Google Analytics 4 is Here. What do Marketers Need to Know?

by Louis Belpaire | October 20, 2020

Google Analytics 4 is here. The search engine giant released the newest update to its web analytics tool on Oct. 14, 2020 with the goal of keeping pace “with major shifts in consumer behavior and privacy-driven changes to longtime industry standards,” Vidhya Srinivasan, Google’s Vice President for Measurement, Analytics, and Buying Platforms wrote in a post on the company blog.

This Google Analytics update didn’t exactly come out of the blue. Google Analytics 4 sprouted from a beta the company was already running, so the changes that come with it are familiar to experts. In this article, we’ll explore how you can plan a smooth transition to Google Analytics 4 for your company both in the short and long term.

This update will impact every user

Google Analytics is by far the most-used website analytics platform out there. BuiltWith, which tracks software usage on websites around the world, estimates over 29 million websites use Google Analytics as their website analytics provider. So an update to the platform is a development any marketing professional needs to properly examine.

“Every Google Analytics user will be impacted by this move,” says Louis Belpaire, Chief Operating Officer at Silverback Strategies, “which is about providing marketers with easier workflows, a smoother UI, better privacy management tools, more customer centric reports and a deeper integration with Google Ads.”

An important note: your Google Analytics account won’t have changed automatically. The previous iteration, Universal Analytics, will still load up when you log into your account. But if you set up a new property in Google Analytics, Google Analytics 4 will now be the default option.

The new platform will change the way marketers analyze data

Google Analytics 4 is an expansion of App + Web, a beta the company introduced last year. Silverback implemented the App + Web beta for a few of our clients, so our analytics team has some takeaways after recording data in the beta as well as in Universal Analytics. Here are the big changes you’ll want to be aware of.

“This property is completely different from the GA we now know,” says Daniel Rim, Analytics Account Manager at Silverback Strategies. “The data is collected, stored, and filtered differently. Reports and segmentation have also gotten a huge remake. We’ll definitely have to shift into a new era of analyzing our data to account for the new data model.”

It is designed to adapt to a future without cookies

Two laws in particular, the California Consumer Privacy Act and the General Data Protection Regulation, have forced companies to take further steps to protect the private information of consumers. Google is phasing out third-party cookies, which allow a company to track website visitors after they leave that company’s website, by 2022. Google Analytics 4 is clearly aimed at making sure the phasing out of cookies doesn’t kill your business.

“Because the technology landscape continues to evolve, the new Analytics is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers,” Srinivasan writes. “It uses a flexible approach to measurement, and in the future, will include modeling to fill in the gaps where the data may be incomplete. This means that you can rely on Google Analytics to help you measure your marketing results and meet customer needs now as you navigate the recovery and as you face uncertainty in the future.”

So what does that look like in practice?

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Customer-centric measurements move away from sessions and towards events

“The new Analytics gives you customer-centric measurement, instead of measurement fragmented by device or by platform,” Srinivasan writes on Google’s blog. “It uses multiple identity spaces, including marketer-provided User IDs and unique Google signals from users opted into ads personalization, to give you a more complete view of how your customers interact with your business.”

Preparing for the move to a cookie-less internet means changing the way we measure what consumers do on our clients’ websites. That starts with moving on from sessions as a go-to metric. 

“We are shifting into a new data model: Event-Driven instead of Session-Based,” Rim says. ”One of the main issues with sessions is that it doesn’t fully capture all of the micro-interactions and doesn’t represent what users are actually doing on websites.”

An event is any user interaction with your site that you collect data about. This could include simple things like a click, page scroll or site search. It could also include bigger actions like someone making a purchase, adding to their cart, signing up for a newsletter or downloading a white paper.

“By moving into Event-Driven, it puts the focus more on the user and measures how they are engaging with your website or app,” Rim says. “Google has tied all of the standard events (clicks, page scroll, site search, and downloads) back to the user instead of the session. We can start saying “Users engaged with these particular events,” instead of “This session had a page view and completed some event.”

Increased machine learning means more insights and predictions

In the future, Google hopes increased machine learning can help account for gaps in data that will come up as cookies are phased out.

“For example, it calculates churn probability so you can more efficiently invest in retaining customers at a time when marketing budgets are under pressure,” Srinivasan writes in the Google announcement. “We’re continuing to add new predictive metrics, like the potential revenue you could earn from a particular group of customers. This allows you to create audiences to reach higher value customers and run analyses to better understand why some customers are likely to spend more than others, so you can take action to improve your results.”

A view of the Google Analytics 4 dashboard. Credit: Google

Machine learning insights were already a part of Universal Analytics, but GA4 beefs them up a bit. Google’s walkthrough of the new analytics user interface showcases how and where you can find these new insights.

Marketers should set up Google Analytics 4 sooner rather than later

Google won’t make anyone overhaul the way they use analytics overnight. Which is good, because you’ll have to take some steps to prepare to transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.

“The main downside of not migrating to Google Analytics 4 is that we’d be setting ourselves up for failure in the future,” Rim says. “Google hasn’t provided any information about migration timelines, but based on how Google phased out Classic Analytics and transitioned into Universal Analytics, Google Analytics 4 will also take a new stance and soon replace the current Analytics.”

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So how do you make sure you’re ready for the transition?

You can’t just import all your data from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4. The new edition is a new data schema, so your Universal Analytics data doesn’t come with you when you upgrade. Instead, it’ll be a good idea to start tracking data in Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 for a while before Google Analytics 4 becomes the standard.

You can record that data now, and Google offers advice on how to set up parallel tracking whether you use Google Tag Manager or gtag.js. Tracking in both versions of Google Analytics will allow you to explore and experiment without messing up your current workflow.

Rim says the next steps he’ll take at Silverback include adapting to the new styles of reports and metrics, setting up additional tracking and experimenting with the new audience features that you can use for paid media and SEO. 

Louis Belpaire

Louis is our COO and has a passion for all things Tech. When he's not dissecting Apple's latest earnings report, you'll find him training for his next triathlon somewhere in the hills of Virginia.

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