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At a Web Analytics Crossroad?: How to Navigate the End of Universal Analytics and the Rise of GA4

Joanna Hall and Fraser Clark
12 Aug 2022
16 mins

Is the sun setting on Google Analytics as we know it? In 2020, Google released the biggest update to their analytics platform for the last 15 years, this initially was introduced as App + Web and now termed as GA4 (Google Analytics 4). This was met with a lot of criticism and reluctance from Universal Analytics users across the globe, not least the digital marketing community. Following the announcement of Universal Analytics becoming unsupported as of July 2023, brands and marketers everywhere are at a crossroads as to how to move forwards with their data and analytics reporting. In this article, we give a rundown of why you shouldn’t discount GA4 just yet and how to know if this update is the right fit for your organisation. We explore the new features or changes to the platform, GA4 issues or roadblocks as well as the internal skills and capabilities your team needs to leverage the new platform. Have you or your team been raising the question; Should I make the switch to GA4? What do I need to do or prepare in order to successfully use GA4? What are the alternatives? If so, read on as we unpack these with the latest insights from our marketing technology experts.

 

Why it’s crucial to make the switch from Universal Analytics to GA4 now 

In the face of a looming – and rather alarming – deadline of July 1st 2023, when Universal Analytics properties will stop receiving new data and will become unsupported, and 1st January 2024, when all UA properties will be deleted and all historical data will be lost, it’s essential to get immersed into GA4 as soon as possible to give your company a head start on using and integrating it into your processes. 

When adopting any new analytics tools, there may be some level of onboarding and preparation that comes with this, however in the case of GA4, this is a vital and potentially extensive task. GA4 features a new interface, features and data model. However, the main area of focus for you or your team should be learning the event-based model to understand how you can log and access insights in GA4. If you’re planning to use GA4 then you should make use of the platform’s continued learning and improvement by starting to build up data as soon as possible. We also recommend that, for the time being, you run Universal Analytics in the background whilst also running GA4 in parallel, this will ensure you have the right amount of data to use now and in the future. Finally – and in order to continue year on year reporting, free from interruption –  your team should consider exporting important data sets [from Universal Analytics] into BigQuery, Excel or Google Sheets using the export function. 

Don’t just take our word for it, Google itself recommends you take action now…

“We strongly encourage you to make the switch to Google Analytics 4 as soon as possible. Doing so will allow you to build the necessary historical data and usage in the new experience, preparing you for continuity once Universal Analytics is no longer available.” 

What are the advantages of GA4 vs. Universal Analytics?

“GA4 isn’t so much an update, but an entirely new way of doing analytics – set up to scale for the future, work in a cookieless world, and be a lot more privacy-conscious,” former Googler Krista Seiden, who helped build GA4 and is also the founder of KS Digital.

So what’s changed? Is GA4 really the new and improved analytics tool? Google made some big changes with GA4, to summarise the key areas which have been adapted:

  • Data – Universal Analytics data is not compatible with GA4 data due to the measurement of the data switching to an event-based model
  • Interface – a new UI which mirrors a similar pattern to Google Data Studio
  • Terminology – some familiar sections within UA have been renamed or restructured, including “Behaviour” changing to engagement and “Channels” to “User Acquisition”
  • Improved Functionality – certain features such as views and custom metrics will be removed with new features like explorations 
  • Privacy – default IP anonymisation, shortened data storage timeframes and a consent mode are new to the update
  • Machine Learning – missing points from users who have opted-out of data sharing are filled in by machine learning predictions
  • User Control – users have more flexibility in segmentation, integration and building custom reports

 

Table Comparing Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics

 

Let’s explore some of the more significant changes in a little more detail…

 

GA4 events based data model 

Firstly, there are several measurement advantages to be had in an event-based data model and it appears that Google has become more action-oriented since they are working on cookie-less methods of data tracking. The previous session-based model that UA used dates back to 15 years ago, before the upsurge in smartphone browsing and therefore is more suited to desktop devices. The new model counts conversions or goals as user-based and collects data as events as opposed to counting one session as a combination of ‘hit types’ made by a user within a given time period. These automatically tracked ‘hit types’ often are only page views in Universal Analytics and if you want to include additional events in your session, some technical skills in event tracking and Google Tag Manager are required. In contrast, GA4 gives a full overview of your user engagement on your website and app without a need for the same tech savviness, capturing all engagements as ‘events’. Supermetrics wrote an article which summarises the key technical differences between GA4 and UA, including an overview of tracking paradigms.

 

Diagram of the two Google Analytics Data Models

 

Blended data and Machine Learning in GA4

In an increasingly cookieless world, most tech giants have had to adapt their processes to enhance user privacy protection and Google is no exception. Google Analytics works by setting cookies on a user’s browser when they visit a website, allowing the site to track and retain information on that user’s behaviour. In recent times, as more and more users opt out of sharing their data, GA is unable to report on all the users of a website and so GA4 aims to solve this issue by filling in the gaps with machine learning and also offering new predictive metrics for audience targeting such as purchase and churn probability and revenue prediction (particularly useful for e-commerce companies). This is one of the most significant advantages of GA4 as it allows you to have a comprehensive view of conversion paths and cross-channel insights, even with less direct user data coming in. Previously analytics was “observed data”; meaning that data you see is a reflection of what was collected. Subsequently, GA4 has changed this to “modelled data” meaning Google will use machine learning to fill in the gaps. This is potentially controversial, as the GA4 algorithm for modelling the data will not be available to anyone but Google. It will be hard to determine how reliable or good the model is. Further, users may feel uneasy that the company that sells online advertising is now creating an opaque way of measuring the effectiveness of the ads they are selling.

 

Greater focus on Privacy 

A pressing concern for businesses using data analytics platforms is the degree of privacy their users have as well as how well their processes comply with relevant regulations such as GDPR. In line with this, GA4 has adapted by introducing default IP anonymisation, shortened data storage timeframes and a consent mode, which allows users to opt in and out of sharing their data. GA4 also allows businesses to set-up server side tracking and choose from a variety of EU based Google Cloud data centres. However – despite Google’s efforts –  whether or not the platform is fully compliant and ‘privacy-first’ is met with controversy. 

 

Advanced data exploration features

Lastly, the folks at Google have reorganised certain features for the better whilst adding new ones. The paid version of Universal Analytics ‘GA360’ included many features such as BigQuery integration and ‘funnel analysis reports’, which were only accessible through subscription. 

GA4 has included many of these as standard, including GA4 Explorations, which allows you to explore your data in depth. For example, customer lifetime value, cohort analysis and funnel exploration. Beyond this, GA4 has given a face lift to existing functionality, for example enhanced segmentation controls, customisable menus and reports and more accurate engagement metrics. For a full list of new and improved features, DMPG have created an in-depth guide to GA4

“GA4 is a giant leap by Google to a much more advanced (verging on enterprise) data analysis tool. Unless the average marketer or website owner is prepared to learn and seriously enhance their data skills, they are certainly going to struggle with the complexity of the platform”.
Peter Graham, Founder Bridge Interactive. 

Is GA4 the right fit?: possible roadblocks 

Despite the known advantages and improvements Google has made for GA4, there are several issues which still exist and may be a barrier for your organisation in terms of privacy requirements, user experience and general practicality of making the switch. 

For most, regardless of your past experience level with Google Analytics, the main barrier to your company successfully adopting GA4 is the new interface and functionality. GA4 had simultaneously increased the complexity of certain platform areas and overhauled some key familiar features from the previous version (Universal Analytics). The new design has been met with opposition as many users have found it challenging to navigate due to menu structures, new terminology and less flexibility in areas such as the report builder. Many of these features made the experience more simple and intuitive such as ‘views’, used to clean up and filter out specific types of data in data sets, reports such as ‘behaviour flows’ and the removal of recurring email reports.. 

Primarily, the report builder is a big departure from the original product feature, Universal Analytics had several pre-made reports which could be viewed with some limited filtering options for segments and dimensions. Now, GA4 offers a very small amount of template reports, shifting the focus to user control and the option to create your own reports and query the data sets generated in the new ‘Explore’ section. This, coupled with the removal of common terminology and metrics such as average session duration and bounce rate (although Google seems to have back-tracked on this), transforms the way users interact with Google Analytics and requires them to get to grips with a new system. 

“I was an advanced Google Analytics user but with GA4 I feel like a beginner again – almost none of my knowledge is transferable – it’s a massive change”
Fraser Clark, Bridge Technical Lead and Web Developer. 

Screenshots of Google Analytics Menu

 

Next and perhaps the most head-line grabbing issue with Google Analytics is its disputable compliance with privacy regulations. Google has argued that GA4 was designed with privacy at the forefront, however due to concerns over a lack of sufficient privacy protections for EU data due to Google being a U.S based company who cannot guarantee data isn’t accessed by US intelligence under surveillance laws such as the Cloud Act, several European states have branded the platform as ‘illegal’, notably Denmark, Austria, France and Italy. And elsewhere, companies across the globe are choosing to move from Google Analytics to another platform entirely, particularly due to a desire for transparent data processing information and stronger user privacy protections, among other privacy related problems. Our Technical Lead Fraser Clark wrote an opinion piece on why he made the move to fathom analytics.

Now that we’ve discussed the shortcomings of GA4, we want to help you understand whether it is the right platform for your business in terms of goals and priorities as well as if your team has the right capabilities to embrace the major update.

 

Capabilities your team needs to maximise GA4 results

At a very basic platform knowledge level, your marketing team needs previous experience with Google Analytics and ideally with GA4’s predecessor ‘Universal Analytics’. Also, a working understanding of Google Tag Manager and event tracking and other integrated tools such as Google Data Studio. 

In terms of general skills, it would be expected that the team are adept at analysing and interpreting data as well as transforming this into actionable insights. Lastly, it would be beneficial to have a good understanding of online consumer behaviour, particularly in the industry you operate in, this is especially important as GA4 is geared towards multi-device attribution. Again, this feature is pertinent for e-commerce organisations in gaining a better understanding of the nuanced purchase paths of users.

This knowledge can always be built upon through professional learning and development but the real indicator as to whether GA4 is the right fit for you will be in terms of your organisation makeup and size, your data analytics complexity requirement and control preferences. 

 

Team capacity and size: 

The biggest factor to consider is how big your organisation and data teams are. If you are a large and more sophisticated organisation with a data team who can work proficiently with GA4’s new features and has the capacity to manage three tools (GA4, GDS and GBQ) and coordinate your web development and analytics teams, then GA4 could be the right fit for your organisational makeup and capabilities. However, if you find yourself on the opposite end of the scale with small and less experienced data teams, the necessary building and managing of data sources and reports on GA4 as well as the requirement to set this up quickly in order to build up historical data and compare to GA3 before the cut off in 2023, may prove taxing and impractical. 

 

Feature requirements: 

Another point to consider is the required features and complexity of features your website needs. Are you looking for advanced analytics tools and functionalities which were part of the paid version of GA360? Will you make use of the integrations with third-party tools such as Google BigQuery and Google Data Studio? If this feels like overkill for you, another alternative may be worth considering. 

“For smaller businesses, I now find myself recommending simpler, privacy-first analytics tools like Fathom Analytics over Google the majority of the time. Fathom also has a “GA data importer” coming soon, which will make the switch even easier.”, Fraser Clark

Customisation and control preferences:

Is your team reliant on pre-made reports from Universal Analytics such as ecommerce flows, behaviour reporting and benchmarking? Or you would prefer templates and don’t have the capacity to create your own custom reports and event tracking? If so, you will need to learn the new ‘events’ measurement system in GA4 and may require a larger team or external help to properly use the platform. In contrast, if you want to have more control and customisation of the data which is most important to you and what you define as an ‘event’, GA4 offers a new data structure which is versatile and offers better real-time analytics. 

 

Moving forward with GA4

Bridge has experts with years of web analytics experience, including Universal Analytics and now, GA4. Whichever size your business is, sector you work in or size/experience of your marketing team, Bridge can help you and your team make sense of your analytics data …

 

“I don’t have the capabilities or team internally to use GA4 to my advantage” 

Through clever use of Google Analytics integrations such as Google Data Studio (GDS) it’s possible to avoid digging in deeply to the data and instead to focus on the key insights. This is done through building interactive dashboards, an important capability to harness given GA4’s focus on reporting outside of the platform using integrations such as GDS. 

 

“I own or am part of a small business who just wants to see the key metrics from our website and find the Google Analytics platforms too complicated” 

If GA4 isn’t shaping up to be what your organisation needs, the good news is there are many alternatives out there which are rising in popularity and have a host of their own advantages. Our top Google Analytics alternatives, especially for European users and small businesses, would be plausible or fathom analytics. But when moving to any new platform, onboarding and strategic support are often required to hit the ground running.

 

“My team has some knowledge of Google Analytics but we struggle to understand the more complex features such as event tracking” 

Consider educating your team on Google Tag Manager. Look out for a future blog post dedicated to this from our relevant experts. Now is as good a time as any to get started, Google provides a useful overview on Tag Manager here. Once you’ve got the basics down, here’s how to set up GA4 using Tag Manager.

 

“I want to make the switch but I’m not sure where to start and how to do this without losing important historical data?” 

We recommend a full audit of your current/past analytics data and to begin exporting key data sets out of UA. In order to build up a full timeline of data with no significant gaps, it’s vital that you set up GA4 as effectively and as soon as possible to start receiving new data your organisation can use in year on year reporting. There are a few DIY methods to exporting historical data out of Universal Analytics, but the migration overall is a complex process that requires organisation and planning, especially for larger organisations.

 

Hopefully this article has given you some food for thought as you decide the direction your organisation will move in with regards to data analytic tools. If you plan on making the switch to the upgraded GA4 or any analytics alternative, we suggest you do this as soon as possible. 

Still at a crossroads? Contact us to see how our experts can bridge your understanding of  Google Analytics and take your capability to the next level.

 

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