Key Takeaways

  • More money, more problems. The forced migration to GA4 is causing concern among companies due to increased cost and a more formidable data analytics foundation.
  • Coming soon: The End. Google Universal Analytics platform is being replaced by Google Analytics 4, an event-based model for analytics and measurement, on July 1, 2023. Universal Analytics data will be accessible for at least six months after July 1, 2023, with an extra three months for Universal Analytics 360 customers.
  • Marketing cloud marriage. GA4 is deeply integrated into the rest of Google’s cloud marketing offerings, leading to questions about Google's attempt to increase its cloud market share.
  • New data warehouse needs? GA4 has a 14-month data retention period for user and event data to retain long-term data, companies may need to store it in a data warehouse like Google’s BigQuery, which comes with a cost.

For years marketers everywhere have used the Google Universal Analytics platform to track web performance, giving professionals the ability to get an understanding into their audience’s digital activities.

But that world came tumbling down on March 16, 2022, when Google announced it would be replacing Universal Analytics with Google Analytics 4 on July 1, 2023. This was done partly in response to the sunsetting of third-party cookies due to increased data privacy regulations across the globe. GA4 will not rely on cookies and will instead use an event-based model for analytics and measurement.

“Because the technology landscape continues to evolve, the new Analytics is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers.” said Vidhya Srinivasan, VP/GM Buying, Analytics and Measurement, Google Ads. “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.”

According to Google, after July 1, 2023, you will be able to access your previously processed Universal Analytics data for at least six months. Universal Analytics 360 customers will have an extra three months to complete their migration to GA4, as that will be shut down on Oct. 1, 2023.

Now while an upgrade to a new platform would not normally cause too much consternation, this migration has some companies understandably concerned about how much this forced migration will cost them in the long run.

The reality is Universal Analytics was incredibly easy to use and implement, with one tag you needed to put on your website to track and collect data with third-party cookies. GA4 doesn’t promise to be quite so plug-n-play.

So, is the forced migration to GA4 from Universal Analytics just about mitigating data security and privacy for GDPR, or are there larger forces — and agendas — at play?

Is GA4 a Cloud Infrastructure Land Grab?

While Universal Analytics was super easy to use and intuitive, GA4 promises to be more customizable, requiring a much more formidable data analytics foundation and plan. Companies that used the bare bones features of Universal Analytics will need to ramp up to use GA4, and quickly.

One of the big differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics is the fact that GA4 is designed to be deeply integrated into the rest of Google’s cloud marketing offerings. With the massive popularity of the current Universal Analytics platform, one has to wonder if this forced migration is an attempt by Google to claim more cloud market share.

According to Statista, Google Cloud trails the other two big players in the cloud infrastructure market significantly. Amazon’s AWS controls 34% of the market, while Microsoft’s Azure controls 21%, while Google Cloud tails a distant third place with 11% of the market overall at the end of 2022.

So, by integrating this analytics package into the rest of its cloud products, it looks like Google is trying to increase its market share through its current analytics customers.

Related Article: Google Analytics 4 and Making the Most of the Customer Lifecycle

Data Retention in GA4

In GA4, user and event data is retained for 14 months max. When data reaches the end of the retention period, it is deleted automatically on a monthly basis. If you want to see data that is older than 14 months, you can, but only for aggregated and customer reports. If you want to do any kind of complex analytics reporting though, you can’t go further than 14 months back. Keep in mind that with Universal Analytics you could set data retention from 14-to-50 months, to unlimited. So you never had to worry about your data.

Learning Opportunities

This data retention issue is what is making marketers and others concerned about this forced GA4 migration. The best way for them to resolve the lack of long-term data retention is to warehouse their data in a data warehouse like Google’s BigQuery. But that means that companies will now be paying for their unlimited data retention, which used to be free.

According to Brian Clifton, co-founder of Verified Data, author and former head of EMEA analytics for Google, Google wants users to make the switch now, not later, to retain their data.

“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, he said, users can continue using GA without interruption.

But he also feels that the transition may not be so easy for all companies, especially the ones dealing with more complex data models. “An enterprise may struggle. They generally have more than one website and multiple product websites. There's a lot to move over.”

Related Article: GA4 Brings Back Familiar Friend: Landing Page Report Now Available for Analytics Practitioners

Next Steps: Data Warehouse ... in Google?

If you already migrated to GA4 when it was announced in July 2022, you have until September 2024 until your data is deleted. Whenever you do migrate, the clock is ticking and you better start planning for how you will retain your legacy data.

The more realistic solution for most organizations will be to store their historical data in a data warehouse, but this will not come without cost. Oh, in case you need it Google has its own cloud-based data warehouse solution. What a wonderful coincidence…

And in the end, using GA4 means buying into GCP, since it is now part of the ecosystem. While the overhead may just be a data warehouse at this point, companies may find themselves deeper in the GCP universe than they had planned due to this forced cloud migration.