Google Analytics 4: What You Need to Know Now

A quick-and-dirty guide to the big changes coming in 2023.

Written by Ruth Burr Reedy
Published on Jul. 28, 2022
Google Analytics 4: What You Need to Know Now
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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Universal Analytics (UA) has likely been an essential tool for you and your team — and it’s sunsetting completely on July 1, 2023. Google Analytics 4 (GA4), first introduced in 2020, will take its place. Though we’ve seen several iterations of Google Analytics over the years, GA4 is fundamentally different from previous versions in the kind of data that gets measured, and how. Long story short: everything is different in GA4. Yep, this is huge, but don’t freak out. There are steps you can (and should!) take now to ensure your team is set up for success next July. 

 

Why You Should Care Right Now

It’s easy to procrastinate cleaning out the garage — but procrastinating putting a plan in place for the GA4 takeover could have some serious consequences. Once UA is gone, your data will be too — meaning you won’t have access to any historical data to measure against in the future. It will be like waking up with total amnesia, telenovela-style.  Even if you export your historical UA data into an alternative data storage solution, you won’t be able to simply compare GA4 data to historical data from UA, because UA and GA4 define and measure data points differently. For example, UA and GA4 both measure sessions, but each product defines, collects and analyzes session data in a unique way. Depending on your site, those numbers may differ by a little or a lot — but they definitely won’t be an apples-to-apples comparison. Here’s the silver lining: the introduction of GA4 provides an opportunity to refresh your data analytics hygiene, re-evaluate the data you’ve been collecting, and decide what will be most useful in the future. Your boss, and whoever else needs your data reports, will be impressed by your proactivity. 

 

What’s Changing in Google Analytics 4

The most crucial piece of context is that GA4 is intended to blend web analytics with app analytics, whereas UA prioritized web analytics. Not only does GA4 measure and define data differently than UA, it also looks different. Certain metrics you may have relied on with UA — including bounce rate and sessions — have been redefined and reprioritized in the user interface and reporting processes of GA4. Most importantly, the metrics of GA4 (even ones that are called the same thing they were called in UA) are drastically different in the ways they are defined and collected.

Here are a few of those changes:

Some of the Metrics That Are Changing in Google Analytics 4

  • Events
  • Sessions
  • Active user calculation
  • Bounce rate and engagement
  • Conversion
  • Filtering

 

Events 

In UA, “events” meant something very specific. For a piece of data to be collected as an event, it had to be tagged as such, and each event had a limit of four standard parameters that could be collected along with it (category, action, label, and value). In contrast, events take center stage in GA4. Every measurable interaction will now be considered an event, without distinction between hit types. GA4 reports don’t display categories, labels and actions. There are basic events that GA4 will automatically collect, other events it might recommend that you collect based on your website type, and the freedom to customize event collection however you like. Category, label, action, and value are gone — instead, custom event tracking collects user-defined parameters with each custom event. There is a limit on the total number of parameters a GA property can collect, so choose carefully. 

 

Sessions 

There are some similarities, but also some important differences, between sessions in UA and GA4. A session will still end when there has been 30 minutes of inactivity (or however you’ve customized the timeout trigger). Session count in GA4 may be lower than UA, because new campaign parameters don’t automatically reset a session. Additionally, late-night web browsing that ends after the clock strikes midnight won’t trigger a new session as it did in UA. GA4 also automatically collects session start data, which makes your life a little easier. 

 

Active User Calculation

UA measured user activity with two metrics: total users and new users. GA4 introduces a third metric called total active users, which tracks active users over one-day, seven-day and 30-day periods. In GA4, user activity is calculated automatically, whereas user activity in UA was triggered by an interaction. Because GA4 is incorporating app analytics into its data collection, launching an app can count as user activity. This will likely mean higher user counts in GA4 compared to UA.

 

Bounce Rate in UA and Engagement in GA4 

Bounce rate, once a hallmark of engagement in UA, is redefined and measured differently in GA4. In GA4, bounce rate measures the percentage of sessions that were not considered engaged sessions. GA4 also introduces the engagement rate metric, and defines an engaged session as a session that contains a conversion event, two page or screen views, and lasts more than 10 seconds. In contrast, UA measured bounce rate as single-page sessions without any interaction. 

 

Conversion 

Specified goals in UA will become specified conversion events in GA4. Notably, GA4 will count every instance of the conversion event per session, where UA counted only one conversion for a goal per session. This means higher conversion counts in GA4. 

 

Filtering 

UA offered a robust set of filtering options to help users filter out traffic from their own IP addresses, from known bot networks, and any other data source they might find useful to ignore. As a result, many businesses’ primary UA views are highly filtered. GA4’s filtering options are still pretty rudimentary (although I expect more options will roll out over the next year), which will also contribute to session counts likely being higher in GA4 than in UA.

 

What to Do Now to Prepare for Google Analytics 4

Because data is defined, collected and measured in GA4 differently than it is in UA, the data you’ve been collecting won’t directly translate. It’s time to put a plan in place. 

What to Do Now to Prepare for Google Analytics 4

  • Start tracking with GA4 today.
  • Get familiar with the changes in GA4.
  • Reassess your data needs.
  • Enable enhanced measurement.
  • Decide what to do with historical data from UA.
  • Consider other options.

 

Start Tracking With GA4 Today

If you’re not running GA4 on your site yet, you should get that implemented immediately, so you’re at least starting to collect data. You can customize it later, but just getting data collection going should only take a minute or two (and you can have GA4 and UA running concurrently with no issues).

 

Get Familiar With the Changes in GA4

Once you’ve got GA4 up and running, the next step is familiarizing yourself with the intricacies of GA4. Getting ahead of this will save you some difficult conversations (and hopefully not disrupt your OOO time next July when GA4 takes precedence). Let’s be honest, the stakeholders you report to likely pay attention to data reports only a few times per year, but they’ll have questions about this seismic shift. Understanding the nuance and being able to communicate new definitions and measurements as it pertains to your organization will come in handy. This is another great reason to get GA4 running on your site ASAP — you’ll be able to show your key stakeholders side-by-side comparisons of the data, to help illustrate the ways in which it will be different going forward.

 

Reassess Your Data Needs

Take this opportunity to reassess the data you actually need. GA4 automatically collects data from a basic set of events, but also offers enhanced measurement events, recommends events it may deem useful and allows you to add custom events. Go beyond conversions and consider user activities — what are your users doing? What do you need to know about what they’re doing? What’s unnecessary? Who do you report to, and what do they need to see? Keep in mind, if you’re part of a publicly-traded company, your data is under intense scrutiny. Make sure you understand metrics translations between UA and GA4, and are capturing the right data now so you can accurately report it in the future. 

 

Enable Enhanced Measurement

Enhanced measurement rules. It’ll help you collect data for a wider range of events, including file downloads, page views, scrolling behavior, and more. While you’re at it, explore recommended and custom events for which you’d like to start collecting data.

 

Decide What to Do With Historical Data From UA

To export or not to export? That is the question. Either way, you’ll need to create a plan for the moment when UA disappears (and your historical data disappears along with it). To reiterate, make sure you understand what your historical data means in the context of GA4’s new definitions and measurements, and start planning for how you’ll interpret historical UA data in this new context.

You may want to use a tool like BigQuery to export all of your historical data to a database or data warehousing solution; you may decide to go low-tech and simply export a bunch of spreadsheets directly from the UA interface. Either way, take some time to consider what data you’ll actually use and weigh that against the time and money it will cost to export and store it. You may decide you need your site’s entire history, but you might also realize that you only really need the last couple of years of data, or that you only need specific data points. Whatever you choose, you’ve got less than a year to make it happen. 

 

Consider Other Options

Google Analytics is a valuable platform because it’s comprehensive, easy to set up, and free — but there are other options, too. Meet with your team and assess what’s the best fit for your organization. Historically, paid analytics tools have mostly targeted enterprise-level businesses. There hasn’t been much market for a paid alternative to Google Analytics, since UA was free and widely used. However, the advent of GA4 and evolving concerns over third-party cookies and user data storage have changed the playing field. There are already a few new first-party analytics tools on the market, and I predict we’ll see more making their debuts between now and next summer. If you have the budget to invest in an alternative to Google Analytics that will bring you closer to the data you actually need, it doesn’t hurt to consider other avenues.

Some final words of encouragement: GA4 is on its way, and may be intimidating if you don’t have experience setting up a new analytics tool, but you’ve got some time. Take a deep breath, dive in head first, and ride the wave of change. With a deep understanding and intentional path forward, you’ll be prepared. You’ve got this. 

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