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In the rapid world of digital media, new user interfaces, changing metrics and frequent tracking-prevention updates underline the only constant in the field: change. And the introduction of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) could prove to be one of the most consequential changes in years.
Google’s 10-year-old Universal Analytics (UA) interface will cease data collection in July 2023, forcing organizations to adopt the new GA4 platform to continue analyzing website data. As we look ahead to this major shift in the industry, here are the top 8 things you need to know to prepare your organization and teammates for the switch:
1. The sooner, the better.
Your new GA4 profile will not include data from your existing UA account, so the sooner you make the change, the more historical data will be available for comparison when UA sunsets. While we recommend using UA as the source of truth for the remainder of this year, once 2023 arrives, the months of data you’ll have collected in GA4 should be enough to begin analyzing trends for your KPIs.
2. Privacy is key.
A key reason Google is implementing GA4 centers around privacy concerns and the looming elimination of cookie-based tracking, which is set to occur in late 2024. This version of Google Analytics is built to help stay ahead of the privacy curve rather than play catch-up, so it will allow businesses to simultaneously remain compliant with GDPR and CCPA regulations while still collecting data that takes users’ privacy into account.
3. Expect a faster experience.
The biggest change from UA to GA4 is the underlying data model.The old session-based method of collecting data is replaced by an event-based one. Sessions still exist, but they’re recorded based on an event called session_start. The result is more streamlined data in GA4—it’s faster than querying data in UA and avoids sampling issues that plagued large datasets.
4. Both web and app analytics will exist together.
With Universal Analytics, users would have to create separate properties to analyze web and app analytics, but now those will be able to be combined thanks to the new, event-driven data model. Now businesses can easily attribute engagement and revenue within their apps to traffic that flow through their websites.
5. Higher visibility into cross-device usage.
Cross-device and cross-platform reporting are improved, particularly where businesses can take advantage of first-party data like user IDs from website logins. GA4 can take real data from logged-in users and use it to model the behavior of other users to give a more complete picture of engagement. This feature will become more important as the elimination of cookies in 2024 approaches.
6. Comparing data from UA vs. GA4 will set yourself up for success.
So that data is as similar as it can be between the two platforms, implement GA4 alongside your current UA property and set up integrations with Google Ads and Search Console within GA4 to replicate your existing data flow as closely as possible. Once your necessary data is flowing into GA4, we recommend creating a Google Data Studio dashboard to compare traffic, event and conversion metrics between the two properties.
7. Archive your UA data.
Begin exporting historical UA data, either to spreadsheets or a data warehouse where you can potentially blend it with future GA4 data to create seamless reporting. This will be helpful when it comes time to compare KPI performance for your current time period against historical ones. So far Google has only said that UA data will be accessible until December 2023, so exporting the data to have on-hand will be important.
8. Create a plan.
Audit your existing UA setup and take note of the reports, features, custom event tracking, goal conversions and custom audiences to make sure those can be replicated in your GA4 property. Create an Implementation Plan including a side-by-side list of those items you need to track, comparing their implementation in UA with how you will implement it in GA4. Some features and metrics will not be available in GA4 as it currently exists, and others will be notably different.
The most important starting point for website owners is to get the GA4 property implemented and begin to take note of the differences in data compared to the existing UA property. By the beginning of 2023, organizations should have an implementation plan for recreating their UA events, conversions and audiences in GA4. July 2023 is approaching fast, so getting a head start on mastering GA4 now will pay off before you know it.