Navigating the Transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4

If you’re a digital marketer, you know that our landscape is constantly changing and evolving, and a significant part of our job is to try to keep up. One of the most important and impactful changes in the digital marketing landscape in recent years came in 2020 when Google announced that its new event-based analytics platform, Google Analytics 4 (GA4), would replace Universal Analytics. This transition became official in July of 2023. However, prior to the official transition in July, digital marketers weren’t exactly scrambling to migrate their Universal Analytics properties over to GA4, largely because the new platform is a bit more complex than its predecessor. 

In our busy and dynamic digital marketing paradigm, the time-intensive training needed to understand GA4 is, well…a lot to handle. In addition to the complexity, the transition from Universal Analytics to GA4 represents a significant shift in the world of web analytics. This transformation comes with notable differences in data models, data collection, attribution modeling, reporting, and a crucial feature called Consent Mode. 

Now that we’ve had some time to settle into the platform post-transition, let’s talk a little bit more about what the shift means and what we can learn from this new treatment and presentation of website performance data. In this article, we’ll compare and contrast the basics of Universal Analytics and GA4, talk about the key differences in the way each platform processes data, and provide some suggestions for how to use the new platform for creative data analysis.

The Basics: Key Differences Between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4

1. Data Models

Universal Analytics: Universal Analytics utilizes a session-based model, tracking users based on sessions, which are defined as a group of interactions occurring within a specific time frame on a single device.

GA4: In contrast, GA4 employs an event-based data model, tracking users based on individual events. Events encompass any user interaction with your website or app, offering a more granular understanding of user actions and engagement.

2. Data Collection

Universal Analytics: Universal Analytics collects data primarily from website traffic and app usage, along with some social media interactions.

GA4: GA4 extends its data collection capabilities to a broader range of sources, including website traffic, app usage, social media interactions, and even offline data. This comprehensive approach reflects the evolving landscape of online and offline integration.

3. Attribution Modeling

Universal Analytics: Universal Analytics relies on a relatively simple attribution model, often known as “last-touch” attribution. It attributes conversions to the last interaction a user had before converting.

GA4: GA4 introduces a more advanced attribution model capable of considering multiple touchpoints in the user journey. This feature provides a more nuanced view of how various interactions contribute to conversions, crucial for understanding complete user journeys and the impact of different marketing touchpoints.

4. Reporting

Universal Analytics: Universal Analytics offers a range of pre-built reports to track website traffic, user behavior, and marketing campaigns. However, these reports have some limitations regarding customization.

GA4: GA4 allows for more customizable reports. Thus, businesses can tailor reports to their specific needs, whether they’re delving deep into user behavior or closely monitoring campaign performance. Overall, GA4’s flexibility helps businesses use their marketing performance data to make informed decisions about future optimization of the customer journey and user experience.

5. Consent Mode

A significant addition in GA4 is “Consent Mode.” This feature enables website owners to control how Google Analytics collects data based on user consent. In an era where data privacy is paramount, Consent Mode is essential for ensuring data collection practices align with user preferences and legal requirements.

There are two ways website owners can enable Consent Mode in GA4:

  • Use a consent management platform (CMP): A CMP is a third-party service that helps you manage user consent for data collection. Google Analytics supports a number of CMPs, including Google Consent Manager, OneTrust, and iubenda.
  • Use a custom implementation: If you do not want to use a CMP, you can implement consent mode yourself. To do this, you will need to create a consent banner or widget that allows users to give their consent to data collection.

However, Consent Mode isn’t just about privacy; it significantly impacts website visitor traffic and the data you collect. Let’s explore its effects:

Reduced Data Collection

When users opt out of data collection, GA4 can only collect limited data, such as the number of pages visited and time spent on your website. While this respects privacy for users, it can lead to less robust website traffic data to utilize on your end.

Without detailed data on individual users, GA4 can’t generate personalized reports. This means you won’t have as much access to insights like which pages your most engaged users visit or which products your most valuable customers purchase.

Impact on Cross-Platform Tracking

Consent Mode also affects cross-platform tracking, reducing the ability to track users across devices and platforms when they configure Consent Mode. This can impact your ability to measure marketing campaign effectiveness and understand user interactions across devices and platforms, therefore impacting your understanding of the holistic cross-channel customer journey.

In sum, Consent Mode is an important tool for website owners to implement in order to respect users’ privacy and comply with legal data protection parameters, but as we’ve discussed, it can limit your visibility into users’ behaviors and actions on your site. However, despite this, there are steps you can take to mitigate the impact of Consent Mode on your website data. You can:

  • Educate stakeholders about consent mode: Make sure that your users understand why you are using consent mode and how it will impact their experience on your website.
  • Make it easy for users to consent to data collection: Make sure that the consent process is easy and straightforward for your users.
  • Offer alternative ways to collect data: If users do not consent to data collection, you may be able to collect limited data about them using other methods, such as IP addresses or cookies.

Key GA4 Analytics Metrics for Web Traffic Analysis

Now, let’s explore the key GA4 analytics metrics that can aid in your web traffic analysis and reporting:

1. Total Users: “Total Users” is the count of unique users who have visited your website or app. In GA4, users are identified by a unique user ID, providing more accurate data, especially for users who clear their cookies or use private browsing.

2. Views: “Views” encompass the total number of app screens and web pages users have seen. Unlike Universal Analytics, GA4 counts repeated views of the same screen or page, giving a more detailed view of user interactions.

3. Engaged Sessions: Engaged sessions represent sessions that last longer than 10 seconds, involve a conversion event, or include at least 2 pageviews or screenviews. This differs from Universal Analytics, where a session is defined by interactions within a 30-minute period.

4. Bounce Rate: GA4 calculates bounce rate as the percentage of sessions that are not engaged sessions. This differs from Universal Analytics, where bounce rate is determined by sessions with a single pageview and no additional interactions.

5. Events: In GA4, events are part of a new data model based on user behavior, not specific actions like clicks. The data collection method, Measurement Protocol, offers greater flexibility and efficiency.

6. Conversions: Conversions in GA4 are user interactions defined as valuable, which can be anything from purchases to video views. This approach, based on user behavior, provides more flexibility and reporting options.

By tracking these key metrics in GA4, you can gain a more comprehensive understanding of user behavior and the effectiveness of your digital strategies.

Interpreting Key Metrics in GA4 vs. Universal Analytics

1. Engaged Sessions vs. Sessions: In GA4, an engaged session is a session lasting longer than 10 seconds, with a conversion event, or containing at least 2 pageviews or screenviews. This is different from Universal Analytics, where a session is defined as a group of interactions within a 30-minute period. Engaged sessions reflect user interaction, while shorter sessions may indicate mere browsing.

2. Total Users vs. Users: Total users in GA4 are identified by a unique user ID, providing more accurate data. In contrast, users in Universal Analytics are identified by a unique cookie, making them appear as new users after cookie clearing. This difference can lead to varying results in the total users metric.

3. Views vs. Page Views: GA4’s “Views” metric counts all app screens and web pages users see, including repeated views of the same content. In contrast, Universal Analytics’ “Page Views” only counts unique web pages viewed, with repeated views of the same page counted once.

4. Bounce Rate in GA4 vs. Universal Analytics: GA4’s bounce rate considers sessions that aren’t engaged, while Universal Analytics looks at sessions with a single pageview and no additional interactions. The calculation method can result in different bounce rates for the same user behavior.

5. Events in GA4 vs. Universal Analytics: GA4’s events are based on user behavior, capturing a wide range of interactions. The data collection protocol, Measurement Protocol, enhances data collection efficiency and flexibility compared to Universal Analytics’ App + Web SDK.

6. Conversions in GA4 vs. Universal Analytics: GA4’s conversions focus on user behavior-defined valuable interactions, while Universal Analytics’ conversions are based on specific actions.

Understanding Conversions in GA4

In Google Analytics 4, conversions are user interactions that you define as valuable. These can range from purchases to form submissions or video views. Conversions are pivotal because they enable you to measure the success of your marketing campaigns and track your business goals’ progress.

To track conversions in GA4, you must create a conversion event, which is a type of event that you define as a conversion. This event can be tied to specific user interactions you consider valuable. For example, when a user clicks a button or call-to-action or completes a lead generation form, this event can be tracked as a conversion and tied directly back to specific tactics within your overall digital strategy. 

By creating conversion events, you gain a better understanding of the impact of your marketing efforts.

The Takeaway

The transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 is a significant shift that introduces various changes in data models, data collection, attribution modeling, reporting, and the critical feature of Consent Mode. Understanding these differences and the impact on key metrics is essential for web administrators and digital marketers.

By tracking essential GA4 analytics metrics, such as total users, views, engaged sessions, bounce rate, events, and conversions, you can gain valuable insights into user behavior, marketing campaign performance, and the effectiveness of your digital strategies.

Moreover, it’s crucial to interpret these metrics in the context of GA4 versus Universal Analytics because adapting your data analysis approach to the new GA4 framework is essential for making informed decisions and optimizing your web presence.

Lastly, the implementation of Consent Mode in GA4 is a fundamental step in respecting user privacy and adhering to data protection regulations. So, while it may impact website traffic and give you fewer insights into user actions and behaviors, it’s a necessary feature for building trust with your audience and ensuring data collection is aligned with legal requirements.

In our dynamic digital marketing landscape, it’s important to stay informed about these key changes. Mastering the transition to GA4 will be a huge asset for web administrators and digital marketers looking to thrive in the evolving online ecosystem.

We know there’s a lot to unpack here, so if you’re looking for more of our tips about data analysis and digital marketing, check out this article about data storytelling that teaches you how to contextualize and present all your data in a compelling way. Or, if you’re wanting to go deeper into data analysis, check out our series on building data-driven customer journey maps.

About VONT Performance Digital Marketing

At VONT we believe that change is the only constant in the digital world – and that excites us. When tools and environments are constantly changing, new opportunities to help our clients achieve success are constantly arising. Each new advertising technology, social platform, or design approach allows us to improve on the results we achieve for our clients.

We believe in this idea of continual fine-tuning so much that we named our company VONT, which means to achieve exponential improvement in incremental steps. It is our core belief, and the reason why we are not simply a web design company or simply a digital advertising agency, but rather a long-term, single source partner providing a comprehensive array of web development and digital marketing capabilities.

LM Durr
Written By

LM Durr

Inbound Marketing Strategist