Google Analytics 4 (GA4) officially launched in October 2020. Google’s update has left marketers and business owners scrambling to figure out how GA4 will affect their current (and future) marketing and data efforts.
Do you need to rush to install it on all your sites? What makes GA4 so different compared to the current version of Google Analytics?
In this article, we’ll fill you in on what you need to know.
Table of contents
A brief overview of Google Analytics 4
Since the launch of the original launch of Google Analytics in 2005, Google has rolled out 4 iterations of the most widely used analytics platforms on the web.
- GA1: Urchin, 2005.
- GA2: Classic, 2008.
- GA3: Universal, 2013.
- GA4: We are here, 2020.
As Ken Williams, Senior Data Engineer at Search Discovery, notes:
Google Analytics 4 has been in development since the initial release of ‘Google Analytics for Firebase’ back in 2017, and a beta version was released in July 2019 under the name “App + Web Properties.” GA4 is largely built on the backend of Firebase Analytics, and aims to make it easier to track both mobile and web properties under one roof.
GA4 offers a host of new features for marketers, including many that were previously available only to GA360 customers. Most notably, compared to older versions of Google Analytics, GA4 places a heavy focus on the event-driven data model.
“For the first time ever, Google Analytics is rebuilding the backend and the front end of Google Analytics,” says Charles Farina, Head of Innovation at Adswerve.
With new features, changes to the UI, and an entirely new way to view and analyze data, there’s a lot of ground to cover with GA4.
How is GA4 different from Universal Analytics?
GA4 is not yet ready to replace Universal Analytics. For most marketers, it makes sense to experiment with GA4 while continuing with your current GA setup.
(According to Google, “If you use Google Tag Manager or the global site tag for Google Analytics today, there’s no re-tagging required for your website.”)
Here are three major differences between the two.
1. Out-of-the-box event tracking
By default, GA tracks only pageviews across your properties. While you can customize it to track additional interactions, doing so requires more advanced knowledge of event tracking and Google Tag Manager.
GA4 on the other hand, comes out-of-the-box ready to collect additional data. With “Enhanced measurement,” you automatically collect data on scrolling, outbound clicks, video engagement, file downloads, and more.
You can continue to customize your event data based on your specific needs. Events fall into four categories:
- Enhanced Measurement events;
- Automatically collected events;
- Recommended events;
- Custom events.
Here’s how Google explains the difference between events in GA4 and Universal Analytics.
In Universal Analytics, events are user interactions measured independently from a web page or screen load. Downloads, link clicks, form submissions, and video plays are often measured as events. Events in Universal Analytics have a Category, Action, Label and sometimes a Value, and are displayed with these fields in your Analytics reports.
In Google Analytics 4 properties, events are user interactions with a website or app that can be measured concurrently or independently from a webpage/screen load. Examples of events include page views, button clicks, user actions, and system events.
2. Web and mobile analytics under one roof
Another major difference between GA4 and its predecessor is the focus on combining both your mobile and web data—you can view, track, and manage all in one platform.
HIstorically, tracking mobile and app data relied on integrations between Firebase and GA, and it was often difficult to understand how your web and app data fit together. GA4, built on the back of Firebase, allows for seamless app and web tracking.
If you are an analyst who manages both website and mobile applications, you will finally have the ability to roll up your data across web and mobile. This is far more powerful than the rollup properties you may have used in the past because the data under the hood for each platform will use the same schema.Ken Williams Senior Data Engineer @ Search Discovery
If you’re already using Firebase, historical data will be carried over; however, because GA4 operates on a different data model, a new GA4 setup won’t pull in historical data from a Universal Analytics setup.
With that in mind, you may want to add the global tag in GA4 and begin collecting as much data as possible now, even if you don’t plan to switch to GA4 for analysis and reporting for a while.
3. Enhanced measurement of time-based actions
With GA4, you’re able to temporarily and permanently exclude users based on certain behaviors and conditions.
For retargeting, notes Charles Farina, Head of Innovation at Adswerve, this can be incredibly helpful:
When someone purchases we want to stop showing ads to users… but do you want to stop showing ads temporarily or permanently? In the case of ecommerce, maybe you want to stop ads for 30-60 days then be eligible for a new set of ads.
In addition, GA4 has made “time” measurements more useful. “In current GA, when we think about time, we currently only think about time for pages, sessions, or for users. If you want to answer questions on how long it takes your users to watch a video, or complete a survey, time is extremely challenging to use in GA,” says Farina.
Using the “elapsed time” feature, GA4 can show you how long, on average, it takes your users to complete a defined set of steps. For example, you may want to see how long it takes a user to complete a survey, or how long they read your blog before moving to your product page.
What else is new in Google Analytics 4?
While GA4 and GA have many similarities, there are a few unique updates, including a new debugging mode, UI changes, funnel builder, and simplified export to BigQuery.
An improved debugging experience
Debugging in the current version of Google Analytics has long been a challenge. Is there something wrong with GTM? Or is the issue on one of your web properties? With GA4, Google has rolled out a variety of improvements to make debugging easier.
With the live debugging view, you can debug directly in the interface. If you’re using the Google Tag Manager Chrome extension, you can also directly import your data to see—in real time—where the issue might be.
Williams details the benefits for troubleshooting your setup:
Without Debug Mode, GA4 will batch your events together and send across the network in bundles (which is part of the reason you shouldn’t use a proxy), but when Debug Mode is running your data will be sent immediately as you run tests on your app.
Also, data captured while Debug Mode is running will be filtered out of your other reports so that it does not artificially inflate your metrics (in other words, no more separate GA properties for production and staging).
One of the reasons you should consider using GA4 now is to get familiar with the new layout—GA4 will eventually become the standard, so might as well start familiarizing yourself with the interface.
That’ll also keep you on top of new feature development, notes Krista Seiden:
Google Analytics 4 is the future. We don’t have any timelines yet, and based on how the GA team phased out Classic Analytics (when they moved to Universal Analytics) over several years, there is still time, but GA4 is not only the new default, but also the place where new features and development are focused.
Here are a few examples of the visual differences:
Seiden also has an excellent video walk-through:
With GA4, all users now have access to funnels, which were previously reserved only for GA360 users. The new funnel features are far more customizable, allowing you to build retroactive and segmentable funnels.
Farina highlights some of the new funnel features in the GA4 UI:
You can also get start with some default funnel templates:
“Having the ability to build user-based, flexible funnels is a GA360 feature that has been included for free in GA4,” explains Yehoshua Coren, founder of Analytics Ninja. “I believe that many users will find value out of that reporting capability.”
GA4 allows you to easily export all your data directly to BigQuery, which was previously possible only with GA360.
Farina details the benefits of the new integration:
The BigQuery integration allows you to get your raw event data directly into a data warehouse, which opens up the ability to do predictive analytics, machine learning models and near-endless customization.
It includes a new streaming export within seconds, which is significantly faster than the current export for GA360 that is updated every 10–15 minutes.
You also have the option to choose where you want to store your data to comply with your data governance frameworks. Google also ensured the export works with the BigQuery sandbox, allowing you to get started for free.
As Khrystyna Grynko previously wrote for CXL, “When you work with Google Analytics or other digital analytics tools, you usually have control only over data collection and analysis. With a tool like BigQuery, you have more control over every stage of the analytics infrastructure.”
So should you switch over completely to GA4…right now?
GA4 is still very much in its infancy. There are bugs to be worked out, which Farina enumerated in his webinar on GA4:
Beyond the technical issues, there’s a learning curve, explains Williams:
Despite all of the benefits of GA4 listed above, analysts and marketers who are familiar with legacy versions of Google Analytics are likely to find it difficult to migrate to GA4.
This is because GA4 is a complete rebuild of the Google Analytics you are familiar with. Many of the default reports that marketers have come to rely on have been removed or replaced. Popular dimensions and metrics such as “medium” and “bounces” no longer exist.
For GA360 users, Speero Agency CTO, Silver Ringvee, had this to say:
If you are an enterprise marketer, working with Google Analytics 360, then you should keep in mind that there is still very little information on the 360 version of GA4.
Google has confirmed there will be SLAs (long-awaited feature by many) and advanced integrations with tools like BigQuery, but we’ll have to wait to see what the exact features and limits/quotas will be to differentiate it from the free version.
I would still recommend giving GA4 a try on a portion of your sites or in staging environment, but it’s important to know the limitations—some of the critical features currently in development include things like data governance components for managing user permissions and data deletion tools.
So, as recommended earlier, start collecting data now. But you don’t have to make an immediate jump in analysis and reporting just yet.
GA4 is, at the very least, months away from becoming the default Google Analytics platform. But it will get there eventually. Now is the time to begin learning more about GA4—and collecting the data you’ll need to make year-over-year comparisons in the future.
Automatic event tracking will make it easier to capture more aspects of user behavior, and the shift of two GA360 features—customizable funnels and BigQuery exports—to the free version of Analytics should excite analysts who have long envied those with the budget for the paid version.
It’s never too early to start learning (or collecting historical data). GA4 won’t be an exception.