Google Analytics 4 – What it is and why your website needs it

BY Tony Southgate | Journal | 27/06/2022

Google Analytics – as you know it – is dead. 

After 17 years of faithful service, tirelessly tracking activity on over 35 million websites, Google has decided it is time to pull the plug.

GDPR, and a host of other data protection laws have whittled away at the effectiveness of Google’s Universal Analytics (as the old system is properly known) over the years, until it’s no longer able to do what Google wants it to do. Cookies form the backbone of Universal Analytics’ functionality, but concerns over data security have led to major browsers including Safari and Firefox blocking third party cookies, which means Universal Analytics can no longer track behaviour on your website with reliable accuracy. 

 So come June 2023, less than a year away, Universal Analytics will stop working.

And out of the wings will step a new champion to take centre stage. 

What is Google Analytics 4?

The new Google Analytics isn’t actually all that new. Google Analytics 4 (GA4) was released back in October 2020. But as Universal Analytics properties were (and are) still working, most website owners had little incentive to spend time embedding the new code to their site and learning how GA4 works.

The main difference between Universal Analytics and GA4 is that the latter uses first party cookies, which are set by the website you are visiting, rather than third party cookies which are used by advertisers and other companies to track user journeys around the web. GA4 also relies on event tracking and parameters for data collection and enhanced measurement.

How do I upgrade to Google Analytics 4? 

Technically you can’t. Google Analytics 4 is separate from the old Universal Analytics, so you will need to set it up individually; it’s not an upgrade in the same way that, say, Windows 11 is an upgrade from Windows 10. 

The good news is this means you can run them side-by-side, for the time being at least. If you already have a Universal Analytics set up using HTML (The global site tag (gtag.js)) then Google Analytics 4 can work using the existing code. If it’s run using a plug in or Tag Manager then you need to set up the stream in its own right. We recommend Google Tag Manager for this as it has several advantages, including copying over existing events from Universal Analytics.

If you don’t already have Google Analytics then you will need to create a new property. We recommend setting up both Universal Analytics properties and GA4 properties. The code can then be added directly to your website or through a tool like Google Tag Manager.

Should I start using Google Analytics 4 now?

Absolutely. It’s the natural successor to Universal Analytics and will offer you many new options and many (if not all) of the same features. Most importantly, by setting it up now, you will start recording data, which will be essential for making year-on-year comparisons once UA has been switched off. It will also give you a chance to gradually familiarise yourself with the interface, rather than being dropped in at the deep-end next June.

What should I do to prepare for Universal Analytics being turned off?

Perhaps the most important thing to do is start exporting historical reports. Google has said Universal Analytics will only be available for a further six months, so it’s essential you get everything you need from it before then.

You also need to make sure everything’s connected to GA4 – Google Ads, Search Console and any other integrations, so you’re capturing all the data you need for future reference.

How do I know if I am using Google Analytics 4? 

Chances are if you’re asking the question, then you’re not using it. Google Analytics 4 has to be set up manually, so unless you’ve done it (or got someone else such as an agency to do it) then you’ll still be on Universal Analytics.

To check easily, go into your Google Analytics account and then your apps and properties. Under the property name is a number. If it starts with UA – then you don’t have a Google Analytics 4 property. 

If you do have a Google Analytics 4 property in your account then a sure fire way to check it’s working is to open the property. If it hasn’t been set up and installed correctly, it will tell you that no data is being collected. 

Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics – what’s the difference?

Apart from the way data is collected, as mentioned earlier, there are several differences between the two, a lot of which are around events:

  • Universal Analytics counts hits as page views and sessions but Google Analytics 4 uses events and parameters. 
  • Universal Analytics uses events with event category, event label and event action. Google Analytics 4 doesn’t collect event information in this way, instead it uses parameters. 
  • Google Analytics 4 uses enhanced measurement to collect some events automatically that are not automatically collected in Universal Analytics. These include scroll depth, outbound clicks, site search, click, video engagement, file download.
  • Google Analytics 4 is also great for cross platform and cross device tracking. So if someone came to your website on mobile, but then came back and made a purchase on desktop, it can track this whole journey. 
  • Google Analytics 4 uses machine learning to provide you with insights to make more informed decisions and to create and use valuable audiences within your advertising. 

Is Google Analytics 4 better?

At this stage GA4 is still evolving, but it’s certainly on course to be more powerful and better than Universal Analytics. It has the ability to provide more relevant information, and track users across devices and platforms so it will be better for monitoring the attribution of your marketing. However, currently there are some reports that are/were available in Universal Analytics which you can’t create in Google Analytics 4, so running both at the same time is best. 

Is Google Analytics 4 free?

Yes, like UA, it is completely free to use. If you subscribe to Analytics 360 you won’t be double charged for your Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 properties. 

How do I create goals in Google Analytics 4?

This is one of the fundamental differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4. In Universal Analytics you can only create a goal based on an event, a destination, pages per session, or duration on site. With Google Analytics 4, any events that are created can be turned into a conversion, so we would recommend turning all your important events into conversions. Not only does it allow you to easily track responses to your advertising, as GA4 uses machine learning for insights, it’s important to give it as many signals as possible.

By setting up Google Analytics 4 now, you’ll be ahead of the game when Universal Analytics is turned off next June, not least because you’ll have vital data streams captured so you’ll be able refer to them on for years to come. It will take a little while to set up and learn, and things will almost certainly change as we go through the year, but GA4 is here to stay. 

If you need any help or assistance switching to Google Analytics 4 set up, or any other part of your digital marketing, get in touch with Spring for expert support.

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