What is Google Analytics 4 and do you need to switch today?

There’s a new kid in town when it comes to measuring web interactions. Ladies and gentlemen, please say hi to Google Analytics 4. Most of our clients wanted to know if they should switch to GA4 from Universal Analytics (we’ll just call it GA3 from now on). To help them and to help our community, we decided to prepare this guide. Now, if you’re in a huge rush, because you have to finish binge watching that show on Netflix, here’s the quick answer:

Our recommendation: No need to rush, but you should start experimenting with GA4. Just add it to your site and let it start collecting data. It will play nicely with your current Google Analytics setup and will give you plenty of options for a privacy-obsessed future.

For those of you who would like to learn more about GA4 and its quirky new way of measuring digital footprints, here are some more juicy details.

Top-level summary:
  • GA4 is the latest version of Google’s analytics solution. This time, it combines tracking web and app traffic analysis.
  • In addition to a very significant change in user interface, GA4 also brings a brand new way to track user interactions on your website. Google is clearly trying to “future proof” analytics for a future where user privacy considerations may severely limit the use of some existing technologies (e.g., cookies).
  • Despite reports to the contrary, Universal Analytics (GA3) is alive and well. Google will continue to support it for many years to come.
  • Special note on e-commerce tracking: good news, you don’t have to updata all those ecommerce data layers: GA4 is compatible with the UA ecommerce schema.

Why GA4? Why now?

Google believes that “every company is a data company”[1] and many industry trends seem to be pointing to a data-centric world, where properly measuring user interactions will become a key competitive advantage.

Today, properly measuring user interactions on your website (or your mobile app) is one of the keys to success in digital marketing. Google Analytics is one of the most popular tools for measurement. In October 2020, this tool got a big upgrade: Google Analytics 4 is officially here.

GA4 is designed to collect details on your users while striking a good balance for privacy and security aspects. You can use it to track many useful pieces of data: your traffic volume, performance of your marketing channels and the trend of your key performance indicators. While there are many legitimate concerns regarding user privacy, we firmly believe that responsible collection and use of sampled data will help everyone, especially the users.

Without reliable and consistent data, improving user experience would be a lot harder. We are happy to see that Google is taking these concerns seriously.

In March 2020, Apple caused a major shock in the digital advertising industry with the release of their latest operating system. After this update, many Apple devices started blocking third-party cookies that are essential for advertisers to track the performance of their ad investments. We see this as a glimpse of our digital future: users gaining more control on how advertisers and tech companies track their browsing habits and interests.

So, there is a good reason why GA4 is built around a privacy-first design philosophy and we are happy to see that Google is taking user privacy concerns more seriously. The limitations on data granularity are still firmly in place (for example, you cannot get internet protocol level data, or harvest personally identifiable information). Google also seems to be getting ready for the day when cookies will be strictly limited (or entirely banned). Google’s advanced machine learning models will replace some of the information gathered using cookies.

So what’s new with Google Analytics 4?

Technically, Google Analytics 4 is not just the next version of Universal Analytics (GA3). The relationship between the two is a bit like upgrading to an electric model of your favorite automobile brand: it may look a bit similar, but it’s designed with a very different technology.

GA4 is an expanded and rebranded name for Google App + Web Analytics and it includes expanded predictive insights, deeper integration with Google Ads, cross – device measurement capabilities and more granular data controls [1]. GA4 uses the same tracking schema on both the web and app data, and this guarantees its reliability and robustness compared to what GA3 provides for cross-device and cross-platform tracking. However, GA3 has compelling attribution modeling capabilities via multi-channel funnels and attribution reports which make GA3 more powerful than GA4 in attribution modelling.

GA4 has a default built-in IP anonymization feature while in GA3 IP anonymization is opt in. GA3 tracks the IP address to determine the geolocation of a visitor. Having IP anonymization disabled, a visitor’s IP address is sent to Google Analytics servers by dropping the last 3 IP digits. Furthermore, GA4 is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers. As their-party cookies are phased out, GA4 includes modelling to help fill the gaps where data is incomplete, and this goes beyond cookies [3].

How does GA4 and GA3 (Universal Analytics) compare?

GA4 GA3 Universal Analytics
Property Identification Measurement ID with the prefix ‘G-’ Tracking ID with the prefix ‘UA-’
Measurement principle Events focused on user interactions Sessions and hits
Key technology Machine learning Cookies
Primary use Websites and apps Websites
User privacy considerations Cookie-less data collection; no IP addresses No IP addresses
User interface Simpler, but will probably bloat over time So many choices. Where was that custom report thingy again?
For starters, we have a new naming convention for the analytics properties. GA3 uses tracking ID (beginning with letters ‘UA-’) for its hit tracking; instead, GA4 uses a measurement ID (with the prefix ‘G-’) for its event tracking. So whether or not you’re using Google Tag Manager for configuring Google Analytics, you’ll need to update the ID parameter.

In GA3, the data measurement model is session-based (a session is a group of user interactions or “hits” on a website which take place over a given timeframe). A session can contain multiple pageviews, events and ecommerce transactions. [1]). Google Analytics 4 uses a completely different way to track user actions and its data measurement model is event-driven. GA4 captures every interaction as an event, whereas GA3 captures every interaction as a hit within a given time frame.

In order to truly benefit from GA4, you’ll need to take a mental leap and forget about the concepts of pageviews and hits. Instead, we’ll all need to wrap our minds around the more flexible concept of events in GA4. The data in the GA4 reports is from events that are triggered as users interact with the website/app.

More on GA4 events and how to configure them

There are four categories of events in GA4:
  1. Automatically collected events: are collected automatically with basic data collection
  2. Enhanced measurement: are collected automatically if you have enabled enhanced measurement
  3. Recommended events: are events that you implemented yourself, but that have predefined names and parameters
  4. Custom events: are events that you name and implement yourself [2].

If you’re a regular user of events in GA, then we’ve got some good news for you: category-action-label-value schema is fully preserved in GA4. On top of these four standard data fields, you now have the option to send additional data to GA4 by using a much more flexible setup via custom event parameters.

So, what’s next?

GA4 data collection makes extensive use of machine learning to plug the gap when cookies suddenly vanish (cool stuff, isn’t it?). It is not clear when or even if cookies will entirely disappear. In the meantime, why not start experimenting with GA4? You can continue to rely on GA3 for your operational reporting needs and data analysis. Adding the GA4 option today will help you future-proof your analytics stack.

Clearly, our friends at Google are getting ready for a future when we’ll all have to live with a “less is more” approach to data collection. We just need to figure out what’s essential for our business, and structure our Google Analytics properties to measure that. And only that.

Do you need help with setting up GA4? Instead of dealing with data layers, would you much rather focus on a triple layer chocolate cake recipe? Give us a shout. We’ll help you with anything you need when it comes to Google Analytics. And maybe you’ll send us a piece of your cake.

Works Cited

[1] J. Boon, "Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs Universal Analytics - What’s the Difference?," adapt, 26 01 2021. [Online]. Available:https://www.adaptworldwide.com/insights/2021/google-analytics-4-vs-universal-analytics-whats-the-difference. [Accessed 28 09 2021].

[2] Google Analytics, "Analytics Help," Google , [Online]. Available: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/9322688?hl=en. [Accessed 28 09 2021].

[3] J. Boon, "Google Analytics 4: What You Need to Know," adapt, 22 10 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.adaptworldwide.com/insights/2020/google-analytics-4-what-you-need-to-know. [Accessed 28 09 2021].



[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNEM-FeN0TE

About the author(s):

Oz is the founder of Plumfind. He is a huge fan of permission-based marketing and an ardent believer that marketing can be a force for good. He is determined to make digital marketing accessible to all entrepreneurs around the world. He lives in Montreal, Canada.