By Rachel McGuigan, Head of Insights and Innovation at Mediaworks
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) has been live for some time now and is currently running alongside Universal Analytics (UA). But on 1st July 2023, UA will be turned off and the full switchover to GA4 will be complete. It’s important for businesses to get ahead of this date and implement GA4 before UA is turned off. But if you’re not sure about the changes to the platform, we’ll cover everything in this article.
For years, UA has produced the same type of reporting based on four key areas of data, and this is set to change significantly in GA4 – but for the better. The new and improved platform will bring together data from all platforms to give marketers a full picture of their customers’ journeys.
Setting up GA4 well in advance of the switchover date is advised, because you won’t be able to transfer historical data from UA into it. As GA4 gets more advanced, you’ll still have data from both platforms to work with in the meantime.
Here, we’ll cover the key differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 and why your business needs to implement it sooner rather than later.
The important changes in GA4
The system known as App + Web property has now become Google Analytics 4 and brings with it a lot of improved features. The platform is said to have machine learning at its core, which means it can help surface insights to the user that they may not have spotted themselves. We have already seen a small sample of this within the standard Universal Analytics properties, but this sounds like an upgrade. Google’s aim is for this new generation of analytics to provide a complete understanding of your customers across all devices and platforms.
Following a wider industry trend, GA4 has been designed with a privacy-first approach. The platform anonymises IP addresses by default, meaning it always remains GDPR compliant. It’s more aggressive with user data retention, limiting your ability to hold data on users for a long time. You’ll have options to hold data for between 2 months and 14 months, compared with the previous option that you could set to “do not automatically expire”.
Finally, GA4 has a consent mode, which allows for intricate cookie tracking to help users better comply with new industry standards introduced alongside iOS 14.
GA4’s key new features
The full customer journey picture
GA4 brings web and app performance into one view, giving you a single pane of glass through which you can view your entire customer journey. The aim is to tie together channel and device interactions, allowing you to track the cross-platform journey of the users and creating a complete view with your GA data.
Automated customer insights
You can spot new trends in your data thanks to GA4’s new analytics functionality and advanced machine learning model. For example, as its AI functionality improves, it could highlight a surge in demand for a product or estimate the probability of types of visitors who are more likely to convert into customers.
Improved cross-platform integration
With GA4, you can build and nurture your audiences across multiple platforms and Google products much easier. GA4 has also developed its integration with YouTube to allow for a better understanding of your ROAS for YouTube Advertising. The platform also allows you to export data into BigQuery for free to allow more freedom in utilising this data.
What makes GA4 different to Universal Analytics?
As well as the above improvements, there’s a lot of functionality that sets GA4 apart from its predecessor. Currently, both accounts can provide you with different data and reports. For this reason, we’d recommend running both in parallel to make sure you are not missing out on any key information.
Streamlined data and IDs
You can view your platform-specific information in your “data streams” in GA4, and it covers major platforms including web, Android and iOS. GA4 only has a property, and each property has a measurement ID. In UA, each property can be made up of multiple views. The IDs are moving from ‘UA-‘ to a ‘G-‘.
More valuable data metrics
There’s a reliance on basic data metrics, such as bounce rates, sessions, and landing and exit pages, in UA. In contrast, GA4’s focus shifts to users, engagement rates, and pages/screens. In GA4, events are now a key focus of measurement, and they can then be used for conversions, which were previously known as goals in UA. The ability to set a conversion based on a URL no longer exists either – you use the ‘pageview’ event and then add criteria for the page you want to track.
You might be familiar with the key reports in UA – audience, acquisition, behaviour, and conversions – but this is changing in GA4. Instead, reports will focus on the lifecycle of a customer and cover acquisition, engagement, monetisation, and retention). It also has a separate section for users which includes demographics and tech-based information. Some of the most valuable reports in standard analytics, concerning multi-channel marketing and assisted conversions, do not currently exist in GA4.
However, Google is still actively expanding GA4 and its capabilities. This is why we’d strongly recommend running the two platforms together for the time being.
Event tracking without Google Tag Manager setup
You can track events for a number of data points, including scrolling, pageviews, site search, video engagement, outbound clicks, and file downloads. This means when you go through the setup process, you’ll have a lot of visibility of onsite engagement right from the start, without needing to complete any tracking within Google Tag Manager.
Retention of event data
While there are now limits on user data retention, GA4 allows you to retain event data for an indefinite period and allows you to set a default retention period. You can set it anywhere between 14 months and “do not expire”. In GA4, this is default set to 2 months and data can only be stored for a maximum of 14 months.
GA4 first launched in October 2020 and has already evolved to include a lot of cutting-edge features. As we approach the deadline for it formally replacing UA, it will only get more advanced.
With UA retiring in just a year, it’s recommended that you set up GA4 as soon as possible and run the two platforms together to collect website data. This will make the full transition to GA4 much easier for your business. As a Google partner and multiple-award-winning agency, Mediaworks specialises in helping businesses transition to and get the most out of GA4.