Welcome to Google Analytics 4, Google’s newest installment of its Google Analytics platform.
Most of us have a lot of questions about the new platform…
- What even is Google Analytics 4?
- What will happen to Universal Analytics?
- Do I need to switch to Google Analytics 4 right now?
- What’s new and different about Google Analytics 4?
These are all great questions, which I’m going to answer for you here in this post. And if you love data-driven marketing as much as I do, then I think you’ll like what you find.
Ready to learn more? Let’s get to know Google Analytics 4!
What Is Google Analytics 4?
Google Analytics 4 is the newest tracking platform released by Google. It’s a completely new system that is totally separate from Universal Analytics (often referred to as simply “Google Analytics”).
If you’re new to the Google Analytics scene, this isn’t the first time we’ve had a new platform introduced. Several iterations of Google Analytics over the years have led to the development of Google Analytics 4.
Since Google bought the tracking platform Urchin in 2005, Google Analytics has been released and re-released. Iterations included Classic Analytics, Universal Analytics, Google Analytics for Firebase, and other tools. However, most of these tools tracked either websites or app properties—not both.
Last year, however, Google took a big step. They launched a “App+Web” implementation in Google Analytics, which was basically the architecture of Google Analytics for Firebase but with web-tracking capabilities. This was effectively the beta launch for Google Analytics 4, which is based on the same App+Web tracking implementation—plus tons more new features.
Is Google Universal Analytics Going Away?
Reality check: most websites are still using Universal Analytics and will continue to do so for some time.
It’s not so easy for Google to just shut off Universal Analytics, and they probably won’t even end updates or support within the next year (I would say maybe in 2022, but that’s a total guess).
How can we be so confident? At this time, there are still no premium features or a 360 version for Google Analytics 4. Google’s paying 360 users are their most valuable customers. These customers are mostly huge organizations. They’re so big that they can’t just switch over to an entirely new tracking system on Google Analytics 4 right away.
The upgrade path isn’t so clean as just clicking a button and everything will work perfectly straight out of the box—there’s lots more that goes into a bug-free migration to a new platform. The bigger and more complicated your current tracking system is, the longer it will take to make an effective switch to Google Analytics 4.
If you’re a veteran user, think of this as similar to the upgrade from Classic Analytics or even Urchin. Even though they’re not the most up-to-date, the GAGS and Urchin tracking codes can still send data to your tracking platform. So, you might still be seeing Universal Analytics around for a long time.
This is good because we don’t have to upgrade right away. We should still get on Google Analytics 4 pretty quickly (more on that later), but we can’t transfer data from our web properties on Universal Analytics over to a Google Analytics 4 property. Instead, we’ll have to start from scratch by opening a new property on GA4. Therefore, it’s really important that we still have Universal Analytics around.
Should I Switch from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4?
The short answer: you should start working with GA4, but keep using Universal Analytics. In other words, you’re not going to entirely “switch” just yet.
If you have been using Google Analytics, you’ve probably invested a lot of time in learning about reports, understanding how everything works, and maybe even integrating custom tracking into your system. You’re also probably pretty happy with what Universal Analytics delivers. Maybe you even use it to send reports to clients or stakeholders.
And now, if you’ve laid eyes on Google Analytics 4, you probably don’t really recognize anything. Google Analytics 4 is an entirely new analytics tool with a new data model. It has different tracking points and different metrics. The UI has changed. You won’t even find the same reporting as you had in Universal Analytics.
So while Google Analytics 4 is going to deliver some great new features and a more evolved tracking platform, there’s a learning curve. Especially for those of you who work with Google Analytics professionally, you rely on Google Analytics for things like client reports, data integrations, and custom tracking. It’s not so easy to just switch to a new system overnight.
Instead, start tracking on GA4 as soon as possible so that you can track your GA4 and Universal properties in parallel. Try to replicate your Universal Analytics reports in GA4. Can you see the same data points in both platforms?
With parallel tracking, you can compare the two platforms and make sure that you are getting the data you want on both. If you make a mistake in your GA4 configuration or if a tracking feature is missing, your Universal property will still catch all your data. Meanwhile, you can play around with GA4 and learn all the new features.
Additionally, since you can’t create a new property for Universal Analytics, any new websites that you want to start tracking will need to use GA4. Don’t wait until you need a GA4 property to start learning how everything works!
If you start your parallel tracking early, you’ll have plenty of time to get used to the new features and limitations of GA4. There is really no drawback to parallel tracking. Because the tracking script is lightweight and highly optimized, you’re not loading tons of additional libraries if you send data to multiple properties.
What’s New in Google Analytics 4?
With a fresh layout and new features, we’ll need to get acquainted with the new Google Analytics 4. Let’s start by taking a look at a Google Analytics 4 property to walk through some of the biggest changes from Universal Analytics.
New Interface Reporting Options
If you’ve been using an App+Web property, you can take a look at the Google Analytics 4 interface already populated with data! If you’re just starting a new GA4 property, yours will look something like this. As you can see, GA4 is completely different from Universal Analytics in terms of the reporting menu. Check out those waterfall menus on the left!
The first thing you may notice is that the number and variety of pre-configured reports have changed a bit. Reports are now grouped according to your business life cycle (more on this in the FAQ), user data, and events. Configurations for audiences and other remarketing work are grouped separately.
Under each report type, the overall options are a little more basic. There are no waterfall menus hidden inside other waterfall menus, and each pre-configured report is pretty general.
Although this may look limited and confusing at first, it’s actually going to give us a lot more flexibility with our analytics reporting.
How, you ask?
Google Analytics 4 gives us custom parameters for all of our events. We can create customized reports for whatever is most important to our websites, businesses, or clients. Which brings us to my next point…
GA4 Is an Event-Driven Model
Previously, all web-based iterations of Google Analytics focused on tracking pageviews. Enhanced Ecommerce supported some events, but it was largely limited to shop functions.
Part of Google’s mission for their new product was to create a single tracking system that worked the same across all platforms—both web and mobile. To achieve this, Google Analytics 4 has made the full transition over to events-based tracking. This means that all data is sent to GA4 as an event, which is much more flexible than a pageview.
Why? Pageviews are tied exclusively to URLs. But you can define and track just about anything as an event, then create a custom report accordingly. This is because you can create custom parameters for any event to track any variable.
Custom parameters are the key to organizing your data in the way that makes the most sense for your business. Universal Analytics offered four preset parameters: category, action, label, and value. You can create any of these, plus additional parameters that help you track your customer’s journey like acquisition sources or marketing campaigns.
Pre-configured events and reports worked great for some of our traditional eCommerce goals, like adding products to the cart or making a purchase. Universal Analytics supported some of these events and reports fairly well.
However, let’s say you have something besides an eCommerce shop, such as an online game. Those pre-configured reports from Universal Analytics might be totally irrelevant, plus there was no good system for tracking any kind of game activity.
In GA4, you can create events for game scores, level achievements, and more. Plus, you can still make events for your conventional eCommerce shop. This means that every GA4 user can create reports that display exactly the data that they want without extra visual clutter.
Insights with Machine Learning
Machine learning is the technological revolution that is changing almost every digital industry. In Google Analytics 4, machine learning currently helps you through two features: automated insights and predictive metrics.
Automated insights can be accessed using the Insights button in the top right corner of your interface. The resulting sidebar includes a search field and a waterfall menu of data insights that Google Analytics has pulled for you.
How does Google Analytics decide what insights to show you?
The automated insights feature pulls data from primary and secondary dimensions that have seen significant trend changes. In other words, anything that is unusually good (or bad) will be brought straight to your attention. With automated insights, you’ll never have to go hunting for data anomalies again.
The second machine learning feature that is currently available is predictive metrics, which you can access under the Analysis tab in your left navigation menu. Although Google has more metrics planned for later, we currently have predicted churn and predicted conversion.
Predictive metrics require a certain volume of data in order to function, but once they do, you have a powerful tool. You can create audiences out of these metrics to target users who are about to either churn or convert. If you’re proactive and smart with your marketing, you can prevent churns and clinch some conversions that otherwise might have slipped away.
Create Data Reports inside GA4
Next to the Insights button, you’ll notice an icon with a graph and a pencil—the Customize report tool. This is a new analysis section where we can build visual reports of our analytics data.
Functionally, this is like an application of Google Data Studio to your Google Analytics reports. It’s easier to use and more customizable than segments that we had in Universal Analytics, and it requires less navigation around the interface to achieve. Report customization allows you to filter your report metrics by a variety of dimensions and conditions to visualize comparisons. You can then export, share, or check insights for those reports all from inside Google Analytics.
Although you’ll probably still want to use Data Studio for more cohesive visual reports that combine a variety of metrics, this is a great feature for keeping track of your analytics in-house.
GA4 Integration with BigQuery
If your website has really high traffic, then this feature is for you. Google Analytics 4 includes a native integration with BigQuery. If you’re not familiar with BigQuery already, it’s a tool for premium customers that helps really serious analysts work with enormous datasets. You can learn more about the value of BigQuery and how to use it in our Google BigQuery Tutorial.
The most important feature of a BigQuery integration is that your Google Analytics data will be unsampled. For really huge datasets, Google Analytics will usually export (and analyze) only a randomized sample of your data. Although sampled data is still quite usable, it’s not quite as accurate as unsampled data.
The BigQuery integration is a really huge upgrade in that sense and you can do your data analysis on entirely raw, unsampled data. Your analysis will be more precise and powerful than ever.
Why aren’t my “real-time” reports updating in real time?
Your real-time reports in the Google Analytics interface may seem to be slow or not working. One of the updates in Google Analytics 4 is batching API calls. Instead of sending a separate API request for every single event, GA4 waits a little bit and sends several events together in a single API call.
This is a tradeoff that results in fewer HTTP connections for the client and a smoother experience. But it also means that your real-time reports may be a few minutes behind. This shouldn’t be a huge deal if you’re watching site data from real users, but it is somewhat inconvenient for testing purposes. Now is a great time to get familiar with some browser extensions or plugins to help you with testing.
How do I use Enhanced Ecommerce in Google Analytics 4?
We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that there is no “Enhanced Ecommerce” feature in GA4. The good news is that you can basically replicate Enhanced Ecommerce by creating your own eCommerce events, plus add any additional customization to improve your tracking (keep an eye out for guides to this coming from us soon).
The developers at Google have also provided some handy instructions for eCommerce migration from Universal Analytics to GA4. You can also always check out your eCommerce statistics in your GA4 interface under Monetization > E-commerce purchases.
Why is the interface for Google Analytics 4 so different?
The new Google Analytics 4 interface has changed considerably and will take some getting used to. The Google Analytics team has said that this is because reporting in GA4 is centered around the customer’s journey. The idea is that this makes more sense for business funnels. You can hear more about the new interface and more from the Google Analytics team in this video:
This is just a quick overview of some of the biggest changes in Google Analytics 4. And since it’s such a new platform, we can probably look forward to even more new updates and features in the coming months.
Although you don’t have to worry about losing your Universal Analytics properties, it’s still a good idea to start tracking in parallel using GA4. This way, you’ll have plenty of time to refine your tracking in GA4 before you decide to make a full switch. Keep an eye on our blog for tutorials to install and configure GA4—you can sign up for our newsletter on our homepage!
What kinds of guides do you want to see for GA4? Are you excited about any of the new features? Let us know in the comments!