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Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs. Universal Analytics: What it Means for Your Business

Google made waves in the marketing world when it announced that Google Analytics 4 (GA4) would replace Universal Analytics (UA) in 2022. In turn, people have responded as expected – with questions, Google searches, and mild panic.

With UA being discontinued starting July 1, 2023, it’s essential for marketers and business leaders to familiarize themselves with GA4. Good news – we’re here to break down some of the more common questions about GA4, how it compares to UA, and what the change means for your organization.

What is GA4?

Google Analytics 4 is the latest version of Google’s free website tracking platform. This platform allows users with a Google account to collect organic, Google ads, and other data from their websites so that they can measure and track their digital performance. As you may expect by the name, GA4 is the fourth iteration of Google Analytics and will take over for its predecessor, Universal Analytics (which is sometimes referred to as GA3).

Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics: What's Different?

As Google’s latest release of Analytics, there are a variety of ways that GA4 differs from UA. Here’s what’s new in Google Analytics 4 and how it impacts your Analytics account.

GA4 reports data differently

The way that GA4 reports information is a clear shift from UA. Previously, UA largely reported on different “hit types,” which included page views, custom events, transactions, and other types of actions. GA4 opts to do away with hit types and capture all interactions as events. There are a handful of default events tracked on every GA4 property, while you’ll need to custom build others using GA4 and Google Tag Manager in tandem.

GA4 also does away with bounce rate. While UA used bounce rate to show the number of users who left a site without engaging with it, GA4 measures engagement rate. This statistic shows the number of users who qualify as an “engaged session,” which means a session meets at least one of the following criteria:

  • Session lasts longer than 10 seconds
  • Session has at least 2 pageviews/screen views
  • Session includes a conversion event

Properties vs. data streams

GA4 also changes the way that accounts are structured. Universal Analytics structures data collection in “properties.” For example, you would set up a property for your website and Google would collect data for that website. UA made users set up multiple properties if they had different websites. GA4 gives users a lot more freedom.

GA4 introduces data streams to analytics. Whereas you could only have one domain per property in the past, users can now have multiple GA4 data streams per property. In addition, data streams can now include iOS and Android applications in addition to websites. This change means that all your data is collected in one property, and you can see how your users interact with your brand’s various sites, sub-domains, and mobile apps in one place.

No more views

Another notable change in the account structure is that there are no views in GA4. UA allowed users to set up different views of the same property with different filters, goals, and other criteria. This process gave users more control of viewing raw data with no filters, reporting data by filtering out internal traffic, and a sandbox view to test changes before applying them to any reporting views.

In GA4, there are no views, only the property. This structure means that there won’t be a raw version of the data after filtering out any internal traffic. In turn, admins will need to make sure that their filters are always up to date by adding or removing IP addresses when they move offices, change personnel, or following other circumstances.

Filtering out internal traffic

The adjustment to views isn’t the only change that affects internal traffic. GA4 also adjusts the way that users go about filtering out IP addresses.

UA previously allowed admins to exclude internal traffic by simply adding as many IP addresses as necessary to filters at the view level. GA4 now requires users to define their internal traffic before excluding it from a data stream. At the moment, there are two types of data filters:

  • Internal traffic
  • Developer traffic

These filters are based on parameters that you add to your events. At Aztek, we’ll define any traffic that our agency makes as developer traffic so that we can test and debug tracking. Meanwhile, any client traffic can be filtered as internal traffic.

The amount of time user-level data is stored

While UA didn’t have any expiration date for user-level data – think data you send that is associated with cookies, use identifiers, or advertising identifiers – GA4 automatically defaults to deleting this information after two months. Users are given the ability, and are recommended, to extend settings to store user-level data to 14 months.

It’s also important to note that this change does not delete historical data. It only applies to the retention of user-level data, so admins can breathe a little easier knowing that if they haven't updated this setting, they will still see historical data beyond two months – just not user-level data.

How Does the Change to GA4 Affect Reporting?

If you’ve ever complained about downloading the latest phone update, you know that change isn’t always pleasant. It can be hard to adjust when you’re used to the way things were in Universal Analytics – and GA4 certainly makes some notable changes that will impact your reporting process, largely for the better. Here’s what you need to know.

Keep track of your historical data

One of the biggest concerns about GA4 revolves around what will happen to UA data. Simply put, there is no data import from UA to GA4. That means that you’re responsible for exporting UA data before it’s gone for good.

Once UA is discontinued starting July 1, 2023, you'll still be able to access your previously processed data in your Universal Analytics property for at least six months. That may seem like a lot of time, but all it takes is a busy stretch to make you wish you proactively took care of your data. Make sure that you export your historical reports during this time. If you don't know how, use this quick guide on how to export that data from UA.

Even after you export that data, it’s important to know that you won’t have year-over-year conversion data prior to when you switched to GA4. The two versions have different measurement models, so users will need to relearn how they view and report data, such as using engaged sessions instead of overall sessions. If you want as much historical data as possible, it’s best to switch to GA4 earlier rather than later so that it can start tracking your site’s data prior to July 1, 2023.

The new capabilities allow for deeper insight

Losing historical data and adjusting to changes can be a bit scary, but the move to GA4 isn’t all bad. In fact, there are plenty of ways that GA4 gives you more power over your data than ever before. Don’t believe us? Here are some of the ways that GA4 makes your life easier.

  • GA4 tracks both websites and apps.
  • GA4 adds predictive analytics, superior funnel creation, and enhanced data visualization.
  • It’s easier to make hyper-specific events to track how users are interacting with the site.
  • There’s more robust and accurate cross-domain and cross-device user tracking through roll-up
  • reporting.
  • There is now automatic tracking for default events, including:
    • Scroll tracking
    • Outbound clicks (aka exit tracking)
    • Site search tracking
    • Video engagement
    • Tracking file downloads
  • There are now new metrics for more accurate engagement tracking.
  • Conversion tracking is easier than before, and users can create more complex conversions than before.
  • Users now have debugging options within the reporting interface.

What Can I Do to Prepare for Google Analytics 4?

It’s never a bad idea to get a head start on a major change. Aztek is actively working to get all our clients’ UA goals transitioned to conversion events in GA4, as well as switching all reporting over to GA4. Even if you don’t work with us, we’d suggest you start embracing GA4 as soon as possible.

Of course, we’re always happy to help businesses make the most of their digital marketing efforts. Digging into analytics can feel like a massive data dump, which is why we provide our clients with custom, comprehensive reports that help build the best digital solution for your business. Contact us today about how we can support your business’ digital marketing and web analytics efforts.