Skip to main content

What the next iteration of analytics means for your data.

It’s a watershed moment for digital. The countdown has begun to July 1, 2023, when Universal Analytics (UA) is being fully replaced by Google Analytics 4 (GA4), and UA will be sunset. The UA version of Google Analytics is the analytics product of choice for millions of businesses around the world, so the switch to GA4 will have a huge impact on the way marketers track, report and understand their website traffic data.

GA4 also marks a fundamental change in how data is collected and processed. For example, the default data retention periods will be two or 14 months which will limit businesses' ability to “look back” over the periods of time they’ve been used to with UA. This helps Google’s ability to handle vast swathes of data, but is a hugely significant change for analytics users.

Marketers may feel frustrated by the changes, but it is a reminder that it is Google’s ‘ball’. They always have and always will control what data we see on the free platform.

Why is GA4 happening?

Sunsetting a popular product is never easy.

But platforms need to evolve and respond to new challenges. The new version of Analytics has been in operation for 18 months, as the ‘App + Web’ feature and so we’ve been testing its iterations to date as Google rolled out the product. If your analytics property was created after 14 October, 2020, it is likely you have been using GA4 anyway, as GA4 was promoted as the default option. However, it was still possible to create a UA property or run both alongside each other.

According to Russell Ketchum, Director of Product Management at Google Analytics, GA4 was primarily introduced ‘to understand the complex, multi-platform journeys of their customers – all while prioritising user privacy’. Those are the two main drivers behind GA4 – a different user tracking model and the need to adapt to a cookie-conscious online environment.

Data concerns.

One of the biggest talking points about this change and this iteration of Analytics are the implications it has for legacy data. Previously Google has provided long term support for legacy GA platforms, and has not restricted access to historical data collected on an old methodology. It is clear that won’t be the case with the move to GA4. We have some solutions later in this article.

July 1, 2023, is the key date for your diary. That is when data collection for standard Universal Analytics properties will cease. An extension has been granted for Universal Analytics 360 properties until October 1, 2023, during which time new tracking data will still be processed.

What else has changed with GA4?

Goodbye sessions, hello events.

Google Analytics 4 is event and user-based in its tracking model, rather than session-based. This is to reflect the fact that conversions are more likely to take place across multiple touchpoints, rather than a standalone desktop or mobile session. Google also believes user behaviour data is more meaningful than that which comes solely from page or URL-based activity.

There is also the added bonus that event tracking (where you can track things such as downloads, or clicks on a form) does not require any new code or additions in Google Tag Manager. Some basic events like ‘first_visit’ or session_start’ are automated. In GA4, there is a wider suite of ‘Enhanced Measurement’ event tracking metrics which can be turned on easily from within the ‘All Events’ dashboard.

The potential for event tracking has increased beyond anything possible in previous iterations. In UA there was a standard template to follow and populate – event ‘category’, ‘action’ and ‘label’. In GA4 these restrictions no longer exist. For example, 25 additional parameters can be sent to GA4 with each event, as opposed to four in UA.

A key point to bear in mind is that structure is hugely important. Whereas in UA the structure was predefined, in GA4 it needs to be put in place before tracking is set up and then followed for all future tracking. This will help reporting and optimisation of parameter name limits.

Crafted screen shot

Goals are now conversions.

There are now only ‘conversions’ in GA4. ‘Goals’ are no more. Other changes you will notice from the UI is the reconfigured homepage, streamlined navigation and new report structure. Instead of the five top level Reports (Real-time, Audience, Acquisition, Behaviour and Conversions) and their collapsible sub-menus, Reports now works with a widget-based design. These are called ‘scorecards’ or summary cards.

Some metrics have gone or are accessed differently. Bounce rate and average pages per session no longer exist (but engagement rate does). Site speed is not collected by default, but requires specific tracking. Landing page traffic data is now accessed via the Reports snapshot and ‘View pages and screens’ widget. Purchase data is via the Reports snapshot, ‘View Conversions’ widget and purchase event name.

Crafted screen shot

Properties.

Data for a website and app can now be tracked together in GA4, rather than in two separate properties. The same tracking code is added into a single property and creates one data stream through desktop, tablet and app activity.

The move to property-based reporting requires a change in approach to how data is viewed. It is no longer possible to use multiple UA views within a property in order to segment data at a high level. You can add multiple data streams in a property, so GA4 properties make roll-up reporting easier.

If you're a brand with multiple digital platforms, this new reporting approach should make it simpler to understand the user journey between them.

 

Machine Learning and ‘Predictive Insights’.

This is the first major iteration of Analytics after GDPR and the rise of other privacy legislation such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) or Brazil’s LGPD. These initiatives, and the rise of online privacy advocacy, mean that GA4 has to reflect that a significant amount of data will not be available because of greater user control over cookies, or other privacy settings such as Apple’s IOS changes. So, Google Analytics has turned to machine learning to effectively fill the gap of the missing data with insights about user behaviour. It creates patterns from users with similar behaviour, and can generate ‘predictive insights’ about datasets, enabling marketers to create forecasts based on these predictions.

Session attribution

During our testing of GA4 over the previous 18 months, it’s clear you will notice that session traffic will be lower in GA4 – that is due to a change in session attribution. A user journey within a 30 minute period will no longer be split into different sessions: for example, if a user entered on organic, left, then entered again via social, these will now be treated as one organic session. We see this affecting clients in some industries more than others, such as ecommerce with short purchase windows seeing larger reductions.

Unlimited hits

In Universal Analytics there was a limit of 10 million ‘hits’ per month, per property. GA4 has done away with hit limits and increased the flexibility of data capable of being tracked. Sampling also only occurs in GA4 when the data in advanced reporting exceeds 10 million hits.

GA4 is not simply a new iteration of analytics.
It is a shift in mindset.

What happens to your historical data?

As a forward-facing platform, GA4 will only collect new tracking data. If you have a Universal Analytics Property historical data will not be migrated over to GA4 (not least as the core collection and measurement is different), even when you create your Property in GA4. We know that this is one of the most concerning aspects of GA4 for many marketers. It is something we've been discussing with our clients.

You can take it with you.

While it will no longer be possible to create reports dating back multiple years in GA4, all is not lost. Historic data will be available for download for at least six months after July 1, 2023. We suggest using the connection Google have set up between GA4 and Google BigQuery, a cloud database storage solution. A basic package gives 10 GB storage and up to 1 TB of queries a month for free, but a range of pricing options are available. How much you pay will depend on the amount of data, the storage period and the number of queries you make on it.

Some standard reports encompassing historic data will still be possible. 

Comparing GA4 and UA data

There are fundamental differences in the way data in the two iterations of Google Analytics are gathered. Aside from standard reports you should not be trying to create comparisons between GA4 and UA data, or trying to make UA data ‘fit’ into the GA4 reporting structure.      

Cardinality

Cardinality refers to the number of unique values contained in a dataset. High cardinality was a problem in Universal Analytics, affecting the standard reports. It is too early to tell if similar issues affect the reporting interface of GA4, but it is something our team have been monitoring throughout our use of GA4 since its launch.

Run GA4 and UA together

We recommend setting up your property in GA4 as soon as possible. This will give you time to get used to the dashboard, metrics and reports and understand the differences and similarities to your familiar UA data.

As the data modelling in GA4 is different, some re-tagging will be needed. We have been undertaking implementation work for clients so can advise on best practice and share insights we have picked up so far.  

It is worth noting that GA4 properties can be run alongside UA properties, which will still track as normal. Two analytics scripts will not impact on site speed loading times, so you will get the benefit of becoming accustomed to GA4 while retaining access to your UA data.

GA4-sight from Crafted.

Some of our team have given their best practice advice on transitioning to GA4. Our Search and Insights experts can help with many aspects of digital strategy. We also have a range of resources to help you improve your understanding of your audience and inform a successful online marketing strategy, such as the know your customer toolkit.

Save legacy data.

“Maximise access to your historical data. Use a cloud storage solution to retain legacy UA data, and make sure you change the default data retention period from two to 14 months in GA4’s data settings.”

Rachel, Search and Insights Director

Focus on structure.

“A well-structured set up with defined naming conventions will be key to collecting valuable data. The flexibility of event tracking and parameter-value pairs opens a lot of opportunities – consistency will allow for powerful analysis.”

Sam, Principal Insights Consultant

Look at other tools.

“If you don’t want all your data in one basket, look beyond GA. Other tools can be used to test changes and provide the data for the metrics that matter. Consider alternatives such as Microsoft Clarity, Matomo or Snowplow.

Roisin, Senior Search Ops Consultant

What if you do nothing?

We don’t recommend this. At the very least you need to create your GA4 property in Analytics before July 1, 2023. You can do so by using the GA4 Setup Assistant in the Admin settings of your Property in Universal Analytics.

In summary.

GA4 is not simply a new iteration of analytics. It is a shift in mindset. There will be a change from the data you used to have; think about what you can do with the data you have now and the opportunities GA4 opens up.

Question the purpose of your analytics data. Is it to trial website changes, assess the overall success of your marketing or other considerations? With this in mind, review other analysis and performance data platforms. Tools we use like Semrush, Ahrefs and SimilarWeb can also give great insights on performance analysis.

Remember that we can help you with your GA4 preparation. Get in touch with our Data and Insights team today for advice on set-up, migration and how to get the best out of Google Analytics 4.

Get in touch.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Submit your enquiry