Google Analytics 4: Why Is the Next Generation of Web Analytics Important?

Rachel Mcguigan

Rachel Mcguigan

Head of Insights and Innovation

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As of October 2021, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is now officially one year old. Up until this time, many businesses haven’t begun to think about what this is and what it means for them. But, as Google continues to develop and roll out new features on the new analytics platform, it’s important to consider if and when you should adopt GA4 on your website.

Google Analytics 4 has been marketed as the “new generation” of Google Analytics – it can create a hybrid of Web and App data to present a new way of reporting that’s quite different from the reports we’re all familiar with as part of the existing platform, Universal Analytics (UA).

Historical data from your Universal Analytics data currently does not transfer over into GA4, which is why we recommend setting up GA4 tracking as soon as possible to avoid missing out, however, we do suggest keeping UA installed so you have plenty of data to work with while GA4 has time to grow and evolve.

There’s been no official date for when Google has suggested that GA4 may replace Universal Analytics, so don’t panic. However, you should start to get ready to live in a dual world, at least for the time being.

Why is it important?

Google Analytics 4 is a new and improved version of the system originally known as App + Web property. The platform is said to have machine learning at its core, which means it can help surface insights to the user. We have already seen a small sample of this within the standard Universal Analytics properties, but this sounds like an upgrade. They hope this new generation of Google Analytics will help to provide a complete understanding of your customers across devices and platforms.

Another key feature of this new analytics platform is that it’s designed with privacy at its core. GA4 anonymises IP addresses by default, meaning it always remains GDPR compliant, it is more aggressive with data retention, limiting the user to hold data for 2 months/14 months, compared with the option in the old Google Analytics which you could set to “do not automatically expire”. Finally GA4 has a consent mode which allows for intricate cookie tracking to help users better comply with new industry standards introduced alongside iOS 14.

Key new features of Google Analytics 4:

  • Cross-platform view: This allows you to have a full picture of your customer journey by bringing web and app performance into one single account. The aim here is to tie together channel and device interaction. This allows you to track the cross-platform journey of the users, meaning that data about users can be collected to provide a complete view.
  • Greater use of machine learning-powered insights: Using advanced machine learning models, new analytics functionality may alert us to significant trends in your data. For example, as AI functionality improves they might help us highlight a surge in demand for a product or estimate the probability of a types of visitors who are more likely to  convert into a customer.
  • Deeper integration with Google products: GA4 offers a different approach for marketers to build and maintain audiences across platforms. GA4 has also developed its integration with YouTube to allow for a better understanding of your ROAS for YouTube Advertising. Lastly, the platform allows you to export data into BigQuery for free to allow more freedom in utilising this data.

Key differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics:

There are quite a few big changes between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics. Currently, both accounts can provide you with different data and reports. For this reason, we’d recommend running both in parallel to make sure you are not missing out on any key information.

  • Data Streams, views, and measurement IDs: In the new world, each platform (e.g. web, ios, android) is referred to as a data stream. GA4 only has a property, and each property has a measurement ID. In UA, each property can be made up of multiple views. The IDs are moving from ‘UA-‘ to a ‘G-‘.
  • Changes in the importance placed on metrics/dimensions: UA relies on data around sessions, bounce rate, and data around landing and exit pages. In contrast, GA4’s focus shifts to users, engagement rates, and pages/screens. In GA4, events are now a key focus of measurement, and events can then be used for conversions, which were previously known as Goals in UA. The ability to set a conversion based on a URL no longer exists either – you use the ‘pageview’ event and then add criteria for the page you want to track.
  • Reports: GA4 has moved away from the standard 4 areas of reporting (Audience, Acquisition, Behaviour, and Conversions). Instead, reports will focus on the life cycle of a customer (Acquisition, Engagement, Monetisation, and Retention). It also has a separate section for users which includes Demographics and Tech-based information. Some of the most valuable reports in standard analytics, concerning multi-channel marketing and assisted conversions, do not currently exist in GA4. However, it seems like they’re still actively expanding GA4 and its capabilities.
  • Automation of event tracking: As default, there is an enhanced measurement feature that allows you to get event tracking for Pageviews, Scrolling, Outbound Clicks, Site Search, Video Engagement, and File Downloads. This means when you go through the setup process, you will have a lot of visibility of onsite engagement right from the start, without needing to complete any tracking within Google Tag Manager.
  • Data Retention : A relatively new feature to UA, you can set a default data retention period for event data (not for your aggregated reports) which allows 14 months as a minimum, all the way to ‘Do not expire”. In GA4, this is default set to 2 months and data can only be stored for a maximum of 14 months.

These are some of the main differences to be aware of between Google Analytics and Universal Analytics, although it is an ever-growing list as the platform evolves.

If you don’t already, we would recommend getting Google Analytics 4 installed and running in parallel with Universal Analytics on your website to allow it to start collecting data. Over the next few months, this will be a key area of focus for our business and we’ll continue to share any further news and updates as they are released.

If you need any more information on GA4 and would like to speak to a member of the Data Analytics or Measurement and Reporting Team today, email info@mediaworks.co.uk or call +44 (0) 330 108 6522.

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