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What Your Business Needs to Know About Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

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If you’re a business looking to improve your marketing analytics, there are plenty of avenues to venture down. You may be wondering about the new release of Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Should you add it to your website, and will it change how your company measures its online presence? The transition from Universal Analytics to GA4 isn’t optional, and marketers worldwide are hard at work to make sure this shift is as seamless as possible. If GA4 is causing headaches for marketing professionals, how are businesses supposed to sift through the technical clutter and find the takeaways that are relevant to them? In this resource, we take a look at GA4 and extract the key pieces you should know as we say goodbye to Universal Analytics in July. Although this won’t be a comprehensive guide, it should provide some peace of mind as the July date approaches and hopefully alleviate a headache or two.

Google Analytics, Universal Analytics, & GA4: What’s the difference?

Google Analytics: A free web analytics tool by Google that gives business owners insights on how visitors interact with a website, what content is popular, where visitors are coming from, and more.

Universal Analytics: An upgrade to the original Google Analytics that was released in 2012 with new features and tools for deeper dives into website data. Universal Analytics was the face of Google Analytics until 2020 when Google released GA4 and announced they were discontinuing Universal Analytics support in 2023.

Google Analytics 4 (GA4): The latest version of Google Analytics that was released in 2020 as Universal Analytics’ successor. In 2023, GA4 will replace Universal Analytics as the face of Google Analytics. Keep reading to learn more about what’s changing and what GA4 is all about.

Why is Google discontinuing Universal Analytics?

One of the biggest questions we get asked by those looking to learn more about GA4 is, “Why?”. Universal Analytics is a great tool that checks many boxes for business owners. It’s been around for over ten years – why did Google think it’s necessary to completely revamp their platform and force millions of people to relearn how to use their service? The truth is that a lot has changed since 2012, and some changes are too significant for Universal Analytics to keep up. Ultimately, Google decided to transition to GA4 for a few reasons:

  1. Privacy Concerns: Concerns around protecting user privacy on the web have led to an industry-wide shift to a world that better preserves user privacy. GA4 is built on a privacy-focused model without sacrificing features that would otherwise be lost in Universal Analytics.
  2. Better Machine Learning: Technology has advanced significantly since Universal Analytics was released. GA4 has more complex machine-learning capabilities that use new technologies in ways that Universal Analytics couldn’t.
  3. Changes in User Behavior: User behavior has shifted to be more mobile-focused and app-focused than ever before. GA4 is a more flexible version of analytics that can seamlessly track users across many different platforms and devices, all while preserving their privacy.

How will the transition to Google Analytics 4 impact your business?

GA4 is built on a completely different framework than Universal Analytics, so it’s only natural that there’ll be changes to how your data is captured and reported, which will, in turn, impact how your business makes data-driven decisions. Transitioning from Universal Analytics to GA4 requires hands-on work from your marketing team/partners. However, it also provides an opportunity to gain more insights into customer behavior and improve marketing campaigns. By switching to GA4, you’ll stay up-to-date with the latest web analytics tools and capabilities and better serve your customers as a result. Before making the switch, it’s important to understand what’s changing in GA4 and how it’ll affect your business. Keep reading for some key takeaways from Evolve Systems’ technical experts.

GA4 Automatically Measures More Data Than Universal Analytics

GA4 uses a new measurement model that automatically measures data from different devices and platforms as events by default. This means that you don’t need to set up custom tracking or event tagging for all the interactions that users have with your website or mobile app.

Let’s look at an example of why this is useful. If we wanted to measure scroll depth (how far a visitor makes it down our page) in Universal Analytics, we’d create a scroll-tracking tag using Google Tag Manager or similar tagging software. This requires us to understand how tagging works, how to build the tag in Google Tag Manager, and how to check if it’s working properly. For a digital marketing expert, this is a simple task – but for most of us, it requires a good bit of research. With GA4, scroll depth tracking events are recorded immediately without requiring any work on our side. We’ve included a list of every automatically-recorded GA4 event below. Remember that Universal Analytics doesn’t track these out of the box, so we’d have to spend valuable time setting these up:

  • Scroll Tracking: How far does a user scroll down your website pages?
  • Video Engagement: How do users interact with videos on your website?
  • Outbound Clicks: Which links do users click when they leave your website?
  • Site Searches: Is the search function on your site being used? What are users searching for?
  • File Downloads: Which files are users downloading on your website?
  • Form Interactions: Which forms are users submitting on your website?

Customizing GA4 for Your Unique Business Goals Requires Additional Work

Remember reading about all the events that GA4 automatically tracks for us? Well, there’s a caveat to the convenience of GA4 – customization takes time and effort. If you want basic out-of-the-box reporting and aren’t concerned with any bells and whistles, then you’re in the clear. However, many businesses have unique goals they want to measure, and most websites have functionalities not covered by GA4’s automatic tracking capabilities. You have two options in this case: take a dive into GA4’s new event framework and build them yourself, or hire an expert to do it for you.

Another consideration is that GA4 isn’t perfect. Some of the automatic events are inaccurate or regularly misfire, requiring additional work on your part. The “Form Interactions” automatic event is extremely susceptible to this. Below are some cases that GA4 could wrongly track as a form submission:

  • A user moves to the next step in a multi-step form. A “form submission” could trigger at every step.
  • You have a Meta Pixel installed in the <head> of your website. This would trigger a form submission every time a page loads.
  • A user enters wrong data into a form, such as letters in a phone number field or numbers in a first name field.

In some instances, this could lead to thousands of false positives, which makes extracting meaningful insights nearly impossible. Thankfully, GA4 lets us choose which events it should automatically track. When we implement form tracking for our clients, we oftentimes create our tag in Google Tag Manager and toggle off the “Form Interactions” automatic event. We even take it a step further for some clients and toggle off additional ones like “Outbound clicks” so we can create a solution that’s tailored to their site.

The list of automatically tracked events in GA4

GA4’s User Interface & Reports Have a Steep Learning Curve

GA4’s user interface and how it presents data are extremely different from Universal Analytics. This could overwhelm business professionals who’ve grown accustomed to navigating Universal Analytics. GA4 is designed to provide more comprehensive data analysis and insights than Universal Analytics, but this increased functionality can also come with a more complex interface and reports.

In addition, GA4’s reporting capabilities rely heavily on machine learning and AI algorithms, which may require a deeper understanding of data analysis techniques and statistical concepts. This can make it challenging for business owners unfamiliar with these tools to interpret and utilize the data provided by GA4. An example of this is data thresholding. A data threshold is the minimum amount of data that GA4 deems safe to show us while protecting the privacy of our website visitors. For example, let’s say that your website received 100 visitors yesterday, and one of those visitors submitted a lead form. Since GA4 gives us very detailed information, we could identify who submitted the form and see demographic information, their behaviors, and many other insights that violate their privacy. So, Google hides data from us until there’s enough to conceal the identity of individuals effectively. This means that data is often missing from reports which can confuse people unfamiliar with data thresholding.

The thresholding notice that appears in GA4 reports

Another reason for the learning curve is that GA4 is a young platform that’s constantly evolving. This means that there may be frequent updates to the user interface and new features added over time, which can make it difficult to stay up-to-date with the latest changes and best practices. It sometimes feels like Google is still building GA4 while they drive it out of the shop, and it’s the average business owner that suffers as a result.

What’s Next for GA4 & Your Digital Marketing Capabilities

It’s an exciting time for both businesses and consumers. On the one hand, digital marketing is changing to protect our privacy as website visitors better. On the other hand, machine learning capabilities and advancements in the field result in better insights and data explorations than ever before. GA4 is a perfect example of how both of these trends are impacting the way businesses make digital marketing decisions.

That isn’t to say there aren’t growing pains. GA4 is still a work in progress, and it’s been a bumpy road so far. We’ve talked to countless business owners overwhelmed with the transition to GA4 – and for a good reason! Your historical data could be at risk, and the reports you’re used to seeing will be replaced by blank canvases that are difficult to navigate.

Business owners need to invest the time and resources necessary to understand GA4 so they’re prepared for the switch. This may involve working with a web analytics expert like Evolve Systems, attending training sessions, and/or dedicating time to experiment with different report configurations and techniques in the platform.

Regardless of the route you choose, just know you’re not alone. Thousands of businesses and marketers just like you are going through the same struggles. Our advice? Give us a call or send us a message and have us do the work for you! We’ve successfully transitioned all our clients to GA4 with custom setups and reports tailored to their business goals. Let us give you a “Google-free” life so you can focus on what you do best – running a successful business.