This post was co-authored by Chris Sabat and Rick Richards–
As the world of digital analytics continues to evolve, the need to keep up with new technologies and trends has become increasingly important. One such development is the transition to Google’s “new version” of Analytics, GA4, which promises to provide a more comprehensive view of user behavior across all devices and platforms. This transition is not just an upgrade but a fundamental shift in how data is collected, processed, and analyzed. In this article, we’ll explore the key reasons why organizations need to make the move to GA4 and provide a step-by-step guide to help make the transition as smooth and painless as possible.
Communicate metric changes and data discrepancies
Google Analytics 4 is best understood as an entirely new analytics platform with the Google branding, and not as an update or upgrade from Universal Analytics. As such, pro users and administrators of these platforms must anticipate significant shifts in reporting – both in how reporting data is made available and in the metrics’ collection methodologies themselves.
What follows is a brief overview of key shifts in data points from UA to GA4, as well as highlighted areas that are most likely to impact your organization. We recommend that anyone at your organization that regularly builds or uses web analytics reports become familiar with Google’s full documentation on metric comparisons as well.
However, the more important task will be to communicate these changes to stakeholders who are used to receiving these reports or using them to coordinate and track campaigns that may span the entire summer:
- Report viewers may perceive a boost or decrease in certain metrics due to changing collection methods and may surmise changes in site performance that aren’t accurate
- Publishing staff may have campaign metrics disrupted if they begin by using UA in May and June and then need to switch to GA4 in July
- Others who count on GA data to observe trends may be caught unawares and make incorrect decisions based on incorrect or incomplete data
“Google Analytics 4 is best understood as an entirely new analytics platform with the Google branding, and not as an update or upgrade from Universal Analytics.”
1. Views (formerly Pageviews)
Should be within a few percentage points (~1-5% lower) of UA, further influenced by filters that may be running at the view level of the main UA property and view combination used for reporting.
NOTE: Only Pageviews are available in GA4. As ‘Unique Pageviews’ may have been used in your previous reports, PTKO suggests replacing that metric with Users, as this will show the number of unique users who viewed a given blog post.
For the most part, sessions function the same as they did in UA. If a user becomes inactive for 30 minutes (or the custom inactivity timeout window, if changed from the default) a new session will be started for them when they resume browsing. Unlike UA, if a user session happens to coincide with a new day starting (midnight) a new session will not be created (as it is in UA) leading to lower overall session counts. Furthermore, if a user gets assigned new campaign parameters while browsing the website (due to UTM usage onsite, which has not been best practice) they will not be assigned a new session (unlike UA) – in other words, a single session will be preserved.
GA4 focuses greatly on user tracking and has greatly improved in its ability to recognize and keep track of individuals. Given this focus, GA4 exhibits extensive changes to how users are measured. The primary user metric in GA4 is Active Users, which has no equivalent in UA.
To compare users in GA4 with UA, you could use the Total Users metric (available in GA4 via the Explorations report builder or other external reporting tools) as well as the New Users metric. Because of the session measurement enhancements in GA4, the numbers presented in GA4 will be lower when compared to UA (though, arguably, this is a more accurate counting). This difference can be quite significant making a direct comparison difficult but a ~3-10% (lower) discrepancy should be considered normal.
4. User engagement
Along with the update to how users are measured in GA4, you will now have access to several rollup metrics that offer a quick view into overall performance of your pages and content.
It’s highly recommended to review Google’s documentation here on the possibility of enhanced audience segment analysis, but a key takeaway is to use the Engaged Session metric to see how many of your total Sessions are actually interacting with your site. In general, an Engaged Session is one that lasts longer than 10 seconds of interactive time (i.e. the browser window with your website is active and not obscured), the user completed a conversion event, or more than a single page has been viewed.
NOTE: These changes have affected Bounce Rate, and while Google has recently added this metric back to GA4 (due to user complaints), it is no longer calculated the same way. We recommend switching to the Engaged Session metric as explained above.
UTM collection has been enhanced in GA4 with the tracking of ‘lifetime’ UTMs (based on the first time a user is seen) and new UTM parameters to further aid tracking. These are in addition to session UTMs, which mirror UA’s implementation of UTMs. Caution is needed as GA4 is still rolling out availability of legacy UTM variables (such as content and term).
This is where you’ll find the UTM parameters that may change during a session, such as when using UTMs to tag links pointing to your own site. Previously, this was considered incorrect practice as it would reset the session and skew metric totals. PTKO still does not recommend this as better options for onsite tagging exist.
All the usual UTM parameters are available at the user level but the values reflect the first time a user was seen instead of UTMs denoting a particular session(visit). This can be quite useful in building audience segments in GA4 based around how users were acquired.
Session-level UTM parameters associated with the session when it started. These are effectively UTMs as they have been used historically (i.e. did traffic come to a campaign landing page this visit from email, a news site link, social media, etc.)
New UTM capabilities
In GA4, Google has announced their intention to enable new UTM parameters to better track traffic and users from advertising campaigns. These new parameters are:
- utm_source_platform (already available)
Of these three, only utm_source_platform is currently available in GA4 for reporting and captures the platform on which the marketing activity happened. Google has not announced a timeline for availability of the other UTM parameters in reporting.
6. Session measurement knock-on effects
Any metrics that are associated with page-level or session-level data will incur the same ~1-5% drop when compared against UA. From a reporting continuity lens, this should be considered as no change, however PTKO cautions against apples-to-apples comparisons in metrics across UA and GA4 -i.e. Don’t try to ‘update’ benchmarks with GA4 data, start from scratch in identifying benchmarks and timeline trends.
While the migration process may seem daunting at first, it’s crucial to understand that the new features of GA4 can help organizations gain a more comprehensive understanding of their users’ behavior across all platforms and devices. By following the step-by-step guide provided in this article, you can make the transition as seamless and painless as possible, and start reaping the benefits of this powerful analytics tool. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you transition to GA4 and stay ahead of the game.