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Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics

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4 mins 35 seconds

GA4 V Universal Analytics

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Since its inception in 2005, Google Analytics (GA) has become the most widely used web analytics tool on the planet. And for a good reason – it’s free, easy to use, and provides valuable insights into website traffic and user behavior.

Universal Analytics (UA), released in 2013 and was a major upgrade to the GA platform. It became the standard tracking code for GA – that is, until Google announced the release of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in fall 2020.

In connection with GA4’s launch, Google will be sunsetting Universal Analytics in July 2023.

So, if you’re still using Universal Analytics, it’s time to start thinking about migrating to GA4.

But what exactly is GA4, and how does it compare to UA?

How do you establish a GA4 property, and what are the benefits of doing so?

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into all things GA4 vs. UA to help you make the best decision for your digital marketing efforts.

Is GA4 replacing Universal Analytics?

Yes, GA4 is replacing Universal Analytics as the default for GA’s digital analytics measurement.

According to Google, they’ll begin sunsetting (aka phasing out) Universal Analytics on July 1, 2023.

GA4 Dashboard

This doesn’t mean your UA properties will stop working on that date. Here’s the GA timeline we’re looking at:

  • July 1, 2023: Standard UA properties will stop processing new hits.
    “Hits” are the interactions that take place on your website, such as pageviews, events, and e-commerce transactions.
    If you continue using a standard UA property after this date, you’ll still be able to see historical data in your reports. However, that property won’t receive or process any new hits anymore.
  • October 1, 2023: Universal Analytics 360 properties will stop processing new hits.
    Google introduced Analytics 360 in 2021. It’s a premium version of Universal Analytics, with added features and support for businesses that need enterprise-level data analysis. Google is giving Analytics 360 users three extra months to migrate to GA4. But after October 1, 2023, all new hits will stop being processed in Analytics 360 properties.

In other words, GA4 will eventually become the only way to collect and process data in Google Analytics.

But you don’t have to switch right away – you can continue using your existing Universal Analytics properties until the sunset dates listed above. In fact, UA and GA4 can even exist side-by-side within the same GA account.

Don’t have UA? No problem. You can skip ahead and start using GA4 today. Google Analytics 4 is 100% free like UA was.

Finally, you can check which version of GA you’re currently using from within the GA admin interface. Simply click “Admin” in the left sidebar, then look under the “Account” column to find the GA code version listed next to your account name. If you are seeing your GA code with the initials UA, that is Universal Analytics, whereas one that is simply a list of numbers is Google Analytics 4.

Differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics

differences in GA4vsUA

Google Analytics 4 isn’t just an upgrade. It’s a complete rewrite of the platform, built on a new data model and designed to work with other Google products in a way that UA never did.

It’s safe to say that GA4 is a game-changer for digital marketers. Here are some of the biggest differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics:

1. The GA4 data model is event-based, UA is session-based

One of the biggest changes in GA4 is the move from a session-based data model to an event-based data model.

In Universal Analytics, everything is tracked as a session. A session is defined as a period of time during which a user interacts with your website.

With GA4, the data model is event based. Events can be anything that happens on your website, such as pageviews, button clicks, form submissions, etc. This event-based approach gives you greater control and flexibility over your data.

2. GA4 properties have no data limits (yet)

The free tier of Universal Analytics imposes strict data limits. Standard UA properties can only process 10 million hits each, 500 hits per session, and just 200,000 per user per day.

This can severely limit the amount of data you can collect, especially for high-traffic websites.

With GA4, there are no data limits at the moment. This could change in the future, but for now, you can collect and process as much data as you want with GA4.

3. GA4 lets you track an endless number of parameters with events

In Universal Analytics, you’re limited to tracking just 20 parameters per session. This can make it difficult to collect the data you need to properly understand your users’ interactions with your website.

With GA4, the sky’s the limit. You can include any and all parameters you want, such as custom dimensions, custom metrics, user ID, session ID, and more.

This gives you a much richer data set to work with, which can be extremely valuable for understanding your users’ behavior.

4. Spam referrals are virtually impossible with GA4

If your properties receive a lot of spam referrals, you know how frustrating it can be to try and filter them out of your reports.

To prevent this, Google Analytics 4 will force all Measurement Protocol hits to include a secret key. This secret key filters out spam referrals before they even reach your GA property. These keys are invisible to the public, and the only way to see them is through the GA4 web data stream settings.

This is a huge improvement over UA, which offers a much reduced built-in protection against spam referrals.

Referral Spam Report GA

5. GA4 offers next-level customization for reports

Customization is one of the most powerful features of Google Analytics. It allows you to slice and dice your data in any way you want, so you can get the insights you need to make better decisions.

Universal Analytics offers some customization capabilities, but they’re fairly limited. Unfortunately, this means you often have to resort to workarounds, such as manually creating custom reports or exporting data into Excel or Data Studio for further analysis.

GA4 takes customization to the next level. With GA4, you can easily create custom reports and dashboards that show precisely the data you want to see. GA4 also offers a built-in report editor, so you can further customize your reports without having to export data into another tool. It also has the function to export data to Big Query.

6. Google Analytics 4 is more user-friendly

The interface for Universal Analytics can be a bit overwhelming, especially for users who are new to Google Analytics. The admin panel is crammed with options, and it’s not always clear where to find the data you’re looking for.

GA4 takes a more simplified approach. Everything is organized into logical sections, so you can easily find the data you need. The interface is also much more visually appealing, which makes it more enjoyable to use.

An added benefit is that it’s customisable too, so you can build an interface that houses all your data in an easily accessible way.

7. Comparing segments in reports is easier in GA4

Comparing segments is a key part of analyzing your data. It allows you to see how different groups of users interact with your website, so you can make better decisions about your marketing and product strategy.

For example, you might want to compare the behavior of new users vs. returning users or compare the behavior of users in different geographical regions.

In Universal Analytics, comparing segments can be a bit of a pain. You have to manually select the segments you want to compare, and then switch back and forth between them to see the data.

The process is more efficient in GA4. With GA4, you can easily add multiple segments to a report and then toggle between them with one click.

8. GA4 uses machine learning to automatically surface insights

UA was great at tracking metrics and collecting data, but it left the job of actually finding insights up to the user. Unfortunately, this meant that a lot of data went unused because most people didn’t have the time or expertise to sift through it all and find the gems.

Google is using machine learning to change that with GA4. In a nutshell, machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence that allows computers to learn from data and make predictions.

When it comes to analytics, GA4 will be able to “read” your data, identify patterns, and surface insights that you might not have found on your own. For instance, GA4 might identify a decline in conversions and automatically surface the root cause (e.g., a change in your pricing structure).

9. GA4 integrates better with other Google products

Google Analytics 4 is natively integrated with other Google products, such as Google Ads, Firebase, and BigQuery. This tight integration makes it easy to share data and take action on insights.

For example, let’s say you’re running a campaign in Google Ads, and you want to see how it’s performing. With GA4, you can easily pull data from your Ads account into GA4 and create a report to track your campaign’s progress.

Or, let’s say you want to do some advanced analysis on your GA4 data. With GA4’s integration with BigQuery, you can export your data into Google’s cloud data warehouse for further analysis.

What is missing in GA4?

There’s no doubt about it: Google Analytics 4 is the future of web analytics.

That being said, it’s still a very young product. We’re excited to see how it matures, but right now, the following shortcomings should be taken into consideration:

GA4 will not have the "Views" feature anymore

UA’s Views feature allowed you to create different versions of your data, which was useful for things like A/B testing and creating filtered views (e.g., for your boss).

That feature is gone in GA4. Instead, you’ll have to use sub-properties in GA360 to create different views of your data.

GA4 will limit your ability to block IP addresses

RegEx helps you block certain types of traffic, like bots. But GA4 won’t support RegEx. This means that you’ll be more limited in the types of traffic you can block, including IP addresses.

GA4 will not have a hostname filter

The ability to set up a filter for your hostname is useful for things like excluding internal traffic or cross-domain tracking. Meanwhile, you can still do this with Google Tag Manager, but not in GA4’s current version.

GA4 caps custom dimensions to 50

Custom dimensions are a powerful way to augment your reports in GA4. They allow you to track things like user type or campaign name. In turn, this will enable you to segment your data and get more insights.

However, there is a catch: you can only use 50 custom dimensions in GA4. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you’re used to UA’s higher dimension limits, it might be a bit of a shock.

GA4 won't include some popular types of reports from UA

One of the best features of Universal Analytics is the variety of reports it offers. However, some of these reports are missing in GA4. For example, there is no longer a behavior flow report, which used to show how users navigate your site.

To be fair, you can still set up an exploration in GA4 to get similar insights. But, it’s not as simple as just looking at a report.

Overall, Google Analytics 4 is an excellent product that is only going to get better with time. These shortcomings will definitely pose a challenge, but as with any new product, it just takes a bit of time to get used to the new way of doing things.

Pros and cons of Google Analytics 4

The more you understand GA4, the more you realize that it’s not just an analytics tool. Instead, it’s a marketing platform that will redefine how digital marketers think about data.

Still, like any tool, it has its pros and cons, especially when compared to Universal Analytics.

Pros and Cons GA4

Pros of GA4 vs. UA

  • Google Analytics 4 is way more customizable than UA: This is thanks to features like custom dimensions and unlimited parameters for events, which allow you to track just about anything you want.
  • GA4 now includes a free connection to BigQuery: This is a huge advantage, considering that the export to BigQuery feature in UA used to be a paid service.
  • GA4 offers better spam prevention: Spam data was a massive issue in GA3 because bots would artificially inflate your traffic numbers. GA4 includes new features to combat this, like requiring secret keys for all measurement protocol hits.
  • GA4 improves cross-domain tracking: Compared to UA, GA4 makes it much easier to track users across multiple domains and devices. This is thanks to features like automatic linker and cross-property measurement.
  • You can now integrate mobile app usage data with GA4’s website data: With more than 50% of web traffic coming from mobile devices, this groundbreaking integration will give you a much more holistic view of your customers.
  • The GA4 reporting interface includes a new DebugView report: GA4’s DebugView report delivers critical information about your analytics implementation, so you can quickly identify and fix any issues. For example, GA4 will tell you if your tracking code isn’t firing properly.

Cons of GA4 vs. UA

  • Some great UA features are absent from GA4: While GA4 has made tremendous strides, there are still some features that UA offers that GA4 does not. Useful features like URL destination goals, the behavior flow report and hostname filters are all missing from GA4.]=
  • You’ll need to start from scratch with GA4: When you switch to GA4, you’re starting from scratch. All of your historical data from UA will not be transferred over. Unfortunately, this means you won’t have any benchmark data to compare your GA4 data to.
  • All conversions must be events in GA4: GA4 will require you to set up events for all conversions. What does this mean? If you’re used to using URL destination goals in UA, you’ll need to set up events in GA4 with the same goal values. This is way more complicated than simply creating a goal in UA.

Again, Google Analytics 4 is still in its early stages, so we’re going to see even more advantages and disadvantages as it develops.

In conclusion

If you’re not using Google Analytics yet, you’re already behind the curve.

We recommend setting up your GA4 properties as early as now, while Universal Analytics is still the primary version of Google Analytics.

That way, you can begin collecting data in GA4 while you’re still getting used to the interface and features.

Regardless of whether you’re using GA4 or UA, Reporting Ninja can help you get the most out of your data.

Our Google Analytics Reporting Software takes the data from your GA4 or UA account and transforms it into beautiful, easy-to-understand reports. Sign up today for a FREE, 15-day trial of Reporting Ninja.

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