Lets Switch Universal Analytics to Next Generation Google Analytics 4 (GA-4)
On March 16, 2022, Google announced that it would begin sunsetting Universal Analytics in July 2023. That means that, at the very least, everyone must be set up on and using GA4 by that date.
Google Analytics‘ fourth version, aptly named GA4, was announced. Urchin, Classic Analytics, and Universal Analytics were the previous three versions for those curious (as we were).
Google had this to say about GA4 when it was announced:
“To help you get better ROI from your marketing for the long term, we’re creating a new, more intelligent Google Analytics that builds on the foundation of the App + Web property we introduced in beta last year.“
“It has machine learning at its core to surface helpful insights automatically and gives you a complete understanding of your customers across devices and platforms.”
Sounds pretty promising, doesn’t it?
What Do We Know About GA4?
So, what do we know about the most recent Google Analytics and the new features it introduces?
According to Google, GA4 is an expanded and rebranded name for Google App + Web Analytics, released in beta last year. Google Analytics’ most recent release includes:
- Enhanced predictive insights.
- Deeper integration with Google Ads.
- Cross-device measurement capabilities.
- More granular data controls.
GA4 appears to be very different from previous GA versions. The interface differences between Classic GA and Universal Analytics were indistinguishable, and we frequently relied on Google’s Tag Assistant to determine which version of a website was running.
This issue will not exist for GA4 users because the entire interface has been redesigned. ‘Audience,’ ‘Acquisition,’ ‘Behavior,’ and ‘Conversion’ are no longer used. They have been replaced by the groupings ‘Life Cycle,’ ‘User,’ ‘Events,’ ‘Explore,’ and ‘Configure.’
The Key Differences
Below we discuss some of the key differences between GA4 and the previous version of Google Analytics, Universal Analytics.
- Event-Driven Data
The event-driven data model, similar to what we’ve seen in Firebase, is a key difference between GA4 and all previous versions of GA. It’s no coincidence that GA4 uses Firebase Analytics on the backend.
The event-driven data model replaces pageviews with a more flexible system of Events, simplifying the concept of page views. When you start playing with the platform, this makes a lot of sense. Previously, analytics made pageviews the foundation of a session and separated pageviews and events into separate reports, making it difficult to see how the two interacted.
Furthermore, Events had to be manually configured in addition to page views. There was no visibility into what users were doing on your site unless you set them up yourself.
Events in GA4 fall into four categories:
- Automatically Collected Events – These are events that are triggered by basic interactions with your website.
- Enhanced Measurement – automatically collected when you enable enhanced measurement in your GA4 property. File download, external link click, scroll tracking, and video views are examples.
- Recommended Events – events must be manually implemented but use Google’s predefined names and parameters. Google has classified these into industries such as Retail/eCommerce, Travel, Jobs/Education/Real Estate, and Games.
This indicates that Google is moving away from the one-size-fits-all mentality that characterized previous Google Analytics updates. We anticipate that the list of industry-specific events will grow in the coming years.
- Custom Events – events that you create and manage yourself.
While we appreciate the new automated approach to Event tracking, we must point out that the term “Events” in GA4 does not have the same meaning as it did in the previous GA. There are no Categories, Actions, or Labels.
Parameters have taken their place. Outbound click parameters include, for example, link classes, link domain, link id, and link URL. Don’t worry if you find this confusing; it took us a while to figure it out!
- Cookies & Data Analysis
Moving away from events, GA4 is intended to adapt to a future without cookies or identifiers. Google predicts that data sparsity will become the norm as third-party cookies are phased out. GA4 includes modeling to help fill in the blanks where data is lacking, extending beyond cookies. Machine learning from Google will assist users in better understanding the impact of multi-device and offline conversions.
As previously stated, Google appears to be moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach with GA4. This is reinforced even further by the new Analysis Hub. This tool, which was previously available only to GA360 users, allows you to explore data, analyze individual users, create custom conversion funnels (similar to the funnels visualization in Enhanced eCommerce), compare segments, and perform path analysis.
Rather than relying on a standard set of reports, GA4 is more akin to the custom reports in old GA, in which you build the reports you require to see the data that is important to your business.
What Does GA4 Mean For Me?
We’ve already received emails from clients concerned about migrating their current analytics setup to GA4. One client had recently completed the migration from Classic to Universal Analytics, so they were especially concerned!
Here are a few of the frequently asked questions:
#1. Isn’t GA4 the default option when creating new GA properties?
When you create a new property, GA4 will be the default setting. However, the previous iteration, Universal Analytics, will continue to be supported. We recommend sticking with Universal Analytics until you’re comfortable with GA4.
#2. Will my existing Google Analytics stop working?
No. Google’s priority will be to develop new features for GA4, but it will continue to support Universal Analytics. When Universal Analytics was released in 2012, Google stated that it would (at some point) phase-out Classic Analytics. However, we still see Classic Analytics setups from time to time, and while clunky and lacking in features, they ‘work.’
#3. Does GA4 work with Data Studio?
Yes, it continues to communicate with Data Studio similarly to Universal Analytics. The new GA4 reports will certainly result in more data visualization options in Data Studio (which we like). Now that BigQuery is included for free with GA4, you can use it as a Data Studio connector instead of GA to expand your reporting capabilities.
#4. Why is Google sunsetting Universal Analytics now?
Google Analytics 4 was released to the market in October 2020. We all assumed that Universal Analytics would be around for at least three to five years because no definitive end-of-life date had been announced; however, this is no longer the case.
A few external factors drive Google’s decision to accelerate the migration to GA4 and phase out Universal Analytics earlier than expected.
While Google hasn’t explicitly stated one way or the other, we believe the most pressing external factor is recent scrutiny of Universal Analytics regarding data privacy laws and regulations, such as the Austrian Data Protection Authority’s determination that Universal Analytics likely violates GDPR. Rather than rewriting Universal Analytics to be compliant, Google has chosen to accelerate the transition to GA4, which is more compliant.
For example, in Universal Analytics, data privacy controls are opt-in, which most websites will choose not to use. Privacy controls are enabled by default in GA4. In GA4, for example, IP-address anonymization is always enabled and cannot be disabled.
#5. What will happen to my Universal Analytics data?
To be clear, you can continue using and collecting new data in your Universal Analytics properties until June 30, 2023.
However, on July 1, 2023, all standard Universal Analytics properties will cease to process new hits. After this date, you will be able to view only historical reports of previously processed data in Universal Analytics for up to six months. These properties will stop processing new hits on October 1, 2023, if you use the paid version of Google Analytics (known as Google Analytics 360).
Google has not yet specified an exact date when users will no longer be able to access the Universal Analytics interface, but our advice is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We anticipate that Google will cease operations entirely by the end of 2023, and this means you have a little more than a year to farewell to your Universal Analytics properties.
At a minimum, you should 1) migrate to GA4 before July 2023 and 2) export your historical data from Universal Analytics before December 2023. This will ensure that your reporting processes are disrupted as little as possible.
While this buys you some time, we do not recommend waiting until these deadlines to take action. Remember that data in Google Analytics 4 is not retroactive, which means that data collection begins when the data is created. The sooner you deploy GA4 for your web and mobile app data streams, the sooner you can start collecting data in GA4 for historical reporting.
#6. Can I move data from Universal Analytics to GA4?
No, it does not. GA4 can only collect new data if it is configured to do so. Data from Universal Analytics should be exported and blended with GA4 data in a separate data visualization tool, such as Data Studio or Tableau.
#7. What should I expect from GA4 vs. Universal Analytics?
Universal Analytics and GA4 are fundamentally different products that should be treated. If you expect an apples-to-apples migration with the same features, measurements, and processes you’re used to, you’ll be disappointed.
Universal Analytics is an all-in-one tool because it combines data collection, analysis, and reporting into a single user interface. Google Analytics 4, on the other hand, focuses solely on ad hoc data analysis and is intended to be used in conjunction with other advanced tools such as:
- Google Tag Manager for data collection
- Google BigQuery for cloud data warehousing
- Google Data Studio for data visualization and reporting
Because GA4 is not an all-in-one tool, you should expect to become acquainted with the following tools to migrate to GA4 successfully.
Furthermore, they have two distinct measurement models, so you will need to reconsider how you collect data. Universal Analytics properties use a user-, session-, pageview-, and hit-based measurement model, whereas GA4 now uses an events-based measurement model, in which everything that happens on a site is now considered an event—including page views, clicks, transactions, searches, and so on.
#8. How should I approach a full migration to GA4?
If you are currently using Universal Analytics, you should begin planning a migration to GA4 as soon as possible to execute an orderly migration rather than a mad dash in the spring and summer of 2023.
There are a few steps you can take right now to ensure a smooth transition to GA4:
- Make a list of all the Universal Analytics measurements you already have. Make a list of the measurements you want to keep track of in GA4.
- Make a design reference for GA4 solutions. Consider how to best structure your GA4 account so that it can grow with your company in the future.
- Create properties and data streams in GA4. Note that you can now collect and analyze multiple web and mobile app data streams within a single property, so this will require some thoughtful strategy.
- Use Google Tag Manager’s configuration tag to initiate your GA4 analytics tracking code on your site.
- Set up data collection.
- Enable enhanced measurement events, including page views, scroll depth, file downloads, on-site search results, and video engagement (if applicable).
- Create a tag management plan and use Google Tag Manager’s event tag to deploy custom event tracking. Make sure this maps back to any Universal Analytics custom events you wish to collect in GA4.
- Export raw event data from your GA4 properties to Google BigQuery to take advantage of long-term storage without worrying about GA4 data retention limits.
- Flow data from BigQuery into your Business Intelligence (BI) tool of choice (e.g., Data Studio or Tableau) for data visualization and reporting.
- Set a reminder to export your historical data in Universal Analytics in July 2023 to ensure you never lose access.
Parting Ways with Universal Analytics
We understand that this process can be intimidating, especially for those of us who have relied heavily on Universal Analytics over the last decade. It’s easy to forget how much time we spent configuring metrics, collecting data, and reporting numbers to our liking—all from a single, convenient interface. Not to mention that the Google Analytics community has spent the last decade developing best practices, templates, and tutorials to help its users navigate the learning curve.
But now we must restart in GA4.
As we prepare to say our final goodbyes to Universal Analytics, which we have all come to know, love, and occasionally despise, we have the incredible opportunity to usher in and embrace the next generation of Google Analytics—a tool designed specifically for the future of digital analytics. Together, we are making history.