Tara Wesson
17th Mar, 2022

Your Comprehensive Guide to Google Analytics 4

If you track your website’s performance with Google Analytics, you need to read this.

In October 2020, Google released the 4th iteration of its analytics suite: Google Analytics 4 — GA4. It has since moved on from its previous program Universal Analytics, but some end users are still slow to adopt the new product.

Why should you do this? How do you do this? What if you don’t want to? What are the drawbacks?

If you’re yet to join the GA4 bandwagon, don’t worry. This article will cover everything you need to know, including:

  • What is Google Analytics 4?
  • The key differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics
  • Which should you use? (Google’s Analytics 4 or Universal Analytics)
  • How to set up Google Analytics 4

What is Google Analytics 4?

Google Analytics 4 is an expansion of the preexisting App + Web program introduced in 2019. It was a way to combine app and web data for cross-channel reporting under one analytics suite roof.

Up until 2019, Google had kept mobile and web data separate. The addition of App + Web reflected a shift towards more mobile searches taking place. Users interact with brands through multiple touchpoints; Google Analytics 4 provides data for an omnichannel marketing strategy.

It’s now called Google Analytics 4 because Google has repurposed it, replacing the former Google Analytics suite Universal Analytics. GA4 is now the standard tracking model, providing a superior way to track users while addressing browsers shifting away from third-party cookies.

What are Third Party Cookies?

Have you ever wondered how websites track your online activity? This is accomplished thanks to “cookies”.

Cookies (HTTP cookies) are small text files that are utilized by internet browsers to identify unique, individual users. In other words, they’re data used to help Google Chrome and other browsers remember you.

If you’ve ever visited a website and had to “accept” or “decline” cookies, you’ll know what we’re talking about.

But what exactly does “accepting” cookies mean? What are you opting into?

There are two basic types of cookies:

  • First-party cookies
  • Third-party cookies

First-party cookies identify you and track your online activity on a single website – Resulting in an improved user experience on that website. This is how your username, address, shopping cart activity, and payment information are remembered.

A website will also use first-party cookies as a way to get analytic data to uncover trends and insights. This is used for digital marketing purposes, allowing for business to make data-driven strategic decisions in the future.

Third-party cookies, however, track your online activity across several websites and platforms. For example, you could click an ad on Google and be tracked from website to website—even on social media. Advertisers use them to show relevant ads to users across the internet.

Google Analytics has historically relied on third-party cookies for its attribution data. This has allowed marketers to see the entire lifecycle of its users, from first contact to conversion. With third-party cookies being phased out, Google has shifted by releasing GA4.

What Does This Mean for Data?

Thankfully for marketers, browsers are only phasing out third-party cookies, and Google Chrome will be the last to make the mandatory change. This will take place in late 2023.

In place of cookies, Google has introduced GA4. This new Google Analytics uses predictive analysis and machine learning to fill the gaps in the customer lifecycle. This is a more ethical way of creating a cohesive picture of your users’ activities and attribution.

Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics: Key Differences

If you’re already using Universal Analytics, you’ll notice some key differences in Google Analytics 4. Like with anything, adapting to these changes will take some time, but the payoff is well worth it.

GA4 offers some enhanced features which we’ll get into later. At a glance, here’s what’s changed:

Universal Analytics (UA) Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
Change #1: Measuring Models Sessions and pageviews Events and parameters
Change #2: Tracking Code Tracking ID Measurement ID
Change #3: Data Structure Account > Property > View Account > Property
Change #4: BigQuery Connection No Yes

Data Structure

In Universal Analytics, data is structured by Account, Property, and View. In Google Analytics 4, this changes to Account, Property and no View. However, Google Analytics 4 comes with the additions of streams: either a website, Apple app and Android app. There are three streams.

The data flows into Google Analytics 4 quite differently; in Universal Analytics, the main event consists of general event, category, action and label. You can add custom fields and metrics to this.

Google Analytics 4 has a more flexible, less restrictive structure. All you have is an event name, to which you can attach parameters to break down custom dimensions and metrics.

We’d recommend running both Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics, so you can try to align the above two implementations as closely as possible. This will help you with reporting, as you can check whether certain data is coming through accurately and in the way you expect.

Let’s explain with an example. Say you have an event, whether that’s clicking a call to action or navigating to a certain page on your website.

For Universal Analytics:

  1. Open Google Tag Manager.
  2. Select an event category, action, and label.
  3. You can add custom dimensions and metrics: up to 20 each.
  4. Select a trigger — this is the same in both programs.
  5. Create a report based on this.

For Google Analytics 4:

  1. Open Google Tag Manager.
  2. Select an event name.
  3. Select parameters and variables.
  4. Select a trigger — this is the same in both versions.
  5. Create a report in Analysis Hub (more on that later.)

Tracking Code

In both Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4, there is a code that you insert into the site using Google Tag Manager. This code allows you to configure either Universal Analytics or GA4, or both, from within the tool.

The code ensures that your most important data flows into the program correctly. The difference is, the two programs have different names for it, and their setup differs slightly.

In Universal Analytics, the UA Tracking ID is the property ID, which indicates where the data should flow.

In Google Analytics 4, this becomes the Measurement ID—a tag to indicate the property that should house the data. Adding this in itself is enough, but you can add extra information (parameters) here – anything you’d want to apply to every tag in the initial setup.

Some things like page titles and locations are automatically collected, but it’s in this stage that you can add things like User ID, timestamps, and session IDs.

Analysis Hub

Possibly the biggest difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics is this: the Analysis Hub.

The Analysis Hub is the heart of reporting in Google Analytics 4, allowing you to create custom reports (as they’re known in Universal Analytics.) With everything on its own tile, you can gain a strong overview on the homepage.

To help you face the blank page here, we’re here to suggest a few types of reports you can create using the Analysis Hub:

  • Funnel reports allow you to analyse and break down user journeys, by segments and multi-step funnels.
  • Free-form reports allow you to create general custom charts and tables.
  • Path exploration reports allow you to map user journeys with tree graphs.
  • Segment overlap allows you to analyze the way that segments of your users intersect, to better understand their behaviour.

We’d suggest exploring the gallery, where anyone can upload new types of reports for you to download. If you need help setting up custom reports for your business, you can book a consultation with one of our Google Analytics specialists here.

BigQuery

With Google Analytics 4 you can freely connect to BigQuery, something that can’t be done with Universal Analytics. In the past, BigQuery was limited to paying GA360 customers. Now, your large, complex data sets can be queried effectively and efficiently.

If you don’t know what BigQuery is, it’s Google’s cloud-based enterprise data warehouse. It allows you to ingest, store, analyze, and visualize your data, which can be uploaded in batches or streamed, providing insights in real-time.

Should I Use Google Analytics 4 or Universal Analytics?

It’s a good idea to use both.

In the short term, you’ll have access to even more insights as GA4 and UA work in different ways. This will ensure your marketing efforts in the meantime are as data-driven as possible. In the long term, you’ll also be adequately prepared for when UA is completely phased out.

Once you install Google Analytics 4, keep running Universal Analytics. In parallel, you can start collecting a base of data in GA4 while still having historical data to report and use from UA.

When Universal Analytics is phased out, you’ll have built up enough data to transition smoothly as data is only collected once a property is created. Essentially, it means you won’t have to start from scratch.

There’s no downside to using GA4, only downsides to NOT using it.

How to Tell If You’re Using GA4 or Universal Analytics

Navigate to the “admin” section of Analytics. If you have three columns (Account, Property, View), this tells you you’re in Universal Analytics. If there are just two columns, you’re using Google Analytics 4 which only has two columns: Account and Property.

How to Set Up Google Analytics 4

To set up GA4, log onto your Google Analytics account and head to the Admin page. Make sure you’ve selected the right account if you’ve got more than one. This can be done by pressing the arrow to open the drop-down menu in the Account column.

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The right account will be the one that’s currently running Universal Analytics for your website. Once this is done we can move on to setting up GA4.

The next step is to select GA4 Setup Assistant which is under the property column in the middle.

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After pressing GA4 Setup Assistant, a small sidebar will appear; press Get Started.

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Next, a popup will appear. It will cover three things that’ll happen when you create your property:

  • Your new GA4 property will be created
  • Some of your UA property settings will be copied and used for your new GA4 property
  • Enhanced measurement features for your new GA4 property will be automatically activated

After reading everything, go ahead and select Create property.

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After doing that, you’ll arrive on a page confirming that you’ve successfully created and connected your new GA4 property. What you’ll want to do now is click on the blue See your GA4 property button.

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The next screen is a setup assistant that’ll allow you to configure settings and features. These are things you can come back to later; we need to focus on fully setting up GA4. What you’ll want to do next is select the Tag installation row.

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The popup that appears will be a webstream details page. You’ll want to copy your Measurement ID from the top right hand corner.

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After doing this, open Google Tag Manager and select New Tag on the dashboard. If you haven’t already, it’s advised that you set up Google Tag Manager and use it for your Google Analytics efforts.

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A popup will appear; select Tag Configuration.

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A sidebar will appear on the right where you’ll be able to choose your tag type. You’ll want to select Google Analytics: GA4 Configuration.

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Then on the next page add your copied Measurement ID to the box.

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After doing that, scroll down, select the Triggering box, and select All Pages for a trigger. Once that’s done, name your tag; GA4 Configuration would be a good choice. Lastly, hit the Save button.

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Congratulations, you’ve now successfully set up Google Analytics 4 and added tags with Google Tag Manager. If you followed all the instructions, you should be receiving real-time data on your website.

To know if you’ve done it correctly, go to the Google Tag Manager dashboard and select Preview.

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Type your website into the address bar provided and hit “Connect.”

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Your website will open in a new window; you’ll get a summary detailing whether or not your tags are firing. If the GA configuration tag is there firing then you succeeded.

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You can now go back to Google Analytics and check out the real-time data coming from your new GA4 property.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Is Google Analytics 4?

Google Analytics 4—also known as GA4—is the newest, fourth version of the Google Analytics suite. It has taken the former Web + App property and expanded it, replacing Universal Analytics, the third generation of Google Analytics.

What Is Universal Analytics?

Universal Analytics is a previous version of Google Analytics that was initially released on October 29,2012. It was the third iteration of the suite and has now been replaced by GA4: Google Analytics 4.

How Does Google Analytics 4 Differ From Universal Analytics?

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) uses advanced machine learning to map out the entire user journey, from first contact to conversion. It uses this artificial intelligence to fill in the blanks that third-party cookies traditionally have done so.

Universal Analytics relies on these third-party cookies that are being phased out soon.

Should You Use Google Analytics 4?

Yes, you should use Google Analytics 4. As internet browsers begin the shift away from third-party cookies, Google will eventually leave Universal Analytics behind. You should begin to accumulate data for GA4 to prepare yourself for when this happens.

However, this doesn’t mean you have to abandon Universal Analytics in the meantime. It’s best to have both running.

Do you need help making your marketing strategy more data-driven? Consider getting in touch with a data analytics agency to get started today.

Glossary

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is Google’s web analytics platform that allows individuals to track the online activity on their websites.

Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the fourth and current generation of Google Analytics, which was released in 2020.

Universal Analytics (UA)

Universal Analytics (UA) was the third generation of Google Analytics that was initially released in 2012.

Google Tag Manager

Google Tag Manager is a tag management system that allows you to manage web tracking tags for Google Analytics

Events

Events are user interactions such as a page view or a button click that occur on a website and/or an app.

Parameters

Parameters are extra pieces of information that provide more context to every individual event, such as page titles, or article IDs. Parameters can help us understand why, how, and where an event was triggered.

User Property

User property is an attribute that describes segments of your user base, such as demographic information like age, geographical location, language, and gender.

User ID

A user ID is a uniquely generated alphanumeric code that allows you to identify a specific user across different platforms.

Session

A session is a singular visit or “session” on a website, which includes a minimum of one event taking place, such as a page view or button click. Sessions are reported and sent back to Google Analytics. If a session is inactive for 30 minutes, a new session begins.

Hit

A hit is a specific user interaction that’s triggered by behaviour, such as a page loading on a website or app, or something being bought. Each individual hit is recorded thanks to the placed tracking code and sent back to Google Analytics.