Whether you monitor your own business’s digital performance or are in the digital marketing space yourself, you’ve probably heard about Google Analytics 4 over the last year and a half.
Google released the latest version of its website data analytics platform in October 2020, and since that time, account owners have been able to run a Google Analytics 4, or GA4, property alongside their standard Universal Analytics (UA) properties.
After a year and a half of that, though, Google finally announced what many industry professionals probably knew was coming: in March 2022, the search engine said it would sunset Universal Analytics on July 1, 2023, in favor of GA4.
When I saw Google’s blog post about it, I felt like I could hear the collective groan going up around the digital marketing industry.
Not because GA4 doesn’t deliver website data in a more comprehensive and privacy-conscious way, but just because everyone would now have to learn the new ways of doing things if they hadn’t experimented with GA4 yet.
If you’ve been asking the question at the center of this post – “Do I need Google Analytics 4?” – don’t worry: the answer has now been decided for you.
You need GA4 because it will be the only way to use Google Analytics starting on July 1, 2023.
At the moment, you have well over a year to prepare for it, and in the meantime, you can keep using Universal Analytics like you’re used to.
However, since GA4 exclusivity is still on its way, you might as well get familiar with it now.
With that in mind, let’s cover Google Analytics 4 and how it’s different from Universal Analytics.
Why Is Universal Analytics Being Sunsetted, Anyway?
One relevant question you still might have is why Google is even sunsetting Universal Analytics in the first place. It’s been the main type of property in the Analytics platform since 2012, and no one was really complaining about it, right?
The issue wasn’t that users were having problems with UA. But Google had been working in the background on bringing the Analytics platform into the modern era of data tracking and online privacy.
GA4 addresses those issues in more advanced ways than UA does.
For instance, one of the most interesting parts of Google’s March 2022 blog post was how it described GA4 not relying so much on cookies for data collection, while that’s exactly how UA has collected data for a decade.
In past years, providing marketers with user data based on cookies was less of a problem. The process was pretty simple. You visited a site, got a cookie installed on your device, and ended up becoming a number in someone’s Analytics account.
But web privacy is top of mind for so many people today. The United States doesn’t have its own version of the “cookie law” that the European Union does – which requires websites to offer visitors the choice of receiving cookies on the sites they visit – but web tracking using cookies exclusively is on its way out.
That’s what UA does. Its cookie-based session tracking is a product of an older time.
In its place, GA4 tracks user activity as events rather than sessions, and doesn’t rely so heavily on cookies to do it.
You’ll get data with the same level of accuracy that you get with UA, if not more. The difference is that GA4 takes user privacy into account by relying on first-party cookies, which hold your experience together on one website, rather than third-party cookies, which track you across the web.
That backs up the fact that GA4 tracks analytics as events rather than whole sessions. For users concerned that their user data in GA4 will be inaccurate because of that, there are important points to bring up.
First is that UA isn’t completely accurate, either. All a user has to do is decline cookies on a website, and their activities are not tracked.
The second point is that Google has been planning for cookies to go kind of obsolete with GA4. Cookies don’t tell the whole story of a user’s journey, and they will tell even less of a story as the world becomes more sensitive to online privacy in the coming years.
The way around it is through Google’s machine learning. The search engine says it will use predictive, machine-based data to connect the dots for GA4 users so they can still make informed decisions where there are data gaps.
GA4 will use this data to track events across websites and apps together, so it will all be organized in one place.
So, to summarize: Google is sunsetting Universal Analytics in favor of Google Analytics 4 because the new version collects data across websites and apps, uses machine learning to fill the gaps left by cookie refusal, and does it all according to the growing global demand for greater online privacy.
What’s New and Cool About Google Analytics 4?
Now that we understand why Universal Analytics is going away, let’s look ahead to the future.
What kinds of cool features are available to you in GA4?
Cross-Device Tracking Means More User-Centric Data
UA’s tracking of session data means that analytics are being recorded for a user in a single visit to a web page. An app visit from the same person is an entirely different piece of that story.
Not so in GA4. When you set up Data Streams in GA4, you can bring in analytics data from website and app visits (both Android and iOS apps).
Those streams will let you see a user’s journey across platforms and devices and derive better conclusions based on those events.
How is that possible if GA4 isn’t going to rely on third-party cookies for it?
Easy. Enter Google Signals and User ID. You’ll have to toggle these on in GA4, but their benefits are pretty clear.
Google Signals is the search engine’s tool for tracking users across devices. Users would have to be logged into their Google accounts on all those devices and have selected ads personalization for it to work. But when those conditions are met, seeing the various parts of the buyer’s journey inside GA4 should prove educational.
With User ID, you can generate a digital identification that will track event data across your websites and apps. You assign these to individual users, but it’s really only going to work with users who can identify themselves by signing into their account on your website or app.
The overall story here, though, is that attaching events to users without using third-party cookies is the way of the future, one that Google intended to take when it started rolling out GA4.
Refined Reporting Is, Once Again, More User Centric
Even though we’ve been covering all that is cool about GA4, it’s going to take some getting used to if you’re still using UA exclusively.
You’ll notice right away when you’re in GA4 that things are not as they were. Specifically, the Reports menu on the left has been reconfigured.
In UA, we’re all used to seeing the items Realtime, Audience, Acquisition, Behavior, and Conversions.
GA4 calls this section “Life cycle,” with the items of Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization, and Retention.
Once you get into GA4 and start investigating the new menu and reporting for yourself, you’ll probably find it pretty self-explanatory, even if you’re a little confused at first about what you’re looking at.
But once you find your way around and see things such as “Event name,” “event count,” and “event count per user,” you’ll probably realize that this kind of organization is a simple and straightforward way to present data that’s actually useful to digital marketing efforts.
Events Tracking Shows You What You Need
As you’ve likely gotten by now, GA4 is all about events over sessions. Seeing how users interact with a website or app is ultimately what you care about in the Analytics platform. Based on what people do on your site, you’ll be able to modify your technical SEO or whatever the issue might be.
That brings us to Analytics goals.
You’re used to setting up goals in UA, but goals don’t actually exist in GA4. As expected, they’re brought into the new “events” world.
Click on Engagement in the left-side menu and then go to Events.
Here, you’ll see a set of nine events that GA4 makes by default for every property. They include events such as “page_view,” “first_visit,” “scroll,” and “contact_us_form_submission.”
In case you were wondering if you could add your own custom events, don’t worry. You can.
Go to Configure in the menu on the far left.
You’ll see a list of existing events, and on the right, you’ll see a blue “Create event” button.
Then, you can create custom events in a similar way to how it’s done with goals in UA.
You can have events for pretty much every user action that’s important to you. Again, it’s all part of Google’s new user-focused model of online activity.
Let LSEO Help You Switch to Google Analytics 4
So, do you need Google Analytics 4?
Yes, we all will on July 1, 2023.
That’s when Google is retiring Universal Analytics and bringing in Google Analytics 4 for everyone. While the search engine says you’ll be able to access your historical UA data for at least six months after that, you’ll still need to be familiar with GA4 by that date if you want to keep tracking your website and app data.
If making the switch seems confusing, LSEO has your back. Get in touch today to learn more about our SEO consulting services and how we can get you from Universal Analytics over to Google Analytics 4.