Why You Need to be Setting Up Google Analytics 4 Now

Setting Up Google Analytics

Do you rely on Google Analytics (aka Universal Analytics or GA3) to review your website and marketing campaign results?  It certainly is a powerful tool for insights and helping with deciding and planning your next marketing strategies.

Sadly, for all of us who use Google Analytics 3 regularly, Google has announced they are shutting it down permanently on 30 June 2023.

Why is Google Analytics 3 (UA) being shut down?

In short, because it can’t effectively do what’s needed any more.  The digital marketing world has changed dramatically since it was first created.

Back in 2005, the early iteration of Google Analytics (formerly known as Urchin) focused on measuring the user.  Later it evolved into Universal Analytics and began to focus on measuring sessions or visits, rather than just users.  It has been improved many times since then, but more and more the efforts have become band aids over a deeper problem.  In essence, the platform structure is restrictive and simply unable to cater for all the technology innovations and changes we now have.

For example, it can’t track cross-device behaviour. In the past, people went online using just a single computer.  Nowadays most of us use multiple devices to go online—desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones—and often use one or more of those devices to complete a task. We might start researching a product on our phone, and then move to a laptop to initiate and complete the purchase or enquiry. There hasn’t been any way to track and connect these dots.

Another big issue is privacy.  Back in the day the business model for Facebook, and other similar platforms that were free to use, was to harvest user data and then resell that data to others. The platforms owned the data. Today, with GDPR, CCPA and similar laws, people are in more control of their data and what can be collected. Even browsers such as Chrome won’t allow third-party tracking cookies for much longer. The fundamental principle of tracking data – the cookie – is not going to be used in the future.

So, we have more devices to measure the user’s journey across, and we have less ability to actually measure it.

It’s time to do things differently.  Google Analytics 3 has become obsolete and will be replaced with something quite different.

What will replace Google Analytics 3?

Ta da! Google Analytics 4 is the replacement.

Yes, it sounds like it’s just an upgrade from 3 to 4 – like when Windows or your phone operating system upgrades to the next version.

In reality, it’s not.  It’s a complete rebuild from the ground up, and is very different in the way it collects data and reports on it.

GA4 isn’t so much an update, but an entirely new way of doing analytics – set up to scale for the future, work in a cookieless world, and be a lot more privacy-conscious”  said former Googler Krista Seiden, who helped build GA4.

Google Analytics 3 uses session-based cookies to track and measure website visitors and their behaviour. Whilst it can track if someone has visited before, it doesn’t allow us to measure all the goals one person might do in one “session” (visit).  So, if they watched a video and downloaded an ebook and filled out a lead generation form during their visit, GA3 will only track one of these goals as a conversion, not all three.  Worse still, if they had opted out of sharing their data, they’re not being tracked at all, so the conversions aren’t measured - even though they’ve been on your site and done all the things you wanted them to.  This means your analytics reporting is not accurate.

What are the key differences between GA3 and GA4?

GA4 really is quite different to GA3.  Think about how different these are when it comes to technology, functions and how you use them.

  • A Nokia mobile phone and an Apple iPhone
  • A typewriter and a laptop
  • CD Rom and the Cloud.
Old versus new
  • The new Google Analytics 4 (GA4) does not store IP addresses or use cookies. Instead it uses machine learning, blended data from several sources, and modelling to track events and report on data.
  • GA4 tracks and measures events only, not sessions and page views. Events are user interactions with content on your web page or app. Interactions can be things like downloads, link clicks, video views, add-to-cart actions, form submissions and time spent on a page.  Events help us to track customer journeys and activities so that we can better understand user behaviour.
  • In GA3 the default data retention period is 26 months, but it’s possible to keep it forever. In GA4, the data can only be kept for a maximum of 14 months.  This basically means that old historical data will not be available for comparison purposes. For preservation, it will need to be displayed in reports and snapshots taken.
  • In reality, Google Analytics 4 is less of a reporting tool and more of an analysis engine. GA4 doesn’t come with a range of pre-built reports like GA3 does, so reports need to be custom built in Google Data Studio to suit the reporting needs of each website owner/marketer.

GA3 reports are quite different to GA4 ones.  There are some default graphs and reports available, but they are not yet that useful.  You simply won’t see the information you’re use to seeing in GA3.  GA4 reports need to be custom configured to give you all that you may need, and the experts are saying that Google Data Studio is the best place to pull the data from GA4 and design the reports to be presented using the parameters and conversion that are most useful to each business type.

Google Analytics 3 report

30 days of visitor data in Google Analytics 3, showing source, sessions, pages, duration, goals.

Google Analytics 4 report

The same 30 days of raw visitor data in a default Google Analytics 4 report. The events and conversion parameters have not yet been configured to provide useful insights.

What does this mean for website owners and marketers?

Basically, you only have until the end of June 2023 to migrate from GA3 to GA4.  Setting up Google Analytics 4 is definitely not one of those things to leave until the last minute for three important reasons:

  1. Historical Comparisons: One of the most powerful ways to analyse statistics is to look at historical data so you can contrast seasons, compare changes over specific periods, monitor the impact of campaigns or website changes or other events on your results.  From 1 July 2023, GA3 will no longer collect data, and the historical data will only be available for 6 months.  It makes sense to start collecting data in GA4 now so that in 12 month’s time, when you have no choice and must use GA4, you will already have collected a year of historical data.
  2. Installation of tracking:  The GA4 tracking code and event tracking needs to be set up with Google Tag Manager, not directly on your site as many webmasters have done with GA3.  We have used Google Tag Manager for all our clients’ sites for years.  It is confusing for the non-technical minded, so we suggest you get expert help to do this, or contact us and we’ll get it done for you.
  3. Setting up reports.  GA4 does not come with a standard set of reports like GA3 does.  Most of the reports you’re used to viewing no longer exist, because the data collection and parameters are quite different.  As GA4 runs on “events”, it’s a case of deciding which automatically collected events, enhanced measured events and recommended events are important to you, and how you’d like the information displayed.  Then it’s a case of building the reports in Google Data Studio.

Finally, and perhaps the most important reason of all for getting started with setting up Google Analytics 4 now, instead of in 12 months’ time, is simply to get your head around it.

Need Help Setting Up Google Analytics 4?

Keep in mind that moving from GA3 to GA4 will not happen automatically (like a windows update).  There are a number of technical steps and configurations required to set it up correctly to get it working and collecting data.  Stage 2 is to create customised reports in Google Data Studio, and that’s a whole different topic we will tackle in another post.

If you’d like help setting up Google Analytics 4, our experienced team is here to help.  Our Commonsense Marketing GA4 Setup Service will get all the essential things done for your website to start collecting data in GA4, well in advance of the GA3 retirement date of 30 June 2023.

Our GA4 Setup Service gets you started and includes:

  • Creating a GA4 account for you and adding you and your team as admin users
  • Creating a Google Tag Manager (GTM) account for you
  • Configuring automatic event tracking in GTM
  • Configuring four enhanced or recommended events for tracking in GTM
  • Adding the tracking code to your website

When you’ve placed your order, our friendly team will be in touch with details of what we need to make this happen for you.  Once it’s all done, we’ll walk you through your new GA4 account so you can see it in action.

We will be touch for Stage 2 – setting up your reporting in Google Data Studio.

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About Annette Welsford

Hi there. My passion is to inspire and help business owners to create the type of marketing and customer service that makes their business irresistible. I'm privileged to have a talented team at Commonsense Marketing who create and execute beautiful websites, engaging social media campaigns, and fantastic email campaigns that deliver results for our clients. And it's wonderful that many of them have said lots of nice things about the work we’ve done (see our case studies). We love to work with the owners and teams of small to medium sized business who are motivated to become the best in their niche and achieve more than they ever thought possible.