The Shift From Google Universal Analytics to GA4: What You Need to Know


Google's Universal Analytics free online tool is being replaced by GA4 on 1st July 2023 and will stop processing new hits to your website.


If you’re a website owner, you’re probably already familiar with Google Analytics.

This is Google’s free online tool that allows you to gain a deeper understanding of how visitors interact with your site.

It provides powerful insight that enables you to design the best possible digital experiences.


The Shift From Google Universal Analytics to GA4


Right now, you’re probably using a version known as Universal Analytics, which was first launched in 2012. However, Google have announced plans to phase this out, replacing it with a new version known as Google Analytics 4, or GA4.

Universal Analytics will stop collecting data on 1st July 2023.

So… are you ready for the next generation of analytics? Let’s take a look at what you need to know.


Privacy-first tracking


The shift to GA4 is taking place for two primary reasons. The first is privacy. Privacy is a huge talking point today, and it’s something that doesn’t naturally go hand-in-hand with analytics. There’s a clash between businesses wanting to know everything about their customers, and customers wanting to maintain their privacy. This is making it more difficult to collect valuable data from website visitors.

Over the past few years, a number of privacy-related changes have been introduced all around the world. In the UK, there’s the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In California, there’s the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). In Brazil, there’s the Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD). There’s also the anticipated end of third-party cookies, expected sometime over the next few years.

All of these changes mean website owners need to identify new, cookieless, privacy-first tracking solutions. And that’s what GA4 is designed to be. Rather than relying on cookies, GA4 utilises artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies to predict how users will interact.


The evolving customer journey


The second big reason for the shift is to ensure tracking efforts align more closely with the modern-day customer journey. The way customers behave online, and the steps they take to reach a decision, are changing. The journey is no longer linear; it jumps around from different channels, different platforms, and even different devices. In 2020, Google research found that 84% of decision makers felt cross-platform analytics to be critical to success. However, less than half were using this sort of tracking, and were instead spending time trying to reconcile siloed data from various touchpoints.

The road to conversion doesn’t take place in a single session, on a single device. This means that session-based tracking methods, like those that were offered in Universal Analytics, are no longer relevant.

Session-based tracking means that interaction data is collected during a single session: during the block of time that a visitor spends on a single site, on a single device. Sessions cannot be carried over from one device to another, or restarted when the browser has reopened after having been closed. For this reason, Universal Analytics only allowed for data to be collected from websites alone.

GA4, on the other hand, uses event-based tracking. This means that the tool doesn’t track interactions within a session, but events across the user’s journey, no matter what device they’re using. Or when they’re using it. Previously, with Universal Analytics, interactions were bundled together inside a session. Now, with GA4, they’re reported individually as standalone events.

This means that, with GA4, website owners are able to track behaviours across both websites and mobile applications, gaining richer and deeper insights into today’s complex customer journey.


What is an ‘event’?


One of the most confusing things for site owners switching to GA4 is understanding exactly what Google means by ‘events’. It’s much simpler than it sounds. An event is simply any sort of interaction that a visitor has with your website or app. Individual interactions are collected as an ‘event’.

Many of the most important interactions or events will be tracked automatically by GA4, including a person’s first visit, and the start of their session. It’s also possible to set up ‘Enhanced Measurement’, which instructs GA4 to automatically collect data from other commonly tracked events. These include page views, scrolls, outbound clicks, site search, video engagement, and file downloads.

For further insight into specific interactions, it’s possible to create new events through GA4 itself. A maximum of 300 different events can be set up for each of the properties that you wish to track.


How does GA4 work?


The way that GA4 works to track events is to use three different Identity Spaces. The previous version, Universal Analytics, used just one Identity Space: Device ID. This meant that the tool was able to track user behaviours based on the cookies stored on the user’s device. If that user was to utilise two or more different devices during their journey, there was no way to link all that separate data to the same user. This made it difficult to gain a ‘big picture’ overview of the entire journey.

GA4 also uses the Device ID Identity Space. However, it uses two additional identifiers alongside it. These are User ID, and Google signals. User ID means that events can be tracked for users that are logged into a website, regardless of which device they’re accessing that website or app from. Google signals means that events can be tracked from users signed into their Google accounts. Once again, this allows for data to be linked to a specific user, no matter where they’re accessing a site from.


Impact on site owners


It’s clear to see there are huge advantages to this shift to GA4. Site owners are being provided with powerful new ways to learn more about their customers, understand how they interact with sites and apps when using different devices, and build positive digital experiences that boost conversions.

However, there is one thing to be aware of: changes in reporting. Universal Analytics was great in that it came with a wide range of pre-built reports. This latest version, however, runs on a new reporting model known as ‘Explorations’. Reports must be built from scratch – as needed – using the data held within the Explorations interface and Looker Studio; Google’s own reporting dashboard.


What you need to do


While Universal Analytics isn’t going away entirely on 1st July 2023 – you’ll still be able to access insights – it will stop collecting and processing data on this date. Therefore, you should be thinking of switching over to GA4 as soon as possible.

Making the switch now ensures you’ve got time to get to grips with the new tool before Universal Analytics is phased out. It also means you can start collecting your cross-platform data now, and begin generating valuable and powerful insights.

If you’re setting up tracking for a new property, GA4 will be offered as the default choice. If, however, you’re setting up tracking for an existing property, you’ll need to add GA4 alongside your existing Universal Analytics setup.

For more information about switching over, contact us at myCloud Media.



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