The future is now thanks to the sunsetting of Universal Analytics. As of July 1st 2023, Universal Analytics accounts (the now old version of Google Analytics) will start to wind down and stop collecting data after over a decade of service, forcing everyone to either migrate to Google Analytics 4, find some other analytics service or flounder in a darkness bereft of data.
But is this post-Universal Analytics world a scary dystopian future? Or is it the first step to beautiful data-driven future? That depends on your perspective. To help you navigate the new world, here are a few things you need to keep in mind:
Universal Analytics may not be collecting anymore data, but all the old data remains. You can still look at your old properties and view the same reports to see your historical data, and you’ll be able to keep doing this for about another year. But if you want to keep that data beyond a year, you’ll have to start thinking about exporting it out of Universal Analytics, such as to BigQuery or some other type of data warehouse solution.
Google Analytics 4 is not a Universal Analytics replacement. It is not an “upgraded” version and it is not an “improvement” on Universal Analytics. Google Analytics 4 is just different from Universal Analytics and treating it the same will only lead you to frustration.
For context, GA4 was not built upon UA. Rather, GA4 saw its origins from Google’s app development platform Firebase, and was originally developed to measure both applications and websites. Unlike a decade ago when UA first launched, content on the internet is no longer built around webpages. Rather, now we have mobile apps, reactive and dynamic web pages, social media feeds and other a multitude of other ways to interact with content. UA’s reliance on the Page View no longer describes the way people interact with the internet and GA4’s event model is a better reflection of the modern web.
But with the change in the data model and measurement methods comes an inherent change in the dimensions and metrics within Google Analytics. Sessions are calculated differently now. GA4 values Engaged Sessions over the UA’s Bounce Rate, Active Users over UA’s Total Users. Goals are gone, now there’s Conversions. Your page views are different. Your New User counts are different. Attribution is changing. Realtime reports are 30 mins instead of 5 mins. It can take up to 72 hours for data to reach GA4, and then 4 – 8 hours for it to process that data into all the reports.
Change can be scary, but this much change can be downright terrifying. But change is the only constant in life. If you put the time in to learn Google Analytics 4, you might just find that it is actually better than Universal Analytics.
Google Analytics 4 is a much more flexible analytics platform that can give you better metrics for your website. But the problem with that flexibility is that you have to put in the work to make it work for you.
The biggest backlash to GA4 comes from how little you get out of the box. The standard suite of reports only gives the bare basics, meanwhile Enhanced Measurement often doesn’t track events properly (especially form submissions). But if you want to take your data seriously, you should also take your setup and measurement seriously.
To get the most out of GA4, you need to start with a solid measurement plan for what events and interactions you want to measure on your website. Once you’re sure you’ve covered what you want to measure, then it’s time to get your hands dirty and track the events (either through Google Tag Manager or gtag.js scripts).
Once the event data starts flowing into your account, you can then start building Standard Reports for metrics that are relevant to you. Does your ecommerce funnel skip the begin_checkout event? Then build your own custom funnel. Do you only care about Session Acquisition and not User Acquisition? Delete the User Acquisition reports. Make the Standard Reports and the folder structure work for you and your workflow.
Then for everything else, there’s Exploration Reports. Exploration Reports are for when you have a specific question and need to build a report for a specific answer. This type of self-service analytics allows users to quickly retrieve and analyse the data already collected. Once you get to this level of proficiency, you’ll be maximising the value of Google Analytics 4.
Another reason why Google Analytics 4 seems bare out of the box is that GA4 is not designed to be used as the only service in a data analytics setup, rather it is just the central piece in a larger data analytics ecosystem.
Data collection is largely handled by Google Tag Manager or gtag.js for websites and Firebase for apps. With the increased emphasis on privacy on the internet, switching to a Server-Side Google Tag Manager implementation allows you to better control the data coming into your analytics account.
With Google Analytics 4’s easy BigQuery export, setting up a data warehouse has never been easier. By having your GA4 data streamed to BigQuery, not only are you able to run your own analysis on the raw data for more accurate numbers, you also OWN the data and are able to move it to whatever service you want.
And then for reporting, Looker Studio is the obvious easy option, with built-in connectors to Google Analytics 4 and BigQuery (for custom queries). Looker Studio can take away the confusion of using GA4’s reporting interface and bring together all the key metrics into a single dashboard. But because of BigQuery, you’re also able to use other reporting or visualisation tools, such as Power BI, to build your reports in.
The post-Universal Analytics world isn’t a bleak one if you embrace the changes that Google Analytics 4 brings. And if you’re willing to let go of the past, you might just find that Google Analytics 4 is a better platform than Universal Analytics ever was.
If you’re unsure how to take those first steps to a brighter future, drop us a line! We’re here to help you begin your data journey.
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