Worker checking traffic visitor on website by google analytics report.
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Google rethought its analytics foundation in its Google Analytics 4 release Oct. 14 and for the first time has carried out a wholesale revision of its analytics platform rather than just iterative enhancements.

Damion Brown, founder and CEO of Data Runs Deep, a Melbourne-based Google Analytics and Google Marketing Platform consultancy, shared those thoughts with CMSWire after the release of Google Analytics 4. 

“Much of the current Google Analytics infrastructure and logic is based on Urchin, an analytics platform Google acquired in 2005,” Brown added. “That means that a lot of organizations have been basing business decisions on technology that's 15 years old, technology designed from a time when the web was a wildly different place. Digital analytics has become this big industry, but it's all been based on old-school things like cookies and javascript. It's kind of like Salvador Dali's elephants with super-thin matchstick legs.”

All About Unification of Web, Apps

Brown called Google’s update a “bold move” and deemed Google alone in its position to deliver a unified view of user behavior across devices and experiences, while respecting user privacy at a granular level. “The main factor here is unification,” Brown said. “There are great mobile-only analytics platforms like AppsFlyer which do a great job, but when you want to unify that tracking across websites as well, you hit a wall.”

In the past, Google Analytics users could implement "regular" Google Analytics on a mobile app. Firebase came along, and then you couldn't, Brown said. Users had to implement workarounds, but that didn’t always work. “It was all very muddy for a while, very fragmented, but Google recognized the problem and has moved to address all these problems with a solution, and that solution is Google Analytics 4,” Brown said. “Technology always moves in a way that catches up to necessity. It's been that way since the stone age.”

Related Article: How to Use Google Analytics to Renew Content Marketing

Three Capabilities Make the Difference

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) provides a better representation of user behavior, while respecting user privacy and enabling you to spend less time collecting data, according to Ken Williams, senior analytics manager at Search Discovery, an Atlanta-based data analytics services company. This is possible, he added, because GA4 maximizes the benefits of three technologies that Google has been developing for the past few years:

  • Firebase Analytics: Leverages the event-driven data model to better describe behavior, measure user engagement and roll-up data across websites and mobile applications.
  • Google Signals: Allows you to use Google’s identity software to recognize users who are not logged-in.
  • Global site tag: Allows you to enable features that require code changes to a website without modifying tags.

“Google Analytics 4 is a much more powerful data analysis tool than the legacy version was,” Williams said. “The 'Analysis Hub' reports that were previously only available to GA360 users are now available for free, and they’ve been greatly enhanced so that you can easily explore data, analyze individual users, create custom conversion funnels, compare segments and conduct pathing analysis.”

Screenshot of the Google Analytics 4 new reporting structure organized by the user lifecycle.
New reporting structure organized by the user lifecycle.PHOTO: Google

Is There a Better Holistic View in GA4?

What about shortfalls from the search giant’s analytics offering? Dig Google address improvement areas? Angus Carbarns, director of digital strategy & analytics for Glasgow, Scotland-based digital marketing services provider We Are Engines, said without some level of customization, Google Analytics has often fallen short of providing a holistic view of the user across devices and contexts which has pushed some to platforms like Adobe Analytics.

“Google seems to have recognized this shortfall with the latest update and is moving to a much more user-centric measurement model while using machine-learning to ‘join the dots’ across contexts,” Carbarns said. “With this kind of capability out of the box, I could see a lot of marketers and analysts coming back to Google Analytics in the coming months.”

Related Article: How Google Analytics Social Media Reports Help Improve Marketing Crisis Responses

How About Better Tagging, Mobile/Web Sync?

Google Analytics users are often motivated to ditch the search giant for a competitor because of issues in tagging, mobile/web synching and the ability to separate the tools used for data collection, data analysis and reporting, according to Williams. How did they do with GA4? Williams broke down past Google Analytics problems and potential solutions offered by GA4:

Tagging

Legacy versions of Google Analytics required a heavy amount of custom tagging. Some customers left in favor of solutions that capture a high volume of interactions out of the box without any configuration required.

“The new Google Analytics addresses this by building on the global site tag functionality with a feature called Enhanced Measurement,” Williams said. “This enables marketers to flip on common forms of tracking from the user interface without any tag updates, including: scroll tracking, video plays and file downloads.”

Mobile/Web Rollup

Customers who have both web and mobile app experiences have often found the legacy versions of Google Analytics to fall short, according to Williams. Combining data collected on the web with data collected from mobile apps has been clunky at best, he added.

“GA4 solves this problem by using Firebase Analytics on the backend,” Williams said. “This means that all data is collected using the same schema, regardless of whether it came from a website or mobile application. As a result, brands who interact with customers across multiple touch points can finally analyze cross-device behavior, and marketers can track campaign performance for users who interact across devices as well.”

Bifurcation

There has also been a trend emerging to separate the tools used for data collection, data analysis and reporting. This, Williams said, is particularly attractive to large companies working with data lakes, and the previous version of Google Analytics was not ideal because access to raw data required an expensive annual license.

“The new GA4 allows users to access their raw data for free with the BigQuery integration,” Williams said. “This means that the analytics team can easily use GA4 for only data collection, while the data science team can connect directly to the raw data using R or Python, and the business intelligence team is free to build reports using Tableau, Domo, Datorama or whatever tool they choose.”

Marketing Wins, Limitations in GA4

The biggest win for marketers could be they can now analyze users across platforms to understand how customers interact with their brand as a whole versus just the website and/or just the app, according to Emmilly Best, analytics manager at Philadelphia-based Seer Interactive. Google Analytics 4 is innovative in that marketers can now see app and web data side-by-side in the same reports, she added. It has many built-in features that make this measurement accessible and easier to work with for more companies than before.

“GA4 puts users at the forefront, rather than arbitrarily-defined sessions,” Best said. “With this, GA4 can unite user behavior from your website and app — but an app isn’t necessary to use GA4. This, along with its use of practical machine learning applications, results in fewer data silos to make reporting, analysis and needle-moving insights easier, faster and more holistic.”

Each of the major analytics platforms will have their own way of surfacing the user-level data, but this can be ambiguous, according to Brown. “A particular strength of the new Google Analytics 4 offering,” Brown said, “is its ability to use the proprietary Google Signals graph to solve the ambiguity around user-level, in a way that's never been possible before.”

Although GA4 includes features that can really supercharge an analytics strategy, there are also limitations with GA4 right now, according to Best. “We recommend having more types of properties set up for now so that the benefits can be compared over time at the client/use case level,” Best said. “Many of our clients use features like Enhanced Ecommerce and custom dimensions like Content Groupings which aren’t fully built-out yet in GA4. In a way, GA4 is more simple compared with GA but is more customizable. We’ll just need some time to figure out how to harness its potential as GA4 itself develops with the industry needs.”

Third-Party Cookies Are Ending: What’s Next?

The Google Analytics update comes after Google announced in January its intention to phase out support for third-party cookies for Google Chrome. Google outlines its cookie use for GA4 here.

Asked about the impact on GA4, Brown said that with Google Analytics 4 Properties, there's a capability to track users in a consistent and clean manner, that doesn't rely on cookies and respects user privacy at a granular level. “To me,” he said, “that sounds like it addresses a lot of the problems that marketers face, and a lot of the problems that every one of us face whenever we use the web.”

In general, the analytics industry has seen browsers move away from third-party cookies to first-party cookies to protect user privacy — for example, ITP from Safari and ETP from Mozilla. Advertising platforms like Facebook have also followed suit with CCPA compliance and shorter attribution timelines, according to Best.

“One way Google is addressing this shift to third party cookies is through server-side tagging announced in August that allows marketers,” Best said, “to own more of their data and now with GA4 with Consent Mode and options to comply with GDPR and CCPA within the platform.”