Someone looking at Google Analytics

What you need to know about moving from Google’s Universal Analytics to GA4

As of July next year, Universal Analytics – the Google Analytics product many of us have come to depend on over the last 10 years – will be replaced by GA4. Here’s what you can expect and how to prepare for the change.

Sarah Crooke, Digital Analytics Consultant, Luminary

By Sarah Crooke, 7 April 20227 minute read

When Google announced recently that it would be sunsetting its popular Universal Analytics product on 1 July 2023, a collective groan no doubt reverberated across the globe. Not that Universal Analytics (otherwise known as ‘GA3’) was the most powerful or efficient analytics tool on the market, but it was easily the most accessible – and for a free software product, it served its purpose admirably. However, Google has decided to retire it to make way for a new version of the platform.

As of 1 July 2023, Universal Analytics will no longer record new data, and users will have about six months beyond that date to access historical data before Google’s new analytics product, GA4, takes over the show completely and all the data in GA3 is erased.

“If you want to retain access to year-on-year data when the switch takes effect, you need to start using GA4 by 1 July 2022.” 

Like any significant change, there’s going to be a period of adjustment. There’ll most likely be some inconveniences and a little frustration along the way, but the news is not all bad. GA4 will bring with it some great new features and functionality – more on that in a minute. The thing you need to know right now is that to minimise the potential pain, you are best to make the move while Universal Analytics is still fully operational. Most importantly, if you want to retain access to year-on-year data when the switch takes effect you need to start using GA4 by July 2022. 

Why is the switch to GA4 happening?

In a nutshell, Universal Analytics (GA3) was in need of a refresh because the underlying system had become slow and clunky, and no longer reflected how we use digital technology.

GA3 has been around since October 2012. That’s 10 years without an update – which, in software terms, is pretty much an eternity. Not only is GA3 technologically anchored to websites in an increasingly omnichannel world, it has fallen out of step with modern laws and expectations around privacy and the handling of personal data.

Recent rulings coming out of the EU have held that the use of GA3 constitutes a breach of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) because it sends its analytical data to the US, including details about IP addresses. GA4 offers greater control over privacy, with limits on how long data is stored, and anonymising IP. Not only that, GA3 was built around third-party cookies, especially in tracking attribution. With Safari already blocking third-party cookies and Chrome looking to remove them at the end of 2023, the writing was on the wall for GA3.

What’s exciting about GA4?

GA4 – which incidentally has been around since 2019 (initially called app + web) – provides a much speedier user interface, with deeper insights and features that allow you to drill down and take a more detailed look at the full customer journey. 

Better customer journey insights – GA4 has been designed to provide data across different devices, recognising that people’s online experiences are no longer limited to websites. It provides insights into how people go between different apps and internet-enabled devices to interact with your brand. 

Screen views and page views

You can see screen views and page views in one report. This is using the new exploration reports in the Google Analytics demo account, ‘Flood-It’. 

Raw data – The new platform also allows you to get access to raw data, which you can connect with BigQuery to do more complex deep dives. For example, connecting with email or other CRM data to view full customer engagement or see how updates help improve your conversion in conjunction with marketing campaigns.

Additional tracking features – There are also far more tracking features available out-of-the-box. Just by putting the GA4 code on the site you can track scrolling, file downloads, clicks on outbound links, internal searches and video views – all without setting up any additional tracking tags.

Anomalies and predictive insights – GA4 also offers anomaly detection, for example if page views drop to unusually low levels, as well as predictive insights such as users who are likely to churn or purchase. You can then use these audiences for targeting in Google Ads.

Insights from Google demo account Flood-It

From Google’s demo account, Flood-It!

Customisable reporting – In GA3 many of the reports are based around e-commerce, which means that if you have a content or leads-based website, you often need to use workarounds to extract the data you want. With GA4, you have far more flexibility to customise reports to the data that’s relevant. There is a new area called Explorations that lets you find insights from your data more easily and allows you to do things like seeing how your audience segments overlap and finding new audience types.

Segment overlap in GA4 Explorer

Segment overlap in GA4’s new explorer, finding customers on mobile who are also likely to purchase in 7 days.

What’s different about G4?

Like any new system, there are going to be some things that might take a bit of getting used to. One of the key differences between GA3 and GA4 is in how the data is structured. In GA3 you have Users, Sessions, Pages, Events and Products. However, in GA4 you simply have Users and Events. For example, in GA4, instead of having different tracking formats for a Page view vs an Event vs a Transaction, everything is an Event. This unfortunately means you can’t just copy and paste what you have in GA3 over to GA4. 

Users and Events in GA4

GA4 focuses on Users and Events. 

In GA4 Users also take centre stage over Sessions. Metrics that used to be measured ‘per session’ are now more commonly based on ‘per user’, e.g. conversions per user, event count per user. With the focus being on the full customer journey, Google wants to highlight that a customer may interact with your brand across three or four sessions before converting, and focusing on just a session conversion rate, misses that the whole journey needs to be viewed.

In a similar vein, GA4 has also done away with bounce rate in favour of Engaged Users. An Engaged User may be someone who stays on the page for 10 seconds or longer, views more than one page, or triggers a conversion. This is good news for content-based websites, such as news sites, where bounce rate could be a misleading indicator.

Views (in the admin section) are also gone. Now you have Account, Properties and Data Streams, where a website might be one data stream and an app another. For example, you can no longer make a View out of people visiting your Australian website and another View of people visiting your American site. You can still get this data, you just need to filter within the reports.

Another big change is that data is now only stored for 14 months. If you want to store it for longer, you would need to connect it through BigQuery (for a reasonably modest fee). This means you should probably consider how much data you actually need, or want, to back up.

What do you need to do to make the transition?

With the timeline for retaining year-on-year data quickly closing in, there’s no time to waste in beginning the transition to GA4. We recommend the following steps to making the switch. 

1. Create a measurement strategy

Revisit your data and figure out what you want to keep, what you’d like to be tracking, and what you can afford to let go of. From that, create a taxonomy of what you want to track. Because GA4 is so flexible, it can get messy, so you want to make sure you’re consistent about things like events and parameters and so on.

2. Start sending data to GA4 

We recommend using Google Tag Manager (GTM), if tracking a website or an app. If all your tracking is through GTM it’s pretty easy to move to GA4 as you can just create new tags that can send data to GA4, while keeping your GA3 tracking running at the same time. However, if you’re using enhanced e-commerce, more complex development work may be required.

3. Set up the GA4 interface

Work out what metrics are important to your organisation, referring back to the measurement strategy you created in step one. As the reports in GA4 are highly customisable, it should be relatively easy to set up a reporting interface that gives you what you need. 

4. Update your dashboards

Any Data Studio report or other dashboard tool that connects to your GA3 account will need to be switched to connect to GA4.

5. Backing up your data

As GA4 only stores data for 14 months, if you want to keep a backup, you are going to need to connect to BigQuery. You can also look at storing GA3 data for historical reference purposes.

6. Training

As this is a new product, you are most likely going to need some training on how to use it and keep it updated.

GA4 transition timeline

Need help?

If making the transition to GA4 feels a bit overwhelming, Luminary’s analytics specialists are happy to help. Feel free to reach out to our team for a chat about your needs.

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