Users of Google’s free Universal Analytics (UA) tool will finally be forced to make the switch to Google Analytics 4 (GA4) by July 1st this year. For many, this will be a period of uncertainty. The new configuration, reports, data models, and the unavoidable learning curve that needs be traversed to make sense of any of it may quickly become a headache for casual users.
We have been running GA4 accounts in parallel with the UA version for each of our clients for some time now. Much like everyone else, we often found ourselves consulting the documentation and various forums as we worked out how best to implement the new version on a case-by-case basis.
At this point we see three major areas of frustration for new users:
- Configuration and creation of reports using the new report builder tool.
- Configuration of goal and event tracking.
- Comparison between historical and new data (and the two GA versions themselves for that matter).
The report builder tool becomes familiar with a bit of practice. There are some reports that are created by default, but you will need to roll up your sleeves and learn to create others.
Creating, testing, and rolling out goal and event tracking on the other hand remains somewhat tricky. Everything is built around events in GA4, so there is no avoiding it.
As to point three, making comparisons between your previous data and the new data may leave you a little surprised. There will be discrepancies due to the way certain metrics are calculated and a refocus towards similar but slightly different metrics as the basis for many reports. See the official documentation for more on Universal Analytics versus Google Analytics 4 data.
The sun is finally setting on Universal Analytics
If you still rely upon the Universal Analytics version, then from July 1st, 2023, your account will no longer record any more data. At present, Google is stating that “you’ll be able to access your previously processed data in your Universal Analytics property for at least six months”. This means that you will be able to export your data while that window of access remains open, but we would encourage you to do so well before year’s end. The vague promise of at least six months may suddenly become a maximum six months with little warning.
Google Ads users need to act now
If you use Google Ads, then you need to respond to the retirement of Universal Analytics much sooner if you are pulling goal or transaction data, audiences, or other site metrics in from a Universal Analytics. Your ad campaigns that depend upon this data feed will encounter problems and may stop running if you don’t make the switch and begin importing these metrics from your new GA4 properties instead. Fortunately, once you are all set-up in GA4, importing data from GA4 into Google Ads is easy.
You really should be collecting data in GA4 already if you want the predictive analysis in Google Ads to be effective after July 1st. Historical data is important for the Google Ads auction algorithm if you use features such as audiences to target your ads or adjust your bidding.
A new data horizon for Google Analytics 4 survivors
While downloading data from Universal Analytics is an option, many users probably won’t make the effort. Instead, this may become a data apocalypse for these users. An epoch from which they never look back.
For those who successfully make the transition to GA4, it will certainly be an opportunity to start fresh. There will no doubt be some frustration during the teething period, but the flexibility offered by the new version promises to be worth the effort.
As mentioned earlier, goal tracking is one of the areas with some significant changes. The goal tracking setup enjoyed by Universal Analytics users is gone and the transition to event tracking to report on even simple goal conversions is going to be a point of friction for some. This may be where you first experience some frustration as you make the switch.
Start thinking in terms of events
If you had to sum up the difference between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 in word, that word would be events. They truly are the foundation of everything that happens in your new GA properties. Yes, events were certainly a core element of UA too, but GA4 leverages them to a far greater extent.
To get the most out of GA4, will find yourself spending a lot of time testing and looking at events in the Realtime report and the DebugView. This is where you will see the events that are being fired as they happen, which is great for testing a new goal configuration, for example.
Google Tag Manager (GTM) users can continue to enjoy all the testing features they are used to when they begin to test and track events. In our experience we found it to be quite straightforward and that GTM did what it says on the box by making it easier to implement event tracking.
One thing we did notice was as we tested event tracking is that there can be a delay in the Realtime and DebugView tools. We often waited a minute or two to see the ‘live’ events appear in the DebugView. You’ll need to just give it a moment before losing hope, breaking something, or starting to wonder if it’s too late to become a lawyer.
A cynical person may say…
Ever since we started playing with GA4 we have had the sneaking suspicion that Google has another KPI for this product – to drop the number of ‘casual’ users. Most people are using the free version of Google Analytics which is not an insignificant overhead for Google. Even for a company with their might and power, maintaining this free service must sting the balance sheet a little. Then there is the endless wave of questions and cries for (free) help on the community forums. So, if they can thin out the herd by rolling out a more technically challenging implementation of the service, well, that may suit them just fine.
If you log into GA4 today (January 2023) you will find a few reports that you can access right away. But to get to the really useful stuff, you need to build reports yourself using the report builder. It gets easier with some practice, but it isn’t exactly fun.
Creating reports in GA4 feels a lot like messing around with spreadsheets for the first time. There is a lot of trial and error to go through as you experiment and sometimes the results are not what you expected or are counter intuitive.
Things are still in a state of flux and the interface and suite of standard reports may evolve over the coming months. Still, we won’t be surprised if many small business owners, bloggers, and non-technical types may start to abandon Google Analytics, or get far less out of it at least.
You are forgiven. There are legions of experienced Google Analytics users who are feeling some discomfort with the change, but those who make the effort will get there.
If you want to dive in and learn about implementing GA4 for yourself, check out the Google Analytics 4 account training guide and support page. You should be able to avoid ending up on YouTube, Reddit or StackExchange at 3 am each morning with bloodshot eyes and a broken heart.