A guide to Google Analytics 4
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) was officially launched in October 2020 and is the latest tracking and reporting platform by Google. It is reported to have been in development since 2017 when Google launched their “Google Analytics for Firebase”. However, a beta version was officially released in 2019 under the name “App + Web Properties.”
GA4 is built using the Firebase Analytics backend and aims to make it easier to track both mobile and web properties under one platform. Since Google’s technology acquisition and eventual launch of the original Urchin tracker in 2005, it has rolled out three subsequent iterations of its tracking platform.
Google has stated the following with regards to GA4’s purpose:
- GA4 can measure, unify and de-duplicate user interaction data, helping businesses and digital marketers to understand the user journey.
- It adapts to a changing environment as it relates to privacy.
- It reveals intelligent business insights by using machine learning.
- It can help to act more effectively on your data to achieve goals.
So, what are the primary differences between universal analytics (GA3) and GA4?
GA3 uses a model based on page views and sessions, while GA4 uses events and related parameters. Activities carried out by the user will generate an event (either using the auto tracked events or custom events). TRACKING GA4 has been designed from the ground up to track users over a range of different device journeys. GDPR and other worldwide data privacy laws are continually developing and have changed how our information is collected and processed online.
With the change in privacy laws, cookies add a layer of complexity for data processors to manage within their policies. As a result, GA4 is designed to collect data when available via cookies or simulate metrics using advanced machine learning techniques. Also, by moving the focus away from user-specific data to more behavioural-based metrics, GA4 is repositioning itself, with many new features and functions designed to enhance the study of on-site behaviours. Google is making its move in response to GDPR and other worldwide privacy policies with additional tools within GA4 for managing user data and the deletion of user information.
GA3 offers a maximum of 25 views per property. Each view could have its own filters and goals if you wished – best practice suggests creating at least three for filtered, unfiltered and testing data sets. GA4 has only one view currently, although multiple DataStreams have some similarities.
Looking at GA4’s history, we can see its origins firmly based in the mobile application paradigm, where many old GA3 metrics are no longer applicable, and customisable events offer more flexibility.
Event types include:
- Automatically Collected – these are automatically logged and include language, page_location, page_referrer, page_title, screen_resolution. This is a significant departure from GA3 and a core attribute of the GA4 data model, where all user activity can potentially be converted to an event.
- Enhanced Measurement – these are additional events that can be enabled or disabled via the GA4 interface. Events include file_ download, scroll and video_start.
- Recommended Events – these are events with predefined names and parameters. Google recommends that you follow the suggested naming conventions where possible, but still offers you the ability to totally control how these events are fired using custom code (GTM etc).
- Custom Events – these are events that you name and implement yourself (similar to GA3). These events will require custom code to fire.
In GA3, an event is a special kind of hit (distinct from, for example, a pageview) that has a Category, Action and Label. By contrast, GA4 events have no Category, Action and Label but an event name and associated parameters.
Follow the below steps if you want to translate a GA3 event to GA4:
- First, look for a matching automatically-collected event. If you find a matching event, you should not recreate a new event. If no matching automatically-collected event exists, proceed to step 2.
- Look for a matching Enhanced Measurement event. If you find a matching event, you should not recreate a new event.
- Look for a matching recommended event. Implement your tagging to trigger the recommended event using the naming convention suggested by Google.
- Finally, if you cannot find a suitable equivalent event, create your own custom event.
The new debug feature is a great help when testing events, but new event parameters and custom events may take up to 24 hours to appear in the reporting platform.
It should be noted that while the GA4 event management offers a large amount of flexibility, the lack of automatically collected event varieties and the ability to totally customise events could create a rather confusing outlook for agencies and users as they attempt to replicate the familiar GA3 metrics. This is probably one of GA4’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.
Another significant change is the conversion measurement feature of GA4. In GA3, conversions occurred when a Goal was fired via a set of rules (for example, a landing page or event). You had a maximum of 20 potential goal place holders. GA4 no longer utilises goals as such, but you can switch any event over to a conversion.
GA4 offers a much smaller range of individual reports compared to GA3. The intention of increasing the focus on the most important information. It no longer has a “Customisation” section that previously housed dashboards, saved reports and custom reports. The following report types are available in the GA4 Analysis Hub:
- Exploration: allows you to create reports using tables, donut charts, line charts, scatter charts and geographic maps.
- Segment Overlap: create and select multiple audience segments to compare them and see where there are overlaps.
- Funnel Analysis: create ad-hoc funnel visualisations. ‘Standard Funnel’, which shows how users are completing steps or a ‘Trended Funnel’, which allows you to see trends for each funnel step. You can also ‘Make Open Funnel’, which will include people entering the funnel at any step.
- Path Analysis: how people travel through your website and app with a tree graph.
- User Explorer: drill-down to view individual user actions and segment your users.
- Cohort Analysis: group users based on the dates they visited your website or used your app.
- User Lifetime: provides access to metrics that include all available data for your users. For example, you can use the report to see the total value generated by your users.
While the custom dashboard feature has now been removed, GA4 includes many pre-configured reporting dashboards, these include:
- Home: provides a top-level overview of your users and includes automated insights for the data generated by Google’s machine learning system.
- Realtime: lets you view current user activity on your website or app, including the number of users in the last 30 minutes.
- Acquisition: these reports show you how people are finding your website or app. For example, you can see the source and medium used to find your website.
- Engagement: lets you report on the pages people view on your website. The reports also include new metrics, like ‘Engaged Sessions’ which let you understand if people view more than one page or spend more than 10 seconds on your website.
- Monetization: shows revenue if you sell items on your website, accept payments in your app, or monetise your content with ads.
- Retention: provides cohort reports for your users, allowing you to see how often people return and engage with your website or app.
- Demographics: these reports let you view the geographic location of your users, along with other demographic information like age, gender and interests.
- Technology: lets you view details about the different devices people are using. If you’re tracking a website and an app, then you can also see a breakdown based on the platforms you’re measuring.
- All events: provides a list of all the events that have been tracked.
Should you switch over to GA4?
Yes, partially. We would certainly recommend adding GA4 tracking to your existing site or new site, but we would also strongly suggest you do not stop using GA3. GA4 is still in its infancy, and Google will be adding more features as time goes on. The ecommerce tracking facilities are still not as sophisticated as GA3’s enhanced ecommerce, and third-party plugins and tools have a while to catch up with the service. Reporting, while sophisticated, can be a challenge due to its stripped-back nature. In fact, GA4 is a very stripped back service, with Google removing many of the metrics marketers have used for over a decade, probably preparing for a future with a much stronger emphasis on user privacy.
Adding the GA4 code now will build up a history of analytics data that will be useful when you feel that GA4 offers a better solution to your analytics requirements.
Note that while Google now defaults to GA4 in any new Analytics account setups, it is easy to create a property with both GA4 and GA3, or just GA3 if you prefer. How long this feature will be available is currently unknown.