Google Analytics has always been the go-to platform for digital marketers to measure and track site and campaign performance and understand their customers. In 2020, the interface known as Universal Analytics (UA) was superseded by Google Analytics 4 (GA4), which will fully replace UA by 2023. A Guide to GA4 vs Universal Analytics will explore the key differences between GA4 and UA, addressing common issues and highlighting the importance of migrating to GA4.

What is GA4?

Google Analytics 4, or GA4, is the latest version of Google Analytics, launched in October 2020. Unlike its predecessors, GA4 is designed to measure website and mobile app interactions, focusing on events rather than just visits or sessions. This shift provides marketers with deeper insights into user actions on a website and enables a more comprehensive understanding of customer behaviour.

What’s new in GA4?

GA4 introduces several important differences compared to UA. Let’s take a closer look at these differences:

1. Cookieless Tracking and Consent Mode

While UA relies on cookies for tracking, GA4 can operate without cookies if necessary. Additionally, GA4 includes features like Consent Mode, which ensures compliance with privacy regulations, and behavioural modelling to offer more accurate data analysis.

2. User Tracking

UA primarily focuses on session tracking, while GA4 emphasises user tracking across multiple sessions and devices. GA4 enables Search Engine Optimisation specialists to track individual users and their actions, providing a more comprehensive view of customer behaviour and interactions.

3. Support for Multiple Views

UA allows the creation of multiple views, but GA4 currently does not support this feature. However, this may change in the future as Google continues to develop GA4.

4. Data Storage Duration

UA stores data for up to 50 months, whereas GA4 retains event data for up to 14 months. This change in data storage duration helps optimise resource usage for Google’s servers.

5. Reporting Capabilities

UA offers more standard reports compared to GA4. However, GA4 compensates for this by providing support for custom-built reports through Explorations, allowing marketers to create tailored reports based on their specific requirements.

6. Event Processing Time

UA processes events within four hours, while GA4 can take up to 72 hours. The extended processing time in GA4 helps optimise resource allocation on Google’s servers.

Why Choose GA4?

Now that we’ve explored the key differences between GA4 and UA let’s discuss why GA4 is a welcome development for digital marketers:

1. Privacy Control

GA4 provides brands with greater control over data collection, processing, and storage. It does not log or store IP addresses and offers controls to disable the collection of certain data on a per-region basis. This enhanced privacy control helps businesses adhere to privacy regulations and build trust with their users.

2. Adaptation to a Cookieless World

As the digital landscape evolves, the reliance on cookie-based tracking is diminishing. GA4 is designed to adapt to this changing landscape by utilising machine learning and artificial intelligence to fill the gaps caused by the absence of cookies. This ensures marketers still have access to valuable data and insights.

3. Customer-Centric Measurement

GA4 excels in tracking users and customers throughout their purchase journey across multiple devices. By integrating website and app tracking under a single platform, GA4 provides a comprehensive view of user behaviour, allowing marketers to understand how customers interact with their brand across different channels.

4. Machine learning Insights

GA4 leverages the power of Google’s machine-learning capabilities to uncover valuable insights from data. The GA4 dashboard includes widgets that automatically identify patterns and anomalies in data, such as unexpected traffic channels or spikes from specific sources. Additionally, GA4 allows users to ask questions in natural language, and it provides relevant information and insights in response.

Why Some Marketers Prefer UA

While GA4 offers significant benefits, some marketers still prefer UA due to certain reasons. Let’s explore these concerns:

1. “Limited” Views and Conversions

In GA4, the concept of views is no longer supported, and marketers are limited to 30 conversions (formerly known as goals in UA). This limitation can be problematic for large websites with numerous conversion points. However, GA4 compensates for this by supporting up to 500 custom events, which can be analysed separately. It’s important to note that if these events are used as conversions in Google Ads, only a maximum of 30 can be selected.

Furthermore, in UA, access could be granted for specific views, whereas in GA4, access must be given to the entire GA4 property and all associated goals.

2. Limited Integrations

GA4 initially lacked integration with Search Console, and the linking with Google Ads provided different reports compared to UA. Marketers may find the reports in GA4’s acquisition overview section different from what they are accustomed to in UA.

3. Missing Annotations

Annotations, a feature present in UA, allowed users to note changes made to the website and GA. Currently, GA4 does not include this feature, which could be a drawback for marketers relying heavily on annotations for tracking and analysis.

4. Processing Time

GA4 requires up to 72 hours to process traffic data, whereas UA processes events within four hours. The longer processing time in GA4 can delay data analysis, particularly for recent data. To access accurate and up-to-date information, users may need to link GA4 to BigQuery, Google’s data warehouse, which requires additional technical skills.

Thresholding: Unlocking the True Potential

Possibly the most frustrating aspect of GA4 is the occasional application of thresholding to reports, leading to mismatched data across channels, reports, and dimensions. This discrepancy becomes evident when you notice significantly different cost metrics between the Google Ads interface and the Google Ads GA4 report. Furthermore, you might observe substantial variations in user totals between GA4 and Universal Analytics.

Thresholding Applied Notification

To ensure that your reports are not subjected to thresholding, follow these steps in the admin area:

  • Go to the reporting identity
  • Select “Show All” to display all options
  • Choose the “Device Based” method

Predefined Channels: Navigating the New Landscape

Another reason why some marketers find GA4 more challenging than Universal Analytics is the presence of predefined channels. Unlike Universal Analytics, GA4 does not offer the option to modify them. In GA4, Google Organic and Bing Organic automatically fall under the category of Organic Search, while Google Ads and Bing Ads are classified as Paid Search. This lack of customisation in GA4 prevents the creation of separate default channels for platforms like TikTok, Instagram, or LinkedIn, as was possible in UA.

However, we can leverage the first user or session source/medium dimension in user and traffic reports to gain more insights into traffic sources.

Traffic Sources Details

By utilising the first user or session source/medium dimension, we can delve deeper into the specifics of our traffic sources, enhancing our understanding of user behaviour and engagement.

GA4: Embracing Change and Seizing New Opportunities

It’s important to recognise that GA4 is not merely a direct update to Universal Analytics but a platform built on a fundamentally different foundation. While everyone has their own preferences, it is undeniable that GA4 is here to stay and offers numerous new opportunities for website analytics.

Preparing for the End of Universal Analytics

Transitioning from the familiar landscape of Universal Analytics to GA4 may have seemed daunting initially, as many of our frequently used reports were not available. However, since its launch, GA4 has significantly addressed these limitations, making it a powerful tool for reporting on website activity today. As someone who has been using Universal Analytics since its days as Classic Analytics, I can assure you that once you become accustomed to GA4’s reporting navigation, it becomes much more manageable than anticipated.

When migrating from Universal Analytics to GA4, it is essential to keep the following points in mind:

  • Add GA4 in parallel with Universal Analytics until the full transition.
  • Set up conversions and validate the numbers against Universal Analytics.
  • Utilise GA4 conversions in Google Ads.
  • Familiarise yourself with the report navigation and locate your desired reports through the overview sections.
  • Utilise filters to focus on your most critical data points, enabling targeted analysis and decision-making.

Ready to unlock the full potential of GA4 and stay ahead in the ever-changing digital landscape? Partner with VentCube Digital Marketing Agency for seamless migration and expert guidance. Contact us today!