Google recently announced that July 1, 2023 will mark its sunset of Universal Analytics (UA). On this date, marketers will be forced to use the new Google Analytics 4 software. This news has sent digital marketers in a scurry, seeking to begin to run their tracking and reporting on GA4 to ensure they have the most historical data possible. Getting GA4 up and running in parallel with UA also helps users to identify and understand the differences between the two programs. At MHP/Team SI, we’ve been testing GA4 for a while, and we’ve noticed quite a few differences. Let’s explore some of those below as we compare UA and GA4.
The most obvious difference between UA and GA4 is in its dashboard and interface. GA4’s layout, menu and charts are more minimalist than UA. This can make things easier to access once you’ve hiked the learning curve. However, if you’re a longtime user, it will probably take some time to break old habits and acquaint yourself with the new setup.
GA4 provides a couple of options to customize your layout. There’s a custom report builder that can get you what you need at a glance, or you can use Google Data Studio. Power users will probably resort to more powerful data analysis tools like Google BigQuery, Tableau, etc.
UA users will be used to four types of hits: page, event, ecommerce and social interaction. However, in GA4, all hits are event based. You may be familiar with events in Universal Analytics. Events can have a category, action and/or label to help describe exactly what was taking place.
GA4, on the other hand, does not provide category, action or label distinctions. Each hit does have a distinct naming convention, thought, because all are classified as events. Some of the default events in GA4 include page_view for websites, or the pageview equivalent for app tracking, screen_view. You can also set up custom events that have a unique naming convention that suits your needs.
Sessions are one of the more valuable metrics available in Google Analytics. Universal Analytics officially defines a session as “a group of user interactions with your website that takes place within a given time frame.” This could be a bunch of pageviews, events, and/or ecommerce transactions. A session usually ends after 30 minute of inactivity.
Google has changed sessions dramatically in GA4. The new analytics platform will provide a dedicated set of session metrics in GA4, all derived from the session_start event. Session durations are calculated by looking at the time of session_start and the last event that takes place. The differences made to the session metric is one of the primary reasons you need to start running GA4 in parallel with UA as quickly as possible. This will give you time to become comfortable with the new metrics. If you’re looking for more information on why some session data will look different, check out this Analytics help page from Google.
Bounce rate is one of the most dramatic metric changes from UA to GA4. In GA4, bounce rate is completely gone!
GA4 has replaced bounce rate with “Engaged Sessions.” Many GA users (myself included) were surprised to see Bounce Rate excluded from GA4. However, it does make sense. Bounce rate was not the best indicator of page performance. An informative blog post, for example, may have a high bounce rate, but that does not mean that it was not a high-quality post. Good blogs often have high bounce rates because users read the content and leave the site. Therefore, it’s not necessarily a tragedy to see bounce rate leave the platform.
In the past, we would often modify the bounce rate by having a timer go off after a user had been on the page for ten seconds. After all, if a user is on the page for more than ten seconds, they’re probably engaged. Engaged Sessions does that and more. It will count a session as engaged if the user is on the page for more than ten seconds, if a conversion happens, OR if two or more pages (or screens for mobile app sessions) are visited.
Accounts, Properties, Views
The biggest change in this area is that Google has done away with Views in GA4. This means that Properties will be the go-to place for data visualization in GA4. In UA, the best practice has been to have a raw data view, test view and reporting view at minimum. Now, GA4 will provide Audiences or Data Streams to sub in for filtered views.
Google structured ecommerce tracking and reporting differently in GA4. We recommend you tread lightly and spend some time planning before jumping in.
Google recommends that you avoid sharing ecommerce implementations on UA and GA4. Instead, they recommend you have two implementations – one for UA and one for GA4.
Google’s above documentation page also outlines some of the ecommerce naming changes made from UA to GA4. For example, Revenue in UA is Value in GA4. Some metrics have more detailed, helpful naming conventions too: promotion views, item list views, and item views all have distinct names, instead of just “pageview.” It will be important for your analytics team to be on the same page about those changes.
Developers and data teams will probably need to work together to make sure new events, parameters and event triggers are accounted for in the dataLayer. While you can continue using dataLayer objects that work for UA, you won’t get the benefits of new GA4 event names and parameters.
Data Retention/Historical Data
Changes to data retention and historical data are some of the most important differences between Universal Analytics and GA4. In Universal Analytics, we were used to having access to years worth of data. In GA4, Google will shift to a much shorter data retention policy.
The default setting for GA4 will be to retain data for just two months. Thankfully, there will be an option to retain data for up to 14 months. If you’re a data junkie like me, this is still far less than what you’d like. What can you do if you require more than 14 months of data to analyze? There are a few solutions. If you’re not used to dealing with data warehouses, it would be a good idea to consult an expert.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what change we will have to deal with as we transition from Universal Analytics to GA4. Everywhere you look in the new platform, changes are being made. Google is also consistently making changes to GA4 and adding new features. If your business relies upon Google Analytics for your reporting and decision making, it is vital that you begin to run GA4 in parallel with UA as quickly as possible. It will take a bit of time to become familiar with the new platform and its features.
If you don’t have an internal data team to make sure you have a smooth transition to the new platform – or if you’d like a second set of eyes to check the setup you already have – get in touch with us. We’ll be happy to help!