GA4 is upon us: What you need to know
Google has announced its plan to expire the current version of Google Analytics, known as Universal Analytics (UA) in July 2023. What does that mean for the average business owner trying to understand analytics and the stories they tell about our businesses?
Let’s clarify - Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is here. It actually launched in October 2020, when it came out of beta-testing, which means that any property entered into GA3 after that defaults to the new platform.
GA4 brings with it functionality that UA doesn’t have, and as Google explained, a next generation approach to “privacy-first” tracking, cross-channel measurement and AI based predictive data all in one clever bundle.
So what does this actually mean?
GA4 has the capabilities that future-proof the way that data is collected and stored, and will operate in compliance with progressively tighter privacy laws.
Privacy-first is GA4's response to issues that UA often experienced as a result of cookie consent options implemented by privacy protection laws such as the CDPR. These laws gave consumers more control over the personal information that business analytics collect about them, in the case of browsers and websites, via their whole IP address. The blocking of cookies in some cases led to the reduced stability of analytics.
GA4, with these privacy laws front and centre, now anonymises IP addresses by default permanently. Only part of the IP address is collected that is relevant to tracking the experience or events over than the user. The privacy-centric design works well with or without cookies and ensures its compliance with privacy laws.
GA4 capabilities of cross-channel measurement also work well when users shift between devices and platforms. The App + Web system that it’s built on, released in 2019, focusses on tracking across apps, software and a website. It’s about the understanding of the customer journey across devices, not just individual metrics across devices, pages and segments.
This supports the new way that GA4 presents the data around ‘events’, as opposed to ‘sessions’ and ‘hits' in the UA model. It’s about tracking the user journey, the events and interactions that take place from initial visit to conversion.
In addition to automated event tracking (‘first_visit’ or ‘session_start’) GA4 offers Enhanced Measurement enabling the collection of more events such as ‘video_start’ or ‘file-download’, as well as additional parameters within these events. Unlike ‘event tracking’ in UA, editing, correcting and fine-tuning of event tracking can be undertaken through the GA4 tools, without having to edit on-site code.
Machine Learning: AI Powered Insights and Predictions.
Sure it’s still in its infancy, but machine-learning processing of data measurement in GA4 enables it to fill in the gaps of missing data. Using modelling that’s extrapolated from existing data, it makes intelligent assumptions about website traffic and user behaviour, when users or browsers block cookies or engage data collection permissions.
AI powered insights don’t have to rely on ‘hits’ from every page, they offer predictive data and trends for better understanding of customer behaviour. They uncover patterns and connections that may have been missed.
A New Look
The interface of GA4 is also very different. The overhaul gives the platform new, simpler navigation and is more user-friendly.
The default reporting includes Life cycle and User collections which centre around the customer journey. It also offers a simpler holistic view of real-time data with improved visuals and tables. Interactions with the data have also been upgraded; it is dynamic and more intuitive when looking at comparative data sets such as between devices.
July 2023 will see UA stop processing new data, and in October 2023 it will cease processing data completely. Importantly, even though the existing data will remain within UA for 6 months, GA4 is forward-facing, and there is no capability to pull the data across from UA.
GA4 is being touted by the experts as the analytics tool we need now and for the future, and many recommend that you start collecting data with the tool now.
It’s still in its initial design phase, and will undoubtedly experience more UI changes moving ahead.
Google recommends parallel tracking is the best way to move forward on their own website.
Setting up GA4 right now alongside UA will help machine learning and AI accuracy in GA4 moving ahead as it improves, and will assist in getting to know and understand GA4’s full capabilities.It will also offer time to import data from non-website sources that are relevant to your analytics now, before making the full transition.
The recommended course of action for existing Google Analytics users is to dual tag your pages. That is if you already have an existing Google Analytics 3 property tracking data, continue to track data in that property, but also create a new Google Analytics 4 property and start collecting data in that property simultaneously.
If you are using older tracking code (like analytics.js) you’ll need to upgrade to gtag.js, or talk to your tag management tool vendor about modifying your GA installation to begin dual tagging.
Using both platforms simultaneously means you get all the benefits of both as bugs and functionality issues are fixed in future updates.
What if I don’t upgrade?
For now, nothing will change, but you won’t benefit from the new functionality that’s getting rolled out. Dual tagging gives you historical data when GA4 becomes your primary property type, and the old version is laid to rest.
Also, the new naming conventions and event types that Google recommends will make your setup future proof as the new features rollout, ignoring action now means you’ll miss out.
Many brands are implementing the upgrade now, so the question is really how soon should you upgrade?
Google’s Property Migration tool is here.
This helps you nominate primary GA3 properties that you want to migrate setup configuration for GA4. It should save you time to make the transition easier.
So the bottom line is while you don’t need to action anything right now - to take advantage of the new innovations, you may want to - or risk having to play catch up.
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