April 01 2022

GA4 and Preparing for the End of Universal Analytics

moving to google analytics 4Recently, Google announced that beginning July 1, 2023, data would no longer be collected on Google Analytics Universal Analytics properties, which have been the standard for more than 30 million websites since 2012. Additionally, historical data in Universal Analytics properties will only be accessible for 6 months following July 1, 2023. This is big news for any website owner or administrator, so before you panic, let’s walk you through what you need to do so you can have a firm plan in place.

What is GA4?

Google Analytics 4 (GA4, or Web+App Properties) was introduced in 2019 as the next phase in the evolution of Google Analytics tracking. It’s likely you’ve seen notification emails from Google, or an alert when logging into Universal Analytics, reminding you to upgrade to GA4. While some site owners did this already, for most there wasn’t a compelling reason to do this upgrade, until now.

Getting started with GA4

With a little over a year to prepare for the end of Universal Analytics, website content creators and digital marketers will need to have a plan in place for updating to the new reporting platform, which may include recreating any custom tracking implemented in past reports. It’s also important to be aware of any features or metrics you’ve been using in Universal Analytics which may not exist in GA4.

If you already have a Universal Analytics property in Google Analytics, it’s very easy to create a new GA4 property. When you log in there’s likely a notification at the top of the screen reminding you to upgrade. In the Admin settings you’ll find a link to the GA4 Setup Assistant under the Property tab.

create new GA4 property
create GA4 property

This allows you to create a GA4 tracking property and get the tracking code that needs to be added to your website. If you’re using the Global Site Tag to track Universal Analytics, you can add your new GA4 property ID within the gTag snippet already in the <head> on your website.
global site tag

If you’re using Google Tag Manager to fire your Universal Analytics tags, GTM has a built-in GA4 tag type where you can add the new property ID.
ga4 configuration
It’s important to understand that this new property won’t have any historical data from before it was created. This is why it’s important to get GA4 set up now before your Universal Analytics data is no longer available. The earlier you start using the new platform, the more time you have to make any customizations to match what you’re accustomed to in Universal Analytics.

What’s different about GA4 properties?

When you first log into your GA4 you’ll notice immediately how different the default reporting looks. Universal Analytics reports were primarily broken out into:

universal analytics navigation

The new navigation in GA4 is:

  • Home: A high level traffic overview with links to recently viewed reports and insights
  • Reports: Shows additional reporting related to acquisition and engagement, as well as user information like demographics and technical stats
  • Explore: Allows for custom report building, including charts and funnels
  • Advertising: Shows conversions and allows for attribution modeling
  • Configure: Allows for creation of custom events, conversions and audiences

One of the first things you might notice about the new default reports is that there are fewer of them than what was immediately available in Universal Analytics. There is more of an emphasis on report customization, giving power to the end user to craft an experience suited to their needs. Unfortunately, this can mean more initial time needed to set reports up. An experienced analytics agency can help you navigate this if you get stuck or don’t have time.

The metrics being reported in GA4 are also much different than what was seen in Universal Analytics.

  • Previously the default action captured was a Pageview hit, with other metrics created from those Pageviews. The difference in timestamps between Pageviews would be the Time on Page, and visits with only one Pageview would be a Bounce.

  • Anything outside of Pageviews was typically tracked as an Event hit, usually reserved for tracking offsite clicks, form submissions, PDF downloads and more. GA4 now tracks Events as the default hit type, with different event names like page_view, session_start, user_engagement and scroll.

  • User actions including offsite clicks, PDF downloads, scrolling and video interactions are all now tracked by default, though GA4 may not recognize all of these actions on your website.

  • You can use Google Tag Manager to send custom events to your GA4 property, as well as define custom dimensions, both of which were possible with Universal Analytics.

One of the big things missing from GA4 is Bounce Rate, a metric used by many website marketers to immediately recognize low quality traffic. Bounce Rate is the percentage of visitors who viewed one page in Universal Analytics during a visit, with no additional pageviews or events recorded. The most comparable metric in GA4 is Engaged Sessions, which is the percentage of sessions that contained some form of engagement. While Engaged Sessions can similarly indicate the quality of traffic at a high level, it's important to note that a low Bounce Rate indicates quality traffic, a high Engaged Sessions rate does the same.

If reporting on KPIs is important on your website, you’ll want to make sure you define the appropriate events as Conversions in GA4. Many of the built-in reports are specifically designed to show how site visitors are engaged with your top touchpoints. Conversions can be created off of new events you’re sending from GTM or the global site tag, or existing events based on a page viewed or the destination URL of a click, two things that are recorded by default in GA4.

Exporting your Universal Analytics data

After Universal Analytics stops tracking on July 1st 2023 you’ll have 6 months to export your Universal Analytics data (plus an additional 3 months for anyone using Analytics 360). Historical data is helpful for determining trends and website successes, especially for reference against your new GA4 data. While the metrics aren’t exactly the same, you’ll be able to compare things like monthly sessions, pageviews, and any touchpoints you’re recording in both Universal Analytics and GA4.

Exporting data from Universal Analytics isn’t difficult. At the top of almost every report is a dropdown that allows you to export data to the following formats:

  • PDF

  • Google Sheets

  • Excel XLSX format

  • CSV (comma separated values spreadsheet)

Using this option, you can export a number of helpful reports from your Universal Analytics property. Some websites have 10+ years of historical data for reference and possible export, and it’ll be up to each user to decide how much of that data should be saved. Depending on what you’re exporting, you might only want to go back a couple of years in your historical data. Many User dimensions are deprecated after the default 26 month cookie duration, so you won’t be able to export many granular details prior to that anyways.

Another option, outside of the default export functionality in Universal Analytics, is to create more detailed reports in Google Data Studio and export them as PDFs. Google Data Studio allows you to lock in filters and audience segments to give a more detailed view of your historical data, and can often be more informative than the reporting found in Universal Analytics.

What are the next steps?

Now that you’re aware of the coming sunsetting of Universal Analytics, you’ll want to get your GA4 property created and tracking sooner rather than later. For many businesses and organizations, the default tracking will be fine with little to no customization. However, if you’re interested in tracking engagements beyond the GA4 defaults or defining conversions there are some extra steps required.

If you are already a ZAG client, you can contact us to help with your transition to GA4. Whether you just need to get going with the basics, or if you need a full custom implementation, we are here to support you during this transition process.

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posted by
Patrick Trayes
Patrick Trayes
Associate Director of Client Analytics

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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