Many companies rely on Google Analytics to support their data strategies. In fact, with an estimated 86% of websites using Google Analytics as their primary web analytics platform, Google is squarely the market leader in the web analytics space. The current version of Google Analytics (GA), officially called Universal Analytics (UA), was launched in 2012. Since then it has seen many updates and evolutions, but Google is officially deprecating the tool for some users in 2023 and others in 2024, and GA4 will be the only analytics platform available from Google. This is not just Google officially ending support for UA, but disabling data collection through the platform altogether, leaving any organization using UA without an active analytics platform. While Google Analytics is just one component of the data strategy framework (this article lays out broader data privacy considerations and insights relevant to data strategy), it’s a critical one. The deprecation of Universal Analytics will have tactical and strategic impacts for companies that rely on the platform and now is the time to ensure you have the support you need for a successful GA4 implementation. The standard implementations of Universal Analytics will stop receiving new data on July 1, 2023 and the premium Google Analytics 360 implementations of UA will stop receiving new data on July 1, 2024. The first announcement from Google regarding UA indicated all accounts would stop receiving data on July 1, 2023. This has since been updated for GA360 users and Google has extended the deadline to 2024. This may seem far in the future, but avoiding data gaps through this transition requires parallel implementation of GA4 alongside UA before data collection through the latter stops. Companies using Universal Analytics that delay their GA4 implementation could experience significant negative impact to their data strategy, such as the loss of YOY reporting during the time between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023 in which data was not being collected in GA4. Beyond the need to ensure data continuity, migrating to GA4 can unlock some new features and capabilities not previously available in Universal Analytics. But because there are quite a few differences between the new and legacy platforms, the sooner brands familiarize themselves with GA4, the more prepared they’ll be to make the most of what it can do. If you’re preparing to make the move to GA4, here are answers to 5 big questions that will help you make a smooth transition and set your data strategy up for success.
1. GA4 vs. Universal Analytics: What’s the Difference?GA4 is designed to reflect the changes in consumer behavior that have happened over the past decade. Consumers are using multiple devices constantly, and data collection methodologies need to allow for collection of data from multiple devices. Additionally, with ongoing changes to data privacy regulations, new approaches will be needed to define and measure success. Here are some of the advantages that GA4 offers when it comes to data collection and analysis:
New Features in GA4
Improved cross-device trackingUniversal Analytics was mostly constrained to using device ID to identify users, with user ID functionality limited to only a few reports. GA4 uses a combination of device ID, user ID, and Google signals to identify users across devices, allowing for more accurate digital analytics and customer journey analysis during an ever changing cross-device, cookie-less landscape.
Enhanced machine learning and automationIn response to the growing concerns around data privacy, GA4 will utilize enhanced machine learning and automation to help compensate for the absence of signals advertisers have historically relied on. Additionally, these enhancements will help advertisers predict future behavior of their consumers so that advertisers can better forecast metrics like purchase probability and predicted revenue.
Advanced exploration reportsAnother big difference between Universal Analytics and GA4 is how reporting is done. UA has many standard reports, but lacks flexibility when it comes to customized reporting. GA4 has fewer standard reports, but the reporting suite has enabled much greater ability to build custom reports. For example, the current UA reports are limited to two dimensions (e.g. Page and Channel), but GA4 reporting allows for as many dimensions as needed. With the greater ability to add segments, dimensions, and metrics, users can perform deeper analysis, such as looking at conversion funnels or cohort analysis. These custom reports will also minimize the need for GA data export and the use of external data processing programs to run pivots or perform other analysis.
BigQuery exportPreviously only available for 360 customers, BigQuery export functionality is available to all GA4 properties. This allows you to download and store raw GA4 data so you can join and enrich your GA data with other marketing/CRM/business data, report in your visualization tool of choice, and take advantage of many other advanced analysis opportunities.
2. What happens to the data I have collected through Universal AnalyticsOnce the deprecation happens, the data in Universal Analytics will become read only for at least six months. Google has not officially published an exact end date for data access at the time of this article’s writing. However, the data will be available to export into a database tool such as BigQuery. Creating a data backup is a recommended step as it will enable data harmonization with new data collected through GA4 as well as other data sources.
3. When is the Best Time for GA4 Migration?The time to plan your GA4 implementation is now. GA4 is currently available and while more features are planned for the future, many are already available for use. Additionally, there are aspects to all GA4 implementations that were previously only available to users of Universal Analytics 360, Google’s premium analytics platform. Getting experience with these new features will help current users of the free UA platform explore the full range of possibilities of GA4. That said, setting up GA4 is not as simple as flipping a switch. There is a learning curve to the implementation that will require an appropriate investment of time. Once the initial implementation is complete, QA will be required to see how data aligns with what is currently being gathered. The sooner your GA4 implementation is completed, the more time you’ll have for that QA. Once that QA is complete, any commonly used reports or data visualizations will need to be updated. For a more granular view of the steps you need to take to successfully migrate, check out our GA4 Implementation Checklist below.
4. How Do I Prepare for GA4 Implementation?From a broader perspective, this is an opportunity to evaluate what conversions are being tracked and whether they align with the current state of your business. A thorough audit of your current Google Analytics implementation, discussions with key stakeholders, and review of existing reports will enable a clean implementation of GA4 that will provide the exact data and insights needed. All of this work will take time, and the sooner implementation occurs, the longer the period of adjustment and refinement will be. Whether you’re tackling GA4 implementation on your own or request support from Tallwave, there are a few key steps that will help you prepare for and execute a smooth transition to GA4:
- Audit Your Current Google Analytics Implementation: Conducting a thorough assessment of your existing Google Analytics implementation and Google Tag Manager configurations will help you prepare a mapping strategy to transition your existing UA tags to an improved GA4 setup.
- Build Your Tracking Implementation: Creating a comprehensive implementation guide that documents in detail the UA-to-GA4 mapping strategy and key configurations for GA4 will help ensure that your new GA4 property is configured properly, including setting up key property settings (Google Ads linking, Google Signals enablement, attribution settings, etc), Google Tag Manager configuration, and event and conversion tracking.
- Conduct a Thorough QA: Carefully validating your new GA4 implementation against your existing UA implementation will allow you to quickly identify and resolve any major discrepancies and uncover any unanticipated differences based on GA4’s revised event-based data model.