Over the past 16 years, Google Analytics has built itself into THE go-to for website analytics. As of May 2021, 29 million websites used this software. And for good reason. It is a free and simple tool that can evolve with a company. For smaller websites, you can keep your reporting very simple, and for more complex websites, you can dig as deep as you want.
Over the years, Google Analytics has evolved. In 2012, they released a new version called Universal Analytics (UA) which, to this day, is the most common version used. However in the Fall of 2020 Google rolled out GA4, the newest version. GA4 was not widely embraced as it was very different than Universal Analytics. Despite this, Google announced that it is sunsetting Universal Analytics on July 1st, 2023 making GA4 the version we all have to use.
There is more useful information below but, long story short, the Google Analytics version you are using today is probably one that is going to be obsolete come July 2023. And, the new version is radically different from the old.
Why is Google prioritizing GA4?
When Google introduced GA4 back in late 2019, it was partially in response to the rising privacy concerns across the US and the world. There may be several reasons why Google is switching from Universal Analytics (UA), but it is believed that the core reason is that UA relies on cookies and collecting data from users which may or may not (depending on who you ask) violate GDPR in Europe. UA collects and aggregates data based on tags that are implemented on each page of your website and relies on cookies. Another reason why Google may be sunsetting UA is because of the growth of browsers that block cookies. Safari and Firefox both block cookies now by default, which makes it more difficult to collect this data.
GA4, while implemented similarly to UA, relies on a different way of collecting data. UA uses what is called a session-based model of data collection, while GA4 uses an event-based model. The biggest difference between these is that instead of tracking what happens during a session, like UA, GA4 will track individual events regardless of sessions. The event-based model should comply more with GDPR and future privacy concerns.
Will I still be able to access my historical data from Universal Analytics?
For this one there’s good and bad news… I’ll start with the good news: YES. Yes, you will be able to view your historical data collected with Universal Analytics (UA). That data isn’t going anywhere. The catch is that, unfortunately, once July 1, 2023, comes around, UA will not be collecting any new data, and the data from UA will be in a separate property than your GA4 data.
This poses two difficult problems for us data nerds. First, it’s inconvenient, as you’ll have to go back and forth between different tabs in your browser, between the two properties to view your data if you wish to compare. The second, and more important problem, is that you won’t be able to compare apples to apples. While some things may be similar, like page views, the way to measure them will be very different. We’ll get to what is different in the next bullet.
What are some of the key differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics?
So other than the way Google is tracking your data, and that the data will not be comparing apples to apples, what else could possibly be different? A LOT.
These two products are completely different and should be treated as such. Universal Analytics was great for collecting data and building reports in a single tool. You were able to create tables, graphs, pie charts, and more based on predetermined, or custom, KPIs and dimensions.
Since GA4 relies on events not tied to any session, your reporting will be entirely custom and dependent on the way you tag your website. I’m happy to report that you can create events on most website interactions so you’ll be able to get the data you always wanted. Certain events come out of the box, such as pageview and scroll, once you implement the tag.
How do I implement GA4?
Speaking of implementing the tag, I saved the best news for last. Implementing GA4 is easy, especially if you utilize Google Tag Manager (GTM). For the sake of this, I’m going to assume everyone reading this uses GTM.
Once you create your GA4 property you’ll be given a Measurement ID. Copy this ID and, in your GTM container, add a new tag on every page and add the GA4 tag with this measurement ID. Google has very easy instructions also for how to implement the GA4 tag for websites that currently have analytics and those that don’t.
I know all of this sounds very intimidating as it is a big change from what we are all used to, but I do not doubt that bigger and better things are on the horizon. If you are unsure about your Google Analytics and whether or not you have a Universal Analytics or GA4 property currently just reach out.