google analytics 4 vs universal analytics

Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics

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. As we’re now fully into 2021, this guide answers some of those questions about Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics. If you’re looking for detailed instructions on how to set up GA4 you can find that at the end of this guide.

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 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 (GA4).

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.

According to Google, Google Analytics 4 allows “businesses to measure across platforms and devices using multiple forms of identity.” This includes first party data as well as “Google signals” from users who have opted into ads personalization. And Google Analytics 4 will still use cookies where they are available for tracking. Instead of tracking sessions, GA4 has an event-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.

google analytics 4 vs universal analytics

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.

Data As Events vs. Sessions

The table below shows recorded data in Google Analytics. The Universal Analytics property is on the left with different “hit types” corresponding to different types of data. The GA4 property is on the right where all data is an Event.

ga4 events vs ua sessions and pageviews

So as we cam see, everything is an Event in GA4.

Acquisition Reports in Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics

Acquisition reporting helps us to understand how various types of traffic are performing on our site. If we want to compare the performance of organic search vs. email vs. social media in terms of driving purchases or other conversions, we need Acquisition reporting. Acquisition reporting in GA4 is fundamentally similar to acquisition reporting in UA. But yet, there are some key differences.

One difference relates to the location of this data in our GA property. Check out the top section for “How to Access Traffic Reports in GA4 vs. UA if you could use guidance.

The more important difference is that there are 3 new metrics we’ll see in our GA4 traffic reports. Read on below.

  • Engaged session: According to Google the engaged session metric is the count of sessions that lasted longer than 10 seconds, or had a conversion event, or had 2 or more screen or page views.
  • Average engagement time per session. Google says this is the User engagement duration per session. In other words, the amount of time the user is actually engaging with the page (scrolling, etc) and the page is the primary window being viewed on the screen.
  • Engagement rate. Engagement rate is the ratio of Engaged sessions relative to total sessions. If you had 1,000 total sessions and 130 of them qualified as Engaged sessions (per Google’s definition above), the Engagement rate would be 13%.

Segments in Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics

Segments allow you to analyze a subset of your Google Analytics data so you can better understand your users and our website (or app). Segments essentially work the same way in GA4 as they do in Universal Analytics. In both GA4 and UA you can analyze up to 4 segments at the same time. However, the types of segments you can create are slightly different.

There are 3 different types of segments we can create in GA4: User segments, Session segments, and Event segments. With Universal Analytics there are only 2 types of segments we can create: User segments and Session segments.

The big difference between GA4 and UA is the process for creating segments. In GA4, segments exist in a new area called “Explorations”. For an in depth comparison check out this walkthrough of creating custom segments in Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics.

google analytics 4 explorations

Categories of Events in GA4

There are 4 different categories of Events in GA4. This information is pulled from the Google Developers guide for GA4.

  • Category 1 and Category 2- Automatically Collected events and Enhanced Measurement events: I’m grouping both of these types of events together because they are automatically logged from the gtag or gtm configuration. They do not require any additional coding, but the Enhanced Measurement Events do require enablement through the GA4 interface. This guide has an in depth comparison of these particular events in GA4 vs UA. As you can see below, Page views, scroll tracking, outbound clicks, site search, video engagement, and file downloads are all examples of Enhanced measurement events.

    enhanced measurement events in ga4

  • Here is a full list of automatically collected events. Automatically collected events record the following parameters by default.

    • language
    • page_location
    • page_referrer
    • page_title
    • screen_resolution
  • Category 3 – Recommended Events: These are events with predefined names and parameters that are recommended for different business types. These events require custom code changes. Here are some Recommended Events from Google.

  • Category 4 – Custom Event: These are events that you invent, name and implement yourself (similar to Universal analytics). These events also require custom code changes.

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 like there will still be a bit of time before GA4 can truly replace UA.

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.

configured tag in google tag manager

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.

How Do I Set Up GA4?

If you create a new Google Analytics property, you’ll see that Google recommends GA4 as the default.

First, go to analytics.google.com and hit the blue “Create Property” button in the Admin section.

Second, give your property a name and select your reporting time zone and currency as shown below. Please note, if you want to create a Universal Analytics property, you can do so by hitting the “Show advanced options” button below.

create ga4 property

Third, create a “data stream”. A data stream is a new term for GA4 and refers to the app type (iOS or Android) or whether it is a website. In the UA days, an app or a website would both be distinct properties. With GA4, these are different “data streams” within a single property. If you’re creating your GA4 property for a website, hit the “Web” option. Then, enter your website URL, give your Stream a name (something like GA4 for NameofWebsite.com works great) and then hit the blue “Create stream” button to get rolling.

create a ga4 data stream

As you can see in the screenshot, some “Enhanced measurement” events like scroll depth tracking, outbound clicks, and pageviews will be automatically recorded. To adjust what events you’ll record, simply hit the gear icon in the bottom right and you can turn events on or off.

The fourth step is to enable data collection by placing the GA4 tracking code on your website or app. Placing the javascript code can be done directly on the site or through Google Tag Manager.

  • This developer guide has instructions to deploy the GA4 tracking code on the site. Note, this is not the best way to do it in my opinion. Google Tag Manager is the way to go for getting GA4 on your site.
  • To deploy the GA4 code on the site through Tag Manager, you can use this support guide or see the section immediately below for everything you need to know.

The fifth step is adding “Recommended Events” to your data stream. Recommended Events have an event name and a trigger that causes the event to fire based on specific parameters.  The events linked here may be suitable for all web properties.

How Do I Deploy GA4 With GTM?

The 5 steps below detail how to deploy GA4 on your site using Google Tag Manager after you’ve followed the first three steps above to create your new GA4 property and data stream.

Head to Google Tag Manager

First, go to tagmanager.google.com and access your workspace within your container to get started.

Create a New Tag Using the GA4 Configuration

Second, within the Tags section of your Workspace, hit the “NEW” button to create a new tag. Make sure you select the GA4 Configuration as shown below under the tag type.

ga4 tag configuration

Get Your Measurement ID from Google Analytics

Third, head back to Google Analytics and within the Admin section of your GA4 Property find your Measurement ID for your data stream.

Select “Data Streams” (red box) within the Property and then click on the proper data stream (blue box). You’ll see a Measurement ID beginning with G and followed by a dash with 10 other characters (G-XXXXXXXXXX). Copy the Measurement ID.

ga4 measurement id in ga

Configure Your New GA4 Tag

Fourth, head back to Google Tag Manager to configure your new GA4 tag. Paste the Measurement ID (G-XXXXXXXXXX) into the prescribed location as shown in the highlighted box below. Hit the check box to send a page view event when the new property configuration loads as shown.

measurement id for ga4

Finish configuring your new tag by making sure it has an appropriate firing trigger. It should be set to fire on All Pages with page view trigger by default.

Also, give your tag a name you will recognize. We’ll call this one “Google Analytics (GA4)”.

Review Your Tag and Publish the Container

You’ll now see the new tag in your list of tags within your Workspace. In the screenshot below you’ll see our preexisting UA tag on the top of the list and our new GA4 tag that we just configured immediately below. We’ll continue to collect data with both property types for the foreseeable future. More on that below!

Now publish your updated container and GA4 will now be deployed on your site!

new ga4 tag in gtm

Are there Any Additional Benefits of GA4?

Here is what Google has to say on the subject.

  • GA4 can “measure, unify and de-duplicate” 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.

In terms of learning the platform, the biggest practical benefit for us is that Google has told us that GA4 will be the new standard. So it’s a question of “when” not “if” it replaces UA for all digital marketers and measurement teams.

So When Should I Discontinue Use of UA?

There aren’t clear guidelines from Google on this. However, based on what I’ve seen and heard the answer is “not yet.” Most marketers plan to still use UA as the primary measurement standard for at least the next 6 months to a year. During that time, they’ll be learning how to implement and use GA4.

Looking for More Resources on GA4 and UA?

I’ve been creating some YouTube videos to help visually show the difference between UA and GA4. Feel free to pop over and subscribe if that sounds interesting to you.

root and branch youtube

Here’s one below comparing and contrasting the Traffic Acquisition reports for the Root and Branch site across both types of properties.

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. I’d be glad to hear from you.

Good luck out there!

9 replies
    • Zack Duncan
      Zack Duncan says:

      Hi there! You can link both UA and GA4 to your Google Ads account. And you can set this up from Google Ads (hit ‘Tools and Settings’ and then find ‘Linked Accounts’ under ‘Setup’) or from Google Analytics.

      Although if you use UA for most of your GA reporting currently, it might make sense to still focus on that account link and then only sync up with GA4 once that becomes your standard reporting platform in the future. Good luck!

      Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Custom segments allow you to analyze a subset of your Google Analytics data so you can better understand your users and our website (or app). Let’s take a look at how to build custom segments in both GA4 and UA. And if you’re interested in a broader comparison of these two property types of Google Analytics first, you can head on over to this comparison guide on GA4 vs. Universal Analytics. […]

  2. […] track! Many of us (like this author) will miss Universal Analytics, but Google has told us that GA4 will be the […]

  3. […] “Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics” by Zack Duncan. Root and Branch Group. February 1, 2021. https://www.rootandbranchgroup.com/google-analytics-4-vs-universal-analytics/ […]

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