Google Analytics 4: An Introduction

google analytics

By Cassandra Hansen

YOU MAY HAVE received an email from Google (or just heard whispers around the office!) about the new Google Analytics update that is replacing Universal Analytics (or UA, which is the version you’re likely familiar with). We know change is scary, but we’re here to introduce you to your new best friend: Google Analytics 4 (or GA4). We’re hopeful that you’ll get along just fine.

What is GA4?

When we first started using Google Analytics many years ago, there was greater focus on what happens during a website “visit” (later renamed to “session”), and the pages the user visited during a single session. The trouble is that users today engage with a website through multiple devices and touchpoints (such as using desktop, mobile devices, web pages, and mobile apps) and can take many online and offline actions (clicking on ads, completing forms, purchasing products, attending in-person events, and more).

Understanding this user journey and the actions (“events”) users take over time required much more than an upgrade of the existing version of Google Analytics. completely new platform capable of machine learning was needed in order to make sense of all this data while maintaining data privacy. In summary, GA4 was built with these considerations in mind: Prioritizing user events over sessions, providing more insight across multiple domains, and leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the reporting of this data.

Why this matters now:

You may have heard that Universal Analytics will stop processing data on July 1, 2023. That’s less than a year from now! You will be able to download UA reports for at least six months, but access to this data will be lost some time after this. What does that mean for you and the continuity of your data?

Even if you want to keep using UA for now, it’s recommended that you begin tracking GA4 alongside UA and track your most important goals in both platforms. Doing this as soon as possible means that you will have close to a full year of data before UA sunsets and the data is lost. Delaying this switch may result in a loss of year-over-year data as it cannot collect data retroactively.

What’s Different About GA4?

GA4’s bread and butter is to allow multiple streams of data into one place. If your organization manages multiple domains, subdomains, or apps, you can now view crossdevice/domain tracking seamlessly in one property. That means a better and more complete visualization of the user journey. Neat, right?

seamlessly in one property

Keep in mind that any data pulled into another data visualization tool (like Google Data Studio) will need to be adjusted because you’re now focusing on events vs. sessions.

The future of machine learning/attribution is here. GA4 leverages AI and machine learning to provide detailed insights into how your customers interact across platforms, make suggestions for trends, and investment opportunities to target your specific audiences. This closes the gaps of data lost with cookies and advanced privacy settings due to the latest privacy laws, such as GDPR and CCPA.

GA4 is replacing bounce rate with various new engagement metrics: engaged sessions, engaged sessions per user, engagement rate, average engagement time, return rate, and more. It’s the same thing, just a different way of looking at it.

what are events

One of the biggest differences in GA4 is event tracking. In GA4, event setup occurs in the user interface instead of the traditional setup in Google Tag Manager. Events that are tracked by default will change upon GA4 setup, and the method of creating custom events has become more robust.

What are Events?

Events now have a higher tracking priority than sessions in GA4. Now, every click, interaction, and scroll is classified and automatically collected as an event. Google will recommend events & parameters. You can be creative here by creating custom events for meaningful, precise analysis.

what do these changes mean for me

What do these changes mean for me?

Now, you have more ways to understand your audiences, and in turn, how your marketing is actually working. You’ll have better custom reports in GA4 so you have a lot more flexibility in pulling reports and exporting reports based on your specific needs. The transition will require you to change the way you pull reports in addition to getting familiar with creating events in GA4. It’s a little bit complicated to get set up initially. But it’s much more powerful in the long run.

best practices in setup

Best practices in setup:

  • Change default data retention setting to 14 months
  • Roll up domains/properties into one with data streams
  • Do NOT disable your existing Universal Analytics properties and GTM tags
  • Link GA4 to BigQuery or other data management system to store any previous data necessary beyond 14 months
  • Enable enhanced measurement options beyond the default (such as site search tracking)

You’ll also need to choose your attribution model (data-driven or position-based). There are more models than those, but these two are typical for the mission-driven organizations we work with:

Data-driven attribution allows you to give credit to different marketing channels for a user based on the data that you’ve collected. It’s using AI automation, and it will be really helpful moving forward for optimization.

Position-driven attribution tracks every interaction for a user on your site or to your site. It gives most of the credit to the first and last click because we know those are most important for most user journeys.

more best practices in setup

MORE best practices in setup:

  • Use Google Tag Manager to place GA4 tracking scripts
  • Create custom events and dimensions (e.g. resource downloads, membership joins, contact us, general form fills)
  • Translate events tracked in UA to GA4 for consistency in reports
  • Just as with UA, filter internal traffic
  • Connect to other Google products (e.g Search Console, Google Ads, Google Data Studio)
  • Enable Google Signals to increase your ability to recognize users and dedupe your data by tying together device ID and user ID (if provided)

Working with your IT department to get GA4 set up correctly is essential. If you’re confused or unsure about the steps listed above (believe us when we say you are not alone!), we recommend hiring a digital marketing consultant or company for the setup. This is essential YoY data, one of the marketing team’s most valuable commodities, so make sure it’s getting the care and attention it deserves.

As daunting as the process is, you have just unlocked a whole new world of analytics with GA4. In the long run, this means better understanding your users, marketing, messaging, and how your organization interacts with its members, potential donors, prospective students, and more. Spend some time with GA4, learn its quirks, and enjoy your newfound appreciation for analytics.

Cassandra Hansen is a digital marketing strategist at Mighty Citizen, where she works with clients to uncover opportunities for growth in their marketing efforts through digital campaign strategies, paid advertising campaigns, and data-driven insights. If you are looking for a partner to help champion your transition to Google Analytics 4, the team at Mighty Citizen is happy to help.

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