An introduction to Google Analytics 4

Welcome to GA4

This is a follow up to last months “Support for Universal Analytics ends on the 1st of July 2023” post that was written in response to the horrifying news that Google is “sunsetting” Universal Analytics next year. In the interests of staying ahead of the ever changing landscape of online data reporting it seemed important, if for no other reason than my own edification, to write a post about the exciting new opportunities that GA4 represents. I also promised this would be upbeat, so strap in.

What is GA4

GA4 is the latest iteration of Google’s popular analytics package, previously known as Universal Analytics or UA. UA is also being referred to as GA3 in certain circles, presumably for conceptual symmetry.

With this latest version of Analytics, Google have sort to combine data from apps as well as websites. Bringing all this information under one roof makes plotting user journeys and interactions between your apps and website a more seamless affair.

The advice at the time of writing is to leave your Universal Analytics account in place and run GA4 in tandem. GA4 is administered through the same interface but is a completely separate platform. There’s no sense in losing all your historical UA data. In this way you can dip a toe into GA4 whilst maintaining a grip on your Universal Analytics security blanket.

GDPR eats cookies

If you don’t have an existing Universal Analytics account I’m afraid that ship has sailed. All new Analytics accounts will now be GA4.

GDPR signed the death warrant for cookies in 2018. It’s for this reason that GA4 is moving away from reliance on cookies to track usage across devices and apps. In it’s place, machine learning will be used to backfill your data where consent has not been given.

Where Universal Analytics broke data into sessions and devices, GA4 takes a more wholistic view of the user journey. The goal is to give web developers, digital marketers and data analysists a deeper understanding of how visitors interact with their apps and websites.

GA4 is all about events

GA4 Events

UA relies on a session model for it’s reporting. A session is a period of time when a user is actively engaged with your website. User interactions are corralled into a specific time periods. The same user can initiate multiple sessions on a website.

GA4 focusses on events. These are the actions that a user performs on your website such as clicking a menu link or submitting a contact form. The focus has shifted from UA’s “is the user doing anything” to “what is the user doing” in GA4. These events are still tied to a session but you can send up as many as 25 event parameters with each event in GA4.

Goals have been replaced by Conversions in GA4. You can now have 30 conversions in GA4 compared to the 20 goal limit in Universal Analytics. Goals in UA can be triggered by events, duration, destination and event category. Only events can trigger conversions in GA4. This means that before you can use an event as a conversion, you need to ensure your event is being tracked in GA4. Once the event parameter appears in GA4 you can assign it “conversion” status.

Some events are tracked by default such as “ad_click” and “page_view”. With Enhanced Measurment enabled GA4 will collect events such as “scroll”, “video_progress” and “file_download”. These enhanced measurement events all have proprietary parameters. These collect lots of useful additional data in GA4, out of the box without any additional setup. Further more these enhanced measurement events don’t encroach on your 500 event quota.

Unleash the widgets

Those who like the graphs and tables of Universal Analytics will have to come to terms with GA4 report’s layout. In UA data is separated into different areas such as Realtime, Audience, Acquisition, Behaviour and Conversions. These areas are subdivided into sections that contain reports relative to that section. For instance the Audience area contain a Demographics section that breaks down site usage by Age and Gender. When clicked you are presented with a graph for your selected time period and a table of data. It’s not fancy but it works.

GA4 Widgets

By contrast GA4 continues it’s wholistic approach by presenting data in an overview area using widgets that pull data from across your GA4 property into one place. In this way you are likely to spot trends and issues in your data that might have been missed with the traditional, more segregated layout. The Reports area of GA4 still contains an Acquisition section but Behaviour is replaced by Engagement and Conversions yields to Monetization.

Cross device user tracking

GA4 uses three separate “Identity Spaces” to track users across devices.

  1. User ID – If users have to sign in to use your website you can create a user ID for them and pass this to Google Analytics. If a user is signed into the same account on different devices they will have the same User ID and their sessions linked
  2. Google Signals – If a user is signed into their Google account GA4 can use data from Google Signals (provided the user allows this data to be collected) to track individuals across devices.
  3. Device ID – This is derived from the browser cookies and the app-instance ID

Using three separate data points to associate data to a user particular user means GA4’s cross device provides a more accurate picture of the customer journey. Universal Analytics was reliant on one property for cross device tracking – the User ID property. This meant a single user could appear as multiple users when accessing the site on another device.

In conclusion

Love it or hate it, this latest incarnation of Google Analytics is here to stay and in many ways Google is trying to do you a favour. By removing third party cookies and relying on first party cookies, GA4 is GDPR compliant out of the box. Evolving privacy regulations mean the future of data analysis is likely to be cookieless anyway. To meet this impending demand, Google is leveraging technology such as machine learning to fill in gaping data holes that cookie blocking often leaves in reports.

If you’d like to learn how to setup GA4 with Google Tag Manager look out for our upcoming Getting Started with GA4 post.