Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics: What You Need to Know

By Lisa Hirst Carnes | November 2022

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Since Google Analytics (GA) launched in 2005, it's been an indispensable tool. GA has evolved over the years, with some updates more significant than others. Google is now introducing the latest version of GA, Google Analytics 4.  

GA4 and the History of Google Analytics

Universal Analytics, or GA3, was released in 2012.
In 2016, Google introduced Google Analytics 360, which allowed users to measure return on investment. In 2017, Google added Global Site Tag, which simplified the tagging system. In 2020, Google introduced GA4, which is the first significant overhaul since GA3.  

Most Important GA4 Features and Changes

GA4 will introduce some major changes of which users need to be aware. 

KPIs Are Now Events

Google Analytics measures hits, including page views, user timing, transactions, and Events. In GA4, these hit types are now categorized as Events. GA4 recognizes four types of events
  • Automatically-Collected Events. These are events triggered by basic interactions with your website or an app. They do not need any extra setup or coding.
  • Enhanced Measurement Events. These are events collected by Google Analytics when users enable options. Coding changes are not needed and, once activated, GA sends events. These could be page views, scrolls, outbound clicks, or other actions visitors take.
  • Recommended Events. These events are not sent automatically but need extra tags and code to be implemented. These may include triggers when a user logs in, sees an ad, shares content, completes a tutorial, or others.
  • Custom Events. You name and set up parameters for these events. You can set up events based on the unique needs of your business. For example, the event could be a customer clicking on a link, downloading a file, or making a donation.  

Bounce Rate is Replaced By Engagement Rate

Bounce rate is a familiar term to most Google Analytics users. Google defines a bounce as a single-page session where the user doesn't take further action after landing on the page. While it's usually assumed that a low bounce rate is always a goal, this isn't true for all sites. A site that is only composed of a blog or a simple landing page would expect to have a high bounce rate.
In GA4, the bounce rate metric is being discontinued and replaced by engagement rate. You will still be able to measure the amount of time visitors spend on a site. Engaged visitors are those that spend at least 10 seconds on a page, visit two or more pages, or complete an action.
The main difference is in the terminology. Rather than saying a visitor bounced or did not bounce, GA will tell you if they engaged or did not engage. You can also change the engagement settings to only count when someone spends at least 30 seconds on a page.

Privacy-First Design

One of the big differences with GA4 is prioritizing the privacy of users over marketing. One reason is to follow the strict GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) introduced by the EU
Privacy controls in GA4 include cookieless measurement, IP anonymization, and shorter data storage duration. Consent Mode is another privacy feature that lets users change website tags based on their consent. GDPR also requires that users can delete their data, which GA4 allows.

Don't Expect Data to Match Up Perfectly

You may notice some discrepancies if you're switching to GA4 or running both UA and GA4 together. Since GA4 uses different metrics, you can't expect the data to be exactly the same. In particular, you can expect differences in areas such as page views, sessions, and users.

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The Benefits of Integrating GA4 With BigQuery

BigQuery, part of the Google Cloud Platform, allows you to export data into Google Analytics. GA4 allows for simple and free integration with BigQuery. Using BigQuery with GA4 makes it easier to manage and analyze data from GA. Benefits include integration with data visualization tools such as Google Data Studio, advanced data manipulation, and better data integration between sources. BigQuery also lets you examine retroactive data, whereas GA4 only tracks data from the time you set it up.

How to Switch to GA4

Although GA3 or UA will be around until July 2023, it's best to switch as soon as possible. Making the change now will ensure you have everything in order when the old version is no longer supported.
If you outsource analytics, you may not know which GA version the site uses. You can ask whoever manages your site or check by opening Google Analytics. GA accounts created before October 2020 are most likely Universal Analytics. These accounts will contain UA at the beginning of the account number. GA4 accounts only display numbers. 
Google offers several options for making the transition to GA4. Note that you don't have to make the switch all at once. You can run both Universal Analytics and GA4 until UA is discontinued
  • Set up GA for the first time. If you're new to GA, there's no need to worry about transitioning. You only create a Google Analytics account and connect your websites to it. 
  • Add GA4 to a site that's currently using UA. You can use the Setup Assistant to walk you through the steps. 
  • Add GA4 to a CMS or website builder such as WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, Drupal, or WooCommerce. 

Switch to Google Analytics 4 as Soon as Possible

On July 23, 2023, UA will no longer process traffic and you will need GA4. Google recommends that users make the switch to GA4 as soon as possible. It's best to do this before the deadline so you have time to learn the new system while still having access to UA. If you work with a web developer or agency, you should talk to them about making the transition. If you do it yourself, Google provides guidelines for making the switch to GA4

Topics: Digital Marketing