Google Analytics 4 (GA4) has been around for some time now, but despite new features being added regularly, many users either felt it was still lacking in certain areas or simply haven’t had the time to get to grips with the new interface.
As privacy concerns with Google’s Universal Analytics (UA) have become very common, and with Google setting a date to switch off UA, now is a better time than any to take the leap and start using GA4.
What Is GA4?
GA4 is the next generation of Google Analytics, providing a more privacy-focused approach to tracking users across websites and apps, relying less on first-party cookies to remain compliant with future developments in privacy regulation.
Google has achieved this by upping its game in machine learning, using modeling to “fill in the gaps” when users choose not to accept cookies, essentially allowing GA4 to continue providing insights around user engagement while keeping their data anonymous.
While it’s still currently possible to install Universal Analytics, GA4 is now the default version for all new GA properties.
When Was GA4 First Launched?
Google first announced the release of GA4 back in July 2019 (available in beta). This was followed by a hard launch in October 2020, when it became the default platform for all new properties.
While GA4 has still yet to be fully adopted by the majority of marketers, businesses have become more aware of privacy, and questions are being raised around how well Universal Analytics deals with it.
Why Did Google Update Universal Analytics to GA4?
Businesses have been relying on insights from Google Analytics for more than a decade, measuring user engagement to get an understanding of their online performance and using the data to make informed decisions.
While GA4 is capable of providing similar insights, Google completely overhauled Universal Analytics and the data models it’s built on, meaning it’s not possible to migrate data from Universal Analytics to GA.
This caused an uproar in the digital marketing community, as many website owners have been gathering data and following seasonal trends for many years. The idea of starting from zero is far from ideal.
With the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, businesses were forced to take privacy more seriously and get a better grasp of how they handled user data.
Google’s Universal Analytics is a prime example of an analytics tool that’s used to gather data on users. This has caused the tool to gain a lot of publicity in recent years, with growing concerns that sites are breaking GDPR regulations by using it.
GA4 is Google’s response to a cookieless future and claims to allow businesses to continue tracking user engagement with the help of AI and machine learning to “fill in the gaps” for users who choose not to provide their consent to be tracked.
What Does This Mean for Google Analytics Users?
Google announced it would be retiring Universal Analytics on July 1st, 2023, and will be removing access to view historical data at the end of 2023.
Oh boy…this is going to cause headaches.
Universal Analytics (aka regular GA) is going away Jul 2023.
If you don't switch to GA4 you eventually won't track new hits and you'll lose historical data as well😲https://t.co/vAwVNmBJ8c pic.twitter.com/tDf5YDC1qw
— Dr. Marie Haynes🐧 (@Marie_Haynes) March 16, 2022
If you started using Google Analytics after October 14, 2020, it’s likely that you’re already using a GA4 property. Anything before that, you’re probably using a Universal Analytics property.
Whether you’re already prepared to make the switch to GA4, or you’re still heavily reliant on Universal Analytics, you should at least get started with a GA4 account in order to begin building up historical data. Having at least a year’s worth of data will allow you to compare reports against the previous year, which is important for measuring seasonal trends.
As websites continue to evolve and users become more conscious of data privacy, opting out of having their sessions tracked, Google Analytics needed to make some big changes in order to continue providing relevant insights to website owners.
GA4 has addressed some of these issues, using AI to create models based on the user data they do have in order to provide a good understanding of how users who aren’t tracked interact with websites.
Is GA4 GDPR Compliant?
While GA4 takes privacy much more seriously than its predecessor, with a number of privacy settings that can be configured to limit tracking. The fact remains that Google still stores user data on US-based servers, which, according to Matomo, is against General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This effectively means that all websites collecting data from users based in the EU are not GDPR compliant.
There have already been several high-profile cases in Europe that led to websites being forced to remove Google Analytics in order to follow GDPR guidelines. This has caused many website owners to consider other Google Analytics alternatives.
In fact, a Twitter poll from SEO guru Aleyda Solis suggested that up to a third of users may consider ditching Google Analytics altogether.
Today it was announced that Universal Analytics will stop processing hits on July 1st 2023: What do you plan to do? 👇
— Aleyda Solis 🇺🇦 (@aleyda) March 16, 2022
The Italian Data Protection Authority (Garante della privacy), found that Google unlawfully transfers user data to the US, including IP addresses, browser details, operating systems, screen resolutions, selected languages, and the date and time of website visits. This puts websites in violation of GDPR laws.
GA4 vs Universal Analytics — Key Differences
Google first introduced Universal Analytics in 2012 with the goal of providing a more robust approach to Google Analytics users for collecting data. Unfortunately, the platform is still built on foundations that are simply not set up for the web as we know it today.
GA4 is a complete overhaul of Universal Analytics, built with a focus on tracking complete user journeys across multiple devices, allowing it to follow user sessions as they move between laptops, mobiles, apps, tablets, and other devices.
Data Models: What’s Changed?
Data models are used to instruct Google Analytics on how to manage the information gathered from users on a given website. One of the biggest differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics is how these data models work, which is the main reason why Google isn’t able to seamlessly migrate users from Universal Analytics to GA4.
The Universal Analytics data model uses sessions and pageviews, which were first developed over 15 years ago, at a time when smartphones and tablets had not yet fully emerged.
The session-based model collects data from user interactions that occur within a specific time frame. This system has always been flawed, since a single user can trigger several goals within a single session, but only one conversion is counted in Universal Analytics.
The GA4 data model uses events and parameters and has been built with cross-platform tracking at its core, which means you can expect to see more accurate reporting as your users switch between devices.
Why Is My Traffic Different in GA4?
As the methods for gathering user data have changed, it’s unlikely your traffic data will match up between the two versions of Google Analytics, which is why there’s no easy way to migrate from Universal Analytics to GA4. The same goes for other metrics, including bounce rate and conversions.
Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics: Comparing Features
You may have noticed that GA4 has some shiny new features, but some of the Universal Analytics features you know and love haven’t been migrated across.
GA4 Conversion Tracking
With Universal Analytics, goals can be configured using Events, Destinations, and Duration. For example, you could create the goal “Form Submit” and associate it with an event that is triggered when a visitor submits a form, or add a “Checkout Completion” goal, which is triggered when a visitor lands on your checkout page.
Universal Analytics is limited in how it counts conversions, recording only one conversion per session for each goal. This means that if a user submits a form more than once during a single session, UA conversion tracking would only show a single conversion. Universal Analytics also limits the number of goals that can be added in the free version to a maximum of 20.
GA4, on the other hand, has dropped ‘goals’ and now tracks conversions, increasing the maximum number of conversions that can be added to 30. GA4 conversions can only be created using the event-based tracking, which is based on Pageviews, Scrolls, Outbound clicks, Site search, Video engagement, and File downloads.
To set up conversion tracking in GA4, you just need to associate a specific event with a conversion.
GA4 also counts all conversion events, regardless of how many conversions occur from a single user in a single session. For this reason, you may notice some discrepancies when comparing GA4 conversion data with UA.
How To Add Conversions in GA4
Start by clicking Configure and then Events from the left menu, then select all of the events that you want to track as conversions, marking them as conversion events.
Now click Conversions to view the list of conversions that you added.
Much like Universal Analytics conversions, GA4 conversions are only tracked from the time they are created, so you won’t see new conversions in your historical data.
How To Create Custom Conversions in GA4
To create a custom conversion in GA4, you can either select Create event to create a new event or Modify event to edit an existing event. Make sure to add the event name using the correct casing. Once saved, mark your new event as a conversion.
Check out Google’s detailed guide for more information on setting up custom events.
GA4 Conversion Rate
You can track the conversion rate of any conversion event using User conversion rate, which is the percentage of users who triggered a conversion event, and Session conversion rate, which is the percentage of sessions in which a conversion event was triggered.
This data can help you to understand how your conversion events are performing, giving you insights to improve conversion rate optimization.
GA4 Ecommerce Tracking
The Monetization reports in GA4 allows you to track how much revenue was generated from your website, along with additional data to help you understand which areas of your site performed the best. To check the Monetization reports, click Reports from the left navigation and then click Monetization.
The Monetization overview report provides a summary of your revenue performance across your site and app.
The Ecommerce purchases report allows you to see more granular data related to the revenue generated from specific products and interactions with these products.
Find out more about setting up ecommerce event tracking for your websites and/or apps.
GA4 comes with a host of pre-built reports that can be used to track your websites and apps.
GA4 Reporting UI
GA4 reports can be found under each section in the left menu but also in the snapshot reports provided in the main Home dashboard. You can expand any of the snapshot reports by clicking the links in each report card.
Much like with Universal Analytics, each of the reporting sections in GA4 comes with an overview dashboard containing some key reports. These are fully customizable, so you can create reports that focus on the metrics and dimensions that are most important to your business.
In addition to these, you can also add comparisons, applying filters to compare against the default data. This adds additional series to the chart, allowing you to easily compare trends for different segments over time. Each comparison can contain one or more filters (e.g. country, device, operating system, etc.)
Saving Reports in GA4
You may have noticed there is no Custom Reports tab GA4. To create custom reports in GA4, you need to head over to the Explore section from the left menu and start a new exploration. You can either create a new report from scratch using the Blank option, or use one of the prebuilt templates.
How To Create the Landing Pages Report in GA4
We’re all familiar with reports that show visits to specific landing pages over time, whether you’re looking to find your most visited ones during a specified period of time or using filters to drill down to specific landing pages.
While GA4 doesn’t have a landing pages report in the default dashboards, it’s easy to set this up.
- Click Explore in the left menu, then click Blank to start a new exploration.
- Give your report a relevant name (e.g. Landing pages report), then set your desired time frame.
- Click Dimensions and search for Landing page. Select the checkbox, then click the Import button.
- Click Metrics, then select each of the metrics that you would like to include in your report. For example, Total users, Bounce Rate, Conversions, and Total revenue.
- Double click each of the dimensions and metrics that you added to move them into your report.
- If you’re looking to filter landing pages to see a specific page or group of pages, scroll down under Tab Settings, then click Filters and choose which dimension or metric you would like to filter. For example, to see all blog posts, you could set Landing page to contains /blog/.
You can choose the type of report you want (e.g. table, donut chart, line chart, etc.) by selecting one of the options under Visualization.
If you want to add more than one visualization (e.g. table and line chart), you can duplicate the first form and switch the visualization for the duplicated report.
You can then update the form names to give them a relevant title by double-clicking the title.
Views vs Data Streams
In Universal Analytics, views allow website owners to create subsets of properties with their own unique configuration settings. In GA4, views have been replaced by data streams.
What Are GA4 Data Streams?
Data streams are GA4’s answer to Views in Universal Analytics. According to Google, a data stream is “A flow of data from your website or app to Analytics.” Data streams are categorized into 3 types:
- Web (for websites)
- iOS (for iOS apps)
- Android (for Android apps)
A common Universal Analytics setup is to create an “unfiltered view” for all data, with no filters in place (e.g. IP filters to exclude internal traffic or spam filters to exclude patterns associated with spam); a “test view” for testing filters out to make sure they don’t have any unexpected outcomes; and a ‘master view’, with all filters applied and goal tracking in place.
In GA4, you don’t have the option to create multiple views but instead, have the ability to create multiple data streams.
How To Set Up Data Streams
To add a data stream, click Admin at the bottom of the left menu. First, select the account and property you want to update, then click Data Streams from the property column, and then Add stream, selecting either iOS app, Android app, or Web.
To add a data stream for your website, enter your Website URL (this is your domain, e.g. domain.com), and set a Stream name, e.g. “Kinsta web stream”.
Enhanced measurement is selected by default, which automatically collects page views and other events. You can disable this by clicking the toggle (this can also be done later if necessary).
Google advises that in most cases, only one data stream is necessary for each type (web/app), as adding multiple web streams can lead to inconsistencies. You can find out more about this in Google’s guide to structuring your GA4 account.
You’ll need to add the Analytics tag to your site before any data shows up in your new GA4 property. Check out this guide to adding the GA4 tag on your WordPress site.
Tracking Subdomains in GA4
One of the main benefits of the new gtag.js snippet is that it sets cookies at the highest possible domain level, meaning GA4 can track users across all subdomains without any additional configuration required.
GA4 UTM Tracking
Google has added support for most UTM tracking parameters, so you can continue to add these to track campaigns in GA4. These can then be found in the Traffic acquisition report.
GA4 Search box
The search bar in GA4 allows you to get instant reports based on your search. The auto-suggest feature can help surface related questions as you start typing, which can save you time and help you easily find reports.
The GA4 search box also supports instant answers, so you can ask questions like “how many conversions did we get last week?”
The GA4 search box also sources Google support docs, so can be very useful in helping answer questions about setting up your GA4 account.
How To Migrate to GA4
Ready to take the leap and switch to GA4? Before you cut all ties with Universal Analytics, don’t forget to export all the historical data you have!
How To Download Your Historical Data from Universal Analytics
Google has already highlighted that it’s not possible to migrate your data from Universal Analytics to GA4 due to the new platform using different data models (we covered this briefly above, but Google goes into more detail in its documentation). However, you can already start downloading your historical data from Universal Analytics.
To manually export data, open the report that you want to download in Google Analytics. For example Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels. Choose the filters and segments you would like to apply, then click EXPORT from the menu icons in the top right corner. You can download the file as a PDF, Google Sheet, Excel file, or CSV.
While this can be useful in preserving valuable data, the export feature comes with limitations:
- You can currently only apply two dimensions at a time
- rows are capped at 5k
- data may be sampled (the green checkmark shield in the top left appears when the data is not sampled)
This article from SEJ provides a number of alternative methods for downloading your data.
Switching To GA4
While Google has provided some tools to help you migrate your goals across to GA4, you will need to start from scratch when it comes to configuring your account.
How To Create a GA4 property Using Your Existing UA Tracking Code
If you’re already using Universal Analytics with gtag.js, you can easily associate the property with your new GA4 account using connected site tags, saving you some time adding the tracking tag.
How To Add Connected Site Tags
- Click Admin at the bottom of the left menu and select your account and property
- Click Data Streams under Property
- Click the Web tab, then click the web data stream.
- Click Manage connected site tags under the Google tag section
- Under Connected Tags, Enter the tracking ID of the UA property that you want to add (you can find this in the Admin section of your UA account under Property > Tracking Info > Tracking Code
- Give it a name (e.g. [Site name] UA ID)
- Click Connect.
GA4 Setup Assistant
The GA4 Setup Assistant can be used to create your new GA4 property, which can run in parallel to your existing Universal Analytics property. This means that you will still have access to the Universal Analytics property (for now!).
The GA4 Setup Assistant wizard doesn’t add any historical data to your new property, so the sooner you get started, the sooner you can start collecting data.
Check out this guide from Google for step-by-step details on how to use the GA4 setup wizard to create a GA4 property for a site that uses Universal Analytics.
GA4 Goals Migration Tool
GA4 now comes with a tool that allows you to automatically migrate goals from Universal Analytics to GA4. In order to use this tool, your account must be set to an “Editor” role.
Open your new GA4 property, then click Admin. Click Setup Assistant In the Property column, then navigate to Import existing goals from your connected Universal Analytics property and click Get started. You can now select which goals you’d like to migrate to your GA4 property.
You can also find your new conversion events in your GA4 property, under Configure > Conversions in the Conversion Events table. It can take up to 24 hours for the migration to complete.
You can read more about this in Google’s documentation.
GA4 Dimensions and Metrics
While many dimensions and metrics are populated automatically when setting up GA4, some require additional configuration before they are activated.
Universal Analytics has two User metrics: Total Users, which are users who initiated at least one session during the selected date range, and New Users, which are first-time users who visited during the selected date range.
In Google Analytics 4, there are three User metrics: Total Users, New Users, and Active Users.
Active Users is the primary user metric used in GA4 and is made up of the number of users who visited a website or application. An active user is triggered by any user who has an engaged session or when Analytics collects:
- the first_visit event or engagement_time_msec parameter from a website
- the first_open event or engagement_time_msec parameter from an Android app
- the first_open or user_engagement event from an iOS app
Most reports in Universal Analytics use Users, which is based on Total Users. GA4 also uses Users, but this is based on Active Users, which is calculated differently, so can lead to confusion if comparing the two metrics.
A more comparable metric in GA4 can be found using Explorations to view Total users.
Engagement rate, which is based on the percentage of engaged sessions, is calculated by the number of sessions that lasted longer than 10 seconds, had a conversion event, or had at least 2 pageviews or screenviews.
In GA4, Bounce rate is the percentage of sessions that had no engagement, so the opposite of Engagement rate. It’s calculated differently from Universal Analytics, so the results are unlikely to match up when comparing the two.
In UA, users could spend 10 minutes reading your blog post and then leave without triggering any events, and this would have counted as a bounce. Meanwhile, in GA4, users who spend more than 10 seconds on a page are not considered to have bounced, which is much more useful.
GA4 Training Program
If you’d like to learn more about what’s possible with GA 4 and want to learn about how to use the new features available while also benefiting from an industry-recognized certificate, you can now enroll on the Google Analytics 4 training program.
Today, we're launching the Google Analytics 4 training program and certification on Skillshop.
Take your knowledge to the next level and get your industry-recognized badge now to showcase your expertise → https://t.co/qzst6Am5uM
— Google Analytics (@googleanalytics) August 16, 2022
If you’ve been putting off switching to GA4, now is the time to get started. Even if you’re not ready to invest the time into learning how to use GA4, you can easily run both versions in parallel, giving you continued access to the UA reports you know and love until UA goes away.
The fact remains that Google will be pulling the plug in July 2023, so the sooner you make the switch to GA4, the sooner you can start getting to grips with the future of Google Analytics.
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