How Should Digital Marketers Approach Google Analytics 4 in 2021?

June 10, 2021


We’re back with another episode of The Digital Marketing Troop.

Google Analytics 4 is the next version of their leading website analytics platform, Universal Analytics. Aside from prioritizing privacy of web users, it’s simply much different than what digital marketers are used to navigating. Ben Yehle, senior analytics account manager, explains the must-know information for digital marketers, including:

  • Changes in reporting, formatting, and defaults
  • Less default granularity in events
  • Expiration of user data and alternatives provided by Google

Ben addresses what to expect and how to adjust, giving you the edge in adopting Google Analytics 4.


John Tyreman: Hi gang, welcome to The Digital Marketing Troop, where we talk about changes and trends shaping the world of digital marketing. I’m your host John Tyreman and I’m joined today by Ben Yehle, Senior Analytics Account Manager and Team Lead at Silverback Strategies, and we’re here to talk about Google Analytics 4. But Ben, before we dive into our topic today, you play music. What’s your favorite instrument that you like to play?

Ben Yehle: Oh man, that one is actually French horn. Some people in the company know that I actually hold a music degree. I played in multiple orchestras. We were just chatting before this on recording, I’ve been submitting recordings for orchestras in the area during quarantine. So, definitely that one.

John Tyreman: Really? Wow. You say you work with other orchestras in the area? 

Ben Yehle: Yep, play principal horn for a couple of them and then just been helping out here and there.

John Tyreman: That is so cool. Yeah, I’m a big music guy myself. I like to play all the rock instruments, drums, guitar, bass, all that stuff. There’s definitely a connection between musical prowess and knowledge and then mathematics and analytics, so I think that’s it’s quite fitting for you. So, why don’t we dive into our topic at hand today? Google Analytics 4, for our listeners who don’t know what that is, can you give just an overview?

Ben Yehle:  Yeah, sure. So, Google Analytics 4 is Google’s newest website analytics platform, basically. Everyone has been familiar with Google Analytics, it’s really been kind of one of the top website tracking programs out there for a number of years. Universal Analytics, which everyone is most familiar with right now, I believe that’s been out since 2012. GA4 is Google’s newest take on it, a lot more privacy-centered, privacy-focused on it, in the sense that you can access data, and a lot of… it’s categorized in a different way, that lets us comply with some of the privacy requests that might come through either currently, but also in the future.

John Tyreman: Right on. So, can you give us some examples of how Google Analytics 4 is different than the Universal Analytics that we’ve all grown to know and love?

Ben Yehle:  Yeah, Google Analytics 4, as it is right now, the first thing when you log in you’ll see just general UI is very different, a lot less reports pre-built for you. Previously one of my favorite ones I used in Universal Analytics is actually the channel acquisition report and a lot of people are familiar with it. The GA4 doesn’t necessarily have that pre-built out for you in that same default channel grouping. You could tell before, if something came through with CPC, it already knew, okay, that’s a paid media channel. Now it’ll give you that same information but it doesn’t group it for you upfront. With that, that can make it a little bit more difficult if you’re just getting into the analytics, you know, Google Analytics game, and a lot of the reports that it’s going to give you access to. You have a lot more freedom, I want to say, in the sense of if you’re building some custom reports out, you’re not as limited as you were before to just a couple graphs and tables. Now you’ve got these funnel charts, you’ve got cohort analysis, some lifetime event-based reports. That version of it has really stepped it up and that’s making it… Previously if you wanted to get it in Universal Analytics, you might have to go to data studios, get that connected, deal with troubleshooting that, just to start getting some of these basic metrics. While now, you could get a lot more just directly from this GA4 platform.

The other big part, as I mentioned on the collection portion of it, Universal Analytics is a lot bigger on labeling events coming through as different, pre-built types, whether it be page views, whether they’re different categories. GA4 really deals with things being events. So with that, it’s again, you’re able to access a lot of stuff a little bit more streamlined that way, but in the same sense, if you’re not building these now default events out, you don’t have that template to work with, that’s forcing you to keep these segmented and separated. So again, if you’re just starting doing this stuff, it just requires a little bit of planning in your head on it.

The last, biggest one for me, certainly comes with the data storage related to it. GA4, when it comes to these events, at max will store it for 14 months. Universal Analytics had an update a year or two ago where it reset the default data storage to 12-14 months or something. You could override that on your end and say, “hey, I don’t want to lose user data.” GA4 doesn’t give you that option anymore. What that does mean is that data in the GA4 platform, mostly related to these events, could disappear after 14 months. With that though, Google has given us this default connection into BigQuery, which is frankly really great. Previously, if you wanted to own your data that was in Universal Analytics, you either needed to have a developer on hand to write out the API access and then upload it into BigQuery, or you needed to pay a third party, and some of those were cheap, some of those were expensive. Really depends on the kind of data you’re dealing with, and how in depth you wanted to get. Now, there’s this default version of it, you’re much more likely and much more easily able to take your data that Google currently would have on their end and now you can store it on your end. You are now more in charge of that data than we were previously.

John Tyreman: Yeah, that was gonna be…So, there’s a couple things that I want to unpack there, Ben. Let’s start there with, you’re in charge of the data now. Now Google is essentially saying, “Okay, we’re going to do our part, and we’re going to cleanse this data every 14 months but you have the ability to have it, but then the onus is on you.” If you get a request for, “Hey, I want my data removed,” you then, the company, are, legally responsible for removing that or adhering to whatever data privacy laws you’re subject to, right?

Ben Yehle: Yeah, with the data privacy laws coming through, based on some of them, if someone were to request that you remove their data from your tracking platforms–Well, it’s always been on you to remove it. Previously though, with how it was stored in Universal Analytics, it was a little bit more difficult to do, just because of how segmented some of this data was. So really, if you weren’t using a, if you didn’t set up a user ID, which, in terms of difficulty, I’d say is like a six-ish out of 10. I wouldn’t think it’s the hardest thing to do in the world, but if you’re more on the early side of the analytics, you might not know how to do that. If you didn’t have that, you wouldn’t have a great way to incorporate all that data down to a single user that is semi-identifiable. Not saying you look at that and you go, “Oh, is this John Smith,” but being able to come back to it later and say, “Okay, I at least know that these certain sessions were definitely all the same person,” not just typically what you get, which is from that higher aggregated level. It makes adhering to this policy with Google Analytics 4–in Google Analytics 4 they have a request feature that you can put in that request basically to say, “Hey, this IP. We need to clear their data.” First off, that being there and being that simple, and even just how they format it, Google is thinking through that. But when it comes to BigQuery, if you’re storing your data there, yeah, now that’s on you. You can’t contact Google and say, pull it out of my BigQuery, because it’s you, it’s your data. And I think this ownership of data is something a lot of people thought through, when some of the announcements of GA4 came out. Because now that big question is, everyone’s saying, “Well, what’s happening to my data right now? What is gonna happen to Universal Analytics? Could I log in tomorrow and suddenly, three years of website data is just gone?” This whole concept of like, first-party data has been really increasing, or even in the last couple months, I think, in the marketing realm. So, seeing that ability just innately for–well it’s also free–the transfer over to BigQuery as a free program within Google Analytics, we really haven’t had something like that in such simple terms.

John Tyreman:  That’s great, Ben. I want to unpack a couple of other things that you touched on, with how Google Analytics 4 is different than Universal Analytics and you mentioned the event-based versus session-based. And just for our listeners who might not know what it means to measure things by events, can you give an example of an event on a website that’s measured differently?

Ben Yehle: Yeah, so I would maybe describe this not so much event- versus session-based, because I don’t want someone to get the wrong idea and say, “Well, I know that I had 100 users and 150 sessions.” Yes, that was still there. But as far as how these events were being correlated to the session, my understanding is, that was causing some blockage within the current Universal Analytics, and that how GA4 is doing it now is instead of relating activity to a session and then session to a user, it’s a little bit more streamlined that this, these events are just being streamlined directly to the user, which comes back to this, “I need to remove a user from this.” There aren’t as many steps or potential hiccups that could kind of interrupt this process. 

John Tyreman: Okay, so that’s really helpful Ben, thank you for clarifying. We know that Google is making this shift, they’re being more privacy conscious. Do you have an idea of when Google might sunset their Universal Analytics platform?

Ben Yehle:  Yeah, I think that’s a big question on a lot of people’s minds right now. Really, what we’re reading, there’s two parts to this. Part one is you cannot create a Universal Analytics. That has already been removed as of really, October 2020, when GA4 was fully announced. They also announced with it, by the way, you can’t make a Universal Analytics anymore. So in one sense, it kind of is sunset. But as far as your existing data right now, there doesn’t seem to be anything based on anywhere that me or any of my colleagues are reading that indicate that Universal Analytics is going to disappear and that data is going to be gone. What I would look out for and what might tell us it’s in a near future, is if we start seeing some sort of connections for Universal Analytics to BigQuery. Really seeing some things that Google is kind of saying, “Hey, if you want to get your information out of Universal Analytics, here’s a way.” If we start seeing articles around that, that’s probably a better indicator that in six months or so, we might see that happen. But to my knowledge, even their previous analytics versions haven’t necessarily been removed. So, for all we know, it might never disappear but in the same vein, because Google owns that data, they are welcome to come forward and potentially remove it, and there’s not much you could do, in one sense.

John Tyreman: Yeah, and with these data privacy laws going into effect, CCPA went into effect in July 2020. We’ve got the new Virginia consumer data privacy act which will go into effect in January 2023. It seems like 2022, may be the year that it could happen. So, for companies who are operating, they have their data on Universal Analytics, they should probably get set up in GA4 now, to hedge their bets. What would you say to that?

Ben Yehle: Really as soon as possible, you want to start tracking in GA4 for the concept of whatever isn’t coming into Google Analytics is not being tracked. So, if you were to set this up, let’s say you wait a month, and then now it’s reached 2022, and you’re asking the question, “Well how did April 2021 go?” You don’t have that information. Simple as that. Does it need to be your main primary source of reporting right now? Not necessarily. Universal Analytics is still working, looks like it’s still going to keep working. You’re not necessarily going to lose anything or be, kind of, you know, behind if you don’t switch to GA4 as your primary reporting, you know tomorrow. You have some time. But you certainly want to start collecting that data sooner rather than later, and Google seems to have followed that as well.  There’s a really cool feature on it, that you can link across your Universal Analytics to your GA4, and it will kind of start tracking that data for you already. So really it’s just how it’s storing it. So there are a lot of simpler ways to do it. And I would definitely encourage anyone that is interested in having a website in 2022, you probably want to start looking at that sooner rather than later, but in the same vein, it’s not going to ruin anything, if you put it off a month.

John Tyreman: In the face of so much uncertainty, and with marketers who, most of them, want to have websites, I’m assuming, they’ll likely get that set up now just to be safe. Ben, you and I have talked before about what’s known as consent mode, and I want, just for our listeners who may not know what consent mode is, can you explain that really quickly?

Ben Yehle: Yeah, consent mode is a beta that’s going on with Google right now, it’s relevant in Google ads, Google Analytics and their floodlight tracking as well, that allows users to opt in or out of tracking, if you modify your code to that. This is really in relation to what we’ve seen on a lot of websites. I’m sure anyone that’s gone to any major website in the last month or so, you’ve started to see boxes pop up that say, “Hey we use cookies. Can we track you? Yes or no?” This is kind of Google’s ability, that they’re going to make that innately possible within their own website tracking, that they don’t necessarily need to involve a third party. There are still portions of it, you’re going to at this time, at least, still create kind of that pop up banner. But it does allow you to opt in or out of tracking just within that base code. Yeah, we’ve seen a lot. There are a lot of third party tracking privacy companies really kind of popping up over the last year or so that are helping people manage it right now. So I think this is really Google’s answer for those that maybe aren’t staying ahead of it. Maybe you just run one or two small websites, maybe have a personal website, that way this tracking can have some features in it that will relate to the privacy policies that are kind of required through a lot of these new CCPA, GDPR, different laws coming through those. But by then, I fully expect a lot of major companies are already making improvements on that, but it looks like Google wants to have a way, that for some of these smaller independent websites, well, just websites in general, that they can still comply to some of these policies without forcing someone to have to shell out money to a third party. 

John Tyreman:  Well, that’s awfully nice of them to throw us a bone, right? 

Ben Yehle:  Yeah, I mean, all things considered, they run most of the website tracking anyways. But I do think that comes up that they’re looking at, you know, what would possibly stop someone in the future, based on what we read even a year ago as some of these policies were coming out, some people were saying, “Oh, website tracking in general is dead, you cannot do anything with it.” So Google wants to have answers to all of that so people aren’t starting to say, “Well I guess I just want to track my website.” Because obviously Google still wants that data, you should probably want that data too. But for maybe some smaller people that just run their own professional website, maybe you aren’t as concerned about it as Google might be. 

John Tyreman: That’s a fair point. So, I guess that is kind of a two-edged sword there, where it’s helping the little guys who want to track but it’s also helping Google maintain their treasure chest of first party data that they have available to them. 

Ben Yehle: Yeah. 

John Tyreman: Very cool. Well, Ben, for marketers who want to operate in this new system. What new skills or what new tools should marketers consider adding to their arsenal, as we make this shift?

Ben Yehle: I think the first one or two here, they’re pretty much just important skills in general, which would be along the lines of Google Tag Manager, Data Studios. These are just some of the connections that GA4 really lets you see your data in new ways, as well as ensure that this tracking that’s going on, you don’t have to necessarily contact a developer to get basic tracking in, you can make sure that certain pages as they come through, that you have that tracking available. The other part on that is, if you’re using GA4 for some of this and perhaps a big code update comes out for Google Analytics 4, that implementation and that code structure is already being managed and you’re going to kind of stay up to date on it. So that one, those aren’t new. But for anyone that’s maybe kind of revisiting website skills in the last five years, those really are two big, big portions right now. The new skill that people might not have, if you are not kind of a code, technically savvy, this one would be SQL with BigQuery. So we talked about BigQuery a little bit. That’s Google’s mass data storage. It’s something like a couple pennies for a terabyte of data for you to store, it’s really not all that expensive. With that, though, it’s a little bit harder to access the data, it’s not just like plugging into the data studios and you’re selecting your dimensions and metrics. You’re going to want to be able to use SQL (Structured Query Language), and that’s going to help you actually filter out and get the data you want. Now who is this more prevalent for? Well, this is going to be the people that have a lot of data, and the people that want to continue to access some of this event data beyond 14 months. If you’re interested in that information, I’d say now, it’d be a great time to start looking at Structured Query Language, there’s a lot of resources online. And it’s kind of relevant if you’re using, if you’re familiar with Google Sheets, they have a query function in it, it’s pretty similar to that. It just kind of will help you access some of that data. It’s not some crazy coding language. It’s kind of straightforward to read. I’m not gonna say it’s super, super simple, but certainly doing a little bit of reading and doing some little test exercises on it. It’s pretty straightforward, and something you’re going to want to feel moderately comfortable with, if you, again, want to access some of this event data beyond 14 months, or you are interested in accessing all of your data at once and want to be that controlling party of it. 

John Tyreman: Well, Ben, these are great insights. Thank you so much for sharing. For listeners who want to connect with you and learn more. Where would you have them connect with you?

Ben Yehle: Yeah, I’m available on LinkedIn – Ben Yehle. Always happy to chat more about this. 

John Tyreman: Well, Ben, thank you so much for your time. 

Ben Yehle: Awesome. No, thank you for having me.

John Tyreman: If you found this podcast episode insightful, please subscribe, tell a friend and leave a rating and review. And to learn more, head on over to where we have a wealth of digital marketing insights on our blog and Resource Center. We’ll see you next time on The Digital Marketing Troop.