Introduction to GA4: Universal Analytics and GA4 Comparison

Analytics & Data Article
20 mins

Welcome to a whole new kind of Google Analytics: GA4. In this straightforward guide, we’ll answer the big questions on Google Analytics 4: what it is, how to use it, and how it differs from Universal Analytics (GA3).

On 20 April 2022, Google announced plans to phase out the legacy version of GA, Universal Analytics, which will stop recording hits on 1 July 2023. That’s all the more reason to switch to GA4 now.

Why Google Analytics 4 matters

Google Analytics (GA) has been a key platform for webmasters since its launch as ‘Urchin for Google’ in 2005. When connected to an account holder’s website, this free tool can provide valuable insights into who is visiting the site, how people are using the site and more. GA has been central to how many brands, big and small, have been running their websites for all these years.

With this in mind, any change to GA matters to digital marketers. And when an entirely new version of GA comes out, the effects can be transformative.

What is Google Analytics 4?

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the latest version of Google Analytics. It differs greatly from the older Universal Analytics (GA3) platform in terms of its features and the data it collects.

The October 2020 launch of GA4 may have passed you by. As of the time of writing (March 2022), the new platform is still available in parallel with the previous iteration of GA, Universal Analytics. Many account-holders have ignored GA4 and kept using Universal Analytics – a platform they know and like.

With that said, GA4 has some powerful new features and characteristics that could make it worth considering. Highlights of the platform include:

  • Analysis of apps, as well as websites. GA4 can deliver data from an account holder’s website(s) and app(s) within a single reporting platform. So, if your business has its own app as well as a website, you can now analyse data from both platforms in the same place. This means the account holder can track the ‘paths’ that users follow across multiple platforms.
  • Moving away from third-party cookies. GA4 is capable of analysing your audience with or without the use of controversial third-party tracking cookies (provided your GA properties are averaging at least 500 users per day). It does this using a new tech called Google Signals, which can track users who are logged in to a Google account and have opted in to ‘ad personalisation’. GA4 can track these users across multiple devices and platforms.
  • Global site tag. This exciting new feature enables the user to update the tracking code on their website from within GA. You simply decide which aspect of on-page behaviour you’re going to track, then select the relevant option in GA to implement a change to the global site tag automatically. For example, if you want to get the tag to track when web visitors play an on-page video, you can now set that up from GA, without needing to manually edit your own website code.
  • Improved search feature. The search bar in the GA4 user interface (UI) is a very handy resource for finding the reports you need. You can also use it to ask GA4 questions about your data.

GA4 vs Universal Analytics

GA4 differs significantly from the previous version of GA: Universal Analytics (GA3).

Whereas Universal Analytics is great at telling you the whowhere and when of user behaviour on your website, GA4 can track the whathow and why of how people interact with your site and/or app.

This is because GA4 focuses on giving you event-based data, rather than sessions-based data of the sort Universal Analytics delivers.

There’s a lot of debate over which platform is better: GA4 or Universal Analytics. Some of the key pros and cons can be summed up as follows. 

Google Analytics 4 (GA4)   Universal Analytics (GA3)  
Pros Cons Pros Cons
Cross-platform functionality Learning curve for new users A familiar platform Future support uncertain
Event-oriented data Arguably less suited to top-level data Session-oriented data Website analytics only
Improved UI Less mature product Proven capabilities Risk of being left behind
Track what, how and why Migration challenges Track who, where and when Lack of event tracking features

Ultimately, the best GA platform to use depends on what you are trying to achieve. Universal Analytics is still great for high level analysis of website performance, while GA4 is better at analysing the fine detail of how people use your online platforms.

Do I need to use GA4 – or can I still use Universal Analytics?

The great news for fans of Universal Analytics is that you don’t need to switch to Google Analytics 4 right now. Universal Analytics still works as previously, and you can keep using it exclusively.

It’s also still possible to create a new Universal Analytics property using a Google Analytics account, so if you’re a new user and you like the sound of Universal Analytics better than GA4, you can still choose the older platform.

However, this could all change whenever Google sees fit. These days, a GA4 account is presented as the default option for new GA users, and it seems clear that Google is keen to push this newer type of account, as opposed to Universal Analytics.

It’s likely that support for Universal Analytics will be stopped in the coming years. In fact, Google have announced that on July 1st 2023, Google will stop processing new hits for Universal Analytics, so you should consider getting GA4 set up to run alongside your current analytics. However, you will still be able to access pre-recorded data.

Setting up GA4 is easy. And once you’ve created a GA4 property, GA4 will start gathering data from your site/app –and it’ll keep doing so in the background, even if you never use it. This will ensure that, if you ever do switch to GA4, you’ll have lots of historical data about your site/app to analyse from the very start.

How to use GA4

Even if you’re new to Google Analytics, getting started with GA4 should be achievable with a little study and practice. (There are lots of free online courses at the official Google Analytics Academy.)

The first step toward using GA4 is to set up a GA4 property for your website and/or app. This will enable GA4 to connect to the site/app and start collecting data.

If you don’t already have a Google Analytics account, create one now – signing up is straightforward.

Those of you who are creating a new GA account will be prompted to create a GA4 property during account setup. Those who already have a GA account should go through the following process to create a property:

  1. Sign-in to GA and go to ‘Admin’ → click ‘+Create property’
  2. Enter your business name, time zone, primary currency and other requested details. At the end of this process, click ‘Create’
  3. Set up data stream(s). This tells GA4 where to gather data from. You’ll need to enter details of the website(s)/app(s), you want to track. If you’re going to track an app, you’ll need to set up data collection now, by adding a Firebase SDK to the app.
  4. Set up data collection from your site(s). There are several ways to do this.

Once the initial set-up of GA4 is complete, you can start configuring the platform to collect useful data.

GA4 is focused on event tracking – so you’ll need to decide which on-page or in-app events you’re going to track.

An event could be any instance where a visitor interacts with a webpage or a certain element of that page. Here are a few examples of events:

  • Clicking a CTA button
  • Scrolling down the page
  • Downloading something
  • Pressing play on a video
  • Loading a new page
  • Submitting a form
  • Viewing an image in a lightbox view

These are just a few of the many events that can be tracked with GA4. The question for marketers is: which events should I track?

You could start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Which parts of my website/app are new, or are going to be changed soon?
  • Which parts of my site/app don’t seem to be working as well as they should?
  • Which parts of my site/app do I need to talk about with stakeholders?

Tracking events in GA4 can give you a superb level of insight into these ‘hot topic’ components of your site or app – the new, the underperforming and the up-for-discussion. For example:

  • Tracking plays of a new embedded video could help you to measure user engagement with the new asset, and thereby to assess its value/performance.
  • Measuring scroll-downs on an informative page could indicate whether users perceive the copy on the page to be relevant/compelling.
  • If a stakeholder has expressed doubts over the value of creating high-resolution product photos, you could show them how many visitors open a lightbox view when they visit product pages of the website/app.

These are just a few examples of how GA4 event-tracking can deliver valuable strategic insights. In fact, the possibilities are practically infinite.

When you’ve decided which events you’d like to track in GA4, you can start with event setup.

There are four types of event in GA4:

  • Automatically collected events
  • Enhanced tracking events
  • Recommended events
  • Custom events

As their name suggests, automatically collected events are tracked by default. These events include ad clicks, in-app purchases and app crashes. (You can read the full list of automatically collected events here.)

Enhanced tracking events are also collected automatically, provided you have enabled them in your account settings. This event category includes traditional metrics associated with previous versions of GA, such as pageviews. Tracking these events can be particularly useful for getting a high-level measure of website or app performance (e.g. we had x number of pageviews in June – which is a z% year-on-year increase).

Another GA4 event type is recommended events. GA suggests them to you, based on what you’ve told the platform about the business. So, an ecommerce-focussed account would get different recommendations to a gaming-focussed account, for example. Check the events GA has recommended for your business, and implement the ones that could be useful to you (see video below for the implementation process). You’ll need to use the exact same parameter names GA has given you in its recommendations.

If there’s an event you’d like to track that isn’t covered by any of the event types we’ve discussed so far, then you can create a custom event to capture the desired data.

Should I use GA4?

We hope that this guide has given you a better feel for GA4 – what the platform does, how it differs from previous versions of GA, and whether it’s right for your business.

At this stage, there’s no pressure to switch to GA4 and start using it exclusively. However, there are lots of good reasons to give it a try. The events-based tracking offered by GA4 delivers a unique level of granular insight into website or app performance, wrapped up in a fairly accessible GA interface.

If you’re curious about broadening your website/app analytics capabilities, GA4 is the perfect tool for the job – and you could have it set up very quickly, at no risk to your existing GA account(s).

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