The end of Universal Analytics marked the beginning of a new era, with GA4 becoming mandatory for those wanting to use Google Analytics. GA4 had been around for almost a year at the time Universal Analytics was retired, giving marketers a chance to set GA4 up and transition over to the brand new platform.
GA4 came with a lot of changes and new features, along with a customer-centric and simplified way of tracking events and conversions. The interface changed and aspects of Universal Analytics have been removed altogether. One challenge has been learning a whole new platform and ensuring the transition over to GA4 is smooth and with minimal disruption.
If you still need to do this, you are in the right place. In this guide to GA4 vs Universal Analytics, we cover everything you need to know about the switch. From the main differences, the benefits to GA4 and how to set it up.
- Universal Analytics stopped processing data in July 2023, making it important for businesses to accurately set up GA4.
- GA4 has a new look and feel and many new features, however, everything that could previously be measured in UA can still be measured in GA4.
- There are 7 key differences to GA4 vs Universal Analytics, which include changes to app tracking, session calculations, bounce rate, engagement metrics and account structure.
- In GA4, every single interaction with a business or app is called an event, which has replaced goals in UA, making it a more streamlined way of measuring data.
- Deploy GA4 using Google Tag Manager and follow the steps in this guide to setting up a GA4 account using the Google Setup Assistant.
What To Know About The Switch From Universal Analytics to GA4?
Since the switch to GA4 was inevitable and businesses relying heavily on data analytics, website and app owners need to get it right. So, let’s first take a look at some of the main things that you need to know about the switch from Universal Analytics to GA4.
- Set up GA4 using the migration tool
Existing Universal Analytics accounts were either automatically migrated over to GA4, or it was (and still is) possible to migrate over to GA4 using Google’s migration tool. The latter is the recommended approach because GA4 can then be customized to meet the needs of your website and app analytics, rather than allowing Google to guess this on your behalf. Find out how to set up GA4 later on in the article.
- Universal Analytics stopped processing data in July 2023
Universal Analytics was retired in July 2023 and at some point in July UA stopped processing data (the exact date differed from account to account). This put a lot of importance on preparing to switch over to GA4 and then switching over at the right time, so that there were not any gaps in your data.
- A new interface and method of tracking
GA4 has a new reporting interface and as well as that, the way conversions are tracked has changed. Find out about the changes to goal tracking in depth later on, however, in a nutshell Universal Analytics was centered around goals and this has been replaced with events. GA4’s event tracking is regarded as being more comprehensive, taking into account the entire customer journey attributing events to a single user interaction.
This useful context is good to keep in mind as we explore the differences, and similarities between UA vs GA4.
What Is Still The Same Between GA4 vs Universal Analytics?
The differences between the two platforms are more noticeable because it’s easier to spot the things that have changed or that we miss about Universal Analytics. However, there are a number of similarities and some elements that have even stayed the same.
- The biggest similarity is that both GA4 and Universal Analytics are tools to help you get insights into user behavior. This hasn’t changed and this basic principle has carried through to GA4. The ability to track things like pageviews, events, and conversions and get a sense of channel attribution is the same.
- Everything that website and app owners could previously measure in UA can still be measured in GA4. Even in cases where reports have moved or been upgraded, all of the same reports can still be run. GA4 appears to have more reports, however the truth is, everything you can do in GA4 was also possible in UA.
- Last but not least, both platforms are free to use. This hasn’t changed and GA4 remains a free tool.
Although the interface has changed, GA4 is still similar to UA and for those who knew their way around UA, it shouldn’t take too long to get to grips with GA4.
7 Key Differences Between GA4 vs Universal Analytics
What is the difference between GA4 and Universal Analytics, since many of the same features have been carried forward and the basic principle remains the same. Let’s explore 7 key differences between the two platforms and what this means for you.
1: App tracking
Website and app tracking has been combined in the same GA4 property, whereas previously website and app analytics were kept separate. GA4 uses the same measurement model as Google Analytics Firebase, which is an analytics platform for mobile apps.
To add app or website data to your GA4 property, navigate to ‘Admin’ and head over to ‘Data Streams’. Adding data streams is essentially connecting a website or app to your GA4:
It is still recommended for app owners to use the Firebase SDK to integrate the app with Google Analytics Firebase because Firebase offers additional features that complement GA4, such as cloud messaging, remote config, crashlytics and performance monitoring.
However the combining of website and app measurement under the same GA property is a welcomed upgrade, allowing those that use both platforms to combine data and get a clearer sense of how users engage with them.
2: Event-based interactions
One large difference between GA4 and Universal Analytics is event tracking. In GA4, every single interaction with a business or app is called an event. All user interactions, which includes user engagement on the site and actions that take place during a customer journey, can be tracked with a sequence of events.
This differs from UA whereby interactions were recorded as different types of ‘hits’, such as page views, transactions, and social interactions.
The screenshot below shows the events that an ecommerce business is tracking, which start with a page view, measuring users landing on the website, and end when a user makes a purchase. In between there are numerous other events, such as viewing an item, adding to cart, removing from cart, beginning checkout, adding payment info, and more.
In GA4, events are accompanied with event parameters, which are a way of enhancing the tracking of events with additional information to get a deeper level of insight into how users are engaging with your website or app.
For example, if a consumer browsing your website decides to add a product to their shopping cart, event parameters can be set up to identify the specific product, such as product name, landing page or price. This enriches data analytics and makes it even more insightful.
Another thing to note on event tracking is how you can choose specific events that should be marked as a conversion. It’s then possible to view and analyze conversion event data separate to other events that are not necessarily conversions. Conversion events can also be imported into other platforms such as Google Ads.
3: Session calculations in GA4 vs Universal Analytics
The way in which sessions are reported in UA differs from that of GA4. In Universal Analytics, a new session started at midnight, whereas for GA4 this is not the case. When GA4 triggers a session_start event, a session ID is generated and then all events that follow can be associated with the session ID.
This can be the cause of discrepancies between the two platforms, so if you are comparing data in both UA vs GA4 and notice differences to session data, this could be why.
The way GA4 measures sessions also has a positive impact on data quality, because session count is not inflated by user engagements on your website or app. In UA, if a user encountered a new campaign parameter then a new session was started.
Lastly, for Universal Analytics the minimum session timeout was 1 minute and the maximum was 4 minutes. However, in GA4 the minimum is 5 minutes and the maximum is 7 hours and 55 minutes, again minimizing the inflation of sessions.
4: Export GA4 data to BigQuery
BigQuery is a Google product, described by Google as a fully managed enterprise data warehouse, which allows businesses to manage and analyze data from numerous sources at scale. BigQuery uses features such as machine learning, geospatial analysis, and business intelligence and it is a fast way for businesses to get insights from very large data sets.
It’s now possible to export data directly to BigQuery from GA4 for free, something that wasn’t possible with Universal Analytics. Previously, this was only possible for those that had Analytics 360.
It’s worth noting that Analytics 360, which is being retired in July 2024, isn’t a free platform and it comes with a hefty price tag. So the ability to send event data to BigQuery for free is a big deal.
5: Bounce rate and engagement rate
GA4 no longer focuses on bounce rate in the way Universal Analytics used to and instead, user engagement with the site has become more prominent. This is because Google wanted to take a more positive approach to reporting metrics with more emphasis on those that are engaging.
Engagement rate is the percentage of engaged sessions divided by sessions and it’s displayed as a percentage. Engaged sessions are sessions that last more than 10 seconds, generated at least 1 conversion event or a minimum of two page / screen views. Other metrics that are engagement focused are ‘Average engagement time per sessions’, ‘Engaged sessions per user’, and ‘Events per session’.
It is still possible to find out your bounce rate in GA4, although the way this metric is calculated has changed as well. In UA, bounce rate represented users who only viewed one page and left the site. In GA4, bounce rate is engagement rate in reverse, meaning it’s the percentage of users who didn’t last more than 10 seconds, generate at least 1 conversion event or a minimum of two page / screen views.
6: Google Tag Manager is more important than ever
GA4 is best used alongside Google Tag Manager (GTM). Universal Analytics could be used without Google Tag Manager and a common way to implement UA was with code, for GA4 this has changed.
Google Tag Manager is a really powerful tool for setting up event tags and triggers that fire various events when a user takes certain actions. Now that GA4 is event-focused instead of goal-focused, GTM is recommended. Tag Manager is especially useful for advanced tracking and it is something you will need to understand if you want to create custom events and dimensions and add additional event parameters.
7: Account structure
The account structure in GA4 has changed. In Universal Analytics, the structure was made up of the following:
- Account - Property - View
However, in GA4 it’s now the following without any views:
- Account - Property
Instead of views, Data Streams have been added which is a brand new feature that didn’t exist in Universal Analytics. Data Streams is a flow of data from an app or website to Analytics.
In GA4, data is collected via a unique data stream ID whereas in UA, data is collected with a tracking ID at the property level. You can have up to 50 data streams and 30 app data streams in GA4.
UA Features That Have Been Removed From GA4
Here are some of the main things that have been removed altogether from GA4 that was previously featured in Universal Analytics.
- No more monthly hit limits
GA4 has removed monthly hit limits, something that webmasters were previously tied to when using Universal Analytics. The limit was big at 10 million hits per month, 500 per session and 200k per user per day. However GA4 doesn’t have these limits
- Goals replaced by events
Goals have been replaced by events, something we covered in the previous sections. Goals no longer exist and instead, events can be marked as conversions.
- Google Analytics views have been retired
Universal Analytics views, which were a way of segmenting or separating data, have been replaced with a single GA4 property and more comprehensive reporting structure.
- Spam referral filters are gone
Spam referrals, a feature in Universal Analytics that enabled you to exclude spam and bot referral traffic from your data, is gone. This has been replaced in GA4, which now comes with spam prevention capabilities.
- Bounce rate removed from reports
Focus has shifted from bounce rate reporting, which has been removed from reports, to engagement rate metrics, such as engaged sessions (sessions that have lasted for more than 10 seconds) and session duration.
- IP addresses and hostname updates
Two other features that have gone are the ability to block IP addresses from your data and it’s no longer possible to set up a filter for your hostname.
How To Deploy GA4 With Google Tag Manager
As we have already discovered, the easiest way to set up GA4 is with Google Tag Manager. GA4 has been designed to work seamlessly alongside GTM, allowing for streamlined implementation and management of tags on your website or app, and triggers that are set up to fire the tags.
It’s important to remember that GA4 is the analytics platform that records and processes data, whereas GTM is for adding, updating, and managing tags that send data to GA4. Google Tag Manager doesn’t record or show any data itself, it’s more like a middleman between your website or app and GA4.
To deploy GA4 with GTM, you first need to set up your Google Tag Manager account and implement the Google tag on your website. The second step is to to set up GA4 event tags within GTM.
In order to complete the setup of event tags in GTM, you will need to create triggers. A trigger in GTM listens to your web page or mobile app for certain types of events to take place, which can include button clicks, filling out a form, scroll depth, watching a video, pageviews, and more. Triggers can be created off of almost any action that a user can take and it essentially tells the tag when to fire.
For example, for a tag that tracks people who make a purchase, the trigger could be users who reach a specific thank you page.
Once this has been set up, don’t forget to verify that your tag works by using preview mode in Google Tag Manager.
How Do I Set Up GA4?
The best way to set up GA4 is by migrating your Universal Analytics property over. It’s a quick process that should take no longer than 15 minutes. All you need is editor access to your Google Analytics account.
Sign in to Google Analytics and click on the UA property you would like to migrate over, then click on any of the views that are available:
Navigate to ‘Admin’ and in the Property column, click ‘GA4 Setup Assistant’ - it will be the first option in the Property column:
Follow the steps in the GA4 Setup Assistant and then once this has been completed, head over to your new GA4 property and start familiarizing yourself with the event setup, parameters and reports. It’s important to customize your GA4 account so that your business will benefit from as many insights as possible.
Use Feed Analytics To Improve Your Reporting
Feed Analytics can be used to support the transition over to GA4, which will improve the accuracy of your analytics and reporting. It’s a great solution for ecommerce businesses that would like to get more out of their data analytics, uncovering more insight that can lead to performance.
Feed analytics can enhance your analytics in the following ways:
- Accurately report on your ROAS and give channels the right credit
- Optimize your spending between your channels based on the actual revenue they bring to the table
- Identify and allocate revenue often categorized as ‘other’ in GA4 and UA
- Anticipate the point of diminishing returns to find an optimal point of spending
- Blend historical data with your new GA4 account
What do Marketers Think of GA4?
What marketers think of GA4 is a complex question and depending on who you ask, you may get a very different response.
In the beginning there was resistance, which is normal when a product or platform we all know so well and have come to rely on changes. Some marketers were all for the change and quickly adopted it, however for some, when work is busy and day to day processes are disrupted, having to learn a brand new platform felt like an unnecessary chore.
If you speak to marketers that have successfully adopted GA4 and gotten to grips with it, you will likely get a more positive reaction. In general, once you are able to figure out how to properly use GA4, it’s clear how powerful and elevated it is at event and conversion tracking compared to UA. Especially during a time when multi-channel and device attribution is such an important topic.
For those that are still in the process of getting to grips with GA4, it will be worth it.
Conclusion: 4 Benefits To Using GA4
To wrap up this article, here are 4 of the main benefits that GA4 brings, thanks to the new features mentioned above as well as the changes in how data is measured.
1. Enhanced measurement capabilities
GA4 comes with an elevated way of tracking data and offers advanced measurement capabilities. Not only is it easier for this to be achieved with less reliance on code, something that many may have struggled with when using Universal Analytics, the insights from GA4 reports are richer and provide a greater understanding of user interactions.
2. The use of machine learning in GA4
As with all Google products in recent years, machine learning has taken center stage and it’s being used in a way to supercharge analytics as well. It enables businesses to extract deeper insights from user behavior and trends, providing a more informed and data-driven picture of how users behave.
3. User-centric reporting
GA4 shifts towards a user-centric reporting approach, whereas Universal Analytics was all about sessions and then goals. A user-centric approach to analytics takes into account how individuals interact with your website or app with a more holistic view of customer journey.
4. Free exports to BigQuery
We’ve already touched upon how BigQuery allows you to export data directly from GA4, something that wasn’t possible with Universal Analytics. This is a valuable feature that opens up new possibilities for advanced analytics and cross-channel insights. Plus it’s now free to use with GA4.
It’s important to remember these benefits to using GA4, especially if you, like many other marketers and webmasters, have found the adoption of a brand new tool challenging. The benefits do outweigh the challenges involved once you are up to speed with GA4.
For ecommerce businesses that are looking to uncover even more insight from their data, consider these 7 Google Analytics custom dimensions to enhance the tracking of your online store.