Love it or hate it, GA4 is here, and frankly, it’s a mess.
If you’ve been clicking around, trying to figure out how it works, you’re not alone. And, if you’re not sure what the difference is between GA4 and Universal Analytics, you’re also in good company.
Spoiler alert: other than the user interface and some changing terminology, there’s not a whole lot that’s different. Still, it can be massively frustrating trying to make heads or tails of the new interface. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Before you start yanking out the little hair you have left, I’m going to walk you through the major differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics. I’ll also share some things that actually make GA4 kind of cool. After all, Google knows a thing or two about the Internet.
What’s the Big Deal About GA4?
You might have missed the first announcement about Google Analytics 4 (GA4 for short). The official launch was in October 2020, but most of us had a lot of other things on our minds, so you might not have gotten the memo.
Still, rumblings about GA4 have been going on for a while, so unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past couple of years, you knew this was coming.
In a nutshell, here are the top five things you should know about the update:
- Google is sunsetting Universal Analytics (GA3) in July 2023 and replacing it with GA4. If you’re a little late to the party, it’s possible that Universal Analytics has been sunsetted by the time you read this.
- Most of the functionality in GA4 is still the same, but where you click and how you access data will be different. And yes, this part sucks.
- A lot of digital marketers are unimpressed with GA4’s UX (I’m definitely in that camp), and it’s going to take some getting used to. If you’ve been using Universal Analytics since its 2012 launch, you’ve probably gotten comfortable.
But, as wise gurus keep telling us, discomfort is a catalyst for growth, so be prepared to feel a little uncomfortable. It’s temporary, I promise
- Google isn’t giving us the option to keep using UA. Starting July 1, 2023, any UA property will stop processing data. If you haven’t migrated by then, Google will automatically configure your GA4 properties, and you’re not going to like that. To avoid that from happening, opt out of automatic configuration in Setup Assistant.
- To help you migrate, Google created a migration tool, which is a wizard that automatically transfers UA goals into Google Analytics 4 conversion events. It’s not perfect, though, so you actually have to know what you’re doing. You’ll probably have to manually create conversion events – more on that later. Thanks, Google.
Providing a step-by-step tutorial of where to click and exactly what to do is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll share the highlights to help you get started as you poke around. If you want more details, especially about the differences in terminology between GA4 and UA, you can get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
What’s New with GA4?
This probably goes without saying, but GA4 will remain free, and you can still track everything you tracked in UA.
However, there are several differences between GA4 and UA, and I’ll share the six that I think are the most significant.
1. Event-Based Data Measurement Model
The most notable difference between tracking data in GA4 and UA is that in GA4, everything is an “event.” In UA, site metrics were based on various hit types like page views and sessions. From a practical standpoint, this means that GA4 and Universal Analytics track site interactions differently.
As you probably know, in UA, these interactions are referred to as hit types, and there are 7 of them:
- Page view
- User timing
- App/screen view
GA4, on the other hand, measures each of these interactions as an “event,” which is synonymous with user interaction. Some events are automatically tracked by GA4 and other events you’ll have to create.
To be clear, events exist in Universal Analytics, but the functionality is different. For example, previously, you could get event data by setting up tags and triggers in Google Tag Manager, and that event data gets sent to UA. You could track various “events” like internal and external clicks, video views, etc. to analyze things like, for instance, the effectiveness of your website structure.
For each of these events, there is a corresponding tag or trigger that pushes the data into the UA interface.
But in GA4, everything is an event, and events are broken down into four categories
- Automatically collected events, like session starts and page views, and first visits.
- Enhanced measurement events, like scroll depth tracking (like tracking when someone scrolls 90% of the way through a page, downloads a file, views a video, or clicks an external link). These would require GTM in UA, but they can be recorded in GA4 without extra effort.
- Recommended events, which include metrics like ecommerce purchases and form submissions.
- Custom events, which are internal link clicks and page timers.
2. Combined Mobile App and Website Tracking
If you have a website and an app and you want to track user data side-by-side, Universal Analytics requires you to maintain two separate properties. By contrast, GA4 allows you to collect data from your website and iOS and Android apps under a single property.
At the Admin level in GA4, you’ll no longer see a “view” column. Instead, this feature has been moved to the Property section and is included in Data Streams. For businesses with both a website and an app, you’ll most likely appreciate that GA4 gives you a more holistic measurement of user data across your app and website, even though not seeing a third column feels weird.
3. Say Sayonara to Bounce Rates
GA4 has different terminology that may take some getting used to, and that’s nothing new for Google. I’m still adjusting to Google Business Profile instead of Google My Business.
The original Google Analytics and UA highlighted “bounce rates,” which is the percentage of your website visitors who entered a page and didn’t take action. With GA4, you won’t see any reference to bounce rates.
The term is replaced by “engaged sessions,” which means a user was on a page for more than 10 seconds, completed a conversion, or has two or more page or screen views. The metric is expressed as engagement rate, which is theoretically more meaningful and far away from the vanity metric this could’ve been.
4. More Interactive Reporting Functionality
UA comes with dozens of standard, templatized reports, but when you open GA4, you’ll notice only three standard reports are shown.
Don’t panic, though. You can still build bespoke reports. Instead of being force-fed reports and building them out with secondary dimensions and filters, you can create more custom, interactive reports.
The focus of GA4 is collecting data efficiently and then allowing you to seamlessly send it to other tools like Google Data Studio. To begin building custom reports, head over to the Explore section on the left nav and build your own Explorations.
To sum up, fewer standard reports are available out of the box, but you’ll get more customization options and a friendlier UX (once you get used to it).
Pro Tip: Comparing date ranges in UA was challenging because you couldn’t easily match up the days of the week. With GA4 reporting, there’s a feature that allows you to select data that matches up by day of the week. This allows you to compare apples to apples. There are a lot of fun Easter Eggs in GA4 if you give it a chance. Pinky promise!
5. Different Methods of Conversion Tracking
If you’ve become accustomed to setting up Goals in UA, you’re going to have to make some adjustments. As a quick reminder, UA allows you to set up four different goals from the Admin section:
- Pages/screens per session
When you set up conversions in GA, you’ll go to the Configure view instead of Admin. You can create different events and then select the toggle button to choose which counts as a conversion. The only exception to goals/conversions that aren’t this easy to set up is destination-type goals, which require additional steps to track.
6. Machine Learning to Create Predictive Data
Google is an AI pioneer, utilizing the technology for predictive search results since 2015. Since then, Google has found more applications for AI and machine learning magic, including filling in data collection gaps (courtesy of increased privacy laws) to create predictive forecasts about revenue, purchase probability, and churn probability.
You can use this data to predict trends, make revenue forecasts, and even secure funding to scale your business. Further, as you collect more data, GA4 will even deliver other insights and make strategic recommendations.
In conjunction with machine learning, GA4 enables you to use first-party cookies, reducing the reliance on third-party cookies, which are going the way of the dodo. As a result, you can still get data despite more aggressive privacy laws like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act.
Other Miscellaneous Differences
I could keep going, but I’ll wrap up the list with a few miscellaneous differences you might notice upon or shortly after migration.
- No more hit limits (the 200k per user hit limit is gone)
- Better spam filters
- A new search bar with predictive questions
- More seamless integration with tools like Google Ads, Google Merchant Center, and Big Query
The Bottom Line
The only constant in life is change, and as digital marketers, the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet. While it’s no secret that I’m not a fan of GA4 and the required migration, I look forward to seeing what this “upgrade” can do.