Starting in July of 2023, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) will be the only option for collecting data with Google Analytics. But there are problems with GA4, at least for those of us who used and loved Universal Analytics (UA). In this author’s opinion, the new platform is simply not yet as good as UA. So, let’s review 4 common GA4 problems and explore what options we have.
Google made a big announcement on March 16, 2022. Universal Analytics (UA) will be deprecated at the end of June 2023. Google Analytics 4 will be our only option beginning July 1, 2023. Let’s set aside how I feel about that for a minute (not excited), and deal with the reality that we’re now living in. If we’re going to continue to use web analytics to help manage our businesses, it’s time to start getting comfortable with the new GA4 platform…or explore what other solutions might be out there.
Note: if you’re uncertain about the difference between the two Google Analytics property types, you may want to check this guide to GA4 vs UA first.
Now, on to those (4!) big GA4 problems! First up is the departure of some key metrics that many have come to rely upon.
GA4 Problem #1 – “Missing” Metrics
GA4 has an entirely different data model as compared to UA. Instead of being based on sessions and pageviews like in Universal Analytics, the GA4 measurement model is based on events.
Since the data is collected and processed differently, some once-familiar metrics are now gone. Chief among those is average session duration and bounce rate. Personally, I was never huge fan of average session duration (largely because it doesn’t show what most people think it does), but bounce rate is a big loss.
Being able to view landing pages based on lowest and highest bounce rates is a great way for digital marketers to understand which pages perform best…and which need work to better address what users are looking for. In its place, GA4 has a new metric called an “engaged session”. Check out the embedded comparison video or keep on reading below.
What is an Engaged Session in GA4?
According to Google, an engaged session is a “session that lasted 10 seconds or longer, or had 1 or more conversion events or 2 or more page or screen views.” It’s not an altogether unhelpful metric, but it’s far less specific than good ‘ol bounce rate.
You can see this “Engaged sessions” metric in the GA4 Traffic Acquisition report below for the Root and Branch site. You can also see related new metrics like “Average engagement time per session” and “Engaged rate”. Again, these aren’t useless or bad metrics, I’d just gladly trade them for bounce rate so I can compare them to historical benchmarks.
Why It’s a Problem
For some people, different metrics isn’t a problem. If you’re not going to miss bounce rate, for example, you probably fit in this category. For some of us, though, there is comfort in our workflow using all of the “regular” metrics that were always available in Google Analytics. Without that functionality, GA in general becomes less functional for easy use. And if bounce rate was one of the key metrics for your business or your clients, you’ll simply need to find a new way to identify your best and worst performing pages.
What To Do?
Well, there are a few options.
- Wait and see what happens. GA4 is still being developed and new enhancements are being pushed out on a regular basis. It’s possible that some of these old favorites from UA will be introduced in GA4. In fact, I understand that GA4 will eventually have a Bounce rate metric based on the percentage of sessions that are not engaged (i.e. an engaged session rate of 20% is equivalent to a bounce rate of 80%). This will be helpful but is still not perfect since the historical bounce rate numbers will be based on a different calculation.
- Get used to using the new metrics available in GA4 like engaged sessions to replace the old stalwart bounce rate.
- Supplement your web analytics setup with another platform or consider a switch from GA entirely. This is admittedly a big step, but the Piwik PRO platform has several important strengths in this area. Not only does Piwik PRO still give us bounce rate, but as we’ll see in in the reporting section below it provides good options for those of us who became accustomed to the reports available in UA . Full disclosure: I’ve been paid by Piwik PRO to check out their tool. Fuller disclosure: I really like it and going to keep using it as part of my regular analysis.
If you’re interested in checking it out for yourself, you can try the free Piwik PRO Core plan: https://piwik.pro/core-plan/. Or to learn more about the company behind the product, visit https://piwik.pro/.
To get started it takes your name, an email address, and the website you want to track. You can even use it conjunction with GA4, which is what I’ve been doing as I’ve been comparing these products.
GA4 Problem #2 – “Missing” Standard Reports
Not only are some of the metrics different but many of the familiar reports from Universal Analytics are not available in GA4.
Why is that?
As far as I can tell, a big part of the reason comes down to development philosophy. Universal Analytics was built as a comprehensive suite of pre-made reports that can be used out of the box to analyze online performance. Sure, it’s possible to export data from UA, but there’s a ton of functionality within those standard reports. GA4, on the other hand, seems built more as a tool for collecting lots of data with much of the analysis taking place outside of the platform. The GA4 reports that exist are limited and sometimes bulky. Instead, many users are building their GA4 reports in Data Studio or exporting their data to BigQuery for further analysis.
If we look at the traffic acquisition reporting options between UA vs. GA4, the difference is especially stark.
Acquisition Reporting in Universal Analytics
In UA, there are no less than 30 standard reports within the Acquisition reporting bucket. If you take away the 11 specific to Google Ads (that we don’t all use), you still have a large number of useful reports that we can use. You can see them highlighted in the blue box below.
Traffic acquisition reports are especially helpful to understand how various traffic sources perform in terms of total sessions on the site and (especially) how relatively effective they each are in driving conversions. One of my personal favorites is the Source/Medium report. You can see that starred in yellow in the image below. This report is the place to go if you want to understand the relative performance of various traffic “sources” (the platform sending the traffic) and “mediums” (the type of traffic).
Here are some examples.
- google / organic (traffic from Google organic search)
- bing / organic (traffic from Bing organic search)
- google / cpc (paid Google Ads traffic)
- facebook.com / referral (thanks Mark Z!)
This comprehensive suite of traffic reporting options makes Universal Analytics useful out of the box for many users.
Acquisition Reporting in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
If we look at the same reporting area in GA4, there are only 3 acquisition reports initially available to us. You can see them highlighted below.
Why It’s a Problem
Some of us may celebrate that we have only 10% of the reporting options available here. And I’d agree that the 30 from UA might be overkill for some. But personally, I think these 3 cannot come close to providing the same level of useful analytics insight as we can get from Universal Analytics. There is simply not enough there to really grasp the full picture of what’s happening on a site.
The good news is that we can customize our reports to mitigate some of this GA4 problem.
What To Do?
As mentioned, GA4 can be customized. That’s option #1 in terms of what you can do.
- Customize GA4 built in reports to add additional functionality that you miss from UA. For example, here are a couple links to video tutorials to replicate the Landing Pages report and the Source / Medium report in GA4. You can also integrate Google Search Console data with GA4. And you can build a Campaign traffic report (for your traffic tagged with UTM parameters) and add it your list of available pinned reports. There’s some extra work to do, but you can get moderately close to replicating some of the old favorites from UA.
- Piwik PRO also shines in standard reports. As you can see in the screenshot below, there are 6 standard reports available within the Acquisition reporting bucket. For some, this may be a good goldilocks number between the 30 in UA and the 3 in GA4. The image below shows the “Channels” report, where we can change to a Source / Medium view with a single click (check the arrow). And look at what we find the green box! The return of the Bounce rate metric! This a clear win for me. Although, it’s perhaps eclipsed by how easy it is to set up conversion tracking. As you can see in the red box, I’ve set up conversion tracking for a form submission that lands on a thank you page. The relative ease / difficulty of conversion tracking setup is another of the GA4 problems. We will explore that next.
GA4 Problem #3 – Some Basic Conversion Tracking is Harder in GA4
In some ways, GA4 makes custom tracking easier than UA. Events like external link clicks and scrolls can be tracked quite simply in the new platform, while that same kind of tracking in UA requires setting up tags and triggers in Google Tag Manager. But one of the most basic and most important conversion actions – a successful submissions of a contact form – is significantly more complex in GA4.
Read on for more.
Setting Up Conversions in Universal Analytics
In Universal Analytics there are 4 types of goals (conversions) you can create:
- Session Duration
- Pages / Session
The first two are quick and easy to set up within GA, but are only mildly helpful. It might be interesting to see how many people view 3 or more pages during their session, but that won’t typically help you understand much about why they are (or not) buying or filling out your contact form. The destination goal, however, is both quick to create in GA and can be quite helpful. You could, for example, track visits to a Contact page as an important conversion action for someone likely looking for how to get in touch. Or you could track visits to a “thank you” page, that a visitor automatically lands on following a form submission. These destination goals take all of 30 seconds to create in UA and can be quite effective.
Event goals are also quite effective, but they are more complicated to create. To create an event goal, you need the help of Google Tag Manager to track “events” like button clicks, downloads, and scrolls that don’t cause a new page view. Personally, I used only Event and Destination goals in the Root and Branch UA property. As you can see below, any click to the R&B YouTube channel was tracked as an event goal, while a contact page form submit was an event goal. Of the two, the contact page conversion is the far more important.
A Brief Aside About Thank You Pages for Tracking
It’s worth noting that some people don’t like tracking thank you pages to help track forms. There can be some downsides, especially related to data integrity because thank you pages can be susceptible to double counting. I personally don’t tend to get too bent out of shape about that, since you can generally de-duplicate the data without too much trouble. But with that being said, there are other ways to track submitted forms other than thank you pages. The tracking methodology is often specific to the type of form that you’re using and how it works. For example, if you use Contact Form 7 (the most downloaded form plugin for WordPress) you can follow this CF7 form tracking guide.
Setting Up Conversions in GA4
Unlike UA, the data model in GA4 is not based on sessions and pageviews. That means that 3 of the 4 “easy” conversions to create in UA no longer exist. Calculated metrics like Pages / Session and Session Duration simply don’t exist in GA4, and a destination goal based on a view of a specific page is now a complex endeavor. That’s not much of a problem for Session Duration and Pages / Session goal types, but not having easy Destination goals is a loss. Since data in GA4 is processed as various types of events, we only have conversions based on event data. And this typically means we need to pull in the help of Google Tag Manager.
I think Google Tag Manager (GTM) is an incredible tool. But it’s also true that not everyone is comfortable with it. If this describes you, you may not love setting up these types of conversions with GA4.
As you can see in the thumbnail below, the process for creating a GA4 conversion to track form submissions using a thank you page is a relatively involved process. The fact is that it takes me nearly 16 minutes (and requires functional knowledge of GTM) in GA4, compared to 1 minute or less in UA.
Why It’s a Problem
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, there are other types of data that are actually far easier to create than in UA. Some examples are scroll tracking, external link click tracking, and tracking downloads. But the fact remains that the loss of the humble destination goal will be a barrier to some folks who want to easily track visits to high value pages. For many websites, tracking a successful form submission is the single most important conversion action that exists. And that is now a much more involved process.
What To Do?
To track form submissions using a thank you page, the two best options are to configure GA4 for this or to use another web analytics platform like Piwik PRO to do it.
- You cannot create destination goals in GA4, but you can watch this tutorial to configure GA4 for form submission tracking. Here’s a high level overview of what to do. You’ll need Google Tag Manager to create a pageview trigger and you’ll then create a GA4 event tag to pair up with the trigger. When you build that tag, you’ll be able to create additional “event parameters” to add additional context to your event data. After testing in GTM, you can publish your tag and trigger so this data will flow into GA4. Then, you’ll need to register any event parameters as custom dimensions in GA4 so that data will be available to you in your reports.
- With Piwik PRO, it’s easy to create a destination goal. It’s also pretty easy to track other types of goals as well.
Here are 3 goals I’ve created in my Piwik PRO account to track activity on the Root and Branch site. As you can see, we’re tracking form submissions (based on visits to a thank you page), file downloads, and clicks to YouTube. Of the 3, the most important is the form submission goal.
Setting up the form submission goal is as simple in Piwik PRO as it is in Universal Analytics. You can see the entire process in the image below. All form submissions on the Root and Branch site go to a landing page that includes “thank-you” in the URL. I simply create a goal type based on “Visit page with URL” with a condition where the URL contains thank-you and I’m all done.
#4 – It Remains to Be Seen if the EU’s Google Privacy Concerns Are All Going Away
It’s not a surprise that privacy has been a major issue in the world of digital marketing and the world at large. This is perhaps best exemplified with what’s happened with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) since it went into effect in the European Union on May 25, 2018. This legislation has brought certain European countries into conflict with Google (specifically Google Analytics). And one can read that subtext into the GA4 story.
What Does Google Say?
In its March 16 press release, Google says that Universal Analytics was based on a methodology that “is quickly becoming obsolete”. And it’s true that GA4 introduces a number of enhancements and upgrades relative to its predecessor. It’s also true that Universal Analytics was getting into hot water with some governments over the issue of privacy.
In that same linked press release, here is what Google says about privacy in both UA and GA4.
And though Universal Analytics offers a variety of privacy controls, Google Analytics 4 is designed with privacy at its core to provide a better experience for both our customers and their users. It helps businesses meet evolving needs and user expectations, with more comprehensive and granular controls for data collection and usage. Importantly, Google Analytics 4 will also no longer store IP addresses. These solutions and controls are especially necessary in today’s international data privacy landscape, where users are increasingly expecting more privacy protections and control over their data.
According to Google, GA4 has “privacy at its core”. So it’s possible that the platform has been designed to address potential conflicts with GDPR and get Google out of any privacy-related hot water with the EU. But that is an issue that remains to be settled. And I’ve yet to see Google documentation that outlines the specific implementation steps that will ensure 100% compliance with GDPR.
What To Do?
As usual, there are a few options here.
- Do nothing. If your analytics infrastructure isn’t GDPR compliant, you can choose to not make any changes and roll the dice. That’s not recommended here.
- If you’re especially worried about privacy and compliance, you might choose to do away with analytics altogether on your website. That’s not recommended if your web analytics help you make smart decisions about your business.
- You can use GA4 in conjunction with Google Tag Manager and work to make your implementation GDPR compliant. If you’re continuing to use Google Analytics, it’s worth understanding how to bring your setup into compliance. I haven’t yet found official Google documentation on this, but here’s a link to setting up a cookie consent notification to get you started. It’s possible (perhaps likely, even) that GA4 will continue to roll out enhancements that make it easier to stay on the right side of GDPR.
- You could choose to use a platform like Piwik PRO that was built with privacy compliance in mind. I admit to not being a data privacy expert. Far from it. But the Piwik PRO platform has a built-in “Consent Manager” feature that makes it easy to stay compliant. It allows web visitors the ability to grant consent to tracking. And data is anonymized so you can respect privacy preferences while still getting access to valuable insights. Check out Consent Manager below.
Within the main menu, you can toggle to “Consent Manager” as the third menu item below “Analytics” and “Tag Manager”.
From there, you can choose which type of form and privacy notification you’d like to display on your site. Each of the two form options (either a form with list of multiple consent options or a single form with one consent type like the one shown below), can be configured with custom styling and text.
Then, within the main “Privacy” settings, you can easily turn the consent form on or off using the toggle button shown below. Pretty straightforward.
For organizations that are focused on privacy, a solution like Piwik PRO provides both ease of use and peace of mind.
I hope this helps as you think about your future plans for web analytics. It’s a time of significant change in the industry and there are a lot of options to consider. What we know with certainty is that Universal Analytics is not a viable long-term option. Data will no longer be processed in that platform beginning July 1, 2023. In its place, digital marketers may choose to ramp up their practical knowledge of GA4 or may choose to use a different analytics solution outside of the Google realm.
If you are looking to get started with the former, here’s a 5 minute overview of installing GA4 with Google Tag Manager.
If you’re interested in exploring Piwik PRO, here’s the link once again to the free Piwik PRO Core plan: https://piwik.pro/core-plan/.
Personally, I’m going to continue testing and using both and plan to make a final decision later in 2022 or early 2023.
About Root & Branch
Root & Branch is a certified Google Partner agency and focuses on paid search (PPC), SEO, Local SEO, and Google Analytics. Hit the button below to check out YouTube for more digital marketing tips and training resources.