Exploring the differences between Google Analytics and Google Analytics 4
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) offers new ways to track, interpret, and utilise data in line with the way we browse the internet today, including moving between websites and mobile apps.
This new version of Google Analytics, released in October 2020, runs alongside the previous iteration known as Universal Analytics (UA). It's not a direct replacement, so if you've spent quite a bit of time customising your analytics dashboard, there's no risk of losing all your work thus far.
A streamlined data collection process, more powerful reporting integrations and better privacy practices make it absolutely worthwhile to begin the transition toward full GA4 implementation.
Why is Google Analytics 4 better than Universal Analytics?
GA4 is a forward-facing program that's designed to reflect the ways our digital landscape is changing. This is apparent in how the new Google Analytics collects, utilises, and analyses data.
New privacy practices
As an increasing number of people become less keen on the idea of data collection — and more governments pass regulations like GDPR — it's becoming harder for businesses to responsibly collect analytics whilst retaining user trust. As a result of this global shift in policy and thought around online tracking, Google plans to phase out all tracking cookies by 2023.
Improved data protection
These cookies are small text files stored on users' computers to provide data — an essential component of how Universal Analytics works. Google Analytics 4, however, employs a multi-factor approach to tracking that is no longer fully reliant on cookies. GA4's new properties develop user IDs using a mix of cookies, device identifiers and "Google signals" from people who opted-in to ads tracking. Users' IP addresses are also anonymised by default in this version of Google Analytics.
Machine learning capabilities
Interestingly, Google's new approach to tracking actually provides marketers with more useful insights than ever before. GA4 builds a holistic picture of user behaviour across platforms, and allows digital marketing teams to develop a better picture of how their online presence leads to conversions. Additionally, GA4's machine learning capabilities take this analysis even further with the capability for predictive analytics that can fill gaps in collected data.
Improved analytics reporting
The GA4 update also allows for continued machine learning support via a powerful BigQuery integration, previously only available to Google Analytics 360 customers.
The ability to have a clear overview of B2B marketing analytics data is essential for building high-converting campaigns at businesses of all sizes. While UA often creates data samples, or subsets of overall traffic used to project further data points, Google Analytics 4 does not. As data sampling can become skewed when working with a small sample size, this change makes it easier for lower-traffic websites to get a more accurate view of their data.
What are the key differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4?
There are several core functionality changes in the way digital marketers interact with data in GA4 vs. the old Google Analytics.
A new user interface & measurement ID
As soon as you log into the new Google Analytics, you'll notice that the main dashboard and reports look different.
While both Universal Analytics and GA4 offer realtime reports, Google no longer lists user demographics and tech reports separately from life cycle data. Demographic, tech, lifetime value and other reports are all found within a broad "audience" section. New "behaviour" reports refer not only to the way users progress through a website but the site's technical performance as well.
This change is due to the way that Google Analytics now collects and processes data, but you don't have to completely give up the familiar Universal Analytics view at this time. The GA4 upgrade does not replace existing UA data. Instead, it creates a brand-new Google Analytics 4 property that begins collecting information from users alongside UA. You can continue to refer to all historical UA data whilst exploring GA4's feature sets at your own pace.
Associating two Analytics properties with your account is possible due to the appearance of a new measurement ID.
IDs that begin with "UA" refer to the old Google Analytics. Any measurement ID prefaced by a "G" feeds data into a new GA4 property.
Single properties & views
UA properties allow marketers to gain insights from websites and mobile apps, but the process of viewing the data is rather disjointed.
Traditionally, UA data feeds into separate iOS app, Android app, and web properties. While it is now possible to set up a joint web + app property within UA, you'll still have the separate properties to juggle as well.
In GA4, all data streams go directly into a single property. This makes it exceptionally easy to do cross-platform, cross-device and cross-domain tracking. If you'd like to see how the different devices compare, it's easy. Simply set up a comparison between app types (and even browsers) to see the different data points for each source.
It's typically considered best practice to have at least three views associated with every Universal Analytics property:
- All of the raw data captured for a property
- Filtered data, often set to remove certain traffic such as internal views (identified by IP address)
- A testing area where you can make changes without impacting the other views' settings
Because GA4 does away with view and filter functionality, you'll need to use Google Tag Manager (GTM) to remove certain types of traffic or create a testing ground.
Hit types are now events
Every time a user visits an Analytics-enabled landing page, Google begins recording a session. Each session lasts until the user is inactive for at least 30 minutes.
During these sessions, Universal Analytics records default data points called hit types:
- Page views
- Social interactions
- eCommerce conversions
To record additional hit types, Analytics admins must set up custom events, each with an event category, action, and label.
GA4 streamlines this process by doing away with hit types entirely, instead recording every action as an event. And, with more event tracking available by default, Analytics users can get a wider array of useful insights as soon as the flow of data begins.
If you have a GA4 property set up and the global gtag.js snippet in place, Analytics will automatically record not only sessions, page views, and engagement but also enhanced measurement events including:
- App ad clicks, ad impressions, crashes, updates and notifications
- In-app subscriptions, free trial conversions and purchases
- Website page scrolls, file downloads and on-site searches
- Starting, watching and ending embedded YouTube videos
Each event is easily converted to a conversion goal with the click of a button.
GA4 takes this data one step further by applying event parameters. The default parameters include information about the language, page location, page referrer, page title, and screen resolution involved in each event.
Marketers who would like even more granular detail can build custom or recommended events with additional parameters.
No more bounce rate metrics
One of the most marked changes in Google Analytics 4 is the removal of bounce rate data. Universal Analytics highlighted high bounce rates as the marker of a bad session, but actual user journeys are more nuanced. Visiting one page can still be enough to trigger a conversion, such as when a user:
- Arrives on a content-rich, one-page website and "bounces" to email the business directly with an inquiry.
- Reads a landing page, sees the business has a native iOS app, and "bounces" to go download it from the App Store.
- Watches a video on a website homepage, and then "bounces" to pick up their phone and contact a business representative via LinkedIn.
None of these interactions are negative, but they could not be clearly captured by Universal Analytics' reliance on pageviews as a key metric.
Revised eCommerce schema
eCommerce is another area where GA4 utilises site tags deployed via Google Tag Manager. While the use of GTM isn't new, the process has changed.
To track checkout options in Universal Analytics, Google Tag Manager utilised the rather broad "checkout_option" schema paired with a funnel that defined each step in the checkout process. In Google Analytics 4, the funnel is gone, and checkout steps are tracked individually. New schemas such as "add_shipping_info" and "add_payment_info" references each respective option.
Limited Google Search Console support
At present, Google Search Console (GSC) may only be linked with Universal Analytics. Anyone utilising a GA4 property may of course still set up Google Search Console, but they'll need to toggle between the two programs when analysing data. A UA property is still required to link GSC and Analytics together.
Should I switch to Google Analytics 4?
At this time, running both Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics at the same time is the best bet for most digital marketers.
We don't know exactly how long Google will continue to support UA properties, but with the planned degradation of tracking cookies in 2023, its lifespan is likely limited. Implementing the new Google Analytics now gives marketing teams plenty of time to familiarise themselves with its features and begin building a healthy library for an inevitable full migration to GA4 in the future.
The 93x team are specialists in using Google Analytics for B2B tech and SaaS marketing. Learn more about our work here.