64: Procrastinator’s guide to Google Analytics 4

Main takeaway:

Universal Analytics is sunsetting in July 2023, and its replacement, Google Analytics 4, isn’t exactly getting a warm reception. For digital marketers, SEOs, analysts, and basically anyone else who got used to GA3 over the past decade, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Ok, I’ll confess: I’ve been a bit further behind on Google Analytics 4 than I wanted. Like many marketers, I struggle to balance martech innovation against the reality of my day-to-day life. I admit I had been procrastinating on learning GA4, but no more.

I’ve spent the last few months going as deep as I can on GA4 and, by extension Google Tag Manager. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that GA4 is Google’s gift to digital marketing – I think it’s still an immature platform.

I am going to tell you GA4 is getting a much worse rap that it deserves precisely because so many marketers have been deep in GA3/UA for so long. Changing habits is tough, and GA4 makes it more challenging because of a new interface, not too mention a completely different approach to web analytics. No big deal – you can learn all this in a Sunday afternoon, right?

Yeah, that’s going to be tough.

Today I’m going to give a procrastinator’s guide to GA4. If you’re expecting me to complain about GA3, this episode isn’t for you. We’ll mourn the loss of GA3, briefly, but then move on to making the most of this situation. I don’t think GA4 is all bad – actually, GA4 is pretty slick and I think if it weren’t for the contrast to its predecessor, many folks would be pretty happy with GA4. 

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Question / Topics

Alright JT, it’s great to be back behind the mic. We’re starting off with a fun one here. I’ll admit I’ve been out of touch with top of funnel reporting and analytics for the last couple years so I’m excited to learn about GA4. There’s rightfully been a lot of noise since its release in October 2020… maybe we can start there actually, the Google decision. 

Google has basically said that they are making the switch from Universal Analytics (UA) to Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in order to provide users with 

“more advanced tracking for digital marketers”

But aside from new features like automated events, cross-device reporting and BQ support, there’s a lot more behind the decision to make the switch.

Why is Google making the switch from UA to GA4?

Needs attribution: 

  • Lawsuits in EU where UA used as evidence
  • Privacy regulations
  • End of 3rd party cookies, rise of first party cookies
  • Single-page applications
  • Event-based measurement

So October 14, 2020: This was the date when Google officially announced GA4 and began rolling it out to users. What dates should marketers be aware about when it comes to the “forced switch from UA?”

What are the important dates and why are they important

July 1, 2023, data collection stops

6 months later, you won’t be able to access your data

You’ve got 6 months to move to GA4 or another web analytics solution or you’ll be flying blind… 

You need a solution for your historic data (excel, bigquery, or API)

Sounds like it’s time to put down that Netflix remote, grab a cup of coffee, and dive into the exciting world of GA4!

It seems like such a big hurdle… JT, how can marketers start to learn GA4?

How do I learn GA4

There’s going to be a few layers to learning GA4. Let’s break it out into 2 roles:

  • Web Developer, implementation
  • Digital marketer or web analyst

For web developers or implementers, GA4 can be installed directly on your website by inserting the code directly onto each page. This isn’t new. I think what is new is that GA4 is much more closely tied with Google Tag Manager. It is absolutely the recommended way to install and configure GA4. 

There’s a whole episode or series about Google Tag Manager we could do, but the short of it is that GTM gives you a huge toolset to do tons of cool stuff: event tracking, sending additional data through dataLayer, and modifying your implementation without having to directly modify your website.

If you’re not already using GTM, GA4 should push you to start using it.

For digital marketers and analysts, the task is about getting used to the new interface, migrating configuration settings from GA3, and making a habit of pulling reports from GA4. The big hurdle here is matching up the data from both tools – because I’ve never actually seen both tools give the same number.

I think this is what people are most unprepared for: the new reporting paradigm and definitions. Things like users have modified definitions, in no small part because GA4 is better at tracking individual users and corrects known errors in GA3. However, whenever a disparity in the numbers arise, much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth ensues…

So getting it installed and playing around with new features is one of the first things folks should be doing. Data history and collection is important.

These new features are more powerful and are said to help you better understand and optimize your digital marketing efforts… JT, what are some of the new features that excite you the most compared to UA vs GA4?

What is different between GA3 & GA4

Bounce rate, conversion tracking, user definitions;

Event-based approach, more akin to product analytics tools, and, frankly, this is better for modern web (problem: vast majority of sites aren’t on modern tech)

  • User Interface
  • Data collection and real-time data
  • Data retention

So gone are the days of needing to manually set up event tracking codes for specific things like we had to do in GTM? 

No, still more than enough in GTM. Enhanced Measurement gives us some events out of the box that seem to mostly work for some websites. Events are much better in GA4 – can send custom parameters

One thing a lot of folks mention is improved cross-device reporting, have you dived into this? How is Google associating traffic from multiple devices to unique users?

I’m more of a Redshift guy than Big Query these days but I do feel like the switch to GA4 is also pushing many users to adopting Big Query right? GA4 includes native support for BigQuery integration, which allows you to connect your GA4 data with other data sources in Google BigQuery.

JT what do you like the most about GA4 so far? Is it the Conversion Probability report or the Customer Lifetime Value report? Or just the new UI and design? 

What does Jon like about GA4?

It might seem like putting lipstick on a pig, but I kind of like GA4. Maybe I’m just coping a bit or being obstinately positive, but change is the name of martech. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to switch tools against my will, and it won’t be the last.

Everything is a tool, and GA4 is no different. 

Events are customizable and don’t have to send same parameters/fields as UA. You can send anything which is powerful when looking at custom data.

Conversion events are much more accurate.

Reports are much more customizable and better looking.

Machine learning to surface insights.

Some of the coolest ML insights come in the form of predicting the likelihood that a user will convert on your website or app. This is based on their behavior and other factors. So theoretically, your business can better identify high-potential users and tailor your marketing efforts accordingly.

Do you know what this looks like practically? Can you push segments of these users to BQ then Hubspot and send custom emails or better yet, to your product and surface different offerings?

So like we said, there are many ways to learn GA4, including online courses, tutorials, and guides. 

Start reading through the documentation and tutorials provided by Google

Install it and play around… what else? Time to panic?

How do we prepare for the inevitable? Is it time to panic?

Absolutely – it’s the best time to panic. So get it out of your system. No matter what I say or you say, GA3 will be sunset and GA4 will be your default option.

There are obviously two parts to this. First is the implementation – if you haven’t set up GA4 then you need to get that set up as soon as possible. Data retention for custom reports maxes out at 14 months, so you’ll want to collect some of that historical data.

You’ll want to make sure that GA4 is fully configured to track events and conversions you were tracking previously. This could be an opportunity to clean up events and even send more data. 

The second is reporting or, probably more accurately, the human side of the equation. The discrepancy in numbers from each system is difficult to articulate, particularly to your management or executive team. The improved accuracy of user and conversion tracking can make for pretty different numbers. Typically, I’ve seen lower numbers of users but higher conversions, which jives with what GA4 is supposed to do.

I think there’s some marketing therapy and education that needs to happen for a lot of teams. Explaining GA4 is sort of like I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. I admit it’s taken a bit for the differences to sink in, and I’m still not sure I can confidently explain them.

This is going to be our challenge moving forward – why are these numbers different, and how do I explain this to my executive team? 

Unfortunately, the messenger is almost always shot first! 

This is one of the worst feelings ever, using one tool you uncover a big win, maybe it’s a conversion rate lift coming from a specific subset of pages you created or recently optimized.

You shout it from all public Slack channels only to find out that someone else using a different tool doesn’t see the same lift at all… and thus ensues the debate… who’s got the accurate data?

How do you prepare for this issue?

How are you explaining the difference and helping teams prepare?

I think out of the gate we have to start reporting on GA4 numbers starting today. Sure, keep your GA3 numbers, too, but start getting used to socializing and circulating GA4 reports.

I would absolutely start by doing a monthly report – take the most recent full month and do a side-by-side comparison of metrics. I promise it’ll be very educational – and if you start digging into why those numbers are different, you’ll be prepared to explain this to your team. 

Here’s just one example: what is my bounce rate?  GA4 has done away with bounce rate, and instead inverted it to its positive, engagement rate.

Engagement rate is actually a very smart metric – where bounces assume any single page visit is a bounce, engagement rate accounts for time on page, event interactions, and page views. For a single page site (such as a web app), 100% of visitors would be bounces in GA3. In GA4, you have engagement rate which, in my opinion, is much more accurate.

Conclusion – Teaser of next GA4 episode

All right, this was a fairly surface level conversation on GA4 – in a future episode, however, we’re going to get a lot deeper into GA4, the cool shit. I like a lot of these features, and rather than mourning UA, I’m going to look forward.

In conclusion, GA4 is here and there’s nothing you can do to hold onto UA. Changing habits is tough, and GA4 makes it more challenging because of a new interface, not to mention a completely different approach to web analytics. You should move on to making the most of this situation and start playing around with it… maybe you’ll agree with JT and find that GA4 is pretty slick and I think if it weren’t for the contrast to its predecessor, many folks would be pretty happy with GA4.


Intro music by Wowa via Unminus

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