In case you missed it, in March, Google made a huge announcement (well, huge in the world of Search Engine Optimization) – the third generation of Google Analytics (Universal Analytics or “UA” as the cool kids call it) will sunset on July 1, 2023. It will be replaced by the fourth generation of Google Analytics, aptly called GA4.
This is one of the most consequential moves Google has made since launching Google Analytics in 2005, followed by Universal Analytics (UA) in 2012.
Today, Universal Analytics is the standard platform for digital analytics tracking and reporting. It’s estimated that Google Analytics is installed on approximately 28.1 million (roughly 55.49%) of the world’s websites and it’s the primary tool businesses rely on to analyze their client’s website traffic. And it’s going away (sort of).
GA4, the analytics tool replacing the “old” Google Analytics, will measure site traffic in a completely different way and feature an entirely new dashboard and new reports. Your old website traffic data won’t just migrate over to GA4 automatically as it had in the past because of differing technologies behind GA4 and Google Analytics. Think of a digital camera versus the old film-canister camera. A digital camera can’t use old-stye film and vice versa.
Why is Google Changing its Analytics Platform?
The evolution of the internet towards a safer environment that protects a user’s personal data has spurred Google’s effort to overhaul their analytics platform. In Google’s own words, the new GA4 platform “adapts to a changing environment.” The key adaptation Google made is how GA4 collects data compared to Universal Analytics. The new method will make GA4 more compliant with national data protection laws like the European Union’s GDPR, and state laws like that of California, Colorado, Utah, and Virginia (with many more state laws on the way).
The current (soon-to-be-legacy) version of Google Analytics uses a website visitor’s IP (Internet Protocol) address and cookies (snippets of code), which Google will phase out on its Chrome browser by Q3 2024, to track online behavior. Websites using Universal Analytics deposit a cookie into a user’s browser (identified by their IP address) to track a user’s website session (a 30-minute period of engagement with a website).
GA4 uses a completely different data collection model that’s based on event tracking. “Events” are actions taken on your website or app, like visits to different pages, link clicks, video plays and form submissions. Only users who have signed into Google and opted in to being served up personalized ads will be tracked with cookies.
Digital marketers are lamenting the end of cookies while web and app users are celebrating the more stringent online privacy standards. The exciting news is that in GA4, Google has managed to engineer a new analytics platform that is not only more private, but more robust than its predecessor. It's a win/win for both marketers and consumers.
Why Should You Care About the Switch to GA4?
GA4 has been in beta for nearly three years and many analytics users have been running it side-by-side with Universal Analytics. But once Google makes GA4 the default analytics tool, the door will be closed to the old Universal Analytics, and with it, your website’s historical data.
Data captured by the old version of Google Analytics will be wiped from Google’s servers six months after the official switch to GA4 on July 1, 2023. (That will be January 1 of 2024.)
While we have already migrated all of our SEO clients to GA4, well ahead of the deadline, there's still time for you to do the same. Completing the migration before July 1 is the only guarantee of preserving your continuous year-over-year data when Google Analytics is retired and the official switch to GA4 takes place.
Not only will you need to implement GA4 to preserve data continuity, but you’ll have a completely new analytics and reporting platform that will need to be configured to fit your business or organization’s unique needs.
For example, GA4’s robust measurement features give you insights about your customer’s journey across multiple devices and even domains, if you have more than one. However, you’ll need to configure those devices as data streams for each device. Companies with multiple brands or websites present a more complex set up, typically with each brand or line of business assigned to a separate property that’s nested under one account.
What's So Great About GA4?
There may be some pain involved in migrating to GA4, but there will be gain. And in our opinion, it will be worth it. GA4 has robust advantages over legacy Google Analytics, including some that are game-changing in the SEO world.
Better conversion reporting, especially across domains
In our multi-device, multi-platform world of websites and apps, visitors browse products and services in convoluted pathways through multiple touchpoints. This has made it challenging to measure a customer’s entire journey along each step of the conversion process. Because GA4 measures events across websites and apps, it will do a much better job of capturing and tracking those sales and inbound leads that happen through apps (think scheduling, reservations, and ecommerce) and multiple domains than the current version of Google Analytics. Essentially, website and app analytics are unified in GA4, so you get a more complete picture of a visitor’s journey that’s easier to visualize from discovery to conversion, to retention.
Better ad tracking
If you’re paying for Google Ads, connecting analytics to your ad campaigns is vital for optimizing those campaigns and determining your ROI (return on investment) on ad spend. You need analytics to see which traffic is coming in from your paid ads versus website visits that originate from search engine queries, email campaigns, social media, and other traffic sources. GA4 promises to provide even better intelligence gathering in this department.
Better event tracking
GA4 automatically records events triggered by basic interactions like page views and the start of a session. But GA4 also offers new types of event tracking. One type, enhanced measurement events, provides data about how users interact with content, for example scroll depth, site search and outbound clicks.
How Should You Get Ready for the Switch to GA4?
Some of our clients have already started playing in the GA4 sandbox. While you may not want to deal with having to onboard a new analytics platform, you won’t really have a choice. But if you start the process now, you’ll be in good shape. Reading this article is the first step!
To get ready for the switch, you should first determine if you have the resources in-house to migrate to GA4.
Here’s a high-level overview of the steps to onboard GA4 and a link to Google’s detailed GA4 Migration Guide to help you make that determination:
Create your GA4 properties and set up data streams
You’ll need to create the GA4 property (or properties, depending on your business), set up data streams for, and then enable data to be collected from, all devices. In Universal Analytics, you would have created a separate property for your app and your website. In GA4, these are combined into one, single property made up of a different data stream for each platform (app and website). Unlike Universal Analytics, you don’t have the option to create different views – at least not yet.
Enable data collection
Program event conversions
While some Goal Completion Conversion elements from UA will transition to GA4, most will not – so review your objectives and program new conversion paths to track the success of your efforts.
Integrate GA4 with Google Ads
If you run Google Ads campaigns, you’ll need to link GA4 to Google Ads and test to confirm traffic is flowing. You can then import your Conversion goals just like you did with UA.
Map your Universal Analytics to GA4
You’ll need to bring over the metrics you’re tracking in Universal Analytics, including events, goals, conversions, and audiences, if you want to track these same events in GA4.
Set up GA4 users
If you’re comfortable setting up new team members in Universal Analytics, this won’t be too difficult. However, GA4 offers new permission levels that will allow you to limit a user’s access to revenue metrics, so there could be more to the set up if you want to take advantage of this feature.
Set up reports
Reports will require more initial effort in GA4, depending on what metrics you want to track. GA4 users will need to set up custom reports to analyze most metrics that come out-of-the-box in Universal. (Universal Analytics features 30 standard reports, compared to three standard reports in GA4).
Getting Help for the Switch
Even if you’re a skilled Universal Analytics user, there will be a learning curve with GA4. In addition to Google’s own resources, there are plenty of free and paid DIY resources out there to help you or your team make the transition, but you may consider hiring outside help. According to a Search Engine Land poll of 250 digital marketers, 70% plan to handle the migration internally, while 14% plan to use consultants.
The Brave River digital marketing team is available to assist you in all aspects of the transition to GA4 including historical data migration, Google Ads implementation, custom dashboard creation and report set up and training.
From our view as a digital services agency, with the launch of GA4 and the phasing out of third-party cookies, we are heading into the most transformative moment in analytics, SEO, and PPC (Pay Per Click) we have ever experienced. We are here to bravely help you embrace the change!