it detects any unwanted anomalies then you can set it up to alert you when issues arise.

While insights don’t take up much time and effort to set up, they can potentially provide a lot of value by helping you spot issues quickly.

13. Compare with Universal Analytics

Because tracking has changed so fundamentally between UA and GA4, you can expect differences in metrics. Some metrics may not have equivalents or they are simply measured differently.

Give yourself time to monitor both setups side-by-side and take note of the differences so you can communicate changes to your other stakeholders with confidence. Make sure your team has a process for tracking your KPIs using GA4 after the migration.

14. Train your team

I’m going to sound like a broken record now, but there are quite a few differences between UA and GA4. Not only will these changes need to be implemented. Your team will also need to learn how to use the new platform in order to make the most of it.

Don’t leave it to your team to learn it by themselves. Instead, provide them with the resources and the training that will get them excited about all the new insight opportunities. Once they get to grips with the new analytics platform they can start using it for finding insights and optimising your website and marketing campaigns. 

How will you know that the training was successful? You’ll soon see them spending minutes, not hours answering questions using Google Analytics and they’ll show proactiveness by digging deeper into the tool.

15. Set up a maintenance plan

GA4 is still fairly new, and will likely continue to change. You are also likely to update your website, introducing new functionality, adding content and updating how you navigate it. This could be in response to changing business objectives or ongoing optimisation. 

With all the potential changes involved, you need to make sure your data continues to be accurate, relevant and well organised. I recommend having regular maintenance reviews. You can develop a schedule where you check things on a weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis – the exact schedule will depend on how much website optimisation you do and on your business priorities.

Have regular maintenance reviews for your GA4 setup

Your next steps when migrating to GA4

There isn’t long left until Google sunsets Universal Analytics. It’s important that you start the migration early enough to give your team enough time to learn the ropes of Google’s new analytics platform and to allow for a period of time where you can compare how data is collected between the two platforms.

Migrating to GA4 is a process that requires adequate planning and resources.  As we’ve been doing GA4 migrations for clients, I found that it’s a great opportunity for them to become more productive and data-driven at the same time. You can refine or kick-start your optimisation programme and make improvements in how your customers can use your website to achieve their goals.

If GA4 migration is something you require help with then book a strategy call and we can discuss your questions in more detail. At Business Ahead my team and I are ready to help you create a phased approach that will set your team up for long-term success.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about GA4 migration

When should I migrate to Google Analytics 4?

Migration to GA4 should be done as soon as possible. From the 1st of July 2023, UA will be discontinued. However, switching from UA to GA4 takes time. Depending on the complexity of your analytics set-up, it can take up to 12 months.

How do I switch from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4?

Google themselves have put together an extensive guide on making the switch to Google Analytics 4. Alternatively, there are plenty of step-by-step guides available on YouTube that can help: from setting up your GA4 property to tracking your first events. 

The process of migrating from UA to GA4 can be done with the help of your in-house data analysts. If you require help for the process then you can hire an external Google Analytics consultant to help you with the switch.

Will Google Analytics 4 replace Universal Analytics?

Yes, from the 1st of July 2023 Google Universal Analytics will stop recording data. That means GA4 will be the only available Google platform for collecting your website data.

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