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

Gary Green
Gary Green
August 22, 2022

Google Universal Analytics, widely known as GA3, will no longer be available from 1 July 2023, being replaced by Google Analytics 4 (GA4). This means that it is essential to become familiar with GA4 sooner rather than later.

GA4 was initially called App+Web Property while in the beta testing phase. This is because unlike its predecessors, GA4 can track both app and web visits from a single set of Google Analytics tracking dashboards.

Moving forwards, GA4 will be the official recommended property for Google Analytics. Below you will find some of the key information to help you make the transition smoothly.

#1: GA4 is Event-Based

Cookies have been an integral part of analytics for some time, and GA3 relied on them for tracking.

Once the browser of any visitor stores cookies, the analytics session will officially start. This allows the visitor’s behaviour to be tracked and monitored to provide useful feedback. Every click made in that session offers up information, but without the sessional data it would be impossible to get any data at all.

GA4 takes a slightly different approach. Although cookies are still used to differentiate between different visitors it also relies on Google signals. This means that instead of solely tracking the sessions and subsequent hits, everything that occurs while the visitor is using your app or on your website is recorded as an event.

#2: New Reporting Interface

GA4 has been designed based on firebase analytics and the reporting interface for GA4 reflects this.

This means that the reporting interface that was present with GA3 is no longer available. A number of the metrics or reports included in GA3 have been taken out or completely replaced.

Therefore, to get the best out of GA4 you will need to become familiar with a new reporting interface. It may seem as if there aren’t as many reports, but this is only because some are only generated once events are tracked.

All the data you need is still available but it is presented in a new way.

#3: Event-Based Measurements

As we described above, GA4 records data as events, with all defined parameters recorded in more detail. This is seen in the measurement model used, which once again is based on every interaction being recorded as an event.

GA3 used session-based data for their measurement model, producing notably different results.

#4: Flexible Set-Up for Event Tracking

With GA4, tracking is managed different for all events.

Previously in GA3, tracked events had to adopt the “category/action/label/value” protocol.

You won’t see this with GA4. Instead, the tracking event set-up is far more flexible with extra data provided via the use of parameters.

#5: Automation of Event Tracking

The intent of GA4 is to make life much easier, and to deliver data you need with minimal effort. This includes for the first time the opportunity to use automation in the event tracking.

Every property within GA4 has an “enhanced measurement” option integrated. This enables automated tracking of key events such as videos, site searches and exit tracking to be set-up. No further tagging or coding is necessary for this to be possible.

#6: Specific Retention of Key Data

This feature is one of the negatives of GA4 as the retention of data relating to either users or events isn’t quite as specific.

With GA3 you had multiple options to retain data with four different time settings, plus an additional setting for “do not expire automatically”. This setting covered a variety of different periods from 14 months to 50 months.

In contrast, GA4 only provides two possible options: two months or 14 months. There is nothing in between and there is nothing longer. There is also not an option to set it as “do not expire automatically”. If you were hoping to retain the data for longer than 14 months, you may have a bit of a problem.

#7: E-Commerce Tracking Still in Development

E-commerce reports were another strength of GA3 but this has not yet been replicated within GA4 just yet. Many of the e-commerce reports are missing, and there is no confirmation whether they will be eventually replaced.

GA4 is still in its infancy and we should see the evolution of more e-commerce specific reports in the near future.

#8: Superior Cross Device and Platform Tracking

GA4 has much better abilities to track across different platforms and devices with both app and web data using identical schema.

This wasn’t the case with GA3 so the superior capability of GA4 will be a significant asset.

#9: Missing Attribution Reports

The attribution reports provide yet more confirmation that GA4 simply isn’t ready to be used in a commercial environment yet. GA3 offered a wide range of attribution reports but these haven’t been replicated for GA4 so far.

#10: Loss of Custom Dimensions and Custom Metrics?

Custom dimensions are possible within GA4 but they’re not created in the same way as before. When using GA3 the custom dimensions can be set to include hit, user, session or product scopes. This isn’t the case for GA4 where the session and hit options have simply been replaced by event and user scopes.

There are similar restrictions for custom metrics within GA4. GA3 offers the chance to create custom metrics with hit or product scopes, but GA4 only offers a single scope, which is event.

#11: Improved Debugging Reports

GA3 was sadly lacking with debugging, as the interface didn’t contain a DebugView report. This has been improved with GA4 where it’s now possible to use the reporting interface to view the DebugView report and move on to validating the analytics configuration.

#12: More Accurate Engagement Metrics

Accurately tracking engagement with your app or website is a critical piece of data to have, and GA4 makes this possible. GA3 simply relies on the bounce rate and page views, but GA4 provides much more sophisticated data.

A bounce rate isn’t included in the GA4 data, but you will be able to track the engagement rate, the number of engaged sessions for each user, the average engagement time and total number of engaged sessions. Having access to this data will enable you to pinpoint issues more clearly.

#13: Compliance with GDPR

GDPR takes a wide-ranging view on personal privacy, and this includes classifying an IP address as personal data. The problem is that in order to create reports based on geolocation data, Google Analytics stores and tracks IP addresses.

In GA3, there is no anonymity around IP addresses. However, in GA4 there is an automatic IP anonymisation feature which cannot be disabled.

#14: Reduced Reporting Views

With GA4, only a single reporting view per property is available, with no option to add extra views. With GA3, it is possible to create 25 reporting views for each property so GA4 represents a considerable drop in this function.

#15: New Reporting Templates

GA4 includes a brand new set of reporting templates known as Explorations. These enable more advanced analysis of data with options such as:

  • Funnel
  • Segment overlap
  • Path
  • User
  • User lifetime
  • Cohort

There are also blank and freeform options.

#16: Activation of Google Signals

Google Signals doesn’t come automatically activated, but it’s possible to switch it on in GA4. Once you do, you’ll be able to access a new set of data which starts from the date that Google Signals is switched on.

The data can be viewed in the reports under Cross Device. This will also allow you to enable remarketing ads to users where Ads Personalisation is active.

One Final Point…

With all of the above information, you might be raring to get started with GA4. Unfortunately, you can’t export your data from GA3 directly into GA4 because they are not compatible. Therefore, making the jump will require a little forward-planning and potentially a period of transition.

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