In October of 2020, Google announced the official rollout of Google Analytics 4 (GA4), an updated version of Google’s web traffic analytics program. GA4 is intended to replace the long-running program, Universal Analytics (UA), but as of yet, Google hasn’t announced plans for sunsetting UA. With both options available, companies are wondering how and when they should begin using new product. In order to help you answer that question for yourself, this post will look at a number of the major changes introduced in GA4, lay out some of the biggest pros and cons to switching, and examine the potential risks and costs of the different options available to you.
Google Analytics began its life as Urchin, a program to statistically analyze website traffic information. In 2005, Urchin was redesigned into Google Analytics, which would become the most widely used web analytics service in the world. The software has gone through a number of iterations; the current most popular version, Universal Analytics, was released in 2013. However, in 2020, Google began beta-testing the next version, GA4, which fully launched in October 2020. For the time being, Google is continuing support for UA in addition to updating GA4, so businesses may use either or both programs. This has naturally led to people who have been using UA for years wondering: should they continue with the software that they’re familiar with, or is it worthwhile to make the switch? To answer this question, it is helpful to look at the major differences between UA and GA4.
One of the largest changes from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 is the switch from session-based data modeling to event-based data modeling. UA bases its data collection on “sessions,” which are groups of user interactions with a website that take place within a given time frame. GA4, by contrast, records user interactions with a website as “events”, which can include data that is not gathered under the session model — for instance, the value of a purchase the customer made, the title of the page a user visited, and the geographic location of the user. As a result of having more data available, GA4 allows more metrics to be compared against one another.
GA4 also boasts the ability to combine data from multiple different properties, such as websites or mobile apps, something that is much more difficult to do in UA. This is important because usage of apps is increasing, and it is often no longer possible to get a complete picture of a customer’s journey from initial interaction to final purchase while only looking at data from website sessions. GA4 allows data from all different types of customer interactions to be combined in order to track their journey at all points.
However, it is important to note that not all of the differences between UA and GA4 are necessarily in GA4’s favor. While GA4 boasts many new features, it is also a new product that is still undergoing development. As such, some features which are considered reliable staples of UA have not yet been implemented. Perhaps most notable of these is the lack of views. In UA, it was possible to create multiple views of the same property, and Google encouraged the creation of at least three: a “Master” view containing filtered data, an “Unfiltered” view containing the raw data, and a “Test” view where filters could be tested before being implemented in the Master view. The lack of views is therefore likely to strike those familiar with UA as a significant omission.
Another area in which GA4 might be found to be currently lacking is in the number of available attribution models. allowed for a large number of attribution models to track the journey of a customer from ad impression to conversion, including position-based attribution, time decay attribution, and linear attribution. GA4, by contrast, is currently limited to first-click attribution and last-click attribution. This is significant because Google themselves have been encouraging advertisers to adopt attribution models other than first or last click. While the immense popularity of these missing features, and Google’s own advocacy of them, makes it seem likely that GA4 will eventually be updated to include them, there is no timeline for when that will happen or even a guarantee that it someday will; and in the meantime, people who are used to relying on those features will have to either stick with UA or else go without.
When trying to decide whether to switch from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4, it is natural to look at the pros and cons of making the transfer. Taking into consideration the major differences between the two products, there are three major pros to changing over to GA4. However, as with a double-edged sword, each pro is also balanced by a significant con. Here are the three pros and three cons of switching from UA to GA4.
The first pro is greater functionality. GA4 offers many new features and capabilities not found in UA. A number of these are discussed above, such as the additional metrics available from event-based data modeling, the ability to integrate data from multiple different properties, and the benefits of machine learning algorithms. It also includes a large number of smaller but still significant changes:
However, greater functionality comes with a cost, and the associated con is greater complexity. As a natural result of offering more options and metrics, it is more difficult to set up and use. While it may provide greater flexibility once mastered, the multitude of choice and features available make that a more challenging goal to reach. If you’ve been using UA for years, you’ll likely experience a learning curve if you make the switch to GA4.
The second major pro of GA4 is that it is future-focused. While UA was revolutionary for its time, a lot has changed since it came out. Apps have become more prevalent and cookies are in decline, meaning that less information is available through traditional channels. GA4 was built specifically to address these challenges: event-based data modeling makes it easier to track customer behavior across multiple different devices, machine learning algorithms compensate for gaps in data, Consent Mode makes it easier to comply with new regulatory acts, and improved data deletion makes it easier to respond to data deletion requests from users. GA4 is far better equipped to face the unique challenges posed by modern circumstances that the designers of UA never could have foreseen.
While focusing on the future is an advantage, it comes with the drawback of neglecting the past, which is the second major con of switching: lack of historical data. While Google offers the option to link your UA properties to GA4, the differences between UA’s session-based modeling and GA4’s event-based modeling mean that it is not possible to transfer historical data directly from UA to GA4. Anyone beginning to use GA4 for a property will be starting with a blank slate, which creates a problem if you want to compare your current stats against past performance. The differences between GA4 and UA mean there’s no way to do a year-over-year comparison until a whole year has passed from the beginning of using GA4. By contrast, if you keep using UA, you’ll retain your old information and can continue to compare current performance against it. As such, until enough time has passed for a suitable historical record to be built up, UA will be more useful for analysis against past performance than GA4.
The third major pro of GA4 is that it can expect to receive ongoing support. As Google’s newest product for web traffic data analysis, GA4 is the focus of their current research and development efforts. As such, it will receive continuous new updates and product support. UA, by contrast, is now obsolete, as GA4 stands to replace it. Google has not currently announced any shutdown deadline for UA, but it is impossible to know for how long they will continue to support it. Even if they continue to maintain it for the foreseeable future, the primary focus of their work will be on upgrades and improvements for their newer product. Therefore, as time goes on, GA4 will continue to improve and further outstrip UA in capability.
GA4’s receipt of ongoing support comes with a downside, the final con of switching: GA4 is still under development. As it has not yet reached its final state, it still lacks certain important features, including ones that are available in UA. Most notably, the ability to have multiple views of a property and to use attribution models other than first or last click is not present. While the popularity of such features in UA would argue for them being added to GA4 eventually, Google has not announced any timeline for these updates, and there is always the possibility that some technical issue with the new structure of GA4 may prevent their implementation entirely.
There are three options available to you if you are trying to decide between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4:
This option is the easiest in the short term, as no major changes or learning are required; you can simply continue doing business as usual. However, this option carries the highest long-term risk. If UA is eventually deprecated, you will have to start using GA4 from scratch with no built-up historical data, and your learning curve will be far behind any competitors who switched over earlier and have already mastered the complex features of GA4.
On the other hand, this option offers potential long-term rewards but may be very difficult in the short term. Not only will it take time to learn how to use GA4 with the same proficiency you have achieved in UA, but you won’t be able to make comparisons between current and historical data. Abandoning UA entirely would make it difficult to measure your performance and could impact your decision-making when it comes to your marketing strategy.
Using both options minimizes the short-term disruption and long-term risk. Google recommends using both options, and to make this option easier, they created a tool to connect GA4 and UA accounts. This tool can automatically create properties in GA4 to correspond to those you’ve been maintaining in UA (though, as previously mentioned, this will only record data going forward, not transfer past data). This allows you to continue using UA for your short-term reporting needs while learning how to operate GA4 and accumulating data. Then, if you fully switch over to GA4 in the future, you will already have experience using GA4 and a log of past data to compare your current measurements against. The downside of this approach is not risk or the disruption of business, but rather the investment of time: it will require you to set up GA4 and learn how to use it while continuing your normal level of work with UA.
As Google’s latest brainchild, GA4 offers unprecedented visibility into your marketing efforts, despite creating some of the challenges outlined in this blog. If you’re wondering how to get the most out of GA4 and UA, reach out to Fruition. Our marketing experts can help you decide which option is best for you to maximize your efforts and prepare your business for long-term success.
“Usage statistics of traffic analysis tools for websites”. W3Techs. February 27, 2019. https://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/traffic_analysis
“Meet Google Analytics 4: Google’s vision for the future of analytics” by George Nguyen. Search Engine Land. October 4, 2020. https://searchengineland.com/google-analytics-4-adds-new-integrations-with-ads-ai-powered-insights-and-predictions-342048
“Should You Upgrade to Google Analytics 4?” by Andrew Miller. Workshop Digital. November 9, 2020. https://www.workshopdigital.com/blog/should-you-upgrade-to-google-analytics-4/
“4 Biggest Changes in Google Analytics 4” by Julian Juenemann. MeasureSchool. December 22, 2020. https://measureschool.com/google-analytics-4-changes/
“Meet the next generation of Google Analytics” by Google. Google Analytics Help Center. 2021. https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/10089681?hl=en
“Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics” by Zack Duncan. Root and Branch Group. February 1, 2021. https://www.rootandbranchgroup.com/google-analytics-4-vs-universal-analytics/
Ben Smith is a Researcher at Fruition, specializing in Google's Algorithm changes. Ben is a graduate of the University of Denver’s Mathematics program, and he enjoys learning about Google’s search algorithm updates. He's a vital asset of the Fruition team, and he one day hopes to publish a book. In his free time, you can find Ben enjoying the outdoors of Colorado.
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