Answering your biggest questions on GA4 – all you need to know (right now) about the new Google Analytics
We’ve been getting lots of questions recently about GA4 and what it means for websites and online businesses. Over the last few months this has become even more of a hot topic (you’ll discover why below!) so we’ve collated the top GA4 questions that our SEO tech team (myself, Steve, and Reuben) have been asked and you can find our answers below.
To save you time, click on the question you want answered to find the relevant information in the blog.
When was GA4 released?
Before GA4 was GA4, it started off in a beta testing mode as an “App + Web” system released in 2019. GA4 was then announced by Google back in October 2020. At the time, their reasoning behind launching a new Google Analytics was fourfold:
- Business Need: The pandemic (amongst other things) caused a significant shift in business going online, meaning insights in online consumer behaviour are even more important.
- Data Privacy Changes: The demand for data security, and updates in data privacy for consumers, means that current analytics approaches are outdated.
- Responding to Requirements: Google reacted to marketing surveys where respondents were saying that improving their use of analytics was their top priority.
- Evolution of Intelligence: Google wants to provide a more intelligent analytics experience, using machine learning, and putting marketing ROI front and centre.
How does GA4 work?
GA4 is the latest version of Google Analytics and allows you to measure the user traffic and user engagement that your websites and apps get, for free. Google say that it will provide:
‘Smarter insights to improve your marketing decisions and get better ROI.’
It will make use of advances in machine learning to automatically provide you with insights and a much more comprehensive understanding of your customers across multiple devices (mobile, tablet, laptop, etc) and platforms including apps. Google says that GA4 gives ‘customer-centric measurement’ rather than measurement of separate devices or platforms which fragments the user experience and doesn’t give you the whole picture.
Will GA4 replace Universal Analytics?
The short answer to this is, yes. We may have known about GA4 for a few years now, but it wasn’t until March 2022 when the industry learned of Google’s plans to retire Universal Analytics completely. Google have summed it up much better than we ever could so here’s the statement straight from the horse’s mouth:
“On July 1, 2023, standard Universal Analytics properties will no longer process data. You’ll be able to see your Universal Analytics reports for a period of time after July 1, 2023. However, new data will only flow into Google Analytics 4 properties”.
Whilst this may cause panic in some, it’s important to remember that we’ve been here before – and there was a time when Universal Analytics was the new kid on the block! It would be nonsensical for Google to keep both of these platforms running in parallel indefinitely, so we were prepared for this to happen and we are excited to make the change fully to GA4, and help our clients to do so too (get in touch to find out how we can help you with this).
Why should I upgrade to GA4?
Upgrading to GA4 is essential, as we have previously noted that next Summer, Universal Analytics will be no more. It’s also important to switch over because Google has openly said that GA4 is where they are ‘investing in future improvements’ suggesting that they are no longer investing time into Universal Analytics and it is therefore likely to become less useful over time. Time is of the essence, and we would strongly advise that you do not wait until next year to make the switch – even though you will still have access to Universal Analytics until next July (in fact, you’ll have access to it for a few months after this, but it won’t collect any new data).
Will GA4 keep my historical data?
The reason we suggest that everybody makes the move to GA4 now, is that Google has stated that they will not be transferring across data from Universal Analytics to GA4 (something that those who have made the move to the new system have already found out). That means that if you fail to set up GA4 before July 2022, you will not have a full year’s worth of data in your analytics come 1st July 2023.
This is probably the biggest downfall of GA4 and is something that has been frustrating SEOs ever since they started using the platform in 2020. However, with a year to go, you have plenty of time to extract historical data and reports from Universal Analytics alongside building up a year’s worth of new data in GA4.
Is GA4 better?
This is a difficult question to answer. We are currently all well versed in Universal Analytics and it will be hard to say whether GA4 is better than the current system until it is embedded in everyone’s process and reports – also until enough people are using it for the industry to understand its quirks and differences in their entirety. However, there are a few initial things that may be better about GA4:
- Data Privacy: One crucial area where GA4 may be better for businesses than Universal Analytics is that it is set up to work in the brave new world of data privacy. There is no denying that we are moving towards greater protection over online data. This is fantastic for users who may not want their data shared and used, but it’s not so great for marketers who rely on this kind of data to understand their target market. Google states that GA4 is ‘privacy-centric by design’ so as the industry changes and more restrictions are put on things like cookies, GA4 will be able to help make those gaps in your data minimal.
- Integration with Google Ads: GA4 will provide a better integration with Google Ads so if you are running PPC campaigns GA4 may well prove beneficial. It’s been said that the platform will allow users to run campaigns that are more targeted for specific audiences, providing better experiences and more relevant offers to people regardless of the device they are on.
- Integration with YouTube: GA4 is also closely integrated with YouTube, and it can measure app and web interactions simultaneously, meaning it can include conversions from YouTube engaged views in the app as well as on the web making tracking and measuring the success of a campaign more effective.
- Hit limit removal: Whilst this only applies to websites with enormous amounts of monthly traffic, a big plus of GA4 is that the hit limit of 10 million hits per month has been removed.
- Bounce rate is gone: Technically this answers the ‘what features is GA4 missing’ question below – but we think the removal of bounce rate is a major plus for GA4! Bounce rate tells you when a person has landed on a page and ‘bounced off’ without exploring any other webpages. It has always been a contentious metric and causes more problems than it solves. Lots of people think a high bounce rate is a bad thing, but just because somebody has ‘bounced’ doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a good experience with your website. A high bounce rate could be bad, but it could equally mean they found everything they were looking for on the first page and you helped them really fast. Bounce rate is meaningless, and we’re glad it’s bitten the dust.
What has Bounce Rate been replaced with?
GA4 focuses on ‘engaged sessions’ now, thus providing a much more nuanced and accurate understanding of your online performance and how people are engaging with your website. An engaged session is a session that lasts a minimum of 10 seconds, or included 1 or more conversion events or 2 or more page or screen views. MUCH more useful than Bounce Rate.
What are the main differences between GA3 and GA4?
The Measurement Model: This is one of the biggest changes in GA4; a key reason why GA4 cannot retain data from Universal Analytics is that it sees events, sessions and hit types very differently. Trying to see a like for like comparison simply won’t work, we are going to see different metrics, different levels of engagement, and different data.
“Events represent a fundamental data model difference between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 properties” Google
Instead of focusing on sessions and pageviews like Universal Analytics, GA4 looks at events and parameters. It is event based with the thought behind this being that any interaction can be an event. Whilst in Universal Analytics an event is something that has to be actively triggered by clicking on something or downloading something etc, in GA4 it can be passive such as a page view. Everything in GA4 is an event, and then parameters are added to these.
Look and feel: GA4 also looks quite different, which can be daunting if you’re not familiar with it. Some aspects of it are completely different, for example if you’re looking for your trusty e-commerce report, you won’t find it in GA4. Instead you’ll now see a monetisation overview:
Universal Analytics: Conversions > E commerce
GA4: Monetisation > E commerce purchases
You can slice and dice the data and almost recreate the interfaces you’re used to but the chances are you will struggle to find the reports you’ve been used to seeing in Universal Analytics.
Data segmentation: This is significantly different. In GA3 you can simply select a segment from a dropdown list of predefined segments, but in GA4 you need to use the ‘build comparison’ tool to compare different source/mediums.
Conversion Tracking: The principles of conversion or goal tracking are very similar between the two systems, but configuring them is very different. The terminology has changed (everything is now based on events) and the set up is different, too. We will now need to specify which events are conversion events – before you can mark an event as a conversion, that event needs to have occurred. We can set up the event, but until somebody ‘fires’ it, we can’t mark it as a conversion. Interesting…
What features is GA4 missing?
So far, we’ve noticed a few features that GA4 doesn’t have. The first of these is annotations. Back in the early months of 2021, this was a question that SEOs were asking Google A LOT. Annotations are very important, as they allow us to make notes against different dates on the timeline graphs.
New page added? We annotate the graph.
Content overhaul? Annotation added!
Amazing piece of online PR getting attention? You guessed it, the graph gets an annotation.
It helps us keep track of what’s happened (in on and offline marketing) when and how that might impact traffic and conversions.
However, where there’s a will there’s a way, and the internet will always find a solution. In the Chrome Web Store search for ‘Automated Google Analytics Annotations GA4-UA.’ This extension means that you can add automated and manual annotations to GA4 charts.
Another problematic loss. GA4 doesn’t use data views, which we often use in Universal Analytics to filter out internal IP addresses, spam, and to set up things like a Staging View, Raw Data View or Filtered View of the data. Take a look at this blog about views and how to mitigate this loss to a degree by using data filters in GA4. We hope Google brings back multiple data views!
What new features does GA4 have?
One really cool new feature that we love in GA4 is enhanced measurement automation. GA4 can automatically measure certain interactions – like file downloads, scroll depth, outbound clicks and site searches. These would’ve been set up manually in Google Tag Manager previously. (However it currently doesn’t track click to call or mail-to links which still need to be manually tagged in GTM).
Another great feature relates to conversion tracking. Whilst we saw above that conversion tracking in GA4 is trickier than in Universal Analytics, it is better because it allows for an unlimited number of conversions to be tracked. In Universal Analytics you can only track 20 goals or conversion types per data view – plenty for some websites, dismally low for others.
How do I set up GA4?
Setting up the tracking code is pretty simple, it’s not really any different to Universal Analytics, it’s just a different type of code. If you’re using Google Tag Manager you can set it up relatively easily. However, the complexity and time comes when you try to set up all of the goals as these cannot be simply moved across and replicated from Universal Analytics. If you are a current client of ours, or simply somebody who needs help with understanding GA4 and setting it up then do get in touch. Our technical team is on standby ready to set you up properly and help you understand this new system.