What is Google Analytics 4 and how is it different?

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Our comprehensive guide will make it easy for you to decide when is the right time for you to make the switch.
Google’s Analytics is used by millions of businesses worldwide to track user interaction across web domains and mobile apps.
The transition to GA4 is most likely the biggest transformation that the tool has ever gone through and it is set to rock the digital marketing world and the way that we track web data!
Most businesses know this platform as the tool that helps them track the amount of web traffic they get, monitor important marketing channels, and to measure their main KPIs. And now with Google Analytics 4, Google is offering a new version that uses Artificial Intelligence, making it very different from the traditional “universal” Analytics.
GA 4 comes with many new features that make it very different from the old version. One of the biggest differences is the new data modeling feature that uses AI to fill in gaps in data where traditional Analytics may be blocked by cookie-consent rules, blocked JavaScript and a focus on privacy. Years ago, we had a lot more data available to us in GA but as privacy laws have become stricter in many countries it has become more difficult to collect a lot of the data.
Additionally the user-interface for the new default Google Analytics is very different. So here’s a walkthrough for some of the most important differences.

What is Google Analytics 4?

Google self-describes the purpose of the new Google Analytics as a next generation approach to “privacy-first” tracking, x-channel measurement, and AI based predictive data all at once. By applying Google’s advanced machine learning models, the new Analytics can fill out data for website traffic and user behavior without relying on having “hits” come from every page. I have said for years that ‘hits are how idiots measure success’ and this new change pretty much backs up that theory. We can no longer rely on just hits to give us the data we need as more and more of our ‘hits’ are being blocked by privacy settings.
Google Analytics 4 is built on the same platform for the “App + Web” system that they released in 2019. The App + Web version of Analytics was mainly focused on cross-channel data, meaning that it gave marketers a way to track users across apps, software, and a website.
All this means that its main goal is to shift the way data is shown to focus on users – mainly the user journey from first visit to final conversion.
Plus GA4 is all about “events.” These events are the main way that data is presented in the new Google Analytics. So brushing up on how events work is essential and it will also be a great time to revisit your Google Analytics roadmap and reassess what kind of events it’s important for your website to measure.
Finally, the machine-learning processing in this new Analytics means that it can fill in gaps where businesses aren’t able to understand their complete customer base because of users that opt out of cookie usage and data collection. Internet users and even browser companies are becoming increasingly stingy about allowing Analytics to track sessions or return users by using cookies – for example, a lot of websites are starting to use visitor consent to define their Analytics tracking.
The need for something like Google Analytics 4 largely comes from new privacy protection laws (like the GDPR and CCPA) and the diminished stability of traditional analytics. A lot of businesses using the traditional Universal Google Analytics could often run into issues with inaccurate or missing data due to cookie consent options required by these laws.
Some of the downsides of the new GA4 are that like changes to some other Google products such as Ads, it is taking a lot of control away from the user and showing you what the AI thinks you need to know.

Highlights of the new Google Analytics 4

It’s built with machine learning as the main form of data measurement, using “modeling” that can extrapolate from existing data and make assumptions about site traffic/user behavior. The new AI powered “Insights” feature is meant to automatically highlight helpful information for marketers.

It’s focused on giving marketers a “more complete understanding of the customer journey across devices.” And it seems that it’s more focused on measuring an end-to-end shopper journey, and not just individual metrics across devices/pages/segments.

It’s designed to be “future proof” and work in a world without cookies or identifying data.

Google Analytics 4 features “data streams” instead of the views and segments used by old Universal Analytics properties.

There is no “view” level section of GA4. Whereas traditional Universal Analytics famously has three levels (Account, Property, and View), GA4 only has Account and Property levels.

Whereas “event tracking” in classic Analytics required modified Analytics code or gtag.js script, Google Analytics 4 claims to enable editing, tracking and fine-tuning of events within the UI. This means interactions like clicks, page-scroll, and more. I’m really excited about this part!

The capabilities of GA4

GA4 will allow marketers to edit, correct and fine-tune the way events are tracked in their analytics without having to edit on-site code. This is a big benefit!

Data Import can now include a wide range of data from non-website sources (like apps for example) all within one property.

Cross-domain tracking that does not require code adjustments either, can be done within the UI. Another huge benefit for larger businesses with multiple websites.

A “Life Cycle Report” which seems to be one of the biggest changes in Analytics and focuses on user journey. Plus “templated reports for ecommerce funnels” give marketers a way to display and visualize data – a feature that before was only available in Analytics 360 accounts.

Introduction to GA4

To get familiar with the new version of Analytics marketers can check out Google’s own video guides on the new interface. They can also set up a new property in their existing Analytics account and click through the new version on their own.
Their videos show how to set-up a Google Analytics 4 property with either a universal version of gtag.js tracking or with a Google Tag Manger (GTM) account. There is also a short walkthrough of the interface. Information on managing accounts and properties and lots of information on managing the Admin section.

What are the differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4?

The biggest difference between traditional Universal Analytics and the new Google Analytics 4 is the user-interface.
Marketers and businesses should not expect to find many of the old default reports and even some features that they are used too. Traditional Analytics features three tiers of data organization (Account > Property > View) but now there are only two: account and property.
There are also many differences in data collection between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 properties – particularly in how data is defined and what data elements are called. Here is a bit of an introduction to concepts in GA4

Events: these are user interactions with a website or app – like page views, button clicks, user actions, etc. Unlike before, events do not require adding customized code into the on-site Analytics tracking code, some events are measured by default. This is a big win!
Parameters: additional bits of information that give context to each event. For example, parameters can be used to describe the value of a purchase, or to provide context into where, how, and why the event was logged. These can include page titles, article IDs, etc. – these are most analogous to many of the “dimensions” that were available before.
User property: attributes or demographic information about the user.
User ID: which is used for cross-platform user tracking.

In addition to these key terms there a few other key concepts that differ from the data marketers will remember from the old version of Analytics. Understanding how to use the new version of Analytics will require adapting to new concepts and understanding how to use them for your business’s KPIs.

“Page views” from traditional Analytics translate to the “page_view” event in GA4. Remember that for events, a Universal Analytics event has a Category, Action, and Label and is its own hit type. In GA4, however, every “hit” is an event; there is no longer a distinction between hit types. They are all treated equally by the processing platform.

According to Google, “it’s better to rethink your data collection in terms of the Google Analytics 4 model rather than port your existing event structure to Google Analytics 4.” Again time to revisit your Analytics roadmap and reassess exactly what you want to measure. 

For sessions: many marketers and businesses might wonder, why are sessions lower in GA4? Differences in the way that hits are processed timewise can make sessions appear as lower (see the above link for info). Marketers should not expect that their data will match up exactly. Google also explains why that is by saying, “some aspects of session counting differ between the two platforms. For instance, in Universal Analytics, a new campaign will start a new session regardless of activity, however, a new campaign does not begin a new session in Google Analytics 4. This may lead to lower session counts in your Google Analytics 4 reports.”

Differences in the way delayed data is handled can also cause differences in your data. In traditional Analytics, hits are processed if they arrive within 4 hours of the end of the day, but Google Analytics 4 processes events which arrive up to 72 hours later.

For parameters, one key difference is that page URLs or URIs are not display prominently like they were in old Google Analytics as dimensions. These are treated now as parameters like “page_location.” It seems like Google doesn’t want marketers or businesses to think of these events in terms of “URL” or “web site” page (at least not as the primary parameter) instead identifying “screens” or “page title” means much easier cross over between mobile sites, desktop sites, apps, etc.

Using a dual set up with both new and old

Marketers can use both Universal Analytics and GA4 side-by-side. There’s no indication of if/when the old style of Analytics will be deprecated but businesses with Universal Analytics properties can continue to use that version. As with many other Google products we have to wait and see if GA4 will fly or flop but in the case that it flies it may take a few years before it becomes the standard norm for all users.
Marketers will not be forced to switch over to the new version of Analytics, but any new properties or any new accounts will default to Google Analytics 4. Many businesses may want to create a new version of the Google Analytics 4 property using the App + Web property set-up so that they can let data start to populate, and so they can become accustomed to the new UI and to make sense of the new way data is shown.

If you would like to find out more information or get in touch with us about the new GA4 platform you can via our contact page by clicking here

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