In the fall of 2020, Google rolled out Google Analytics 4 (GA4), the latest iteration of the Google Analytics platform. GA4 replaces Universal Analytics (UA) as the default for digital analytics measurement in GA. But there are a lot of questions yet to be answered. This guide answers some of those questions about Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics.
What is GA4?
Google Analytics has evolved a great deal since it was first acquired by Google in 2005. At that time, Google purchased a product called “Urchin Analytics” (this is where UTM parameters or Urchin Tracking Modules come from) and it became the classic version of Google Analytics in 2008.
In 2013, the Universal Analytics (UA) platform rolled out and became the standard for tracking. In 2020, Google added a beta tracking property called App+Web Property. The new beta could track both App and Web visits in a single Google Analytics property instead of having those differing platform visits separated into different GA properties. Now, that App+Web Property has been rebadged and released as Google Analytics 4.
Ok, So What is a Property?
According to Google, a “property is where your company’s online data goes to get processed by Google Analytics.” It’s where the *stuff* happens in Google Analytics.
A Google Analytics property sits within a Google Analytics account. The account is the level of the hierarchy where you log in. Other than that, it’s a shell. Data processing takes place at the property level.
In the time before GA4, a company with both an App and a Website would have a single account and two distinct properties – one for the app and one for the website. With Google Analytics 4, a single property contains data for both app and web.
With Universal Analytics, each property may contain multiple views. Views allow for data filtering and configurations. This functionality does not currently exist with GA4.
Why Should I Care About Google Analytics At All?
Well! I’m scandalized that you’d even ask.
But since you have, here are 6 reasons I believe we should all care about Google Analytics.
TL:DR It helps measure website health, user trends, traffic trends, content trends, and conversion activity. Plus, it helps make advertising smarter.
Can You Have Have Different Views in GA4?
As of now, this is not available in GA4.
Historically, the “Google Analytics best practice” was always to have a minimum of 3 different “Views” in a Google Analytics property. One view would be the “Master” view which should contain filtered data, goal tracking, and other customizations to the data. Google also recommended a “Test” view, where new filters and goals could be tested before being incorporated in the Master view. And finally, Google recommended an Unfiltered view, which would contain all raw data as a backup.
Views were a cornerstone of Google Analytics and it will be great to see if and when Google incorporates them in GA4.
How Does Google Analytics 4 Measure Users?
Data gets into Universal Analytics from “cookie-based” tracking. A website with UA sends a cookie into the user’s web browser, and that allows the platform to monitor and record web activity on the site in question during that user’s session on the site. The measurement approach is a session-based data model.
In a world where privacy is becoming increasingly important, it’s a fair assumption that those cookies may become less and less prevalent. This is arguably a net positive for humanity, but for now seems like a big negative for digital marketers.
Tell Me More About Session-Based vs. Event-Based Data Models
Let’s get this straight from Google. The Session Based Model.
In UA properties, Analytics groups data into sessions, and these sessions are the foundation of all reporting. A session is a group of user interactions with your website that take place within a given time frame.
During a session, Analytics collects and stores user interactions, such as pageviews, events, and eCommerce transactions, as hits. A single session can contain multiple hits, depending on how a user interacts with your website.
How about the event-based model?
In GA4 properties, you can still see session data, but Analytics collects and stores user interactions with your website or app as events. Events provide insight on what’s happening in your website or app, such as pageviews, button clicks, user actions, or system events.
Events can collect and send pieces of information that more fully specify the action the user took or add further context to the event or user. This information could include things like the value of purchase, the title of the page a user visited, or the geographic location of the user.
This might not sound like much, but this is a huge, huge difference.
Will Google Analytics 4 Still Be Free?
Yes, Google says “Google Analytics has always offered a free version in order to help businesses if all sizes and stages better analyze and improve their websites and apps. This mission hasn’t changed.”
According to W3Techs, GA is installed on more than half of all websites on the internet. This is in large part due to the price; Google Analytics has an amazingly robust free version. There is also a paid version available, but the core functionality of the paid vs. free version is essentially the same (the paid version allows for more pageview processing).
Good news. Still can’t beat the price.
Does Attribution Modeling Work the Same in Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics?
As of right now, that’s a big N-O.
GA4 currently only supports first click attribution and last click attribution. That leaves out a bunch of options, including position-based attribution, time decay attribution, and linear attribution. The video below has an overview of what those different attribution models look like in practice.
This is a big deal, especially because Google itself (at least the part of Google represented by the Google Ads reps) has been highly encouraging advertisers to adopt attribution models other than first or last click. Google says this helps automated bidding to perform better and also makes new tools like Performance Planner smarter than they would be otherwise.
The disconnect between Ads and GA4 is one of the many that makes this all feel a bit “too soon” to this guy.
How Does Button Click Tracking Work in Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics?
Well, we’ve got some good news here.
Universal Analytics tracks data based on pageviews. So when a URL loads up, GA can track that pageview. Users actions that don’t prompt a new page to load on the tracked domain will not be tracked. That includes things like clicks to play videos and clicks that send traffic off the domain. To measure “events” like button click tracking, Universal Analytics needs the help of Google Tag Manager.
This can be time consuming and complicated for marketers tackling it for the first time. It involves setting up variables, triggers, and tags (like the tag configured below) to track specific events that will register as data in Google Analytics.
GA4, on the other hand, is not based on the same tracking protocols. It is not based on pageview tracking, but is actually built to handle event tracking out of the box. So this is definitely a potential positive for GA4 vs Universal Analytics.
What Are Additional Benefits of GA4?
Let’s see what Google says.
- GA4 can “measure, unify and de-depuplicate” user interaction data. This helps us understand the user journey.
- The new property “adapts to a changing environment” as it relates to privacy.
- Google Analytics 4 “reveals intelligent business insights” through machine learning.
- GA4 helps to “more effectively take action on your data” to achieve goals.
More to come in the future. If you have a specific question or topic of interest related to Universal Analytics vs Google Analytics 4, feel free to drop it in the comments below or hit me up on LinkedIn.