Officially launched in October 2020, Google Analytics 4 has left marketers and business owners struggling to decide if they should switch to the new reporting platform or stick to what they have been using. This happens because GA4 is not an iteration of the old Google Universal. In fact, it is a completely new tool with a whole new perspective on the data, and how it represents this new digital world with diversified sales channels.

One thing to note is that Google Universal Analytics is not going away. It will probably be around for many years to come, but it is clear that GA4 is the future. Looking at the shiny new features, the system is complex, and that’s why we decided to write a blog to explain the main differences between the two platforms.

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First of all, there are two main types of changes: structural changes and changes that improve usability. As we previously said, Google Analytics 4 is a whole new tool. It is less of a reporting interface where users simply view their data, and more of a platform that gives you all the necessary tools to customise it to the needs of your business.

Reporting on mobile devices traffic

Tracking mobile devices was always a bit tricky for Google Analytics, and because of the different technologies, users needed a few different approaches.

First, there was a version for GA to track mobile apps – GA for apps – then we had Firebase Analytics, and finally, there was GA for Firebase. All those were quite different from what users were seeing inside Google Analytics for websites, hence somehow an increased difficulty for merchants who had to get reports for different sales channels.

With GA4, users can now send multiple data streams to track not only their website, but also mobile devices. The incoming data can now be analyzed across all devices and measured in one reporting interface. The new architecture has a Cross device capability, identifying multiple devices and attaching them to the same user, unifying in the end all data points across these devices. 

A new data model

Obviously, tracking page views, bounce rates, time spent on site, are not relevant for mobile applications, because mobile apps produce completely different data than a website. GA4 therefore eliminated talks about page views, transactions, social interactions, and so on and unified them under one concept. These are now called Events. An event can be anything users would like it to be: page views, screen views, or app views. With each event that comes in, users can see extra information that describes the event even more closely. These are called event parameters and they have the same function as the Dimensions in Universal Analytics. For example, an event that is called purchase can have different properties like the order ID, revenue, items bought, and many more.

These parameters are written in key value pairs, thus making it easy for users to be able to segment, filter or search through them in their analysis stage. At the same time, these parameters can also occur in other events so users can easily compare them against each other. 

The whole concept behind GA4 is future proofing the platform to suit businesses, so in case the need arises to track different sales channels like IoT devices, point of sale systems, or smart purchase for example, the system is able to do so. In turn, users will need to put a bit more thought into setting up their events properly in order to be able to analyze them later on. Proper planning is therefore a crucial component of working with Google Analytics 4.

We always love to talk about eCommerce so if you need information about our products and services, we are here to help.

New views

Those accustomed with Universal Analytics know that it has a pretty broad spectrum of reports. In GA4, as event data could mean anything, it’s maybe a bit harder for the tool to make any kind of assumptions of what data is actually coming into the system. Thats why, instead of having all reporting tools crammed into it, GA4 presents an analysis hub which lets you do quick ad hoc analysis, build little funnels and create cohorts.

But if you want to go even deeper into your data, Google Analytics 4 lets you export your raw data to Google BigQuery, which is their data warehousing solution. Here, you can work with your data even further, combine it with other data sources, run custom analysis and more. You can also pull the data from Google Analytics 4 into Google Data Studio, visualize it and build reports for your clients.

Other admin changes

Apart from critical changes, there are also some changes in settings and terminology that are worth writing about.

First, the data retention settings have changed. If in UA users had the option to retain the data for so many different tiers from 12,24,36 months and indefinitely, in GA4 users can retain the data for either two months or 14 months.

The e-commerce reports that we knew as Enhanced e-commerce in Universal Analytics have now changed and are now called Monetization Reports. The structure is slightly changed compared to what it was before and users will have to remember that they are responsible for customising the reports to suit their own environment.

The way sessions are calculated has changed in GA4. Normally, if you use only GA4, that wouldn’t be a problem, but for users that try to use both platforms until they get the grips of GA4, they might see a difference between the session count and the session duration between their UA and GA4 properties.

User engagement metrics like bounce rate and the session duration have changed. 

In GA4, the engagement is being decided automatically, taking into account where the users were more active and where they were not, where they were dropping off so the bounce rate metrics are gone now and it has been replaced by engagement metrics.

Should you switch to Google Analytics 4?

To answer this question, you will have to ask yourself if the change will make your life easier or complicate it. If you have been using Universal Analytics, you probably put a lot of time into understanding the reports or maybe integrating custom tracking into your system. As we said before, Google Analytics 4 is a completely new analytics tool, with a new data model behind it. There are different tracking points, different metrics and the UI has changed.

As with every new tool, there’s a whole new learning curve. Given the fact that Universal Analytics will still be around for some time, our answer would simply be ‘No, there is no point switching to the new GA4 now.’ But if you want to stay in this Google ecosystem, then GA4 represents the future. Even if you decide not to switch over completely at this time, you should try to run things in parallel. Tasks like understanding different metrics or replicating different reports to get a good understanding on how reporting works, are the best course of action. And then, when you come to a point when the switch-over makes more sense, then it’s the time to do it.

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