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Analytics

Preparing for the Difference Between GA4 and Universal Analytics

by Chris Todd

Need to track online activity? Chances are you’re using Google Analytics to do it. It’s free. It’s powerful. And it’s remained the standard tool for measuring digital marketing for a long time. Since its inception, not that much has changed. For the first time in a long time, Google is updating the fundamental elements of Google Analytics with its release of GA4, and retiring the Universal Analytics in July 2023. GA4 will feature new UI, new reports, and new ways of collecting the data that’s most important to the everyday marketer. What’s changed, why, and what’s the difference between GA4 and Universal Analytics? Let’s get into it.

Why GA4?

Google certainly isn’t overhauling their core analytics tool for fun, or out of boredom. When announced in October of 2020, GA4 was being promoted as “smarter” and “more intelligent.” And one big point that Google made sure to mention (and continues to mention) is privacy. As cookies continue to die across the web and government regulators crack down on how consumer data is used, companies like Google are creating experiences that rely less on personally identifiable details. With this in mind, GA’s privacy controls include anonymous IP tracking and decreased data retention windows

 

Link to blog on How to Leverage First-party Data in a Cookieless World

 

The other big selling points from Google about why upgrading from Universal Analytics to GA4 are better connecting visitor data across devices and insights from machine learning. Depending on the type of business you run, having easy access to data from both your website(s) and mobile apps could be huge. While Google Analytics has had properties in the past that pulled these two together, it’s now the default for GA4. If you don’t particularly care about how the users engage across devices, or if you don’t have an app, this is less of a value-add. 

For machine learning, that will get you as far as you’re willing to lean into the reliability of Google’s insights. For time-crunched marketers, quick high-level insights might give you a great place to start digging in—instead of spending time looking for patterns on your own. 

How is GA4 different from Universal Analytics?

It’s billed as smarter, more intelligent, and privacy-forward. But just how different in GA4 for the end user? Incredibly different! This isn’t one new feature or a re-branding. The process for using Google Analytics is significantly different moving forward. It’s going to be a learning experience for marketers who have spent entire careers thinking about data one way in Google Analytics. 

There are visual differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics. Same colors, same basic charts, but the available reports and navigation have changed. 

 

Google Analytics 4 screenshot showing left navigation and user interface elements of GA4
GA4 Navigation from Google Analytics Support

 

The big difference, and the reason why GA4 reporting isn’t a 1:1 match to Universal Analytics, is everything in Google Analytics 4 is event-based. While Universal Analytics also has key event data, it was largely session-based reporting. What events happened during a session? With GA4, the events are the main parameters for reporting. To make things extra fun for experienced analytics users–events aren’t the same anymore either. 

Working with GA4 Events

Marketers have gotten used to one constant in analytics over the years. An “event” in Google Analytics was defined by: 

  • Event Category
  • Event Action
  • Event Label

These three simple elements were enough to build your strategies around. GA4 throws that structure out of the window. It’s not just to frustrate marketers, of course. Google has dramatically changed the way events are collected in GA4 to allow for greater flexibility. To make things easier, it even collects a bunch of events automatically. It achieves this flexibility by increasing those three associated event fields to up to 25 parameters per event

This increase allows marketers to re-think their event collection strategy. You can get extremely granular with what you send to Google Analytics from your website interactions to allow for a more detailed analysis–paired with Google’s machine learning. And with GA4’s event structure, creating a conversion (previously “goals” in Universal Analytics) is as easy as switching on a toggle. It’s an all or nothing approach to conversions. Is this event something your organization defines as a conversion? If so, flip that switch and start reporting. 

Limitations & Opportunities

Like with most changes, the move from Universal Analytics to GA4 has both its pros and cons. While it’s more flexible, it also comes with some limitations. These limitations might be a short-term challenge more than a long-term issue as Google continues to enhance the product and listen to customer feedback.

Reporting

With new the event-driven reporting and interface, there’s bound to be an uphill battle to get used to Google Analytics 4 reporting. Spending some time looking at the new reports should be enough to get familiar with how GA4 is reporting. But, in our experience there are some drawbacks to GA4 reporting. 

  • If you create custom parameters, they won’t appear in reports unless you also add a custom dimension in the GA4 UI. This extra step is only a small nuisance, but one that can be frustrating if you miss the step.
  • Our team noted some inconsistencies in data, where one report will state X number of events, but if you drill down for a secondary dimension Y number of events appear. Take some time to double check and review event setups to troubleshoot potential issues.
  • You may experience a longer data lag with GA4. Other users, including our own team, have seen data lags significantly longer than Universal Analytics properties. There are fewer opportunities to view “today’s” numbers in GA4 in those situations, and you’ll be looking at data the next day, or in real-time reporting, for your analysis.

Are your third party tools ready?

Another big limitation is that many marketing tools have integrations that work perfectly with Universal Analytics. Strategists have built conversion goals and events through these applications to give themselves a better view into their customer journeys. But with GA4, not every provider is ready yet to send that data. For the time being, you might be missing key conversion data in your GA4 reporting. 

 

Wondering if CallTrackingMetrics is ready for Google Analytics 4? We have our customers covered.

 

Early in 2022 we put together a GA4 integration beta that was available for our customers to test and provide feedback. We pride ourselves on CallTrackingMetrics working alongside the tools marketers use everyday, and are excited to have a GA4 solution for marketers when they need it. We’ve been getting insightful feedback from our early adopters and will have the official CallTrackingMetrics Google Analytics 4 integration live in July 2022

If Google isn’t forcing people off of Universal Analytics until 2023, why are we pushing to have our GA4 integration ready for July 2022? We want every marketer to have the opportunity to have a full year of our data, coupled with their existing Google Analytics data, when Universal Analytics shuts down in 2023. 

Preparing now for GA4 in July 2023

For you and your team. First things first, set up a GA4 property as soon as possible to start gathering data and getting familiar with the interface. It is different, so carve out some time to play around with it. 

Don’t wait until you’re forced to switch. Work towards adding your key events and conversions as soon as you can. Use the GA4 debug feature to see how your events would come into your reports. You’ll be able to see real-time the event name and any parameters you’ve selected to send. 

Again, you want to get everything done as soon as you can to have your historical data to compare against come 2023 when you won’t have a Universal Analytics view to fall back on. 

Last thing, try not to worry too much. You mastered Google Analytics before, and you’ll master GA4 too. You’ll get used to what’s new and different between GA4 and Universal Analytics. Use the flexibility to make Google Analytics your own and start enjoying the future of analytics.

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