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News just in! The latest version of Google’s web analytics platform, Google Analytics 4 (GA4), is now available. The new property type includes expanded predictive insights, deeper integration with Google Ads, cross-device measurement capabilities and more granular data controls.

The new version of Google Analytics (GA) will ultimately replace Universal Analytics (UA) which has been in place since 2013. This is not an update of UA, but a completely new system and, as such, has some big differences to UA that will have a direct impact on many businesses and marketers alike.

But what does this mean for you?

Why do we need a new Google Analytics?

Firstly, it’s not entirely ‘new’. It’s been beta-tested in the Website + App option under ‘properties’ options previously, but to all intents and purposes, it will be new to the world.

In addition to improving functionality, there are a few key drivers for Google wanting to create a new version of Google Analytics (GA). GDPR and other worldwide data privacy laws have changed how we interact with websites and how our information is collected and processed online. Universal Analytics (UA) operates based on collecting user cookies on the website which serves (in many cases detailed) information into the analytics platform. In addition to on site activities, this also provides us with information based on the user – demographics, location, interests etc.

With the change in privacy laws, cookies add an additional layer of complexity or detail for data processors to manage within their policies and can be challenging to implement user direction data deletion. As a result, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is moving to a non-cookie collection of data. By moving the focus away from user-specific data to more behavioural study, GA4 is repositioning itself, with many of the new features and functionality designed to enhance the study of on-site behaviours. Combined with additional tools within GA4 for managing user data and deletion of user information, Google is making its move in response to GDPR.

Why should I care about analytics?

Anyone who has a website should use some form of analytics, and Google Analytics is the most common and accessible option available. With the vast majority of businesses already using Google Analytics, any changes to their current workflow, any improvements to their ability to gather and analyse data, and crucially anything that will require time and/or money to implement correctly needs to be on their radar.

How will it impact me?

For anyone interested in implementing GA4, with a little familiarity of Google Analytics, you can relatively easily set up a new property in your GA account and start taking advantage of the new features and functionality. GA4 will also now become the default method for creating new GA properties, and it’s currently a little unclear whether there is an option to use the old UA format.

However, it’s important to understand that your existing UA property will also require maintenance alongside your new GA4 property, meaning that you will now have TWO sets of data to manage and draw insight from. Crucially, GA4 is not going to replace your existing analytics set up.

Your new GA4 property will be ground zero for your new data acquisition and insight, so comparing historical activity with new information suddenly just became more complicated. With a choice of solely relying on your old UA data for comparative analytics, slowly phasing out your old UA data, or making it redundant entirely and starting again, none of the options are screaming ‘pick me’. You could consider creating a third-party dashboard, using tools such as Google Data Studio to merge the two sets of data, but that’s a task best left to the experts (Spindogs can assist with this) and does give you a third data tool to manage.

While running two sets of data is a challenge itself, the new GA4 data will also require the addition of new data layer (how the information is pushed through from your website to GA) and/or amendments to how ‘events’ are created using both on-site javascript and via Google Tag Manager (GTM).

For eCommerce websites, there are even further complications where, to benefit from GA4s increased eCommerce reporting capabilities, data layers will have to be amended too.  One welcome new feature is eCommerce notifications where, following anomalous leaps or drops in expected sales, the account owner will receive an email notification enabling swift response when required.

Additionally, many familiar reports and metrics (e.g. ‘medium’ or ‘bounce’ – more on that later) will be disappearing, resulting in a requirement to adapt your analytics analysis behaviours.

Google has advised that the best course of action is NOT to replace your current on-site scripts and data layers but to add additional ones for GA4. This will mean both your legacy UA property and new GA4 property running concurrently. It’s interesting that Google hasn’t made immediate plans for the merging of those data sets from the off, but we’ll keep an eye on how that situation develops further.

So this change is a massive pain? What’s in it for me?

Aside from the clear benefits for data processing and management of your data/privacy policies, GA4 comes with a whole host of new features and functionality as well as an evolution of the familiar user interface (UI).

Key to the changes are the behavioural analytics that GA4 is placing emphasis on. Increased AI and machine learning will fill in some of the gaps created by removing the reduced data sets informed by cookies. Included with this is predictive measurement, a huge leap, meaning that GA4 can give you further insight into forecasting potential activity rather than simply reporting actual historic activity.

Creating tracked events – button clicks, page scroll, video views etc. – have always been key to behavioural insight but have always relied on either the developer insertion of javascript into code, or more recently the creation of Tags in GTM. Now GA4 contains analytics, code-free creation of simple events, making it even easier to track and understand user behaviours. GTM will not be fully replaced, as only simple events will be catered for initially, but this could be a move towards a more integrated system.

Event changes are designed to make previously ‘catch-all’ or sometimes misleading metrics such as ‘bounce’ redundant to an extent. With greater understanding of what people are doing on-page, regardless of whether they exit can give a greater understanding of a page’s performance and its role in the user journey.

One area where UA struggled was in joining up multiple touchpoints along the user journey. Cross-domain tracking was challenging, and users engaging with a brand via both app and website meant there were gaps in both sets of individual analytics. The new GA4 puts the cross-channel user journey at the heart of its new behavioural analytics focus.

eCommerce clients aren’t left behind, with even greater levels of sale information now able to be included within. Discounts, refunds are included and coupons and promotions now have increased detail to aid with attribution.

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