Are you ready to shift from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 (GA4)? Wondering how to prepare and what to expect when the change comes?
In this article, you'll discover exactly how Google Analytics is changing, what GA4 is, how to prepare, and how to set proper expectations with your boss or clients for the future of their data.
Why Google Is Making the Push to GA4
The current version of Google Analytics, referred to as Universal Analytics, was built for a very different time. It was designed in an era when people had hit counters on their websites. If you're old enough to remember, you might recall the excitement of refreshing your web page just to see that hit counter go up by one.
Since that time, the way people use the internet and the data that businesses need to track has changed so drastically that Universal Analytics can't support it anymore. Today, people are using multiple devices every day to access the internet. They're logging in on their phones, tablets, home computers, and work computers and taking advantage of various apps, all of which are completely different ways to access the internet.
Not to mention the new privacy and data laws that are being implemented around the world. People are opting to block data tracking pixels and software either by directly telling apps not to track them or by using a third-party blocker to stop being tracked.
As a result of all of these changes, Universal Analytics is finally at the point where it can't keep up with everything that businesses need it to do. And that's why Google has created GA4.
Of course, no other platform has a better understanding than Google of how people use the internet now and over the next 10-20 years. And what Google has determined is that instead of simply adding on to Universal Analytics, it was time to build an entirely new platform from the ground up.
So now, GA4 is running and ready for businesses to move over. However, unlike the last update to Universal Analytics, it's not a simple migration. It's not as easy as simply changing out the code and then carrying on with business as usual. There are fundamental changes in features and how you access reports and view the data that GA4 is collecting. So many businesses have been slow to adopt GA4.
But that's about to change, as Google has announced a sunset date for Universal Analytics: July 1, 2023. At that time, Universal Analytics will stop collecting data. Marketers and business owners will still be able to log into their Universal Analytics and view historical data for the next 6 months but any new data will only be collected on GA4.
At the end of 2023, Universal Analytics will be completely shut down and the historical data it was storing will be gone.
You still have plenty of time to set up your GA4 account but you definitely don't want to wait until the last minute. As we said, the migration is more involved than simply switching out a few lines of code. There's a lot of configuration that marketers and business owners are going to need to set up in GA4 to make it work for their businesses.
How GA4 Works Differently From Universal Analytics
When Google moved away from what they were calling classic Google Analytics to Universal Analytics, that was an upgrade. Universal Analytics did a lot more such as tracking through subdomains automatically. You just had to switch around a piece of code and everything worked smoothly, the accounts were upgraded, and all of the data came through. It was easy for businesses to get on board early because everything was the same, just better.
But the ease of that previous upgrade has led to a lot of miscommunication regarding this migration, which isn't a minor upgrade. GA4 is an entirely new platform with features built for an entirely new purpose. In fact, the only thing GA4 has in common with its predecessor is that it's still called Google Analytics. That's it.
Because it's a separate platform that takes additional setup and configuration, most businesses should be running both versions right now: Universal Analytics and GA4.
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To help you better understand how GA4 works, think about the concept of surveys. If you regularly send out surveys to your audience, then you understand you'll never get replies back from everyone in your audience. There will be people who don't send back the survey for one reason or another. However, you'll receive enough data to predict the likelihood of an outcome and make strategic decisions about the future of your business.
In much the same way, Google Analytics uses modeling to help you make strategic decisions about your business based on the data it collects.
GA4 is all about the trends and patterns and being able to measure enough data so you have a sample size of your audience sufficient to predict with the probability of success the particular behaviors you're trying to analyze.
Another important feature of GA4 is enhanced measurement. While Universal Analytics works primarily by measuring page views or hits, GA4 understands that there's a lot more happening on your website than pages being loaded in a particular order. People are scrolling, they're clicking on buttons and links, they're watching videos, and they're checking out pop-ups.
If you use Universal Analytics, you're probably familiar with setting up goals to help track conversions and efficiency on your pages. GA4 doesn't have goals, it has events. In fact, everything is an event: click events, page load events, file download events, session start events. Nearly any activity that a visitor can take on your site can have a correlating event inside GA4.
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How to Prepare Your Business for GA4
The good news is that there's nothing Universal Analytics does at the moment that GA4 won't be able to do. The trick is going to be in the transition, which will mean having to learn to use the new platform. This is going to take time so you don't want to wait until the last minute to make that transition.
Transitioning From Universal Analytics to GA4
The steps you need to take to migrate to this new platform will depend on how you've set up Universal Analytics.
If you set up your Universal Analytics 5 or 10 years ago and you're still using that old code (the analytics.js code), then you'll want to set up GA4 as its own separate platform. Just use the new gtag.js script that GA4 gives you and don't worry about connecting the two. You'll make progress faster and get a little bit further.
On the other hand, if you installed Universal Analytics using one of the more recently updated gtags, you can connect the two platforms and ask for the setup from your Universal Analytics to be sent over to GA4.
Pro Tip: If you're not already using Google Tag Manager, this would be a great time to start. Google Tag Manager makes everything much simpler. It will help you get everything set up correctly in GA4 so you can be up and running much faster.
Deciding What Behaviors to Track and Measure in GA4
GA4 has a completely different structure, or schema, for recording data than Universal Analytics.
With Universal Analytics, there's a top-down hierarchy to its actions and events. There's something called an event in Universal Analytics, which is a specific behavior, and there's event category, event action, event label, and so on. In other words, there are levels to the information that's in Universal Analytics.
In GA4, that doesn't really exist. There's just a main event name, which is one detail of the event itself. There could be other details such as where users were going, the previous page they visited, what products they purchased, the purchase event, and so on. This is all information you'll want to gather during the planning stage for GA4 so you can track and measure some of these different behaviors that your visitors will take.
In Universal Analytics, there are certain behaviors that you're probably already measuring, such as page views and scroll depth (10%, 50%, 70%, or more). Chances are, you're going to want to measure many of these same behaviors in Google Analytics 4.
For each type of behavior, you're going to want to set up a new event inside GA4 that describes the behavior. So you'll want to have a scroll event and a click event, for example. If you have an eCommerce site, then you'll want to have a purchase event and add to cart. The events you set up will depend on your business model and your particular tech stack.
So in preparation for the transition to GA4, list all of the behaviors that you're currently measuring or wish you had been measuring. Then get them set up one at a time inside GA4 starting with page views because that's the easiest one to set up.
Getting Used to a New Way of Reporting
While we wish we could say that GA4 is intuitive, easy to set up, and makes it easy to find the reports that you need, the truth is, this is not the case right now. It's going to feel clunky and hard to navigate. Hopefully, that's not always going to be the case as some massive changes to the UI are already starting to come out. So with any luck, it won't take long for it to become more intuitive.
The good news is, GA4 will only get easier to use from here. The sooner you start to learn the platform, the easier it's going to be for you. They're going to make the reports easier. There's a library function where people will be able to share reports with others on their team and other features coming down the pipeline that have been recently released that will help you out.
In a perfect world, with the holy trifecta of measurement, you'll set up and start using Tag Manager to collect your data, GA4 to store all of the information that you collect, and then use Google Data Studio to build your reports.
GA4 is a great place for storing data and doing things like measuring the mindset around behaviors on your platforms. But it was never meant to be used for measuring ROAS or ROI. It's meant for measuring behaviors happening on your site and it does an incredible job of that. Google Data Studio then can plug right into that data and turn it into those nice reports.
Chris Mercer is the world's leading authority on Google Analytics and founder of MeasurementMarketing.io. He has extensive courses on measurement topics such as Google Analytics, Tag Manager, and more. Find Mercer's' videos at MeasurementMarketing.io/YouTube and his Toolbox Membership at MeasurementMarketing.io/SME.
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