Google Analytics 4 symbol on paper texture.
PHOTO: Araki Illustrations

The Gist

  • Times, they are changing. Google Analytics has been popular among digital teams for tracking website usage and success due to its freemium model and easy installation. However, it has seen some changes over the years, with Google Analytics 4 being the new version that has been introduced in 2020.
  • Give me some more analytics, please. Google Analytics 4 offers a more granular approach to measurement based on users and events, predictive analytics with actionable insights, tracking web usage from apps like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, better privacy controls, and more.
  • Get on board, now. Universal Analytics will be retired on July 1, 2023, and the paid-for version, Universal Analytics 360, will be phased out in 2024. Transition to Google Analytics 4 if you haven't, then now is the time. Run reporting in parallel with Universal Analytics.

Google Analytics has been the staple analytics package for many digital teams, which have relied on it to track website usage and success for a number of years. Of course, part of the reason for this is Google Analytics’ freemium model, although there is also a premium option for the enterprise. It’s also popular because it is relatively easy to install and once experienced, web professionals tend to use it for whatever website on which they end up working.

In the past few years Google Analytics has seen some changes. In 2019 Google launched a new version based on a different data model with measurement based on users and events — effectively covering every interaction; this is a more robust and granular approach allowing for more customer-centric reporting in a multi-channel world, while also taking into account the decline in tracking cookies and some data privacy concerns. This new version — branded as Google Analytics 4 in 2020 — has been sitting in parallel with the “classic” version which is now referred to as Universal Analytics.

Many teams who have been relying on Google Analytics for years are still using Universal Analytics, but this is being retired on July 1, 2023 and will no longer process data. The paid-for version, Universal Analytics 360, will be phased out in 2024. Google has been trying to persuade people to upgrade to Google Analytics 4 for a while now, and with the decision to sunset Universal Analytics, digital teams now have no choice.

Even though July 2023 is a few months off, any team relying on Universal Analytics that hasn't made the switch, should consider taking action now. In this article we’re going to consider some tips on how best to achieve the transition:

What’s Included in Google Analytics 4?

As already noted, Google Analytics 4 relies on a different data model to Universal Analytics, but also comes with some different features which aim to return more accurate reporting based on current usage patterns. New features and qualities include:

  • Predictive analytics with actionable insights to support campaign and content planning, and lead and sales generation
  • A more comprehensive suite of reporting around the different stages of the customer journey from acquisition to retention
  • The ability to track web usage that occurs through apps like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter
  • Better privacy controls to allow more granular approaches over data collection and retention
  • Use of AI to estimate and fill the gaps in reporting which can occur from the decline in the use of cookies
  • The ability to track events without code, a task that previously had to involve Google Tag Manager
  • An overhaul of some of the interfaces including a new navigation and some data visualizations
  • More options for data imports
  • Tighter integration with Google Ads
  • And more!

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

Four Tips for Transitioning to Google Analytics 4

If you are still relying on Universal Analytics, here are four tips to help you prepare its sunset on July 1, 2023.

1. Start Using Google Analytics 4 Now

If you haven’t already done so, you should add a Google Analytics 4 property to your site now. You can still run this in parallel with Universal Analytics, at least until July.

It’s best not to leave this until the last minute. Firstly, although it’s actually straightforward to introduce with plenty of material from Google to guide you through the different steps, it’s still possible you may have issues. Leaving sufficient time means you can still ensure you have continuous use of Google Analytics.

Secondly, there is definitely a learning curve associated with using Google Analytics 4 and fully getting to know the new navigation, features and nuances of how it reports. Taking some time to explore the full capabilities and setting it up to work the way you want is often the best approach, rather than being forced to get your head around everything quickly.

2. Run Reporting in Parallel

Another reason for giving sufficient time for Google Analytics 4 is to be able to run your reporting in parallel across both models for a few months to help transition to the new reporting. Because they are based on different data models, the numbers are going to look quite different, which can be inconvenient when using data for reporting to senior management, and trying to explain why things have changed.

Jumping straight from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics can look very awkward on your reporting. Running both together for a few months, reporting in parallel and showing how the data from both correlate can help prepare management for the transition to the new model.

3. Use the Transition as an Opportunity to Overhaul Your Analytics

Introducing Google Analytics 4 represents an opportunity to take a fresh look at your analytics and improve or even overhaul them. Often web reporting can become a ritual with PowerPoint slides or Excel files that are barely looked at and analytics that aren’t acted upon. Meanwhile your digital estate may have kept on evolving with new channels, but your reporting may no longer be accurate or adequate. Google Analytics 4 has additional capabilities and reports that add insights to your reporting and goes beyond just tracking the number of visitors.

Consider changing your reporting but also the way you then take any follow-on actions based on the analytics, helping to drive continual improvement. When reviewing, it is worth revisiting the fundamental strategy for your various different channels and working out the best measure. Is your site achieving its aims? Are these reflected in your reporting? How can you use new opportunities in Google Analytics 4? Do you need to bring in additional reporting to give a more rounded picture?

In this way transitioning to Google Analytics 4 becomes an exciting way to not only enhance reporting but also in driving fundamental improvement.

4.  Evaluate Google Analytics 4 and Investigate Other Packages

If you have been using Universal Analytics for free, then it is likely that you’ll want to continue using Google Analytics 4. But if you do choose this as an opportunity to refresh your approach then it may be that you feel Google Analytics 4 doesn’t quite meet your needs. There are other options available in the market, and investigating other packages can be a worthwhile exercise, helping to shed light on other capabilities and features, but also to determine if Google Analytics 4 is the right solution for you.

Related Article: Is Google's Forced GA4 Migration a Power Grab in Disguise?

Google Analytics 4: An Opportunity for Improvement

The sunsetting of Universal Analytics may feel inconvenient, and it will take some time and effort to transition to Google Analytics 4. However, it’s also a great opportunity to improve your reporting and also the way you act on your analytics in order to make steady incremental improvements.

Whatever option you choose, it’s best to consider this as a positive evolution that ultimately will deliver a better experience for your customers. 

Editor's note: Stephanie Petrusha will be one of the speakers at the upcoming CMSWire Connect conference in Austin, Texas, May 10-12.