Not too many people knew the term Universal Analytics a year ago. It has always been known as Google Analytics among all of us, until last year when Google announced the new version: GA4. Universal Analytics (aka. UA) was now a thing of the past!
Not long after, Google even made GA4 the default version - and you now had to make some tweaks to be able to create a Universal Analytics account properly.
Just last week, Google announced that they will be retiring Universal Analytics by July 2023. We all knew this day would come - but it surely arrived a little bit faster than we all thought.
Many people, including professionals, aren’t into GA4 at all - and they keep saying “Where are the standard reports?!”. On the other hand, GA4 offers some exciting new features - and a completely different approach to data collecting.
In this post, I will try to help you understand how GA4 works, how it differs from UA, and what you should do with your own (or your clients’) website and more.
Type your questions in the comments section and I'll either answer them or add them into the post as well!
The differences between GA4 vs. UA
I don’t want this post to be too technical. I will quickly mention the core differences between UA and GA4, and provide you with some links, in case you want to do some more research on your own.
Hit-Based & Event-Based
This is probably the main difference between GA4 and UA - and we can also blame this feature as the reason why your data hasn’t been carried over to GA4. Yes, you heard it right. The data on your UA property won’t be carried over.
UA worked on a hit-based data collection method. There were hit types such as hits, events, social, transactions.
On the other hand, GA4 works on a totally event-based logic. A page-view is an event, a transaction is another event, and the same goes for scroll_depth, form_tracking, etc.
Automatically Collected Events
Another exciting feature: Your Global Site Tag (gtag.js) can now detect and collect some events without having to set up additional tracking through codes or GTM. Some examples for this are:
- Form submissions,
- Scroll trackings,
- Video interactions,
- File downloads,
- Outbound link clicks, and many others.
In UA, you cannot track these events by default, and you needed to set up additional custom events using custom Global Site Tag codes or through GTM.
Whereas with GA4, you can automatically collect some events by just enabling them from the settings, without touching any code or meddling with GTM.
This may be not the most exciting feature for end-users, but it’s certainly a huge thing for developers and enterprises. GA4 comes with a native BigQuery integration, which means you can import the full data to BigQuery without any limitation.
In UA, you need to have UA-360 to have this feature (which costs $150K/year). In GA4 however, there is not only BigQuery, but a few other UA-360 features that come by default and free as well.
AI & Machine Learning Powered
It is always hard for small business owners to follow and understand their data properly within a sea of reports.
Google Analytics 4 will help business owners to understand their data and give them actionable insights. The AI and ML-powered “Insights” section is visible almost on every page in GA4 and might get more and more useful when you collect more data.
UA was the standard for almost every use case. You could make custom reports and dashboards, but it wasn’t quite likely for an average user to use these features.
GA4 focuses on customization a lot - and allows users to edit almost every piece, including the main menu elements and standard reports. Even the homepage gets more unique every time you view different reports. Here is a rough summary of customization features that GA4 has:
- Edit homepage,
- Explore section,
- Edit left menu & navigation,
- Customize events, data, goals.
Many Other new & cool features
- Predictive - ML-powered Audiences
- Deeper audience integration with Google Ads
- Customer lifecycle-framed reporting
- Insights and predications powered by artificial intelligence
- Explorer - report builders to build all types of custom reports
Action & Migration Plan from UA to GA4
I know you are used to UA - but let’s admit it has run its course. We should start using GA4 immediately, collect data, enable all possible features, and take advantage. Here is the action plan that we suggest:
Parallel tracking (UA & GA4 together)
You don’t need to (and shouldn’t, even) leave UA immediately. You should keep using them together until the moment that GA4 covers all of UA’s features, and you’ve gotten comfortable using it.
So, start using GA4, and don’t touch your existing UA setup.
Create your GA4 property
You don’t need to wait another day for this: Create your GA4 property right now. You can use the GA4 setup assistant so that your UA & GA4 properties will be connected with each other.
Just another kind reminder: Your UA data won’t be carried over, but only some simple settings.
Basic GA4 setup
This is quite easy - we advise that you should just do it now and start collecting some basic data. Add the code for GA4 Global Site Tag directly on your website - to all pages. Alternatively, you can use Google Tag Manager and set up GA4 through GTM as well.
The basic setup will only provide you the default tracking options: page view and a few other automatically collected data. However, the most important piece of your tracking is already there: visitors!
A few quick important settings
Simple yet quick wins to improve your first data:
- Activate Google Signals (tutorial),
- Set event retention to 14-months(tutorial),
- Integrate with Google Ads, Search Console, Google Optimize and Merchant Center if applicable. For data sharing & collecting - earlier is always better.
- Mark automatically collected events.
Start learning & customizing GA4
GA4 is a relatively new tool, and it keeps changing every day. I wouldn’t recommend heavily investing in GA4 from day one. Slowly moving your pieces and learning GA4 is a much sounder approach. In the meantime, the product keeps getting better and receives constant updates from the Google team.
You can set a few custom events - that matters the most to you. Such as:
- E-commerce tracking for online stores,
- Form/conversion tracking for B2B lead focused websites,
- Newsletter sign-ups for blogs.
Mark these custom events as conversions, and start tracking important KPIs on your GA4.
Set up your favorite UA reports in GA4 and start using them on a regular basis.
Here is how Google announced the change:
How to Set Up GA4
I can write a whole new article series on this topic if there is a demand, but right now this will just be a quick wrap-up. Let me know in the comments if you wish to have more in-depth tutorials on setting up GA4.
Method 1: Set up GA4 using Global Site Tag
This is the most common way of setting up Google Analytics. It was the same with Universal Analytics - just the code block is different this time.
Go to Google Analytics 4 > “Admin” > “Data Streams”, and click your data stream. Find “Tag Installation”, and you can copy the global site tag code from there.
You will need to paste this code to each page of your website. You can use the header.php code on WordPress, theme.liquid on Shopify, or custom header scripts on your own CMS solution.
Make sure to validate your setup using the RealTime report in GA4.
Method 2: GA4 setup using Google Tag Manager
I have a detailed tutorial on this topic: Tutorial: Setup GA4 on Shopify using GTM. The tutorial is for Shopify, but it will also be applicable to your case if you already have GTM installed on your website.
What will happen to Universal Analytics
The UA will stop processing on July, 2023 but you will still have a change to access your existing data for another 6-months. You can learn more about this on Google's related announcement.
Do you have any questions? Feel free to add to the comments and I'll try my best to answer!
I'm also happy to share some additional resources on this topic:
Top comments (11)
Great write-up. I saw the notice but will probably take this opportunity to ditch GA for a self hosted privacy focused analytics tool. The nice thing is I will be able to ditch the cookie consent banner.
Yep! That's a great opportunity. Have you seen plausible.io/? They offer a open-source self-hosted option. You can maybe start with that one.
I did, Plausible is definitely looking good, also looking into Ackee.
Is there a way that I can back up my data in Universal Analytics?
There isn't any easy and direct way as far as I know. You can simply export every report you want to export. I think that would be the best way to go.
Oh no! Too bad that I will lose UA. All the reports that I am checking is there. Can I make the same ones in GA4? Last time I checked it was too different.
You will eventually lose, yes. But I believe GA4 will be even better by then. Google Analytics team keeps shipping new features and capabilities.
UA had too many standard reports. GA4 is more about customization; so you might want the same reports in GA4 but you can definitely make them.
I'm sure soon the template gallery will be launched and community will start sharing UA report templates for GA4.
That's a really knowledgeable post thank you so much and We are using "Enhanced Ecommerce" for e-commerce tracking. I don't know is it available with GA4?
Thanks! Almost all e-comm reports are available - however it doesn't have the name Enhanced Ecommerce.
Another big change in GA4 is how their algorithim treats the bounce rate. Prior to GA4 one could spend many minutes viewing only one page and it was still a bounce but under GA4 if the viewer is over 10 seconds on a page it is not a bounce.
Also ps, I only cared about time spent on page so I developed my own tracking app which u can click here to view dev.to/rickdelpo1/removing-google-...
My app does not use a cookie and also I did not care to use Plausible as an alternative.