Key Differences Between GA4 and Google’s Universal Analytics

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To most marketers, GA4 feels unfamiliar, if not entirely foreign. The navigation is different and certain popular metrics have disappeared (gasp, where did my beloved “bounce rate” go)?! It’s really an entirely new way of looking at your data, so don’t feel alone if your web analytics world has been turned upside down.

In this overview, we’re looking to highlight some of the key differences between the two generations of tools and provide some context as to why the changes were made. Here’s a list of things to be aware of.

Event-Based Metrics

GA4 is event-based, but Universal Analytics (ie: old Google Analytics, or UA) was session and pageview-based. This means it now focuses on tracking specific user actions on a website or app, such as button clicks or page views (as basic examples), rather than the general things someone is looking at. Google Analytics now offers a more granular view of user behavior and the exact actions that a user takes while on your site.

You’ll notice that I mentioned tracking within an app. GA4 offers tracking for both web properties and native apps, which is a big reason for the change in how things are tracked. If you think about the actions a user might take within a native app on a mobile device, it makes sense that a session wouldn’t be that useful. For example: maybe they open an app to check a message — session duration really isn’t useful at all, because the amount of time spent doesn’t necessarily mean a lot without understanding the things they are doing.

User-Centric Metrics

GA4 allows marketers to better understand the actions of individual users across devices and sessions. In contrast, UA primarily focuses on tracking overall sessions and aggregated user data. You’ll start to see a greater emphasis placed on total vs. new users, and a lot of the reporting allows you to focus on metrics related to user behavior instead of more generic metrics.

Another thing that quickly becomes apparent is the use of the word, “engagement.” You’ll see metrics such as engaged sessions and engagement rate. This is essentially the inverse of what used to be bounce rate and is intended to be better indicator of a user or session’s quality. There’s more from Google on that here.

Conversion Tracking

GA4 has a tracking system that allows marketers to keep tabs on certain events without additional custom setup or tagging. To be honest, I’ve seen this work with varying success. Pageview, scroll depth, click, and video events (if you embed YouTube videos) seem to work quite well, but default form events are fairly unreliable.

In contrast, UA requires custom tracking for nearly every event. This could be done manually with javascript or using Google Tag Manager. While the new built-in events are perfect, this automation provides a better out-of-the-box setup than Universal Analytics did. Google Tag Manager is still very helpful for more advanced tracking.

Custom Reporting

Despite feeling a little unfamiliar, GA4’s reporting interface offers a greater level of customization than Universal Analytics. In addition to the default reports available, the “Explore” section allows you to create fully custom reports that were previously only available in Looker Studio (previously known as Google Data Studio).

This, in my experience, is the most daunting area for marketers. It’s built much more like tools that analysts would be familiar with and may or may not prove to be valuable. If you have the time and patience, then check out the template gallery Google offers. After playing around with it a bit, you’ll likely get your bearings. If you don’t have the time or desire to dive deep into custom reporting, then you might be better served by starting with the default reporting and eventually getting some outside help to make custom tracking more digestible (btw – Sitelogic can help you with that, but no pressure).

What to Do About It

Unfortunately, we don’t have the choice whether or not we want to switch. On July 1, 2023, standard Google Analytics properties will stop processing new hits. Since this change is scheduled, there are a few final things you can do to prepare:

  • Ensure that you have a GA4 property set up and tracking on your site (…which you probably do if you’re reading this).
  • Familiarize yourself with the interface and be aware that it’s going to feel different. Start thinking about your analytics with a different mindset, focusing on engagement and user behaviors rather than more general page views.
  • Use this forced change as an opportunity to really consider what you need to be tracking to support your business. Get rid of the vanity metrics and focus on what you truly need to know.

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