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Digital Strategy

GA4 vs Universal Analytics: Switching Over to Google Analytics 4

By August 2, 2022August 11th, 2022No Comments
Opengraph-GA4-Blog-Graphic

Do you remember hearing an explosion of groans and complaints sometime in October 2020?

That was Google introducing Google Analytics 4, and the complaints came from marketers worldwide.

We love our job. But things like this make it a nightmare.

Marketers spent years perfecting their skills within the parameters of Universal Analytics (UA). Then, almost overnight, Google flipped the online advertising landscape upside down and left us all scrambling.

But as much as marketers might be putting off the inevitable switch to GA4, they have to do it sooner than later. That’s because the data they gather on the new platform before UA is sunsetted will largely determine the success of their future campaigns.

So take a deep breath and say:

Ready or not, it’s time to dive in:

What Is GA4?

Google Analytics 4 is the latest version of Google Analytics. It’s the company’s fourth iteration of its free website tracking software. Instead of relying on cookies to measure website traffic, GA4 uses an event-based model to measure user engagement and gather data. It will become the sole option for tracking come July 1st, 2023.

So, what does any of this mean?

Unlike Apple, which gives you a new version of the iPhone every year with minimal differences (not to throw any shade), Google has completely changed the nature of website tracking with one move.

Pretty much everything is different:

  • The website tracking functionality
  • The dashboards, and
  • The data retention periods

Users need to adjust to all these differences if they want to understand the data they collect and make informed decisions.

To put this into context:

In the past, if a company had a website and an app, it had to use Universal Analytics to track data and user interactions on their websites and App+Web for apps. GA4 brings it all together under one roof. As a result, companies can get far more data on the user journey.

The next thing to keep in mind is that GA4 is based on cookieless tracking.

You read that right. No more cookies.

Instead of using cookies as anonymous user identifiers to track metrics such as sessions and users, the event-based model focuses solely on interactions such as page loads, clicks, and conversions.

And that brings us to our next point.

GA4 is also more in compliance with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which dictates how companies collect and use personal data inside the European Union.

For that reason, GA4 will:

  1. Not store the user’s IP address in its database.
  2. Implement a data deletion mechanism.
  3. Set the data retention period at 2 months by default.

So, perhaps we can take comfort in this change making us more ethical marketers…

And finally, we come to the reason why companies need to migrate to Google Analytics 4, regardless of how they feel about the change.

On July 1st, 2023, Universal Analytics will stop processing new hits altogether.

Its historical data will be lost (presumably) in six months.

That’s why companies should have their GA4 up and running as soon as possible to ensure they have a year of collected data to work with when Universal Analytics goes offline.

So if you’re asking yourself: Should I upgrade to Google Analytics 4? Then the answer is definitely yes!

Now that you have a basic understanding of GA4, let’s dive into the details and examine how it’s different from UA.

GA4 vs Universal Analytics: How Is It Different?

First, a preview:

FeatureDifference
Data model
  • In GA4, every interaction is captured as an event. 
Connection to BigQuery
  • Users can export data in GA4 for free. 
Data limits
  • GA4 does not have any limits on monthly hits. 
Updated metrics
  • GA4 has many new metrics and others that have been redefined.
Privacy consent
  • GA4 maximises data collection while complying with privacy laws. 
Event tracking
  • GA4 offers four different types of events. 
Reports
  • GA4’s simplified dashboard makes it easier to spot trends and data irregularities. 
Attribution
  • GA4 offers three different types of attribution models. 

Now a closer look:

Data Model

With Universal Analytics, hit types included page hits, event hits, eCommerce hits, and social interaction hits.

GA4 is event-based. That means any interaction is captured as an event.

This change switches the focus from engaged sessions and pageviews to the user journey.

GA4’s events are separated by an event_name parameter and additional parameters in the form of custom dimensions and properties that describe them. Each parameter has to be registered with the GA4 interface. It’s possible to add up to 25 parameters per event. GA4’s event parameters offer 100.

This option improves the reporting capabilities, especially for funnel and pathways analysis.

It allows for stitching and sequencing of events and pageviews which makes it easier for users to discern valuable insight from the data.

This is what that might look like:

GA4 vs UA 1

Connection To BigQuery

BigQuery is a data warehouse that allows users to process SQL queries at high speeds. With Universal Analytics (UA), users had to pay to upgrade to Google Analytics 360 in order to export raw data to BigQuery.

That was an expensive product.

GA4 allows users to export raw data, free of charge. You pay for the data storage and the data querying that exceeds the limits of Google Cloud free tier.

You will only be charged after you exceed 1TB of querying per month and 10GB of storage.

You can:

  • Store your data in BigQuery or send it to your data warehouse in other Clouds.
  • Use data visualisation in tools like Data Studio or Tableau
  • Perform advanced analysis on your data
  • Use your data for machine learning models

Data Limits

The Universal Analytics free version had a limit of 10 million hits per month. This meant that companies often had to work with incomplete information because they had to rely on sampled data.

GA4 has a limit on the number of different events that can be captured (500) but it does not have any limit on the number of monthly hits. That is why many companies have chosen to make the transition to GA4 as soon as possible.

Updated Metrics

There are a number of key differences between UA metrics and GA4 metrics.

Some weren’t available in UA and are entirely new in GA4, while for others, Google has simply changed the definition or the way they’re calculated.

Here are 12 updated metrics you can use in GA4 to understand your users and their behaviour:

  1. Users: The number of users who have interacted with your website or launched your app for the first time.
  2. Sessions: GA4 creates a Session ID to determine where each session came from. That helps with the user journey. The session ends after more than thirty minutes of inactivity.
  3. Engagement rate: Measures the rate of sessions that lasted longer than ten seconds and had a conversion event or at least two pageviews.
  4. Bounce rate: This metric is the inverse of the engagement rate (and it’s back after it initially looked like Google would leave it out of GA4). If the user visits your page, views it for less than 10 seconds, then leaves without visiting another page or triggering another event, the session counts as a bounce.
  5. Average engagement time: Shows the average time the visitor used your web page or app.
  6. Views: GA4 counts the total number of app screens of webpages your user saw.
  7. Event count: Every hit on the website is counted as an event. The events themselves are distinguished by parameters. That means every step of the user journey will be part of the event count, right up until the conversion.
  8. UTM term and UTM ad content: These metrics are available in Explorations, Reporting, and Audience Builder. Both parameters have a user-scoped and session-scoped dimension. They are used to measure which term (i.e. keyword) and which content (i.e. CTA) are most effective in drawing visitors to your website.
  9. Conversion rate: This metric consists of a user conversion rate and the session conversion rate. The first is the rate of users who triggered a conversion event. The session conversion rate is the percentage of sessions in which any conversion event was triggered.
  10. Lifetime value: Identifies which users are the most valuable to your business. It shows you where the users came from, how much time they spent on your website, and how much money they spent. Based on this information, you can choose to spend your budget on the most effective marketing channel for your business.
  11. Total revenue: Displays the combined revenue from subscriptions, purchases, and advertising.
  12. Advertiser ad clicks: Shows the number of times users clicked on your ad.

Privacy Consent

Countries are adopting different regulations when it comes to privacy tracking.

The EU has GDPR, and California has CCPA.

Consumers are increasingly rejecting data tracking. In the European Union, 30-40% of consumers are declining cookie tracking on retail sites.

While this is arguably great for security-conscious users, it throws in a few extra curveballs for the noble marketer.

Google refers to GA4 as “privacy by design”. The plan is to maximise data collection while playing by the rules.

That means certain changes:

  • GA4 makes all IP addresses anonymous, and this setting cannot be changed.
  • Data retention is shorter. Marketers can choose between 2 months and 14 months.
  • Data is stored on Google servers. Companies don’t have the option to store their data elsewhere.
  • Google has released consent mode. Consumers can accept tracking while at the same time complying with the regulations.

Event Tracking

There are four types of events in GA4:

  • Automatically collected events
  • Enhanced measurement events
  • Recommended events
  • Custom events

Let’s examine each one:

Automatically Collected Events

Automatically collected events are the events that GA4 tracks by default. The list of website events is:

  1. First visit: Records when the user first opens the website or the app.
  2. Session start: When the user engages with the website or the app.
  3. User engagement: Starts tracking after the user has used the website or app for more than 10 seconds.

Enhanced Measurement Events

Enhanced measurement events is an option designed to give marketers the chance to capture as many different events as possible. This feature is also enabled by default and will track:

  • Page views
  • Scroll
  • Outbound link click
  • Site search
  • Video engagement
  • File download

Users can disable or enable each event individually based on their needs.

Recommended Events

This type of event is used if the first two categories don’t fulfil all your tracking requirements. Google has published several pages of recommendations for different types of websites based on:

Unlike the first two types, recommended events aren’t enabled by default. Users have to manually implement them because they require additional context to be useful to the users.

Google has supplied a list of recommended events. For this type to work, marketers must use the exact same event and parameters as outlined by Google. You can check out the entire list of recommended events here.

Customised Events

The users define these types of events. They should only be used in case none of the above-listed event categories apply to the company’s use case.

That’s because most custom events don’t show up in standard reports. Companies have to create customer GA4 reports to conduct a meaningful analysis.

Reports

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to track users as they engage with your company on different platforms.

That’s where GA4’s enhanced machine learning comes into play. It helps to bridge the missing data gap between platforms, so you can keep following the data trail.

GA4’s simplified reporting interface also makes it easier for marketers to spot trends and irregularities in data.

Instead of a list of standardised reports that try to cover every use case, GA4 uses overview reports in summary cards.

There are three main types of reports:

  1. Homepage report
  2. Realtime report
  3. Life cycle reporting

The Homepage Report is the report users first come across when they log into GA4. It reports on overall traffic, conversion, and revenue. The homepage report will tell you where your users are coming from, which campaigns are the most effective, and which web pages and app screens are receiving the most views.

The Real-Time Report focuses on the immediate data. It shows events that happened in the last 30 minutes. These reports are used to analyse the immediate reactions to new content, company news, etc. If your company releases a new product to the public, you can enjoy a “live stream” of your website and app traffic.

The Lifecycle report is the exact opposite of the real-time report. It focuses on the entire user journey. It is meant to offer companies information about how the users accessed their website, what they did once they got there, and how many of them became customers.

Attribution

Attribution is the act of assigning credit for conversions to different ads or clicks on the user’s path to completing a conversion.

It is meant to give marketers insight into which touchpoints and digital marketing channels are triggering the greatest number of conversions.

An attribution model can be a rule, a set of rules, or an algorithm designed to determine how credit for these conversions can be assigned.

In GA4, there are three types of attribution models:

  1. Data-driven attribution
  2. Cross-channel rules-based model
  3. Ads-preferred rules-based model

Data-Driven Attribution

Each data-driven attribution model is specific to each marketer and conversion. It uses machine learning algorithms to evaluate different user paths, those that end in conversions and those that don’t.

The model considers factors like:

  1. Time from conversion
  2. Device type
  3. Number of ad interactions
  4. The order of ad exposure
  5. Type of creative assets

Based on these factors, the model attributes conversion credits to touchpoints most likely to drive conversions.

Cross-Channel Rules-Based Model

This model ignores the traffic. It focuses exclusively on the last channel the customer clicked on before they converted.

Ads-Preferred Rules-Based Model

This model focuses on the last Google Ad the user clicked on before they converted and attributes all the conversion credits to that touchpoint.

If there were no Google Ads in the user’s journey, this model reverts to the cross-channel rules-based model.

The Advantages Of GA4

Improved Insight And Machine Learning

GA4 offers Analytics Intelligence which represents a set of features that uses machine learning and custom conditions that help you understand and act on your data. 

GA4 digital analytics offers features such as: 

FeaturesDetails
Real-time tracking
  • GA4 is more advanced than UA because it shows real-time users both demographically and geographically
  • Device filtration shows where users come from 
Data streams
  • GA4 provides data streams for page views, scrolls, video, and outbound
  • All this data can be monitored from a single GA4 platform
Machine learning
  • Generates Google Ads forecasts based on the probability of conversions
  • Helps detect anomalies in reports
Customer journey
  • GA4 is focused on customer journeys
  • Highlights channels that generate the most customers 
  • Allows companies to plan their campaigns based on user behaviour
User information
  • GA4 advanced machine learning alerts users when their routine activity is compromised
  • Collects data from both apps and websites at the same time
  • Companies don’t have to use plug-ins to collect user information

Greater Accuracy

When you set up GA4, especially if you run it together with UA for a while, you may notice that GA4 offers a far greater level of accuracy in its tracking.

That’s because companies will gain access to information about how consumers are interacting with their app and website content.

Universal Analytics used the bounce rate as a metric to measure idle visits. GA4 calculates bounce rate more carefully, representing all sessions that weren’t directly engaging with content:

UAGA4
Bounce rate calculation% of single page visits with 0 interaction% of sessions with 0 engagement
ExplanationSomeone opens your homepage and has it sitting on another tab for a few minutes, they don’t click on anything.GA4 defines engagement as:

  • 10+ seconds
  • 1+ conversions
  • 2+ page views

This option provides clearer insight into whether visitors are actually exploring your website and interacting with your brand – not simply whether they visit.

GA4’s tracking will answer those questions and provide companies with a far more granular overview of the entire customer journey.

Cross-Device, Cross-Platform Tracking

When it comes to GA4 vs Universal Analytics, one of the biggest advantages GA4 has is the ability to track the user journey across devices and platforms.

With Universal Analytics, organisations had to use one tool for their websites and another for their apps.

GA4 combines those two tools into one.

With cross-platform tracking, activity is attributed to the same user regardless of the platform. That keeps the tracking numbers far more accurate.

Cross-device tracking stitches users together based on:

  • User ID
  • Google Signals
  • Client ID

Between these three factors, GA4 can track users as they change devices. This option offers marketing professionals more insight into the user journey. They can gain information about which actions most users complete on the website and which actions they take on the app.

Clean UI For Marketers And Analysts

Compared to Universal Analytics, GA4 offers marketing the chance to store all of their most valuable data in the same place.

Another improvement is the search bar that allows users to execute data analysis and look up reports quickly. It has become far easier for marketers to dive into user reports by aligning report menu sections with the customer journey.

Another advantage of GA4 is that the Analysis Hub, previously only available in GA 360, is now available to anyone who adopts GA4.

Universal Analytics also focused on Audience, Acquisition, Behaviour, and Conversion menus. GA4 has replaced them with the Lifestyle section. This is divided into Acquisition, Engagement, Monetisation, and Retention.

The Disadvantages Of GA4

Brand New Data

Two things new GA4 users should know: Event tracking is not retroactive.

Yep. GA4 only starts tracking a certain metric after you’ve enabled it.

This means you have to wait days or weeks to:

  • Gather enough data to be able to start analysing specific behaviours
  • Regain your sanity after losing all your user data

It also means you must predict exactly which interactions you want to track.

Our advice is:

Set up GA4 as quickly as possible to ensure that you’ve gathered enough data when Universal Analytics is put to pasture. None of the historical data will transfer from UA!

The best way to combat this is to run GA4 and UA together for as long as possible, building data in GA4 while maintaining access to the historical data of UA.

Less Advanced Standard Reporting

Universal Analytics had a collection of pre-made reports that were designed to analyse online activity.

GA4 seemed to have been designed to collect a lot of data, but the analysis itself is supposed to take place outside the platform with BigQuery, for example.

Universal Analytics offered thirty standard reports with the Acquisition reporting column, though eleven of them were specific to Google Ads which many people did not use.

GA4 offers only three. For many, that’s not enough to fully understand the big picture.

Shorter Data Retention

Universal Analytics allowed companies to retain their data for an unlimited time.

With GA4, the default setting is two months, but it can be raised to 14 months.

That doesn’t mean that all your data will simply be deleted. Thankfully, there are exceptions.

Users can view conversion data going back further than 14 months. The same applies if you use a custom segment or add a secondary dimension in an aggregated report.

Steep Learning Curve

There are a lot of differences between GA4 and UA. Different metrics, different interfaces, different dashboards, and most of the standard reports are not available.

Marketers have to get used to thinking about their campaigns in an entirely different way. And then they must learn to navigate the software to set up the events they want to track and track them properly.

As a result, this has led to some interesting reactions:

GA4 VS UA 3

GA4 does have a steep learning curve. But that’s all the more reason for marketing teams to adopt it as soon as possible. It’s the only way to ensure they will be ready to use the software when UA is sunsetted.

How to Switch From Universal Analytics To GA4

If you’re looking to master GA4 by the time UA goes offline, then the best option for you is to run both tools in parallel.

That way, you can collect data through UA while slowly mastering GA4. You can compare the data from both tools and develop a better understanding of the differences. And in the meantime, your data collection process doesn’t suffer.

So here are the steps you need to take to create a new GA4 property and add it to your existing UA property:

1. Log into your Universal Analytics account.

GA4 vs UA 4

2. Under your property column, click on the GA4 Setup Assistant.

3. A new window will open called “I want to create a new Google Analytics 4 property”. Click on the Get Started button.

GA4 vs UA 6

4. A new window will open where you will see that your GA4 property is connected to Universal Analytics in the Connected Property section.

GA4 vs UA 7

5. Refresh your browser.

6. Select the GA4 property that you’ve created from your property column.

GA4 vs UA 8

7. A new window will open where you have to click on the Data Streams option in the property column.

GA4 vs UA 9

8. In the Data Streams, select the website for which you’ve created the property.

9. Find your measurement ID in the new window and copy it.

GA4 vs UA 10

10. Go back to your Universal Analytics property from the Property column.

GA4 vs UA 11

11. In the UA property column, click on the Tracking Info.

12. Click on Tracking code.

13. Click on Connected Site Tags.

GA4 vs UA 12

14. Paste the GA4 ID into the Connected Site Tags window and click Connect.

GA4 vs UA 13

15. After a successful connection, it will display like this:

GA4 vs UA 14

Final Thoughts on GA4 vs Universal Analytics

So you’ve made it to the end.

We know this wasn’t exactly what you might call “summer reading material,” but it was every bit as essential as a good novel on the beach.

Like it or not, GA4 will be the only available free website tracking software soon, and you have to tackle the challenge it poses as soon as possible.

So if you’d rather be ahead of the curve than behind it, visit Growth Gurus or schedule a call. Here, at Growth Gurus, we are in the process of switching all our clients over to GA4, so there’s no reason why all that experience shouldn’t benefit you as well!

Find out how we can help your online presence reach new heights! Get in touch