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Should I upgrade to Google Analytics 4?

  • By 3chillies

Google Analytics is essentially the default site analytics package used by most web teams to measure the effectiveness of their website. It’s certainly the one most of our clients use. Because of its popularity, when a new version of Google Analytics is released, it’s a big deal.

Version four of Google Analytics (referred to as GA4 from now) was released in October 2020, with a number of updates since then. It is not just a normal upgrade with a bundle of enhancements: GA4 has a different underlying data model to previous versions and a new interface, meaning there are some elements for digital marketing teams to get their heads around. It’s based on the App + Web configuration of Google Analytics that was released in 2019, rather than the Universal Analytics model that previous versions of GA have been based on. Overall, it’s a significant change.

In this post, we’re going to explore what’s new in GA4 compared to previous versions, and whether you should upgrade.

What’s behind the move to GA4?

GA4 is designed to meet the deeper needs of digital marketers, reflect shifts in user behaviour and respond to future challenges in delivering metrics. At its core, GA4 moves towards a more customer-centric model of reporting that allows you to better understand customers’ journeys and behaviours, exploring variations in usage patterns across different devices, for example. It also takes into account privacy trends, with the expected decline in the use of cookies and AI and machine learning doing more of the heavy lifting to complete gaps in data.

One of the most significant shifts in GA4 compared to previous versions is the underlying data model. The Universal Analytics model was based around sessions which might track a user visiting a few pages on your site. However, GA4 is far more granular in that it is based around users and events, with each single user interaction such as a click on a link being a single event; this enables more flexible, granular and accurate tracking, especially across different platforms.

Let’s examine some of the new features in GA4 compared to previous versions.

  1. Using AI to deliver predictive analytics
  2. GA4 uses more AI and machine learning to predict your metrics for the immediate future, as well as identify where you may need to take action due to patterns in your metrics. This means GA4 helps digital teams better plan future activity, particularly around campaigns and buying behaviour, and makes the overall package more actionable.

    There are several new predictions-based reports that include purchase probability (the likelihood of a user making a purchase in the next 28 days), and even revenue prediction for a similar period. Another example of the use of AI came in a February 2021 update in which a contribution analysis feature identifies spikes and anomalies across user segments, and flags these to you.

  3. Tracking app and web interactions
  4. Increasingly, conversions or interactions with a website might be done through an app rather than a browser – like following a link from Facebook, Twitter or YouTube on a mobile device, for example. GA4 provides better support for tracking web and app activity, and allows you to review them all together. Tracking app and web interactions all in one place means you can effectively report the overall success of your conversions from different places, and compare the relative granular performance. Again, this is very useful for judging the success of campaigns.

  5. Better integration with Google Ads
  6. If you’re using Google Ads, GA4 includes a tighter integration that allows you to create and align target audiences, as well as leverage useful capabilities such as the automatic ability to eliminate target users from your ad lists if they make a purchase.

  7. Reporting around customer lifecycles
  8. Reporting within GA4 has significantly changed, and is orientated much more around customer journeys and their overall lifecycle. For example, you can view the entire customer journey from acquisition to retention in one place, and then drill down in more detail to each stage.

    This more holistic approach to reporting is enabled by bringing the web and app metrics together. We think it also supports more long-term thinking about overall customer journeys, rather than the short-term focus on just your site’s visitor sessions. It enables you to analyse outcomes based on where customers come from. For example, are customer conversions from YouTube more likely to be retained than those who discover you through search? Again, this allows teams to make more meaningful digital marketing decisions.

    Note that since the original release, other reporting capabilities have been added, including cohort analysis.

  9. More granular privacy controls
  10. To meet the expectations of your customers, GA4 now comes with more granular controls on how to collect and retain analytics data, as well as limit the use of data relating to measurement and analytics or, if applicable, restrict use for personalised web ads.

  11. Tracking without cookies
  12. With the ongoing demand for privacy from both customers and regulators, relying on cookies to track numbers has been increasingly difficult. To combat this, GA4 uses AI and machine learning to fill the gaps in data. In 2023, Chrome (the world’s most popular browser) will stop support for third-party tracking cookies - a development which is set to further reduce the overall use of cookies - so this capability within GA4 is important for accurate metrics going forward.

Should I upgrade to GA4?

In our view, yes.

GA4 presents a more comprehensive and holistic view of analytics, and is better future-proofed for the end of the cookie age. But we can understand some marketing teams’ reluctance to upgrade, what with the associated learning curve and break from the past analytical model.

However, the good news is that if you’re using the existing Universal Analytics model, you don’t have to stop using it, and won’t need to interrupt your current analytics processes, reporting or data. By adding GA4 as a property to your existing GA, you are effectively continuing with both GA4 Analytics and Universal Analytics simultaneously. A GA4 wizard makes this a quick and painless task.

Whether Google will choose to stop supporting Universal Analytics or even retire it completely in the future is hard to ascertain. However, given the sheer volume of customers who still rely on the previous versions of GA at the centre of their web analytics, we think this is a long way off.

More help on GA4

There’s not enough room here to provide you with a detailed guide on everything you need to know about GA4, such as tips on how to add a GA4 property to your existing Universal Analytics version, or a walk-through of the key default reports.

However, there are many resources to help you navigate GA4, including the original introductory article and guidance from Google itself. For developers, there is  a guide to migrating to GA4. We would also recommend an excellent article from the Search Engine Journal that walks you through the new reports and details what you need to know about them.

If you’d like more specific advice on GA4, then get in touch.

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