This post was co-authored by Nate Parsons and Stefan Byrd-Krueger –
It’s no secret that since its launch in 2020, Google has been pushing the latest version of their analytics platform: Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Google expects both new and existing users to jump onboard GA4 and as time has gone by, users who have opted to stick to the old platform, Google Analytics 3 (GA3 or Universal Analytics), are quickly finding that their analytics have an expiration date. If you and your organization have been GA3 users, chances are you’ve gotten communications from Google (including a prominent banner in the platform) about setting up a GA4 property as GA3 approaches its end in Summer 2023.
The question is, should you?
GA4 is the new platform in town, but it may not be for everyone. How do you know whether switching to GA4 will be good for your organization? Should you use it? And what is GA4, anyway?
Let’s break it down: everything from what GA4 is, to how you can make the most-informed choice about what’s best for your organization as Google’s massive reimagining of its famed data analytics tool pushes forward.
What is GA 4 (and how is it different from GA3)?
GA4 is the latest version of Google’s extremely popular and widely used analytics platform. Before GA4 came GA3 (also known as “Universal Analytics”), but this doesn’t mean that GA4 is a simple upgrade. In fact, it’s a complete overhaul. GA4 is truly an entirely new product with new features and functions that will change the way your organization measures engagement and engages with its data. But how exactly is GA4 different from GA3?
Here are a few key ways:
GA3/Universal Analytics has been the mainstay of Google Analytics for nearly a decade. Indeed, in one PTKO analysis of over 1,500 nonprofit website analytics setups, we found some 95% of them using a version of Google Analytics. This ubiquity was reinforced by the fact that it was a versatile data exploration tool, allowing users to browse through countless pre-configured reports and make small changes to those reports to answer questions as they arose. Many of these reports and features were released gradually, such that many non-profiteers grew into de facto analysts by growing their data skills alongside this product.
Behind the scenes, GA3 was made for the era of online measurements grounded in the desktop web. This means the measurement model is anchored in independent sessions and data easily observed via cookies. Sessions are defined as a combination of certain KPIs like pageviews, events, transactions, bounce rates, and other activities that happen in a certain timeframe. In other words, a session captures every action a user may take while visiting your site and GA3 measures those actions to identify trends. True to its name, GA3 (Universal Analytics) takes an “all in one” or “universal” approach for users to track all of this data, allowing them to have all useful features in one place.
While this iteration was useful for, and is still widely used by many orgs due to its accessibility to a large community, this measurement methodology is swiftly becoming obsolete as technology advances and consumer behaviors evolve. What’s more, GA3 is not GDPR compliant by default, which means that to be fully compliant you have to secure explicit consent before you can legally collect or process any personal information from end-users. Doing so can slow down analytics measurements and insights, or just make them unreliable, while failing to do so (as many have) leaves organizations legally exposed.
The problem facing organizations, especially nonprofits, in leaving GA3 is not only that the underlying structure of their analytics is changing, but also that the talent that orgs have been depending on to access and report their website analytics won’t be prepared for the dramatic changes involved in the transition to GA4. Everything they’re used to working with (sessions, bounce rates, historical data, goals, etc.) will not carry over to GA4 or even be accessible in the new system. In other words, GA3 users won’t have the right experience to use GA4 for analysis right off the bat, and they’ll have even more trouble setting it up.
One of the major differences between GA3 and GA4 is how data is measured. Where GA3 offered an “all in one” approach, GA4 offers split functionality:
- Data Capture is measured as events rather than sessions. This means that all previous measurements of data (pageviews, goals, bounce rates, and historical data) are gone or changed. Instead of bounce rates, you have “engaged sessions” which measure the percentage of users who not just visited your site but interacted with it, so you can focus on engagement rate. Instead of goals, you now have “events” and conversions. You’re able to choose which events will count as a conversion, but GA4 will also track events for you automatically.
- Data Retention is best managed by Google BigQuery, the cloud-based analytics web service that processes large, often read-only data sets, and transforms them into big insights. GA3 wasn’t able to integrate with BigQuery except through GA360, the paid version of Universal Analytics. GA4 allows integration with BigQuery for all by default.
- Data Reporting and Analysis is possible within GA4 itself, but in a much more rigid way that requires custom analyses to be configured to answer predefined questions. The expectation is that users of GA4 will turn to Google Data Studio, a useful dashboarding tool that turns your collected data into visualized art. Google Data Studio can quickly build interactive dashboards and reports with its web-based reporting tools.
- GA360, the paid version of Universal Analytics, had many functions only available with a subscription. Now, many of those functions are part of the standard GA4, so you can access and use them without any extra cost.
Overall, data capture is much more limited by default and requires customization to make data more targeted in GA4, which allows organizations to really tailor it to their needs, but requires a much greater investment in data strategy and configuration. Meanwhile, unlike GA3, GA4 automatically complies with GDPR thanks to IP Anonymisation and a shortened data storage timeframe, which is likely a major driver of Google’s own push for replacing the legacy product.
So, now that we have a better idea of what GA4 is and how it differs from GA3, who is the new platform right for? Will your organization benefit as the free analytics change continues to unfold?
Where is GA4 a good fit?
GA4 is an excellent choice for larger organizations. A one time need to rethink, redesign, and rebuild a data pipeline is a small price to pay for some of the new features, extra accessibility, and more targeted data capture, not to mention the reduced privacy and compliance risk. Putting in the work required to successfully use GA4 will also help to keep things organized when you’re dealing with a large audience that regularly engages with your website and content.
Your organization might find GA4 to be a great fit if:
- You’re looking for advanced segmentation and analytics capabilities. As mentioned, GA4 has tons of new features and specific functionalities—many of which were part of the paid version of GA3, GA360. If your org is looking for advanced features but you didn’t previously pay for GA360, switching to GA4 is a great move.
- You want to avoid data sampling and have 36 months of high fidelity data. With the decreased data storage timeframe GA4 offers, the date range of your data reports will stay beneath the sampling threshold.
- You have a larger and more sophisticated data team that’s savvy enough to work with GA4’s new features and interface.
- You have teams who are already well-versed in using third-party tools for dashboarding and reporting (like Google Data Studio).
- You’re more comfortable defining and deploying your own engagement (“event”) tracking than using simpler, default, and older industry standard definitions.
- You want better real-time analytics. GA4 promises a new data structure that is wonderfully extensible—it can be customized to track almost anything, so you can pick and choose which data is most important to you and your needs.
Where is GA4 a bad fit?
Your organization might experience more con than pro in the great Google platform if you struggle with the following:
- If your organization has small data teams, it’s fair to say that GA4 might be a taxing transition. Teams that are smaller and less experienced with data capture will likely struggle to take advantage of the GA4 platform as it relies on managing and building various data capture sources.
- Your teams are more familiar with simple implementations that have a lot of out-of-the-box features ready to use.
- If your teams just don’t have the capacity to create custom event tracking or the time to design and deploy custom reports. If a template is more useful for your teams, GA4 takes away some much-needed ease and will likely require outside assistance.
- Your teams are already stretched thin and just don’t have the time or capacity to train on different programs like Google BigQuery and Google Data Studio that are necessary integrations in GA4.
- Your teams are relying on behavior reporting, benchmarking, and ecommerce flow reports from GA3. These features are gone in GA4, so your teams will basically be starting from scratch and measuring “events” instead.
How to plan your post Universal Analytics strategy
Whichever camp you fall into, the question still remains: do you want to move to GA4 or something else? Answering this question is imperative for your future success, so, how should you plan?
Before you make any decisions about how you’ll proceed with analytics, consider the following steps as prerequisites and things you should do, ideally as soon as possible, so you have time to act well before your UA data turns off next Summer.
- Audit your existing website analytics: Determine what is unique about your setup, both technically and from a business process perspective. What customizations have you put into your data that you will want to preserve, and are there any integrations or downstream systems that consume your GA3 data? Operationally, consider how your team uses data and reports from your current analytics. What reports will they expect to continue seeing, and what metrics will they expect you to continue reporting on?
- Create a forward looking data strategy: Take the opportunity to proactively plan what data you’d like to report on in the future, leveraging what you learn from your audit. Are you currently missing data on any organizational goals, audience engagement with major content types, or marketing activities? Given that you will have to rebuild your analytics one way or another, now is a great time to make your analytics your own.
- Conduct your final analyses in GA3: This is going to be your last year to collect and analyze data in this legacy system. However, just because the platform is going away it doesn’t mean the insights you can glean from it are any less valuable. Take advantage of your team’s existing familiarity and the native richness of data by investing in analyses now, particularly in types of data that you will lose access to if you migrate to default GA4, such as ecommerce funnels and site search behaviors.
Once you have a clearer sense of what you have, what you want to preserve, and even how you want to grow your data practices during this migration, the next step is to rebuild your data pipeline using a new platform. And here is where you need to make the choice between GA4 and one of the many other choices out there.
How to Plan if You Don’t Want GA4
If you don’t want to make the switch to GA4 then you’re going to have to look for a new all in one tool because GA3 will soon be totally gone. It’s best to start looking now so you can get your new tool deployed while you still have GA3 data being captured. Be sure to act fast because once you lose access to GA3, you’ll also lose all the data you’ve collected there. Not sure where to start? Try these tasks to get the ball rolling:
- Your audit and data strategy work will be particularly important to establish “buying criteria” for the many different types of systems out there. Lean into your findings to light the way.
- Search for the top data analysis tools on the market right now and see which is the best fit for you. This will take some time and focused comparison to ensure you come out with the best option for your organization. You will find some that excel as all-in-one solutions akin to GA3, such as the open-source Matomo, while others are tailored to specific use cases, such as the publisher-centric Parse.ly.
- Budget time for demos to get a real sense of what it’s like using these tools and whether they are a good fit for your team, and if possible, sample some tools and software to see if they’re a good fit before you commit.
How to Plan if You Do Want GA4
If you do want to make the switch to GA4, you have a few more questions to ask yourself:
- Do you and your teams have the capacity to manage three tools (GA4, GDS, GBQ) instead of one? If not, start now by considering your staffing and skills development plans over the next year.
- Do you and your teams have the capacity to identify and help design by hand the essential dashboards and reports you’ll need going forward? The aforementioned work on a data strategy can help provide the requirements, but it will still take work to build this new “front-end” for your website data.
- Do you and your teams have the capacity to identify and deploy the right event tracking triggers to instrument your outreach and engagement strategy properly? This will require both a clear understanding of exactly how you need your data to be structured, and coordination between your analytics and web development teams to implement these changes.
- Do you and your teams have the capacity to get GA4 deployed quickly and properly to acquire some amount of concurrent data with GA3 so you can compare and review data between your two implementations? Time is of the essence, especially for organizations that have high expectations for reporting continuity and website performance trend analysis.
If you answered “yes” to each of these questions, you are a strong candidate for GA4 and should start preparing to invest in this endeavor. There may be data outages and gaps and you’ll have to set aside ample time to account for whatever hiccups may come. You’ll also need to set aside time to onboard and train your teams to use GA4. Even with the capacity to make this switch, it’s going to be a long haul with a lot of changes.
If you answered “no” to each of these questions, then you have to make some different preparations. Namely, you’ll need to start building your Scope of Work and/or Request for Proposal for getting the vendor support you need to tackle the tasks your teams don’t have capacity for.
As this change looms, it is important to not just note, but also internalize, how big the switch from GA3 to GA4 really is. Millions of websites, especially nonprofits, use GA3 as their primary data analytics tool. It is going to be wiped away, and Google’s replacement is a whole new tool that comes with its own features and functions, so the change is not going to be smooth any way you slice it.
However, preparing for the switch can make this big change more manageable. One of the best ways to ensure you’re ready for the shift is to understand what it is you truly need from your data, and how you expect your team to work with its analytics tools. This is true whether you switch from GA3 to GA4 or to a new all in one platform come the summer of 2023. Moving quickly to create your plan and identify the right fit new solution for your organization will ensure your historic data still has meaning after the migration so you aren’t starting completely from scratch.