A comparison, outline of major changes, and TBD’s for Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
GA4 is in Beta – meaning these docs may change in the future depending on what Google changes between now and when the Beta ends.
What’s Happening with Google Analytics?
Google has unveiled the latest version of Google Analytics (GA). It’s called Google Analytics 4 (GA4).
- Background of Google Analytics
- Why Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?
- What’s Changing in GA4?
- What You Can/Should Do About It
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Background of Google Analytics
Google bought Urchin Software in 2005. Urchin’s web tracking software is the foundation of all the Google Analytics versions you’ve interacted with to date. In fact, you know the UTM tag? They stand for URCHIN Tracking Module.
By mid-2006, The Google-branded web tracking tool was available to any and everyone. The rest is history.
App+Web was developed on top of Google’s Firebase which is another product Google purchased, this time in 2014 as mobile was really gaining steam.
Why Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?
We believe Google is releasing GA4 for many reasons.
First, the underlying technology is likely much more modern and thus scalable and maintainable. Recall that all the previous versions of Google Analytics have been built on Urchin’s code base, which dates back to pre-2005. Firebase, the underlying technology for GA4, is more recent and starts mobile/app first, setting it up for future development.
In fact, if you have a mobile app and a website, you had two different data sets until July 2019 when Google gave you App + Web. This is the 2nd reason for GA4, to provide one set of data to help you draw insights about your user experience.
Next, GA4 is much more flexible than any previous Google Analytics version. Sure, you had the ability to push custom metrics & dimensions into Universal Analytics, giving some flexibility. However, with GA4, everything is driven by “events” which carry parameters. Think “key-value pairs”. You get to define what those key-value pairs are, leading to endless possibilities and allow you to configure the tracking and measurement to specifically to your business.
Consider event tracking in Universal Analytics. You had three levels to put your data: category, action, and label. With GA4, you’re no longer limited or constrained by these pre-built nomenclatures. That’s a good and bad thing though, as you’ll need to consider how to configure your events such that you can later report and analyze them.
Google also touts GA4 to be “privacy-centric by design” which is important to meet user expectations, (potential future) regulatory changes, and developments in technology standards. The “wild wild west” that is the internet is slowly but surely becoming more standardized and regulated – and Google wants their Analytics product to thrive in that future.
All these reasons make us believe that Google is intending to move “up stream”. They’re providing a true “Analytics Platform” that’s flexible enough to compete with the likes of Adobe. At the same time, they’re creating a tighter integration with their other products — so you stick with them.
What’s Changing in GA4?
A lot. GA4 is now an Analytics Application/Platform. This might sound obvious, but the majority of people have been using it solely as a reporting tool.
The biggest change? Everything is “event” driven.
Sessions, hits, scopes, products, etc.. — most of the vernacular you’re used to is gone.
Most of the “canned reports” are gone. While there are some canned reports, they just aren’t what you’re used to — or what you might want. The canned reports are high level overviews. Google wants you to use their new “analysis hub” to explore data.
It also seems Google wants you to use Google Tag Manager to configure the collection of data that you’ll later want to analyze. Google Analytics acts as the data processor and engine for analysis. Then, for reports you want to view on regular cadence, you’ll use Google’s Data Studio.
Have a lot of data and/or want to use a different BI tool? Good news: You can connect a BigQuery database directly to your GA4 instance and all the data will be made available there, from which you can connect your favorite BI tool.
Here’s an overview of specific things we’ve noticed that are changing. We’re already writing a lot more detail about these and other changes — subscribe to our blog to be the first to know when we release that content publicly.
Terminology & reports
If you know some of the measurement protocol — eg. users have many sessions and sessions have many hits — then you’re in decent shape. But there are some changes.
Hits are now events. Makes sense. Event means something happened. A pageview, button click, scroll, add to cart, conversion… all events.
You’ll also see mobile app terminology mixed in. Specifically the term “screen name” or “screen class” — which is akin to “page title” for the web.
Goals are now “Conversions”.
Maybe the biggest difference is the side navigation.
- Audience is now… gone? Well, parts of it are found in different places, mainly the Demographics and Tech reports under the User section.
- Acquisition remains!
- Behavior is now Engagement.
- Conversions exist, but under the Events section.
- There are two new reports as well:
- Monetization handles the eCommerce reports
- Retention deals with returning users and cohorts
Flexibility & Configuration
With GA4, flexibility comes in many ways.
For one, you can log and create events with up to 25 custom event parameters per event. Just be careful, there are limits, don’t go dynamically creating event names because you can’t delete them once they’re in there.
Now, there are standard events and parameters captured with every event.
There are even some “predetermined” events that Google recommends using. Here are some examples we’ve added to our internal SOP.
Another benefit, which we welcome with open arms, is the ability to analyze funnels after data is already collected. Before, in Universal Analytics, if you wanted to capture the funnel steps for a particular goal, you’d have to set up the pageviews of that funnel – and only data collected after the setup was complete would be considered. If you had data for the funnel before it was configured, it was omitted. This is the same with eCommerce checkout behavior reports.
Lastly on the flexibility front, with the click of a couple buttons, you can ship your raw GA data into a Google BigQuery database. Perfect for retaining data beyond the 14 month maximum (btw this is set to 2 months out of the gate and you need to change it to 14 months – at the time of this writing) and combining with “offline” data (eg. from CRM).
UTM tags are NOT changing!
We tested UTM query parameters (eg. utm_source) and they work! The data gets captured in the event parameters of source, medium, campaign, and so on.
This makes sense as 100% of the world’s digital marketers have adopted UTM tagging (don’t fact check that) — long live Urchin!
What to Do About It
Well, it’s your choice… you can do one or more of the following:
- Do nothing.
- Continue learning and stay up to date with GA4.
- Install a GA4 instance in parallel with your current Analytics installation.
We recommend #2 and #3.
Google Analytics 4 is still in early stages – with new features being added on a daily/weekly basis. We are experimenting by installing and configuring it, but we aren’t completely switching to GA4 in the next quarter. The main reason for that is the lack of historical data. Until there’s an easy way to port historical data from Universal Analytics to GA4 — we’ll just collect data in parallel.
We are creating an SOP. Similar to when Universal Analytics came out, we’ve designed and documented a standard operating procedure for configuration guidelines, naming conventions, and other best practices to ensure we’re fully utilizing the platform. Alongside the Analytics SOP, we maintain a Google Tag Manager boilerplate which standardizes nomenclature and helps us deploy measurement quickly.
What’s WebMechanix doing with GA4?
We’re experimenting with the installation, configuration, integration, and analysis engine of GA4. We’ll soon be running GA4 in parallel with UA on a handful of select clients. Ultimately, we’ll have a SOP (standard operating procedure) for GA4 that’ll optimize the deployment and effectiveness of the platform.
Will Universal Analytics (UA) still be supported?
Google hasn’t announced when/if they’ll completely “turn off” UA. They have stated that they’re not going to develop it further and that all new features will be focused on GA4.
Can we import our UA data into GA4?
We haven’t seen a way to easily import historical data from UA to GA4. The current recommendation is to run a GA4 property in parallel to your current Analytics.
What does this mean for my business?
Google has some powerful algorithms and cloud computing that they’ve effectively made free to anyone who has a website. The problem is, to effectively use these tools, it requires configuration and integration with other business applications (eg. CRM, Marketing Automation, CDP, ERP, etc..).
Consider talking to your CMO and/or the person responsible for your enterprise data/analytics to see if GA4 is right for you. We’re happy to help as well.
What if I want to tinker with GA4 on my website(s)?
Install it in parallel with your existing UA property where you can investigate the new software yourself.