In case you haven't heard, a decision by the Austrian data protection authority, DSB, ruled that the use of Google Analytics in all circumstances violates the GDPR.

While many Universal Analytics (the previous generation of Google Analytics) users debated whether they should switch to the platform’s newest iteration, Google Analytics 4, Google decided for them.

As of July 1st, 2023, UA properties will stop collecting data — and historic data will be deleted six months later.

What’s the Big Deal?

One might ask why everyone’s making a big deal about the transition to GA4. The biggest issues for UA users include:

  • GA4 data will not be directly comparable to UA data
  • Any existing UA reports will stop getting updated after July 1st, 2023
  • Whereas UA was based on page-view measurements, GA4 is based on events
  • Users of Google Tag Manager will need to update or replace their tags
  • All users will need to create new Google Analytics properties to store their data in; old properties will be deleted

Additionally, there is a big difference between GA4’s and UA’s interfaces, meaning a learning curve while teams adjust.

Why Is Google Doing This?

Google started talking about upcoming changes to GA in its Marketing Platform blog back in Oct. 2020, referring specifically to the privacy issues that eventually forced the issue. In short, a violation of the European GDPR laws forced Google to make changes sooner rather than later.

Here is what they said in a blog post about GA4:

“Because the technology landscape continues to evolve, the new Analytics is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers. It uses a flexible approach to measurement, and in the future, will include modeling to fill in the gaps where the data may be incomplete.” — Vidhya Srinivasan, VP/GM Buying, Analytics and Measurement, Google Ads.

Srinivasan added that “with major shifts in consumer behavior and privacy-driven changes to longtime industry standards, current approaches to analytics aren’t keeping pace. [GA4 is] privacy-centric by design, so you can rely on Analytics even as industry changes…create gaps in your data.”

While these changes were already in discussion, things came to a head on Dec. 22, 2021, with the decision by DSB. The data protection agency decided that the medical news company, NetDoktor, violated GDPR by using Google Analytics on its website, resulting in the transfer of personal information. How so?

Because the data from GA is processed by Google on US servers, meaning the data is being "exported" to the US. And since Google is legally a "provider of electronic communications services," it is subject to oversight by various United States intelligence agencies. Although it’s very unlikely, Google may be required to disclose European citizens' data — including IP addresses, user IDs and browser parameters — to these intelligence agencies.

Related Article: The GDPR Consequences We Haven't Talked About

Google Advises to Make the Switch Now

Brian Clifton, co-founder of Verified Data, author and former head of analytics EMEA for Google, spoke with CMSWire about GA4 and explained why Google is encouraging UA users to make the switch now rather than later.

“They want people to use GA4 now, so that they have at least 12 months worth of historical data for when Universal gets switched off.” This way, users can continue using GA without interruption.

“There is no way of migrating or importing from Universal Analytics to GA4. It's a completely different data model,” explained Clifton.

For many brands, the transition isn’t going to be easy, as it likely involves many properties. “An enterprise may struggle,” said Clifton. “They generally have more than one website and multiple product websites. There's a lot to move over but the challenge is if you're an agency and you’re maybe looking after 20 enterprise clients and you've got to do this all ASAP, because they all want 12 months’ worth of data.”

What Are the Benefits of GA4?

As reported by CMSWire’s Dom Nicastro in Oct. 2020, GA4 provides several distinct advantages:

  • Firebase: leverages the event-driven data model to describe behavior better, measure user engagement and summarize data across websites and mobile apps.
  • Google signals: enables GA4 users to use Google’s identity software and recognize website users that are not logged in.
  • Global site tag: allows users to enable features that require code changes to a website without a requirement that they modify tags.

GA4 also brings together app and web data, allowing marketers to view it side-by-side in the same reports, and it gathers data that’s not currently collected by UA.

Learning Opportunities

UA’s data collection is based on user “sessions,” the interactions a user has with a website in a specific amount of time. GA4, on the other hand, records the interactions a user has with a website as “events.” These interactions can include data not found in a session model, allowing for more metrics to be compared against one another.

“Previously in Universal, if you were collecting page views, you only have two parameters available to you,” said Clifton. “There were some custom dimensions you could use, but essentially, you only had two parameters: one was the URL of the page and one was the page title…interesting information, but not that useful on its own. Now you have up to 25 parameters.”

The Challenges of GA4

GA4 has dramatically improved the data model used. However, it also makes it harder for users to find the information they need.

Clifton said about the new data model, “If you're a user or an implementer like me, it's very important. But users don't really care about that. They just want to find their data.”

That’s where the problem comes in. “How do you find your data?” he asked. “How do you understand what's going on? How do you build your story and find your insights in GA4 — it is, quite frankly, horrendous.”

These user interface issues may become the reason why people use GA4 as part of a larger suite of tools instead of a sole solution.

BigQuery, [a cloud data warehouse], is a big upsell for this product, it's provided by Google for free,” said Clifton, referring to GA4’s ability to export data to BigQuery at no cost. It can then push the data into data visualization tools such as Google Data Studio. BigQuery has a free pricing tier and paid plans for additional functionality.

Clifton sees GA4 becoming more like a data warehouse with the data exported into a tool like Google Data Studio. There, marketers could create purpose-built reports. “I can't see [Google] replacing the [GA4] user interface. They've invested so much in it but it just does not work. And I think people are turned off by that.”

Still, he doesn’t believe these issues will lead to businesses abandoning Google — the ecosystem is too intertwined with digital advertising. “But I think that people won't be using the interface. I think they'll be building reports with Data Studio or some other tool.”

Related Article: How to Prepare for the Switch to Google Analytics 4

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the benefits or losses that come with GA4, what it comes down to is that users don’t have a choice when it comes to upgrading — unless they move to another analytics platform.

By 2023, brands must choose: upgrade or stop relying on Google Analytics.