By Melanie ColemanGoogle, ever the disrupter, has done it again. Late in 2020, Google launched Google Analytics 4, or GA4, and ultimately sent the world of analytics into a bit of a frenzy.
As a decade-long user of Google Analytics, I would be remiss in saying I felt a bit frazzled myself– mainly because of the misconceptions around what GA4 is, and what it is not. Before we dive in, let’s take a look at how we got here.
Google Analytics has been around since 2005, and for the most part, has not drastically changed since. There have been format changes, additional fields and the change from GA to UA tags, but fundamentally, the data structure has not changed.
Marketers and analysts have gotten very comfortable with this format, as it was all we had to play with for nearly 16 years (while using the free Google Analytics version, not 360).
So, why the change?
For starters, change was long overdue. The digital space looks nothing like it did in 2005, and the way we approach data needed to be overhauled to reflect the dynamic and increasingly competitive space. Secondly, as other analytics platforms emerge and businesses are embracing data, Google needed to ensure it remains on top. Google brought in some of the features that users would have previously needed to pay for in order to do so.
To be clear, GA4 is not an upgraded version of UA-Google Analytics, but rather an entirely new analytics platform. There are two key ways to distinguish the two:
Data structure: UA uses a session-based data structure which creates a hierarchy to all data. For example: When User A lands on xyzbank.com, they have started a session. Within this session, there could be pageviews, video plays, downloads, etc., or simply a single page view—but there is always a page view within a session (at a minimum).
GA4 approaches user behavior differently. Instead of focusing on sessions, it focuses on the actions users take on a site. The measurement tag enables Google to do a better job of de-duping users, thereby creating cleaner data. The confusion with this is that now a page view is considered an event because it’s an “action” a user takes on your site.
Tag type: UA leverages a standard pageview tag, just tracking users who visit your site, not those who take an action. This means you (or a developer) need to tag all individual actions that users could take for you to be able to get any of that data (from video views to PDF downloads and navigation use).
GA4 uses the new measurement tag and, as previously mentioned, allows Google to understand what actions are being taken by the same user, as well as auto-tracking key events:
- Page views
- Outbound clicks
- Site search
- Video engagement
- File downloads
Having all these actions measured without additional tags is a huge benefit as it means less tagging is required, and less tagging means less drag on your page load speed. Of course, users still need additional tags added, and you don’t necessarily have control over the naming convention (unless you want to get fancy and take back ultimate control). But it’s really an effective way for even analytics beginners to start understanding user behavior on their site.
How to get started
First—and I cannot stress this enough—do not delete any existing analytics properties. Your current UA properties will be the “control” and historical record for your data.
Second, come up with a plan. Before starting your GA4 account, determine what you want to be tagged and what you want to track. If you have hardcoded event tags on your site, they will not automatically go to your GA4 property, as they have been set up for UA. This means you will need to re-tag your entire site if you want to know every single action a user could take. Note though, that it’s much easier to tag a site using Google Tag Manager in GA4 than it is in UA (both of which are much easier than hardcoding).
Finally, be prepared to spend a lot of time in your new GA4 account. The change is jarring. A lot of the pre-built reports are gone in favor of new customization features so you can build reports and segment users to fit your needs. The hierarchy change will also mean you need to approach reporting differently, and you’ll need to be prepared to explain this to your C-suite (and potentially your board). If your team has gotten comfortable with session-based reports and certain KPIs, know that those may no longer make sense, and you’ll need to start thinking about what you want your website to do, not just how user behavior is grouped. Also, great training resources are available. SkillShop by Google is highly recommended before you go to any paid training courses.
Don’t fret. We’re all in this change together. Ultimately, this is for the best, but this is also a huge opportunity for you as the marketer or analyst, to create a truly clean data set that is structured to capture all the data you want from the outset.GA4 will be around for a while, so approach this strategically and you’ll be rewarded in the long run.
If this all seems too confusing or if you have additional questions, let me know and I’ll do my best to help.
Melanie Coleman is media and strategy manager at Pannos Marketing, based in Manchester, New Hampshire, an award-winning, full-service communications firm specializing in strategic marketing, public relations, social media, e-commerce and website solutions for financial institutions.