If you haven’t already heard (and you definitely should have), Google will be sunsetting their Universal Analytics (UA) platform by the end of June 2023 while 360 properties are to be sunset by the end of June 2024.
Ultimately, all users, are required to make the shift to the new Google Analytics 4 (GA4). But what is Google Analytics 4, what are the key differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics, and why is Google sunsetting Universal Analytics anyway?
What is Google Analytics 4?
Google Analytics 4 - or GA4 - is the newest version of Google’s analytics platform. Unlike its predecessor, Universal Analytics, or UA, GA4 is an event-based platform instead of a session-based one.
What are the benefits of Google Analytics 4?
Good question. There are several reasons why Google is updating its analytics platform to GA4.
In case you hadn’t noticed, data privacy is a pretty big thing at the moment and one of the reasons for the switch to GA4 is about shifting away from cookies and offering more privacy protection for internet users.
In fact, GA4 is part of a range of revised or new products from Google all designed with data privacy and regulations such as GDPR in mind including Google Privacy Sandbox, Google Enhanced Conversion Tracking, Google Consent Mode, and Google Measurement Protocol.
Google Analytics 4 privacy features include:
- All existing privacy features in UA.
- By default, users’ IP addresses are anonymized and GA4 doesn't store IP addresses either.
- All EU data is collected in the EU to satisfy GDPR requirements.
- While UA allows for data retention indefinitely, GA4 restricts this to a maximum of 14 months with the default set at just 2 months.
- Google signals can be enabled on a per-region basis.
GA4 Event Tracking
One of the biggest changes between UA and GA4 is the introduction of an event-based model in place of UA’s existing session-based model. This means that instead of focusing on sessions and page views, GA4 categorizes any interaction on your website as an event.
Events can be customized to be a grouping of specific actions. Or, they can consist of just a single action. Usefully, GA4 also allows marketers an easy-to-use no-code way of editing and adjusting the way events are tracked.
Cross-device and Mobile-focused
In the 10 years since Google launched UA, audiences and customers have evolved. In 2016, for example, mobile web browsing overtook desktop for the first time and we now see a lot more cross-device behavior as we all hop from desktop to phone to tablet to apps as we explore and shop online.
Compared with UA, GA4 is much more tailored to cross-device tracking and mobile-focused users.
AI and machine learning
GA4 incorporates much more AI and machine learning than its predecessor. This is less than an add-on though than an actual necessity. Because GA4 is designed to work without cookies, machine learning and statistical modeling are now essential to fill in any data gaps.
Thus, machine learning is now the main form of data measurement, extrapolating from existing data to make assumptions about site traffic or user behavior. A new AI-powered “Insights” feature has also been added intended to provide useful information for users based on their data.
Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics
There are a lot of key differences between GA4 and UA, particularly in regard to how data is defined and what different metrics are called alongside a new UI with a number of new menu items.
While UA also had events, they’re now totally different in GA4 as well as a lot more powerful. While in UA, an event tracked specific actions within a page, in GA4 events are any user interaction with your website or app - including things like page views, CTA clicks, or form submissions.
In this sense, they are analogous to what UA calls hits, however in UA, users were confined to pre-defined hit types. In GA4 however, events can be customized to track anything you like.
At the same time, GA4 also has a set of Automatically Collected Events which are events collected by default as well as Enhanced Measurement Events, which are essentially predefined events you can enable and your Google Analytics tag starts sending data straight away without the need for any coding.
For websites, these include:
- Page views (page_view)
- Scrolls (scroll)
- Outbound clicks (click)
- Site search (view_search_results)
- Video engagement (video_start, video_progress, video_complete)
- File downloads (file_download)
One of the first things you’ll notice is the different UI and all new menu items. Replacing the five menu items in UA, there are now four: Reports, Explore, Advertising, and Configure (plus Home but we aren’t counting that…).
Chief among these is the new Life Cycle section which lives under the Reporting tab, and within which are things like Acquisition, Monetization, and Engagement live.
GA4 is heavily focused on user Engagement as a key metric and with this comes an array of new engagement-related metrics including Average Engagement Time, Engaged Sessions, Engagement Rate, and Engaged Sessions Per User.
In some cases, these metrics replace existing ones (Average Engagement Time in GA4 is essentially Average Time On Site metric from UA) while others are somewhat new (Engaged Sessions counts sessions that fit certain parameters (i.e. longer than 10 seconds on your site, has at least one conversion, includes two or pages views).
The Engagement tab is also where Events live and you will also notice Conversions sitting there too…
While in UA you measure conversions by setting up goals and ecommerce transactions, in GA4, all conversions are measured via a GA4 event. You can simply select any event that you want to be considered a conversion, mark it as a conversion event, and when that event is triggered it is registered as a conversion. Simple really. GA4 users can mark up to 30 events as a conversion event, rising to 50 for Google Analytics 360 users.
Another new section in GA4 is Explore where marketers can build reports called Explorations. These can be built from scratch or by using one of the predefined templates;
- Funnel Explorations which focus on analyzing, segmenting, and breaking down user journeys with multi-step funnels
- Path Explorations which use tree graphs to focus on understanding what pathways users to take for a more detailed look at different udder journeys.
- Free Form which allows users to custom-build any report from a variety of graphs and tables.
What metrics does Google Analytics 4 have?
Because GA4 adopts a new events-based model, this means the introduction of new metrics for you to play with. At the same time, it also means that some of the more familiar metrics from UA have gone, changed name, or been adjusted.
New metrics in GA4
- Average Engagement Time
- Engaged Sessions
- Engagement Rate
- Engaged Sessions Per User
- Purchase Probability
- Churn Probability
- Revenue Prediction
UA metrics that have gone
- Active users become the primary user metric in GA4, instead of ‘ total users’
- Pageviews metric changed to views
- Unique pageviews metric removed
- Changed to ‘Session Start’
- Specified ‘Conversion Events’ instead of ‘Goals’
- Duplicity of ‘Conversion Capture’ possible
- Bounce Rate
- ‘Bounce Rate’ replaced by ‘Engagement Rate’
- Session Duration
- ‘Session Duration’ replaced by ‘Engagement Time’
- ‘Session Duration’ replaced by ‘Engagement Time’
So, when will GA4 replace UA?
July 1, 2023, according to Google ("Universal Analytics will be going away"). From this time on, Universal Analytics properties will stop processing data into reports (you will just see a lot of zeros) and only historical data will be available.
Google has stated that UA users will be able to access and download historical data for six months after this point however no reports will be accessible in UA after December 2023.
Meanwhile, Google Analytics 360 customers will get a bit more time. Originally it was announced that Google Analytics 360 properties will stop processing data from October 1, 2023 (3 months after UA). However, as of October 27, 2022, this deadline was extended to July 1, 2024.
How to upgrade to Google Analytics 4
The simple answer here is you can’t. GA4 is a completely new platform and you cannot migrate your UA data into GA4.
Instead, you need to set up a new Google Analytics 4 property in parallel to your existing UA property. This will mean taking a fresh look at what metrics you want, should, and can measure in the new platform and adjusting your KPIs and measurement strategy accordingly.
And don’t simply try and copy what you have in UA either — you won’t be able to — instead, use this opportunity to think about how you can do things differently (and better) in this new environment.
For more information on how to set up your new GA4 property, check out Google’s step-by-step guide.