Google Analytics 4: Why You Need To Upgrade Now
Big changes are coming to website analytics and reporting.
If you’re like the vast majority of businesses and marketers, you’ve been relying on Google’s Universal Analytics to measure the performance of your website. For the past decade, that platform has provided incredible value for millions of websites.
But everything’s about to change thanks to Google Analytics 4.
Google first announced this new analytics platform back in October 2020. Unlike the previous “upgrade” to Universal Analytics, GA4 is a completely different platform. And adoption has been relatively slow with most businesses continuing to rely on Universal Analytics for all their tracking and reporting needs.
Since Google’s announcement, GA4 has worked side-by-side with Universal Analytics as a separate property, but it has yet to become the featured analytics platform for most websites. If you are currently running both properties, you’ve probably noticed the data is very different. And you’ve probably stuck with UA reporting for almost all your marketing needs.
Don’t get used to it. Beginning July 2023, Universal Analytics will stop collecting new data and Google Analytics 4 will take over as the default and only platform. (Note: if you are on the paid version of Google Analytics, you will have three extra months to collect data.)
Why you need to upgrade to GA4 now
As mentioned above, Google Analytics 4 is a brand new platform. This means that from the moment you set up GA4, you are starting from scratch. There will be no data in your GA4 account when you first set it up.
Let me repeat that louder for those in the back—you are starting over with GA4. There is no historical data.
While I do have a secret theory based on nothing other than a weird gut feeling and a dream I had that Google will announce some type of import tool when we get closer to the launch (not sure how they would be able to do this given that the data does not line up one-to-one and I woke up way before my dream was over), at this time there is no way to move data from Universal Analytics to GA4. That means the data you’ve been collecting in UA for the past decade will soon be gone (although we do have ways to preserve that data, which we will discuss in a later post).
By upgrading to GA4 now, you will give yourself as much historical data as possible when GA4 becomes the official (and only working Google Analytics platform) in July 2023.
Note: You will be able to access your Universal Analytics data for at least six months after it stops tracking.
Of course, when I say “upgrade” your analytics, you aren’t actually performing an upgrade. You are creating a new property and running it alongside Universal Analytics for now. Whether or not it’s an upgrade of any kind is up for debate at this time.
Just in case that wasn’t all clear to you, you need to set up your Google Analytics 4 property now. If you wait, you will be at a serious disadvantage when it comes to measuring website performance a year from now.
Is Google Analytics 4 really that different?
There is a lot to learn with this major change and you may be wondering: What are the main differences between the two systems?
Well, a lot has changed. Almost everything, really.
Google Analytics 4 offers a completely different interface with new metrics and event-based measurements. Goals have been replaced with conversion events. IP addresses are all anonymized now. And bounce rate has bounced right out of the picture. Update - as of July 15, 2022, bounce rate is back in a new form. It is now the inverse of the engagement rate as opposed to the percentage of single-hit interactions. More on this later.
But now we have engagement rate and a way better method for exploring page paths.
A better question at this time might be, is anything really the same?
This may sound like a lot, but don’t panic. After all, you have time to learn this new platform.
This 3-part blog series will be your go-to for learning what GA4 is, how to set it up, and some of the best practices to track the effectiveness of your digital marketing.
What are the biggest changes in Google Analytics 4
As we mentioned above, a lot has changed. In this post, we’ll explore a handful of the biggest changes and how they will impact your data moving forward.
Hit Types and Sessions
Universal Analytics focuses on hits and sessions. In UA, a hit is any interaction with your site, and sessions are a group of user interactions in a given timeframe. The foundation of everything in UA is sessions, and UA is all about site measurement.
Google Analytics 4 is designed for user-centric measurement. Each interaction is stored as an event. This includes pageviews, social interactions, and transactions, allowing more specified, user-centric analysis. Sessions still exist, but they are now derived from an automatically collected event called “session_start,” and the duration of a session is now defined as the timespan between the first and last event of the session.
This might all sound like a bunch of technicalities, but it’s going to make a big difference in your tracking and reporting.
What this means: Ultimately, GA4 counts sessions differently than what we’re used to with UA. The biggest impact this has from a data standpoint is that GA4 may report a higher or lower number of sessions than UA.
For example, GA4 might report higher sessions if you have a lot of late hits on your site, or it might report lower sessions if there is a lot of new campaign activity. This doesn’t necessarily mean that GA4 is more accurate than UA, but it theoretically will give you insights into sessions that were previously “missed” by UA.
Big difference in reported sessions
We evaluated dozens of websites and compared the session data between GA4 and Universal Analytics, and here’s what we found:
On average, GA4 reported slightly higher sessions over a 2-month period. And I do mean slightly higher. The difference was 0.71%.
However, there were some major differences between GA4 and UA on individual websites. The most egregious examples:
- GA4 reported 52% fewer sessions for one WordPress website
- GA4 reported 15% more sessions for an ecommerce website
- GA4 reported 24% fewer sessions for another ecommerce website
A few other interesting observations:
- There were exactly zero cases where GA4 and UA reported the same number of sessions
- For exactly half the websites in our test, GA4 reported higher sessions
- Two-thirds of the sites in our test had a difference of more than 5% between the two platforms
- There was only one website where GA4 and UA reported session counts within 1% of each other
Speaking of events, Universal Analytics and GA4 handle events in a very different way. If you’ve spent a lot of time in UA, you are likely familiar with the Category, Action, and Label for each event.
In GA4, there is no such thing as Category, Action, and Label. Instead, every “hit” is now an event. For example, if someone looks at one of the pages on your website, that counts as a “page_view” event.
One really nice thing about GA4 is that several events you used to have to manually configure in UA are now ready out of the box. This includes scrolling, document downloads, and video plays. One downside to this is that these events may not be configured the way you’d like them to be—or the way you’re used to seeing.
What this means: On the surface, this seems like it will make it harder to break down your events. For example, it used to be easy to set up an event for document downloads or phone calls through Google Tag Manager, allowing you to get more granular details about those events by using Category, Action, and Label in your reports. You will need to rethink your data collection strategy when switching to GA4. You can’t just move your events over and call it a day or you will lose a lot of insight into how people are interacting with your website.
Bounce Rate vs. Engagement Rate
Bounce rate has long been a metric that marketers and designers have obsessed over—for better and for worse. We’re always looking for ways to improve bounce rate. Those days are soon going to be behind us.
Since GA4 contains metrics that are more relevant to how different apps and websites function, Google ditched the Bounce Rate metric and replaced it with something called Engagement Rate. Update - as mentioned above, bounce rate is back in a new form as of July 15, 2022. Now bounce rate is the inverse of engagement rate, so it's not exactly the same metric.
While Bounce Rate was measured by the percentage of single-hit sessions (more commonly thought of as one-page sessions), Engagement Rate is measured by the ratio of engaged sessions to total sessions. Engaged Sessions is the number of sessions that either last longer than 10 seconds, had a conversion event, or had at least 2 pageviews.
What this means: For one thing, it means you can’t look at Bounce Rate anymore. Well, it looks like you can use Bounce Rate again, only it's a different metric now, so don't try to compare this exactly to the previous data.
While some people have expressed dissatisfaction over the removal of this longtime favorite metric, I think it’s a good improvement in measurement. Bounce Rate has been a misleading metric for many years, and lots of poor decisions were probably made because a website’s bounce rate was too high. Engagement Rate is a better look at how often users are actually engaging with your content. Embrace this change; don’t fear it!
Conversion Event vs. Goals
Goals measure how well websites or apps meet their objectives. Goals in Universal Analytics serve as a conversion point, but they aren’t explicitly referred to as “conversions” in the platform. We’re all used to the process of setting up goals and how they can be derived from events, specific pageviews, or other metrics.
There are no goals in Google Analytics 4. Instead, we now have Conversion events. This is an interesting feature that seems very easy to enable at first—you just toggle an event to be a conversion.
However, this also makes it more difficult to easily define the goals for your website. Previously, you could set up an event for all downloads, and then you could easily set up a goal for a specific download. Now you would have to set up that specific download as a separate event and mark it as a conversion event.
What this means: You’re going to have to be a lot more careful with how you set up your conversions so you don’t end up counting the wrong things as conversions.
Other big changes in Google Analytics 4
In addition to everything we talked about above, here are a few other big changes that will impact your new analytics platform:
- Privacy First: Google Analytics 4 is designed with “privacy at its core.” The big privacy changes in GA4 include IP anonymization, shorter data storage timelines, consent mode, server location compliance, and data deletion. This is all meant to meet GDPR guidelines and prepare for a future of more privacy legislation.
- Filters: Google Analytics 4 does not have the plethora of filtering options that Universal Analytics had. In short, you can only set up filters for internal traffic and development traffic, and these filters are based on parameters instead of IP addresses. All the other filters from before are gone (but you can still utilize many of the same data integrity techniques through other methods).
- Cookies: GA4 still uses first-party cookies, but it also offers advanced machine learning to fill gaps when cookies aren’t available. Google refers to this as blended data modeling, and it theoretically allows you to track what UA used to miss.
- User Interface: The interface of GA4 is completely different in comparison to Universal Analytics. It looks different, the reports are different, the navigation is different, and even the icons are different. At least the primary blue color is the same. In short, when you log into Google Analytics 4 for the first time, you’ll probably wonder where the heck you are.
- Views: Views are no longer a thing. In GA4, you have a single property with streams. You should set up separate streams for your website and any mobile apps you want to track. In the past, I recommended setting up at least three views in Universal Analytics: unfiltered, filtered, and test. With GA4, this is no longer relevant.
- Explorations: Remember how painful page pathing used to be in Universal Analytics? Well, your life might get a lot easier with the new explorations tool. Explorations goes further than traditional, standard reporting to help your company reveal more insights and data about consumer behavior. The exploration tool supports 7 different techniques: freeform exploration, cohort exploration, segment overlap, user, path, and funnel exploration, as well as user lifetime.
- Custom channels: In UA, you could customize your channel groupings. That feature does not currently exist in GA4. Right now, you are stuck with Google’s default channels, which include a few new ones that weren’t found in UA. Here is the full list:
- Organic Search
- Paid Social (new to GA4)
- Organic Social (new to GA4)
- Paid Search
- Video (new to GA4)
- Paid Other (new to GA4)
- Data retention: In GA4, data retention by default is set to 2 months. The only other option is 14 months. Universal Analytics has a lot more flexibility in terms of data retention. This is the period of time associated with cookies and user/advertising identifiers, which all goes back to the privacy discussion.
- A lot of other things: It’s impossible to create a single, consumable piece of content that outlines all the differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4. In case you haven’t grasped this concept by now, GA4 is a completely different platform. In order to really understand it, you need to get in there and start using it.
Is GA4 better than Universal Analytics
At this point, it’s really hard to say. Most people seem to prefer Universal Analytics, but that might simply be because they’ve been using it for a decade. Change is hard. The way we are going to be measuring website performance is now different.
I see several big advantages to Google Analytics 4, but I also admittedly haven’t explored it enough to say whether I like it better or worse. But I do know this—it doesn’t really matter what our preference is. Universal Analytics is going away, so you have a choice to switch to Google Analytics 4 or find a different platform that will come with its own unique set of challenges.
That said, here are some clear benefits:
- Automatic event tracking
- Better cross-platform attribution
- Improved understanding of user journeys
- Enhanced machine learning
- Less dependency on cookies and better privacy
Although it’s easy to say the jury is still out, GA4 is clearly a better option if any of the following apply to you:
- You want to track a website and a mobile app in the same property
- The main focus of your website is monetization
What should you do next about Google Analytics?
My recommendation at this point is to set up GA4 if you haven’t already and start weaning yourself off Universal Analytics. If you used to spend an hour a week in UA, try spending 30 minutes a week in each platform.
A word of caution here: switching to GA4 is not as easy as it may seem. The setup wizard in Google Analytics makes it seem like a quick task, but there is a lot involved if you want to put an accurate measurement strategy in place. A GA4 upgrade is best performed by a qualified analytics expert.
It’s probably about 2,500 words too late for me to say this, but in short, Google Analytics 4 operates completely differently than the current Google Analytics platform. Everything from the interface to the data collection methodology to the reporting has changed.
This can be a lot to take in, and you may not even know where to start. That’s why you need a digital partner who understands measurement and can navigate through the complexities of a Google Analytics 4 setup.
Perrill is a full-service digital marketing agency that believes a good measurement strategy must be at the core of every marketing campaign. Our expertise can help you create effective and readable reports to further drive your marketing efforts. We are experts in Google Analytics 4 set up and migration services. Contact us today to find out how we can help you get more out of your analytics platform.
Nate Tower is the President of Perrill and has over 12 years of marketing and sales experience. During his career in digital marketing, Nate has demonstrated exceptional skills in strategic planning, creative ideation and execution. Nate's academic background includes a B.A. with a double major in English Language and Literature, Secondary Education, and a minor in Creative Writing from Washington University. He further expanded his expertise by completing the MBA Essentials program at Carlson Executive Education, University of Minnesota.
Nate holds multiple certifications from HubSpot and Google including Sales Hub Enterprise Implementation, Google Analytics for Power Users and Google Analytics 4. His unique blend of creative and analytical skills positions him as a leader in both the marketing and creative worlds. This, coupled with his passion for learning and educating, lends him the ability to make the complex accessible and the perplexing clear.