Ready or not, here it comes.

On July 23, 2023, Google will officially retire Universal Analytics as Google Analytics 4 (GA4) takes the reigns.

But this is no standard upgrade. This is an entirely new system — incompatible with what came before — and transitioning to it will take more than a proverbial flick of the switch. So, here’s what you need to know.

A Little History

Google Analytics was first introduced in 2005, and over the years, two upgraded versions launched, most recently in 2012 with Universal Analytics (UA).

Consistently listed as the top web analytics service by numerous outlets, including Gartner Peer Insights, W3Techs and Datanyze, Google Analytics has reined supreme as a data collection tool, infusing organizations with a better understanding of their customers and enabling insights that lead to business growth.

But as the world becomes more privacy-centric, Google established GA4 to mitigate compliance risks and improve services.

It’s a Matter of Trust

In the last decade, with substantial changes in web technology and digital commerce, customers not only expect a different, more enhanced online experience — they also have increased privacy concerns.

According to Gartner’s Top Trends in Data and Analytics 2022, “prioritizing trust and security in these unprecedented times of global chaos is fundamental to the strategic role of data and analytics to realize new sources of value.”

Matt Fiore, a senior account strategist with Refactored, a B2B marketing agency, said Google’s strategy for GA4 is to better comply with privacy laws like GDPR and CCPA.

“Per Google,” explained Fiore, “the IP address that was of particular concern in UA (though it could be anonymized), is not logged by GA4 by default. It is used during initial collection for some geo-location data, but the IP address itself is not available, therefore being a more compliant solution globally.”

Significant Security Changes

Comprised of nearly 100 articles of what’s been called the toughest privacy and security law in the world, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was enacted across Europe in 2016. However, its requirements apply to any organization despite its location — if it accumulates data on people in the European Union.

Two years later, in 2018, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) provided residents of California with enhanced control over their personal information. Californians gained the right to be more informed and the ability to delete  — or opt-out of the sale of — the personal data businesses collect about them.

Related Article: 5 Lessons Learned From 4 Years of GDPR

Why GA4?

SEO Manager for Conductor, a marketing platform for enterprise SEO, content and web teams, Lauren Carel said there are a number of ways to answer the “why” of GA4. But the most straightforward is that Google has built a more advanced platform that is better aligned with current marketing and tracking needs while more rigidly complying with current privacy regulations — all without needing additional (or more complicated) code.

But, she added, the short answer is: these types of updates just happen.

“This is just more significant because it requires all users to switch to a new platform,” Carel said. “And because that new platform tracks and captures data in a different way from the old platform, data cannot be merged between the two, and GA4 will only have historical data back to the day after you set it up.”

Omnichannel Advantage

Fiore says one of the biggest changes in GA4 is that the measurement model itself is user-centric.

“Where Universal Analytics is more suited to tracking and reporting on single sessions on a single device,” explained Fiore, “GA4 offers the ability to track users across a journey that spans devices. This is of particular interest because we know that this is how people use the web, by jumping between mobile and desktop devices during their journey.”

In May, a McKinsey & Company survey revealed that omnichannel shopping is becoming the norm, with 75% of US consumers researching and purchasing both in-store and online across numerous channels.

“The caveat being that organizations that would like to track cross-device journeys need to have a login as part of their website or app experience,” Fiore said. “Once logged in and user records are created, an anonymous ID will need to be created on the website/app side so GA4 can then track the User ID across devices, giving orgs visibility into journeys across devices.”

Change Is Good

Carel explained that the benefits provided by GA4 are notable and represent requests Google has heard from users over the years. They include:

  • Event-based tracking: GA4 can better track the overall experience of individual users rather than creating separate accounts for each person’s visit and return visit.
  • Reporting: A lot more customization is now available. While there are fewer built-in reports — for now, at least — you have much more flexibility to build the report you want.
  • Compatibility: GA4 lets you mix data from various platforms, including websites and apps, into a single stream.

Customer journey orchestration and mapping capabilities should also be improved.

According to Carel, GA4’s tracking is focused on the user and their experience, something brands are happy to embrace.

“And since GA4 can incorporate data from multiple sources, including apps and other websites,” she added, “it reduces the efforts needed by analytics and reporting teams who usually have to manually try to connect user data across platforms or need to set up a custom dashboard to connect data sources.”

Fiore believes this is where GA4 shines over UA, with the best results attained by organizations with websites and applications that require a log-in.

“Visitors to these sites will be identified and their activity tracked across the various devices they use, potentially providing insights into how they browse, educate themselves and convert,” he said. “We're exploring opportunities to leverage this new capability with our clients that might not include a more typical logged in experience.”

The Cookie Question

If GA4 functions without any third-party cookies and has anonymized IP addresses, how will it work for marketing and customer analysis purposes?

At Refactored, they’re still investigating how this change will affect paid campaigns. But from what they’ve gathered, there are two options to obtain reporting identity:

Learning Opportunities

  • By getting the User ID, Device and Google signals data
  • By device ID (for organizations with more restrictive privacy protocols)

“With the first option, if the user has been authenticated, then orgs will have pretty rich data to best understand journeys,” said Fiore. “If not, GA4 will look for Google Signals data that uses Google accounts to recognize logged-in users. If users haven't permitted ads personalization, then analytics will use the concept of a device ID.”

Related Article: 5 Targeting Recommendations for a Post-Cookie World

The Deadline Looms

UA will be officially retired on July 1, 2023. But Carel said companies need to set up GA4 immediately to ensure that they have a full year’s worth of data by the time UA stops collecting new data – especially if they rely on year-over-year (YoY) data.

“Comparing UA and GA4 data won’t provide you with an accurate picture of the change year-over-year because the data collected across each platform is tracked differently,” she said. “It’ll be an apples vs. oranges type of situation.”

Carel added, “It will take longer to recreate other customizations, such as custom events, conversion data, revenue, etc., so it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to compare this data YoY, unless you were already on top of this transition months ago.”

Fiore said his company set July 1, 2022, as their internal goal for client account transitions because they also feel a year of historical data in GA4 is a good baseline to have before the legacy product is retired.

“The reporting interface and the measurement model itself are different, said Fiore. “For example, bounce rate is gone, and engagement rate (the inverse) has replaced it. Where UA had many ‘out of the box’ reports with some flexibility, GA4 comes with less — but offers far more in terms of creating custom reports.”

Transition Tips

Fiore said companies should be doing a few things to ensure a good transition:

  • Assign an experienced internal team member or a partner to lead the effort.
  • Audit existing UA properties and views. For example, how they are configured, what goals are setup, what level of event tracking they have, what kinds of filters have been applied, any attribution models that have been set-up. Essentially determining what kind of parity can be achieved in GA4 reporting, how things have changed and their impact.
  • After an audit/review, put together a plan, put it into action, set up GA4 properties and start collecting data. While comparing the data between UA and GA4 will reveal some slightly different data for similar metrics (due to the new measurement model), you should be able to tell if you've gotten anything fundamentally wrong with your setup.
  • Use the tool and get training.
  • Be prepared for the eventual loss of historical data in old UA accounts.

Okay… What’s the Learning Curve?

Fiore said the learning curve is relative to the complexity of an organization's data collection, and the biggest challenge is likely to be in reporting and analysis.

“Assuming that most organizations can navigate the initial steps of getting good clean data streams, analysts have been using UA for years and have relied on quickly and easily getting to the reports they need,” he said. “They'll need to learn how to use the new tool, how to build custom reports, how to present to stakeholders.

For “super users” with “templatized” workflows, according to Fiore, there might be some struggles in the beginning. However, once muscle memory kicks in, they’ll be able to pull the reports and find the information they need.

Carel said the basic setup (AKA, what you need to do to start receiving site traffic) is very straightforward.

“You can copy and paste the code Google provides into the backend of your site,” she said. “There will be a learning curve in that there’s a new structure to the platform, and you’ll have to get used to seeing new reports, altered reports or missing reports as there’s less built-in reporting in GA4 compared to UA.”

And, she says, a greater effort will be needed to create new custom reports. But the benefits of the customization will significantly outweigh the effort required to learn how to put those reports together.

Friendly Advice

In general, Fiore feels that anyone who has gotten used to analyzing and presenting data from UA will contend with some level of learning curve in GA4. So, ramping up over the next year will ensure there's not an 11th-hour game of catch-up in June 2023.

Because historical data in legacy UA accounts is only available for a short time after July 1, 2023, he said organizations may want to think not only about extracting historical data but also how to interface with that data. For example, potentially in a business intelligence (BI) tool.

If she could offer one suggestion, Carel said she highly recommends that everyone in the marketing organization — from CMOs to analysts — use this as an opportunity to rethink their data strategy and reporting.

“This new GA4 platform is a great ‘excuse’ for a refresh since the data is changing in a way that it won’t help to compare UA and GA4 data,” she added. “Since we’ll now be able to more effectively understand users’ experiences, think about how you can use that data to learn more about how they interact with your site(s). Then, use those findings to create insights that help you optimize your site(s) to provide even better experiences that drive more conversions and increase customer lifetime value.”