With the rate of data growth, analytics is a powerful tool for understanding your business’s or website’s performance and the habits of its users. Not using analytics is simply missing out on valuable insight that could help drive future growth! Every visitor leaves digital footprints — cookies, beacons, and IP addresses. Analytics software like Google’s Universal Analytics or Google Analytics 4 can gather and compile all this data to answer important questions like: Which pages are getting the most traffic? What are visitors’ favourite articles? How long are they staying on the site? How many visitors come from social media sites like Facebook or Twitter each day? And many more!
In this article, we’ll take a look at Universal Analytics, Google Analytics 4, the change from former to latter, the differences between both of them, and find out if it is even worth it!
What is Universal Analytics?
Introduced in 2012, Universal Analytics is a platform that provides data collection technology for web-based analytics. Turning almost a decade old, UA works on a user session, visit-centric model. It introduced features like:
- Offline Conversions: UA allows connecting both offline and online activity to collect data. So, for example, a business that has an offline store as well as an online website can link offline loyalty cards with their customers’ online shopping behaviour. They can even analyse and give out discounts based on sales from both offline and online modes.
- Advanced Segments for Visitors: UA took on a visitor-centric approach by moving from visit-based analytics to a visitor-based analytics model. This means instead of logging visits (or sessions), the data could be filtered based on the users visiting the website. For example, conversion rate statistics could now be calculated on a visitor level instead of a visit level, allowing greater optimization and better understanding.
- Custom Dimensions: Before UA, setting custom dimensions was not possible. But with it, total flexibility was provided in creating the reports that one wants by creating a custom dimension on logged-in users.
- Flexible Session and Campaign Timeout Settings: Instead of having to add special codes to your website, modifying the session and campaign timeout values can be done within the admin interface! This allows to easily edit sessions and campaigns timeout personalised to one’s requirements – such as a social media micro-campaign might not be relevant for more than a couple of days after the launch, while a full-fledged ad campaign might go on for months.
- Custom Search Engines: By default, the source of traffic is automatically recognised and shown in the reports but, for non-standard sites that are considered as referral traffic, one could change the list of recognized search engines and thereby control how the data appears in their GA reports.
What’s happening now?
Google announced in a blog published recently that it will be sunsetting Universal Analytics in 2023 which means UA properties will stop processing new hits on July 1, 2023, and UA 360 properties will stop processing hits on October 1, 2023. After which, the previously processed data in Universal Analytics will be kept for at least six months. Moving forward, google will now favour Google Analytics 4 over UA.
Russell Ketchum, Director of Product Management, at Google said,
“Universal Analytics was built for a generation of online measurement that was anchored in the desktop web, independent sessions, and more easily observable data from cookies. This measurement methodology is quickly becoming obsolete.”
Why is it happening?
Simple answer – UA is plain old. It focuses on user sessions, which works fine for brand experiences that rely solely on a single platform. It’s a different story to make it work cross-device for cross-platform usage. User privacy concerns is also one of the reasons why Google decided to sunset UA.
Introducing Google Analytics 4
In October 2020, Google Analytics 4 was introduced with the promise of predictive insights, deeper integration with Google Ads and cross-device measurement capabilities. GA4 works across platforms and can track data across websites and applications, measuring insights using an event-based data model. It also uses data-driven attribution to assign credit to more than simply the last click, allowing marketers to see how various initiatives influence conversions.
“Google Analytics 4 has the flexibility to measure many different kinds of data, delivering a strong analytics experience that’s designed for the future. It allows businesses to see unified user journeys across their websites and apps, use Google’s machine learning technology to surface and predict new insights, and most importantly, it’s built to keep up with a changing ecosystem”
Google Analytics 4 is designed with privacy at its core, therefore it doesn’t require cookies and it doesn’t maintain IP addresses. This ensures trust in privacy-conscious users and gives them more control over their data. This also helps businesses comply with international data privacy laws while also safeguarding their users!
How are they different?
It’s clear that there are going to be significant changes, and that Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 have their sets of differences. So, let’s dive into how they differ:
- Different Measuring Models and Hit Types: As mentioned before, Universal Analytics uses a measurement model based on sessions and pageviews. Universal Analytics hit types include page hits, event hits, ecommerce hits, and social interaction hits.Whereas, GA4 uses the measurement model which is based on events and parameters with the principle that any interaction can be captured as an event. This results in more detailed metrics and data being collected, as everytracking activity by a user is considered an event. For eg. a ‘pageview’ would have additional information like the title of the page, user location, etc.
- Sessions: In Universal Analytics, a session can comprise multiple page views, events, social interactions, and ecommerce transactions. Sessions are usually defined as having ended once there has been a 30-min inactivity period or another qualifying reset event has occurred.
Google Analytics 4 session metrics are derived from the session_start event, an automatically collected event. The duration of a session is based on the time span between the first and last event in the session.
- Pageviews and Screenviews: Page views in Universal Analytics translate to the page_view event in Google Analytics 4 properties. A page_view event is automatically triggered by the config gtag command or by the Google Analytics 4 Configuration tag in Google Tag Manager.
A screenview is the app analog to a pageview. In Google Analytics 4 properties, a screen_view event is triggered each time a user views a screen.
- Custom dimensions / metrics: Custom dimensions and custom metrics in Universal Analytics are used to add information to collected data. In Google Analytics 4, event parameters serve this purpose.
Is the change worth it?
Clearly, GA4 is an upgrade and a much better suited platform for today’s needs. Even though this upgrade seems to be an important step in tracking and analysing user behaviour, it will require businesses to initially invest time and effort into migration & implementation. Google put out this guide to make the process of switching over easier. Google also stated that it would keep working on the platform as we get closer to the specified date, and it seems hopeful to say the least.
This change did face some backlash from the analytical community, from some people frustrated about the deletion of all prior UA data to some believing that GA4 isn’t ready yet and the change feels forced without much incentives.
“Yes, Google Analytics 4 can take some getting used to,” admitted Google’s ads product liaison, Ginny Marvin, in a tweet while sharing some useful resources
All in all, GA4 is definitely here and there is no option but to switch over anyways!