June 2, 2023

GA4 vs. Universal Analytics: 4 Key Differences

Did you know nearly 4 billion birds in North America migrate south each autumn as the season changes? Stay with us. We’ve got a point here.

Contrary to popular belief, most birds can withstand freezing temperatures as long as they have enough food. Thus, this evolutionary flight toward areas rich with all the insects a bird can eat boils down simply to a search for better resources. As it turns out, Google has a lot more in common with birds than you would have imagined.

The way people use the Internet is changing, forcing a chance to Universal Analytics or UA code, Google Analytics’ premiere reporting tag, high and dry, out of reach of the best resources for digital analytics reporting.

Google recently announced that your Universal Analytics property (UA) will stop collecting new data by July 1, 2023, meaning users must migrate to its replacement, Google Analytics 4 (GA4), if they wish to continue recording web traffic data. All new analytics properties set up from 2020 onward have been installed automatically with GA4. However, it’s still crucial for marketers to understand what exactly is changing regarding GA4 vs. Universal Analytics. 

Before we dive into the four main differences between Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics, let’s take a step back and examine why Google has decided to rebuild its premiere website analytics platform from the ground up. 

A brief history of Google Analytics

Before the introduction of GA4, the core of Google Analytics had remained essentially the same for 15 years.

In 2005, Google acquired a program called Urchin, creating the first version of Google Analytics. Even today, you can still use the original Urchin tracking code in your Universal Analytics property. Each upgrade–from Classic Google Analytics in 2007 to Universal Analytics in 2012–came with a new tracking code introducing updated analytics features. While Google recommended upgrading each new tag for improved performance, the previous tags still functioned throughout each upgrade.

Until now.

Will GA4 replace Universal Analytics?

The name “Google Analytics 4” might lead users to believe the platform follows the same path as its predecessors, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), that is not the case. 

If your site has UA code, Google Analytics will no longer track data after July 1, 2023.

GA4 is an entirely new system built to address issues of the current digital age. Every update that Google had previously released added new features without changing the basic tools, data reporting models, or look-and-feel of Google Analytics. Additionally, users have not had to deal with relearning an entirely new system until now.

The Internet was a very different place back in the early days of Urchin from Google. Thanks to ad blockers, new privacy and data laws limiting cookie tracking, and users accessing the Internet from multiple devices, the original UA can’t keep up. Google finally decided it was time to change the measurement model altogether. 

But what exactly has changed in GA4? Here is a list of four features new to GA4 vs Universal Analytics. 

What is the difference between GA4 vs. Universal Analytics?

When GA4 was in beta, it was called App+Web Property. Why? Because one of its new features introduced the ability to combine analytics from both websites and apps in one property. Previously, users needed two properties, Google Analytics and Firebase, to report across multiple devices. Tracking across devices had previously been problematic in Universal Analytics because of off-site mobile app purchases and e-commerce transactions, but Google Analytics 4 fixes that problem.

         1. User-ID Approach

The User-ID lets you tag a continuous ID to individuals to track their behavior across multiple sessions and platforms. This continuous ID gives you a far more accurate count of users and a granular view into the story of individual users and their experience(s) across your site. The User-ID also allows Google to assign reporting identities, which will create a much more unique tracking experience as analysts can learn far more about users than basic demographics with no users attached to them.

        2. Events-Based Tracking

One of the most significant differences between Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics is the programs’ distinct measurement models.

Universal Analytics relies on a sessions-based model that groups user interactions within a specific time frame. Google Analytics 4, on the other hand, uses an events-based model, where all user interactions (clicks, scrolls, page load, file download, even pageviews) are recorded as “events.” The Google Analytics 4 events-based tracking is more detailed, more flexible, and better able to predict user behavior than cookie-based tracking. 

Events-based tracking means there is more information to be tracked with GA4 vs Universal Analytics, including e-commerce interactions, page element interactions, and users entering the site. Access to more data improves the level of detail about user experiences and lessens the weight analysts need to put on Google Tag Manager to get in-depth insights about site interactions. Now, tracking events on your site will be exponentially more accessible, decreasing the strain on your site’s loading speed due to the weight lifted from relying on tags.

Using Parameters in event-based tracking will be the key to gaining rich information about a user’s experience on the site.

        3. New Data Modeling Feature

Universal Analytics traditionally relied on cookie tracking to produce data. Cookie-tracking legislation continues to evolve worldwide, creating data processing gaps. When it comes to Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics, GA4 is less dependent on cookie tracking due to the implementation of AI.

Google’s modeled conversions use machine learning to notice trends upon conversions and uses these predictions for aggregating information more accurately. With the internet moving more towards maintaining user privacy, GA4 won’t be giving users fingerprint IDs or trying to isolate individual users. Instead, it will use this aggregated data to predict the possibility of conversions from the data. 

GA4’s use of machine learning is a massive step for the analytics platform. Due to the changes in privacy technology and new laws, this move is innovative because it will allow Google to create insights that would be extremely challenging for analysts to develop on their own.

        4. Updated User Interface

When you first set up GA4, you may open the interface and think, where the hell are all of my reports? We weren’t kidding when we said it’s a new mode–new reporting, new metrics, and a new interface. Some of your reports will be removed or replaced because the new measurement model only generates reports once you start tracking events. 

Another difference in the GA4 vs Universal Analytics interface is that many tracking metrics have changed names. For example:

          Universal Analytics vs. GA4

          Audience → User Demographics

          Behavior → Engagement

          Conversion → Monetization

While the GA4 interface looks vastly different than previous iterations of Google Analytics, the GA4 interface shares similarities to the interface of Google Analytics for Firebase, since GA4 was built on Firebase analytics. Expect to see different reports and fewer reports the first time you log in.

What if I don’t do anything with my Google Analytics tags? 

Whew. Even for seasoned marketers, this is a lot to take in. As we continue to navigate the ever-evolving beast that is Google, we’re watching a revolutionary way of gathering customer insights unfold. 

But the clock is ticking. The longer you wait to migrate to GA4, you risk losing months of crucial comparison data. The holiday season is just around the corner, meaning you’ll want to have all your parameters in GA4 set up soon to track year-over-year holiday reporting data in 2023. 

Don’t be scared into a frenzy. We’ve got good news. 

Marketwake and the GA4 Migration 

The good news: you don’t have to do this alone. Marketwake is here to help. With our six-step process for migrating new and existing clients to GA4, we’ve built in time for parallel tracking of Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 simultaneously, so your UA metrics convert accurately into GA4.

Another Google tool helping your GA4 vs Universal Analytics journey? Google Tag Manager. It’ll help you manage, update, and configure various tags across your website. If you’re not already using Google Tag Manager, now is the time to set it up.

Unlike the last few Google Analytics updates, the switch to GA4 is not a simple code change. This entirely new platform comes with new features and an interface unfamiliar to UA users, which can be intimidating for many business owners. 

If our feathered friend analogy made sense to you, let’s put it back in bird terms.

The evolution of bird migration in North America can be traced back almost 20,000 years to when the first ice sheets began to melt. Since then, birds have had plenty of time to perfect their migration process between areas of low and high resources.

Unfortunately, Google isn’t giving us 20,000 years to prepare our back data. But Marketwake has a plan to help your business migrate swiftly and efficiently to GA4. Reach out to our migration team today to get a free consultation on your GA4 migration process. 

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