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Making Sense of Google Analytics 4

Google is sunsetting Universal Analytics in July of 2023, giving way to a new gold-standard for web tracking: Google Analytics 4. This is a big change for the world of web analytics, one that is re-engineering the way that web data is tracked and analyzed. 

Back in 2005, Google launched the first version of their flagship web analytics service Google Analytics. The current iteration, called Universal Analytics (UA), was unveiled in 2012. Since then, the platform has become the most widely used web analytics service; a critical tool when it comes to measuring website activity, and in our use case, managing an effective digital media campaign. 

Why GA4? 

The main purpose of GA4 is to adhere to the freshly minted legislation appearing around the world, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the United States, both in effect as of 2018. With Universal Analytics currently in its 11th year, there is also a growing gap in what is needed of a modern web analytics service, and what UA is able to provide: mobile app tracking (which is non-existent in UA), the leveraging of AI and machine learning abilities to improve tracking and reporting, and a refreshed user experience.

What’s the Difference? 

The biggest technical difference between UA and GA4 is the way it tracks web data: GA4 uses event-based tracking, as opposed to UA’s session-based tracking. Session-based tracking is a tracking method that uses cookies to build a dataset full of individual sessions, with activity details about each of those sessions. 

Event-based tracking uses event signals to build a dataset full of actions taken by users, with machine learning modeling filling in the gaps that cookies typically would have been responsible for. Event-based tracking enables Google Analytics to no longer rely on cookie tracking, providing adherence to new web data privacy policies like GDPR while also shifting to a wider focus of tracking entire user journeys by means of cross-device and cross-platform monitoring.

Leaning into event-based tracking has changed some of the metrics found in Google Analytics. For example, Goals in UA have been replaced with Events. Additionally, Bounce Rate is no longer measured since that was a session-based metric. In its place, GA4 puts an emphasis on Engagement, lending to new metrics such as Engagement Rate (Engaged Sessions / All Sessions, with Sessions defined as “a group of user interactions with your website or app that take place within a given time frame”, and Engaged Sessions defined as “a session that lasts longer than 10 seconds, has a conversion event, or has at least 2 pageviews”). With GA4 leaning into machine learning in order to fill session activity gaps, there are new predictive metrics being introduced, such as churn probability and potential revenue. 

Aside from the changes stemming from data collection differences, GA4 is also delivering a noticeably different user experience. The theme of GA4 is customization, with all Report tabs having both visual and content customization options, and the new Exploration feature that takes UA’s Custom Reports feature to the next level.

What do I need to do? 

Although UA will be missed, and a new web analytics learning curve now exists for even the best of the best, GA4 is a necessary change with a lot of bright spots. 

If you are currently using UA, now is the time to transition to GA4. Although UA will still be available until July of 2023, configuring a GA4 now will ensure that you retain some historical data. There is no mechanism to migrate old information into GA4, underscoring the importance of this early adoption.

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