By now everyone should know that Google’s Universal Analytics is Sunsetting in July. In its place, Google is encouraging users to use their new website tracking tool called Google Analytics 4 (aka GA4). Some users have already made the switch and have been getting familiar with the new platform. One thing they have already noticed is that a lot of things have changed! We are going to explore some of these major changes, and explain how and why you should start rethinking your marketing metrics.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room; GA4’s user interface is not as instinctual as Universal Analytics (UA). In fact, many users hate it. But these changes were not made without any reason. We’ll dive deeper into those specific changes later. For now, let’s start with the visual changes.
The first thing you may have noticed is that the main reporting widget has different metrics. Your board may look different, but some common changes are:
- “Sessions” is gone
- “Bounce rate” and “Revenue” aren’t automatically displayed
- “Conversion Rate” is now a raw “Conversion” number
- “Event Count” has been added
These changes are all reflective of the new measuring systems Google has implemented for more accurate analysis, which we will touch on next.
New Reporting Metrics:
Google has made a lot of changes to their website analytics tools and metrics in GA4. This is because the way that we use the internet has changed a lot over the past two decades. There are two big changes that necessitate these changes:
- Users are spreading their journey across multiple devices.
- Users are more concerned about their privacy and data security
GA4’s is addressing both concerns by not storing IP addresses and lessening their reliance on cookies. Instead, Google is using event-based tracking to operate across platforms. Our focus in this article is on how the event-based tracking model means rethinking your metrics.
Think of it this way:
If you ask two people for directions to the same place, one person might tell you directions by giving you landmarks and drive time, while someone else might tell you street names and distances. Both sets of directions are right, but they are using different systems.
Here’s some of the changes GA4 has, and why they exist.
Change 1. Sessions versus Events:
In Universal Analytics, everything was tracked through “Sessions”. A “Session” was a period of time that a user was actively engaged with the website. This was the base metric used for calculations made for “Conversion Rate”, “Bounce Rate”, etc. It is also important to note that a “Session” in UA could only record a single conversion.
In GA4 you can still use the “Sessions” metric, but it is no longer a primary metric. Also, instead of calculating “Conversion Rate” as a percentage of sessions resulting in a conversion, GA4 focuses on the total number of conversions that occur over a period of time. In GA4 almost anything can be a conversion event, not just form submissions and sales.
Google believes that focusing on the total number of events is a more accurate measurement than tracking rates based on sessions. In Universal Analytics, there was no way to tell how many “sessions” could be attributed to the same “user” on different devices in a similar timeframe. UA was also incapable of tracking multiple conversions that occurred in a session, so a user placing multiple orders or submitting a form multiple times would only be counted once.
Change 2. Bounce Rate versus Engagement Rate:
In UA a bounce rate was the percentage of single-page sessions in which the user had no page interaction. In other words, the user bounced onto the page, and immediately bounced off again.
You can still track your bounce rate in GA4, but the metric is different. The new metric is the percentage of sessions that were not engaged. It’s the exact opposite of the “Engagement Rate”, which is the metric that Google is pushing customers to use.
Bounce rates are not a very useful metric for modern websites because it doesn’t tell you much about how engaged users are on the site. For example, a blog might have a high bounce rate because users are bouncing onto a site to read a new article, without clicking anything else. The engagement rate, however, will be triggered if the user remains on the page for longer than 10 seconds, even if the user doesn’t click anywhere. This tells us much more about how users are interacting with your content.
Change 3. Filters are out, BigQuery is in:
In Universal Analytics you can create different “views” that apply different filters to the data. Filters, by their very nature, exclude data. This means that depending on any filters you applied, your numbers will be different.
While many of the built-in reports we were used to seeing in Universal Analytics are not included in GA4, you can create some custom reports in the “explore” section of GA4. Speaking of reports, GA4’s default reports aren’t great. They can be difficult to read, and there is some thresholding involved, which means that exact numbers can be unavailable. This is where BigQuery comes in.
GA4 now has a native BigQuery integration, which is Google’s serverless data warehouse. Using BigQuery you can view and store your reports in one place. BigQuery does have a steep learning curve, but Google is assuring users that the basic function to read your detailed reports will not require the use of SQL (a language used in data management systems).
There are many other changes Google has made between UA and GA4. I recommend checking Google’s announcements and support blog for more details.
What does this mean for you?
All the changes I’ve mentioned (and those yet to come) means that your analytics reports are going to look different. This in turn means that your internal reporting is going to be skewed. Some examples include:
- Traffic reports showing less traffic as GA4 increases its ability to track users across devices.
- Conversion rates no longer being presented as a percentage of traffic to convert
- Session based bounce rates moving toward event-based engagement rates
These changes will likely cause some internal confusion, especially when it comes to assessing the ROI of your digital marketing campaigns. Comparing growth from month-to-month and year-to-year will be particularly difficult, but there are some things you can do to help with this transition.
- Compare you UA and GA4 Data: Universal Analytics is going away whether we like it or not. Now is the time to start familiarizing yourself with GA4. For starters, you can compare your data between UA and GA4 to how big a difference these new metrics are going to make to your reporting. Every website’s data is going to be impacted differently, so you’ll need to assess those changes for yourself. A great way to do this is to pull basic reports from both sources for a few months and compare the results. A competent digital marketing analyst will be a great help in this task.
- Get Familiar with GA4: In addition to comparing some of the basic reports in GA4 to UA, it’s a good idea to see some of the new reports available to you. GA4 has some fantastic funnel path analysis tools, customer touch-points reports, and user retention reports that provide great marketing insights! The sooner you get familiar with the new boards and custom reports in GA4, the easier the transition will be for you and your team.
- Rethink Your Metrics: You are going to have to make some changes to your reporting structure whether you like it or not, so you might as well use this as an opportunity to reassess your metrics. Remember, Google made some of these changes to increase accuracy in reporting and to better reflect the user journey across devices. These updated metrics can help you bring your reporting system and marketing strategies into the 2020s as well.
- Use your platform’s analytics: Most website builders already provide basic website analytics. If you aren’t already using them, now may be the time to start implementing these into your reporting structure. While these reports are usually reliable, they usually aren’t very detailed, so I recommend continuing to use GA4 (or some other website analytics tool) in addition to your host’s data for a more complete picture.
Summary: There are a lot of changes occurring between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4, but there is still some time left to adapt to the new tool and adjust your reporting. It’s intimidating to learn a new interface with different reports, but it can also be a great opportunity to improve your website. Instead of fighting against the change, you should consider rethinking your metrics instead.