Q&A – What is Google Analytics 4 and what are my next steps?

If you use Google Analytics, or if you are setting up a new website, you’ve probably heard of Google Analytics 4. In this guide we take you through what Google Analytics 4 actually is, and what you need to do about it.


6 min read

1. So, what is Google Analytics 4?

Google Analytics 4 - or GA4 - is a new, upgraded version of Google Analytics. The version of Analytics that most of us use just now is known as ‘Universal Analytics’ (or you could say GA3).

GA4 has been developed by Google to bring analytics in line with how people build and use digital platforms today - and increasingly will in the future.

2. Why did Google launch GA4?

Traditionally the online experience was largely made up of websites, and these websites followed a ‘page, page, page’ format - where a user would navigate from page to page on a site to complete their interaction. Universal Analytics (or GA3) was built to track these page-based interactions and used ‘page views’ as a key building block of their measurement model.

However, the digital experience has evolved, with people increasingly using multiple devices across multiple platforms - so that users often interact with brands across mobile apps, single-page web apps, as well as traditional websites. GA4 has been developed to more effectively track these wider experiences.

Also, as more and more people block cookies, GA4 has been designed to be able to adapt to a cookie-less future, by making more use of AI and machine learning. So GA4 is really future-proofing Google Analytics.

3. How is it different?

GA4 is quite different to Universal Analytics in many ways - and some familiar elements of Google Analytics have changed. However, remember, ultimately the purpose of GA4 is the same - to help you track how users interact with your sites and apps.

Without getting too technical about it, the way that Google Analytics tracks your website’s interaction has changed. GA4 no longer uses the ‘page view’ as the basis of its data measurement - it now uses a much more flexible “event-based” model, where ‘page views’ are just one type of interaction event.

In real terms, this means that the tracking script that you place on your site needs to be different, the way you track interactions is different, some of the key metrics in the report are different, and the reporting interface has changed too.

  • Key metrics: GA4 no longer reports on ‘bounce rate’ (the percentage of people who left your site on the same page that they started, without viewing any other pages). Instead it reports on ‘engagement rate’ (the percentage of people who actively engaged with your site). This is a positive change, as bounce rate could be a bit of a misleading metric.
  • Measurement as standard: GA4 offers something called ‘enhanced measurement’, which allows you to automatically track interactions with your site such as downloads, outbound links, and scroll depth which previously you would have had to add additional tags to track.
  • Interface: The reporting interface is different and as with any change, will take a little time to get used to if you usually use Universal Analytics.
  • Custom reports: There is a new ‘analysis hub’ area in the reports, which lets you create new custom reports by dragging and dropping the metrics which are important to you, allowing you to carry out deeper analysis within the interface.
  • Tracking tags: If you currently use Google Tag Manager or use the existing ‘event tracking’, you will need to create new tracking tags to track these events in GA4.

4. What action do I need to take now?

We recommend using Universal Analytics as your main source of data for the time being - but setting up a GA4 property as well, if your website platform allows you to. The way you do this will differ depending on whether you already have Universal Analytics, or whether you’re setting up a new site.

  • Already have a site and already have Universal analytics set up: Keep your Universal Analytics as your main account for the time being, but set up a new ‘upgraded’ GA4 property to run in parallel, as soon as you are able to. This will enable you to gather benchmark data on the new version and compare it with your existing data so you can see if there’s any difference. Understanding and resolving any gaps is important before moving fully to GA4 in future.
  • Setting up a new site: When you’re launching a new site and setting up Analytics, Google will push you onto the new GA4 by default. However, we recommend you set up both - Universal Analytics AND GA4. Setting up the GA4 property doesn’t cost you anything, and it means you can either start recording data in GA4 right away (if you can) or that you already have the property set up for when you can add the new tags to your site.

5. Why don’t we need to drop Universal Analytics and change to GA4?

There are many reasons we recommend keeping Universal Analytics as your main measurement method just now:

  • First, Universal Analytics is used by millions of websites across the world - in fact it is one of the biggest measurement platforms out there. This means that Universal Analytics won’t be retired by Google in the near future and will continue to run and collect your data as normal.
  • Also, GA4 is a very new platform - it was only officially launched in October 2020. As it is so new, it isn’t as mature a tool as Universal Analytics and is missing some of the functionality that the older tool has. Much of this functionality is likely to be developed and launched in GA4 as we progress through the year and into next year.
  • Plus, if you’re new to Google Analytics, Universal Analytics has a lot more ‘how to’ and help information available from a wide range of sources online, which you may find useful if you’ve never used Analytics before. However, GA4 is so new, it has nowhere near the depth of helpful guides available yet.

However, as mentioned, when you set up a new Google Analytics account, by default it will be a GA4 property.

Be aware that, at the time of writing (7/4/21), many website builder platforms - such as Shopify and Squarespace - don’t support GA4 in their built-in integrations with Google Analytics. Therefore, if you want to easily link Google Analytics with a new Shopify site for example, you will need to create a Universal Analytics property to use the ‘enable Google Analytics’ function. This means that you cannot automatically add the GA4 script to your site just yet.

6. How do you create a Universal Analytics property on a new website?

If you need to set up a new Analytics property, but are not yet ready to use only GA4, you can still create a Universal Analytics property. Below we’ll outline the steps to do this at the time of writing (7/4/21). Note, if you already have a Google Analytics account, skip to step 4.b.

  1. Create a Google Account if you don’t have one already.
  2. Go to Google Analytics home, and select ‘create a new account’.
  3. Enter the appropriate details for your business on the account set up page.
  4. Now you need to create a new property.
    a. If you are following on from the step above, click ‘next’
    b. If you already have a GA account, navigate to your ‘admin’ screen and select ‘Create property'
  5. Name your property and select a reporting time zone and currency for your account (make this for the same country as where your target visitors are based).
  6. Now, click the ‘show advanced options’ button and click the toggle to turn on ‘Create a Universal Analytics property’.
  7. Add your website’s URL.
  8. You now have the option to create both a Google Analytics 4 and a Universal Analytics property or to create a Universal Analytics property only.
  9. Select the best fit for you and follow the remaining steps through the set up.

7. How do I add a GA4 property to my existing Analytics?

Although Universal Analytics is unlikely to be dropped anytime soon, GA4 is the future of Google Analytics. It is also where all of Google’s new features and developments will be launched (Google is no longer launching new features in Universal Analytics). Eventually, GA4 will mature and will become the only way to use Google Analytics. So, if you set it up now, you will have some time to plan and get up to speed.

That’s why we recommend that you first get up to speed on GA4 and have a look at the official Google Analytics information.

Next, you should set up a GA4 property to run alongside your Universal Analytics property, if possible. This will let you get to grips with the new version and build some benchmarking data, before you make the switch over.

To set up GA4, you may need to add additional script - or ‘tags’ - to your site. However, analytics may be able to do this automatically, by linking your existing Universal tags with a new GA4 property. To find out if you can begin tracking GA4 without adding any tags, use the ‘GA4 set up Wizard’ in the admin screen to create your new GA4 property.

When using this wizard, if you see the option to ‘enable data collection using your existing tags’, then you will be able to automatically start collecting data in your new property.

However, if you don’t see this option, you will need to add the new tags to your site. (This can be done in Google Tag Manager if you have it). Although please note, if you are using a website builder (such as Shopify, Squarespace, etc) then you will likely have to add the GA4 tags via a ‘script injection’ function in the Custom HTML section. If you are not confident doing this yourself, you should either wait until these platforms update their integrations or seek the help of a developer.

To find out more about setting up a GA4 property and how to add the GA4 tag to your site, see Google’s help section.

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