On July 1st, 2023, the familiar Universal Analytics (UA) service used by millions of websites will be phased out in favor of the novel Google Analytics 4 (GA4) platform. Businesses and marketers will have to develop new workflows and adapt to a radically different interface as the world’s most popular web analytics tool undergoes its first major overhaul in 10 years. Now, you may be thinking “What’s the big deal? I’ve got 11 months to figure it out.” Wrong. If you’re a website owner reading this blog and you haven’t set up GA4 yet, you’re already behind the curve.
While Google has provided extensive documentation on the migration process, here’s our take on the most impactful changes and what you can do to prepare.
A Paradigm Shift in Web Analytics
This is not an incremental update – it is an entirely new system of tracking metrics across websites and apps. GA4, introduced in 2020, represents a significant departure from UA in both its interface and how it processes data. Whereas UA was designed around the traditional desktop browsing experience, GA4 emerged in response to data privacy regulations and the increasingly mobile-centric digital landscape. The two platforms have fundamentally different operating principles – UA is built around a session-based data model, while GA4 uses an event-based data model. Where UA has different hit types (e.g. pageview, event, transaction) that make up a session, GA4 treats every user interaction as an event.
GA4 sports a redesigned interface and a host of new capabilities, including enhanced user tracking, advanced privacy controls, data-driven attribution, improved Google Ads integration, and predictive metrics driven by machine learning models. At the same time, many of the features we’ve grown accustomed to have been revamped or removed entirely. Here are some of the most consequential changes to commonly used tools and metrics:
- Reports: UA comes prepackaged with dozens of standard reports that make it easy to pull up useful data at the click of a button. GA4 has a small selection of very basic reports, but for the most part you will need to create custom reports, now called Explorations, to achieve the same level of detail. GA4 heavily emphasizes customization, and the new Explorations offer a lot of functionality, but the interface can be challenging at first.
- Views do not exist in GA4. In UA, a property could have multiple views that allowed you to maintain different subsets of your raw data independently of one another. For example, you could have one view with all of your data and another that filtered out traffic from internal IP addresses.
- Engagement Rate is a new metric indicating the number of sessions that lasted longer than 10 seconds, had a conversion event, or had at least 2 pageviews/screenviews. Bounce Rate, which formerly referred to the number of single-page sessions in which there was no interaction with the page, is now the inverse of engagement rate – that is, the percentage of sessions that were not engaged sessions. The difference is that time on page is now taken into account, and only conversion events constitute an engaged session. As a result, engagement in GA4 is not as dependent on event structure as in UA. Consider the case in which a scroll event negates what should have been a bounce, or where a lack of event tagging on a page causes a meaningful session to be wrongly labeled a bounce.
- The Users metric in GA4 now refers to users active in the last 28 days. There is a separate metric for Total Users, which was simply called Users in UA.
- The way in which Conversions are counted has changed slightly. UA counts only one conversion per session for each goal. So, if a user submits the form twice during the same session, only one conversion will be counted for the “Form Submit” goal. GA4 counts every instance of the conversion event, even if the same conversion event is recorded multiple times during the same session. So, if a user submits the form twice during the same session, two conversions will be counted. Additionally, the auto-generated Smart Goal from UA does not exist in GA4.
- Event Count has changed due to the fundamental difference in GA4’s treatment of events. Every hit is now an event and GA4 events have no notion of Category, Action, or Label. For example, when someone views one of your website pages, a page_view event is triggered.
All actions are events. Each event name is not necessarily unique (in fact, it’s best practice to reuse the same event name many times, differentiating the event by the parameter values collected). For example, a sign-up might have an event name of sign_up with parameters page_location, product, form_id, and so on. The same event name could (and should) be used on every sign up button across the site (whereas in UA, you would want to use unique event naming for each button).
Why You Need to Implement GA4 Now
GA4 is not backward-compatible with data from UA. Any historical data you have collected in UA over the years will not feed into GA4. For this reason, it is crucial to implement GA4 as soon as possible to begin building up a historical dataset for use in year-over-year comparisons. Furthermore, GA4’s machine learning algorithms must be fed a steady stream of data before they can function optimally. Finally, implementing GA4 can be a long process – between configuration, rebuilding dashboards, retagging (especially if your website uses custom tags), and troubleshooting.
Implementing GA4 does not affect the existing UA property on your website, and you can continue to use UA for your day-to-day reporting needs until you are comfortable switching over entirely. Running parallel reports on both platforms is a good way to familiarize yourself with the new environment, keeping in mind that small differences in numbers are to be expected. Historical data will remain available in UA for at least six months after July 1st, 2023. Plan on exporting historical data from your UA properties during this window. We recommend building custom reports in UA specifically for this purpose to ensure you are capturing any data you might need to reference in the future. The transition to GA4 may seem intimidating, but it also presents a terrific opportunity to evaluate your measurement needs, plan for the future, and strengthen your analytics capabilities across the board.