Data and analytics
April 21, 2023

What Is The Difference Between Google Analytics 4 (GA4) & Universal Analytics (UA)

Data and analytics
April 21, 2023

What Is The Difference Between Google Analytics 4 (GA4) & Universal Analytics (UA)

What Is The Difference Between Google Analytics 4 (GA4) & Universal Analytics (UA)

For the first time in years, Google Analytics has gotten a full overhaul in response to keeping up with the changing demands of the digital landscape. Whether you're a fan of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) or not, it doesn't matter because as of July 1st Universal Analytics (UA) will no longer track any new data.

Fortunately, GA4 isn't all bad and actually has some pretty beneficial features that are going to improve analysis and reporting for more robust strategic decision-making. This article outlines some of these new features which come with the move from UA to GA4, which also highlights just how different the pair are. Strap in and find out for yourself.

Data measurement model & privacy between UA and GA4.

One of the biggest and most important changes to GA4 comes in the form of a fundamental data measurement change. This is because Universal Analytics (GA3) uses a session-based tracking system that records data based on a period of browsing, whilst GA4 uses an event-based system that records every single click, transaction, download, submission, or view. 

This allows GA4 users to track their websites with complete control and have access to a much better understanding of the overall customer journey. When tracking these event-based goals, there are four new types of events that are included - automatically collected events, enhanced measurement events, recommended events and custom events.

What happens to new user data?

With GA4’s new privacy-driven approach, what has changed that will benefit both users as well as business owners? 

  • UA allows for unlimited user-specific data retention whilst GA4 has a maximum data retention time of 14 months. This allows information to stay relevant and up-to-date whilst also giving users the piece of mind that their data is not being recycled.
  • No IP addresses will be stored or collected in GA4 as third-party cookies will be coming to an end.
  • Users have the ability to request that their data be deleted from a website's database.
  • More on this later in the blog
Google Analytics 4 Demo Account

How long is the data kept? Google Analytics 4 data retention

There's been a lot of hesitance to move over to GA4 because of its data retention policies. For a while it was a common belief that all data wou

ld be removed after 2 or 14 months depending on site traffic, therefore making retrospective reporting comparisons literally impossible.

Fortunately, this is only partly true as GA4's data retention policy applies only to user-level reporting, aka the data that tracks individual user interactions with a website or app. Anonymised data and reports, in contrast, are retained indefinitely. These are the reports generated by aggregating and anonymising user data to protect individual identities. The aggregated reports are very likely the reports you'd use

How is GA4 data now reported on? 

Although GA4 might be new and daunting, there isn’t actually a whole lot that has changed. Many of the same side tabs still exist for exploring your data, but there is the implementation of a new ‘retention’ tab that Google has also been thrown into the life cycle report as a main focus and priority.

The engagement tab has replaced GA3’s ‘behaviour’ ta, and encompasses many of the same things. The monetization tab is also a new feature that introduces a whole host of new features such as:

  • The ‘Publisher Ads’ report
  • The ‘In-App Purchases’ report
  • The ‘E-commerce Purchases’ report
  • Revenue generated from items, ads and subscriptions on your website or app

Lastly, GA4 also now relies on a new set of metrics and events. The reporting capabilities are also set out in a vastly different way from GA3’s setup. At an immediate glance, GA4 now has far fewer preset reports to view compared to the old universal analytics, and this is because Google recognises that most users are taking advantage of custom reports so that they can view data in their own ideal layout rather than using generic preset layouts.

Google Analytics 4 increased functionality.

With constantly increasing customisation and free reign over the platform, GA4 allows users to set up and layout many different functions to suit their needs and requirements. From data input, to reporting, and ultimately analysis, the new platform also caters with the following functions:

  • Report customisations - Allows users to add reports and other functions directly to the navigation menu, eliminating the need to click away to find your own custom reports folder.
  • Explorations - Exploration reports a new function found in GA4 that allows users to go beyond standard reporting, to create Looker Studio (previously Data Studio) like dashboards directly in the GA4 platform itself. This allows users to dive deeper and query their data to find new trends. It also allows users to take advantage of machine learning to ‘ask questions’ about their data.
  • Increased integrations - Also found in UA but not to this extent, GA4 allows users to directly implement all of their third-party platforms in the ‘product links’ section, such as Google Search Console, Google Merchant Centre, BigQuery, and many more.
  • Data-driven attributions - Will natively integrate a data-driven attribution model that allows users to track the entire consumer journey, instead of relying on the ‘last click’ conversion model found in UA. This means all users can now dive deeper into conversion paths, time to conversion, and more.
  • Anomaly detection & ‘insights’ feature - Google Analytics' newly named ‘Insights’ feature allows for machine learning to track thousands of data points in any given report to offer insights into the data and also when data is not normal. This helps users find discrepancies and abnormalities, sometimes before they have even happened. This tool requires sufficient historical data and will point out statistical differences at a glance, meaning users can chop out abnormal data to optimise their findings. Although automatic anomaly detection will exist for everything in GA4, we still have the option to manually set boundaries that trigger alerts when certain metrics exceed a normal percentage change in a set period of time. Luckily, Google gives consumers control by allowing either or both of these options.
Google Analytics 4 new user-level reporting (Google Demo Account, 2023)

GA4 takes advantage of the privacy-first approach.

IP anonymisation and eliminated user tracking

One of the biggest changes coming in GA4 is the privacy-first approach to marketing (as touched on previously) and the anonymity factor that helps marketers comply with privacy laws and policies. This form of tracking hides all user IP numbers and deletes all personal user information so that there is no possible way for companies to track users through cookies unless users allow it. Tracking can be changed within Google by activating the ‘Consent Mode’. This new tracking option puts user data back in the hands of consmers, and allows Google to track their information based on options chosen by the consumer.

How does privacy first benefit your users?

Google users are able to disable Google Signalling which stops platforms from collecting the user's data or tracking through cookies. This also hides the user's IP address and helps consumers to stay secure and anonymous.

How does privacy first benefit your company?

Although signalling can be turned off, if you decide to keep it on, then GA4 can provide valuable insight into your users, their behaviour, how they're using your site and which marketing activities are leading to the most return on investment. Some of these features include:

  • Demographics and interest segments
  • Cross-platform reporting
  • Google Analytics remarketing
  • Advertising Cookies reporting features

Find instructions on the Google Help Center on how to enable this in your settings.

BigQuery integration.

Before GA4 came to light, users would have to find their own ways to implement their exported data into Google BigQuery or own their own copy of GA360 which costs $150,000 annually. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, with Google implementing this software as a native data query platform

For those who don’t know, Bigquery is one of Google-owned platforms that has the ability to import massive amounts of data that can then be queried, interrogated and sorted to find insightful trends that can help lead business decision-making.

Is GA4 harder to use and is it still free?

In short - yes, GA4 is slightly harder to master because of the expanded set of features and integrations that users have access to. In saying this, users do also have much more power and capability at their fingertips if they learn how to take advantage of new features provided in the rollout. Knowing how to use Google Analytics 3 will give users a great head start, but we are all still working to wrap our heads around new changes and processes. 

Luckily for users who still haven’t familiarised themselves with the new suite, the platform is absolutely free to use meaning anyone can feel free to have a play around at no financial expense. Users do also have the option to upgrade their account to a GA4 360 account, which extends the feature limits and allows for longer data retention, more audiences, more event parameters, and a bunch of extras. This new iteration of reporting and analysing data is looking promising and its all-around accessibility due to no costs makes it the cherry on top for business owners and marketers of all sizes.

Ready to make the switch to GA4?

With all of this information under your belt, what should you do with it? We firmly recommend adapting to GA4 as soon as possible, to tackle the learning curve and take advantage of these new opportunities. We also recommend running UA simultaneously for a better understanding of what metrics correlate between the two platforms and what's different. Considering Universal Analytics will officially close down in July 2023, we will all have to make the move anyways, so why not now?

Data and Analytics are in our blood, so if you need help navigating the transition to GA4 or maybe just need a bit of extra information to get started - Please don’t hesitate to reach out