On July 1st, 2023, Google officially started phasing out Universal Analytics (UA) data collection and switched the primary focus to Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Universal Analytics has been the primary source for website metrics for over a decade, so GA4 is a significant shift for many marketers.
What do brands need to know about GA4 vs Universal Analytics? How will the change affect available reporting?
Today, the digital marketing and SEO experts at Forge Apollo in Philadelphia are breaking down everything you need to know.
What is GA4?
GA4 is a new analytics platform from Google. Similar to Universal Analytics, it involves a code placed on a website that collects and aggregates data about users’ interactions with the site.
However, GA4 uses a new data model to collect and organize information and displays it in a different user interface.
What is Different in UA vs GA4?
One of the big selling points of GA4 is its ability to combine website and app data into one interface. This can help businesses using both platforms better understand their users’ journeys between apps and the web.
Metrics are different in Universal Analytics vs GA4 because they’re based on different data models. Universal Analytics bases everything in relation to sessions and pageviews. GA4 bases everything on events and parameters. Later, we’ll dive into specific metric differences you need to know.
Events and Conversions
Because GA4 is event-based, it offers much flexibility in event tracking. You can track four types of events in GA4. Automatically collected events and enhanced measurement events are default (as long as you enable enhanced measurement). Recommended events and custom events require manual configuration.
Any of these events can be counted as a conversion by toggling a switch, which is much different than in UA.
Universal Analytics used “goals” as conversions, separate from event tracking. The technical configuration for these conversions is much different, too.
Universal Analytics provided the ability to create multiple views within one property. That meant companies could set up various interfaces that filtered the data differently. Now, GA4 requires filtering at the property level.
Reporting & Machine Learning
Universal Analytics came with many out-of-the-box, pre-configured reports helpful for evaluating website performance.
GA4 pares down the standard reports and has a report builder to help you build out insights customized to your needs instead. Plus, standard GA4 reports use machine learning to help you predict user actions like purchase probability, churn probability, and predicted revenue.
GA4 is more privacy-centric than UA. The new platform can collect data without relying on third-party cookies or collecting IP addresses, which keeps it more compliant with increasing data privacy regulations.
Differences in Metrics in GA4
Some of the metrics in GA4 that sound familiar aren’t precisely the same as what you’re used to in Universal Analytics.
Sessions in GA4 may be lower than they were in Universal Analytics. This is because there are circumstances, like when a session crosses midnight or a user encounters new campaign parameters, in which Universal Analytics would start a new session that GA4 does not. This makes GA4’s numbers more accurate because fewer circumstances exist where a single user would have multiple “sessions” in a single sitting.
GA4 encourages people to think about sessions as they relate to engagement on the site.
Many metrics are related to sessions and engagement in the traffic overview report.
While both UA and GA4 have “Total Users” and “New Users,” GA4 introduces “Active Users.” Active Users are those who have what Google defines as an “engaged session.”
While UA highlighted Total Users on most of its reports, GA4 highlights Active Users.
The setup of conversions in GA4 is entirely different, as we discussed before. Also important to note in reporting is that UA will only count one conversion per goal per session. GA4 will count one every time, even if it’s multiple times. So, even if companies configure conversions similarly, the numbers will be higher in GA4.
Bounce Rate/Engagement Rate
With GA4, Google is trying to have a positive outlook on engagement. In Universal Analytics, Bounce Rate was the percentage of sessions in which someone exited from the same page they entered on (aka, “bounced” off of that page). In GA4, Google wanted to focus on engaged users rather than unengaged ones.
So, they introduced “Engagement Rate,” which is the percentage of sessions considered “engaged.” Engaged sessions last longer than 10 seconds, have a conversion event, or have at least two pageviews.
In GA4, the bounce rate is simply the percentage of sessions that were not engaged (or 100% minus the engagement rate). Google had no bounce rate in GA4 until two years after its launch. This is because the bounce rate requires context to be truly helpful. Some pages do their job well, with someone simply entering and leaving.
Pageviews still measure the total number of screens users see in their session, with duplicate views of the same page counted. However, GA4 eliminated UA’s “Unique Pageviews,” which did not count duplicate views.
Trouble With Historic Comparisons
GA4 is young, and sites may only have implemented it once Google pushed it in June 2023.
Since there are fundamental differences in so many metrics in GA4 vs UA, comparing year-over-year or other previous periods may be difficult in the short term.
Marketers can still compare general trends between GA4 reporting and UA, like regular fluctuations in seasonal traffic. But drilling down to diagnose complex issues may be a challenge.
Contact the Digital Marketing Experts at Forge Apollo for GA4 Help
Some community members are framing the switch to GA4 as an apocalyptic-level event. However, with the proper knowledge and experience, it doesn’t have to be scary. Changing your mindset in reporting from session-based to event and engagement-based expectations can provide new insights. For help navigating GA4 vs Universal Analytics, contact the Forge Apollo team in Philadelphia today.