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Google Analytics 4 (GA4): What’s new and why you should act now?

Written by Alex Velinov, Chief Technology Officer at Tag Digital

Enquire about Tag Digital’s Google Analytics 4 Support Service Today. The team can make your life easy and set-up GA4 for your business.

A lot of you probably already heard the news that Google announced on Mar 16, 2022, in the Google Analytics blog titled “Prepare for the Future with Google Analytics 4”. For me, the most interesting part of the blog is:

We will begin sunsetting Universal Analytics — the previous generation of Analytics — next year. All standard Universal Analytics properties will stop processing new hits on July 1, 2023.

As you can imagine, this announcement brought a lot of buzz in the measurement and marketing community. But let’s look back and reflect on what all of this means. There are 3 main questions I would like to cover:

  1. Why do we need GA4?
  2. What are the main differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics?
  3. What do we need to do next?

1. Why do we need GA4?

Customer-Centric Measurement

The data model that GA4 is using is different from the data model of Universal Analytics. Universal Analytics is built on a session-based data model that is 15 years old. This was set before smartphones were widely used. Universal Analytic measurement was built for independent sessions (group of user interactions within a given time frame) on a device and user activities were tracked with cookies. Because of that in Universal Analytics, a single person visiting on different devices will be counted as multiple users by default. This is even getting worse if your business has mobile apps. GA4 offers “customer-centric measurement” — measuring, unifying, and de-duplicating the interactions your users have across their devices, website and app.

Better Insights with Machine Learning

Google’s advanced machine learning (ML) models are implemented directly into Google Analytics 4. Analytics Intelligence is a set of features that use machine learning to help you better understand and act on your data. Analytics Intelligence functionality includes:

  • Answers to your questions. Ask Analytics Intelligence questions in plain English and get fast answers. For example, you can ask questions like “Which channel had the highest goal conversion rate?”, and Analytics will show you a ranked list of goal conversion rates by channel.
  • Insights Analytics Intelligence will analyse your data and surface insights on major changes or opportunities you should be aware of. For example, it can point out that a certain landing page is performing better than normal. Analytics Intelligence provides two types of insights. 
    • Automatic Insights: Emerging trends and unusual changes in your data will be detected and you will be notified automatically within the Anaytlics platform, on the insights dashboard.
    • Custom insights: You create conditions that detect changes in your data that are important to you. When the conditions are triggered, you see the insights on the Insights dashboard, and you can optionally receive email alerts. You can create up to 50 custom insights per property.
  • User and conversion modelling: Analytics Intelligence powers Smart Goals, Smart Lists, Session Quality and Conversion Probability, which use machine learning to model conversions and can be used in building audiences.
  • Contribution Analysis: This is a statistical technique used by Analytics Intelligence to identify user segments contributing to anomalies. Analytics Intelligence regularly scans your data for anomalies in metrics. If anomalies are found, Analytics Intelligence may identify granular user segments that demonstrate these anomalies.

 Adapts to the changing privacy landscape

Google has built out GA4 based on the “data privacy by design” approach. In practice, this means that GA4 features support easier compliance with data privacy laws (Source). GA4 was designed to work in the future with or without cookies. Although first-party cookies are still used for tracking, companies can use their own User IDs and integration with Google Signals for user identification. Below are a few changes in GA4 taking into consideration new privacy legal requirements:

  • Anonymising IP – By default, GA4 anonymises IP addresses of all users. This setting cannot be adjusted. This is a privacy-friendly update compared to Universal Analytics that tracked IP addresses by default.
  • Consent Mode – Announced in 2020, the Consent Mode feature in Google Tag Manager allows you to configure your Google tags (Analytics and Ads) to respect users’ consent choices. Starting a new Google Analytics 4 implementation offers you the opportunity to configure your GA4 tags from the start using Consent Mode to ensure your tracking responds accurately to users’ opt-in/out decisions.
  • Data Retention – In Universal Analytics you could configure data retention to a series of timeframes from 14 months minimum to a “do not automatically expire” maximum. GA4 simplifies this with only two options: two months or 14 months. The limited retention timeframes in effect force your GA4 setup to retain data for less time, pushing you toward compliance with GDPR and other data privacy policy laws focused on ensuring you only retain user data for as long as you are making use of it. If a 14-month data retention period is too limited for the types of long-term comparison analysis you run, you can always save the data for longer in tools such as BigQuery.
  • Data Sharing Between Google Products – You can share GA4 data with other tools in the Google ecosystem, in particular Google Signals and Ad Personalisation. Be careful from a privacy perspective here. When opting into either Signals or Ad Personalisation, we recommend that you consider which privacy regulations your company must adhere to. For example, if you comply with GDPR, then Signals and Ad Personalisation support ad profile building and therefore require an explicit opt-in from users. In any case, if you’re looking to share GA4 data with other Google products, then you should ensure your privacy policy documents this.

This is the future 

If you want to track your web/app users using Google products you need to commit to GA4 as you don’t have another choice. Just two quotes from the “Prepare for the future with Google Analytics 4” blog that explains everything:

“All standard Universal Analytics properties will stop processing new hits on July 1, 2023, and 360 Universal Analytics properties will stop processing new hits on October 1, 2023”

“After that, you’ll be able to access your previously processed data in Universal Analytics for at least six months.”

2. What are the main differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics?

  • Measuring Model – Universal Analytics uses a measurement model based on sessions and pageviews. A session is a group of user interactions (hits) with a website that take place over a given timeframe. A session can contain multiple pageviews, events and eCommerce transactions. On the other hand, GA4 uses a measurement model based on events and parameters – any interaction can be captured as an event.
  • Everything is measured via events – All data sent to Google Analytics 4 is in the form of events. Each event is distinguished with the event_name parameter, with additional parameters to describe the event. We don’t look anymore for  Event Category/Action/Label taxonomy. Instead, we have an event name and up to 15 parameters describing this event.
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Source: Google

Enquire about Tag Digital’s Google Analytics 4 Support Service Today. The team can make your life easy and set-up GA4 for your business.

Some more differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics:

  • Sessions – GA4 tracks sessions differently compared with Universal Analytics. Currently, Universal Analytics have a time-based expiring session, based on 30 min of inactivity as a default option. In GA4, a session_start will trigger on each new session. If 30 minutes have elapsed without the user generating any events, the next event that the user does generate will automatically generate a new session_start event.
  • Views  – GA4 does not offer specialized view functionality. Reporting occurs at the property level, which is your master view. For example, there is no equivalent method to isolate a specific part of your website traffic from your main site. However, there are certain things that views were good at like being able to fix data issues, lower casing values, rollup views, and stripping parameters – all capabilities that are missing in GA4. 
  • Enhanced Measurement – GA4 has made the most common tracking available out-of-the-box with little to no configuration required. In Universal Analytics, enhanced measurement tracking typically required custom GTM configuration, but is now standard for all GA4 properties. 
  • No goals in GA4 – At least there is a change in the terminology. You can set up to 500 events per property and label this event as a conversion, which is the equivalent of the Universal Analytics goal.
  • No Regex when defining an event – this can be blessing for some and a nightmare for others but in general, Google is trying to simplify some of the processes.
  • No Bounce Rate – Google is retiring some of the metrics including the beloved bounce rate. Now there is more focus on engagement metrics like Engaged Sessions, Engagement Rate, Engaged Sessions per User, Engagement Time etc. So if you want to find the closest equivalent of bounce rate, Engagement Rate will serve this purpose.
  • Scheduled emails and annotations are not available in GA4 – both of these are extremely useful features in Universal Analytics, that are still not available in GA4. Hopefully, we will see these great features in GA4 soon. 

3. What do we need to do next?

I will suggest the following steps: 

  • Audit your current Universal Analytics: rethink your measurement plan, your micro and macro conversions, and create a GA4 configuration plan.
  • Set up the new GA4 property and deploy code as soon as possible. Keep in mind that you need GA4 before July 2023, but we recommend that you have this set up before July 2023 if you want to have years of data for comparison in your reports and no gaps.
  • Set up all events you need to collect, but start with the critical one that will start recording your conversions.
  • Get familiar with the new interface and reporting.
  • Finally, make plans to extract historical data in Universal Analytics before July 2023 and store it for more analysis and comparison in future.

The migration to GA4 is a daunting prospect, but don’t panic. You still have time to do your research and set up GA4. We advise that you start the process now leverage the competitive advantage of the GA4 switch.

Enquire about Tag Digital’s Google Analytics 4 Support Service Today.

Written by:
Alex Velinov, Chief Technology Officer at Tag Digital
16 May 2022