Google Analytics 4 – what it is, what it means, what you need to do

Monitoring your website’s key statistics can help you to further the goals of your website, track user behaviours, and understand any improvements you need to make. However, the tech world changes constantly and what we need to measure to create the best user experiences and ensure that the goals on our recruitment websites are being met have changed – and continue to change – with it.

In order to increase the flexibility of data measurements, Google launched Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and has now announced that it will cease Universal Analytics (UA) – the version of Analytics that all RecWebs clients have been using – on 1st July 2023. That might seems alarming but it is why RecWebs are beginning the transition now. We explain why Google felt the need to make this change, what the benefits of the new Analytics version are, what you need to do, and why we are acting on this over a year in advance.

Why the change?

When Google Analytics launched in 2005 it was a huge moment in the tech arena. It was the first enterprise analytics product offered to website owners for free. 1,000 new accounts were created within the first week of its launch, a figure four times the size of the entire analytics industry at the time. In 2012 UA was launched and by 2015 Google Analytics was being used on 30 million websites, becoming the standard for website analytics. However, the digital landscape has vastly changed since the launch of UA. Users access websites and apps from a spectrum of different devices and data privacy – both laws and expectations – has significantly tightened. GA4 reflects this monumental change, representing the biggest update since the inception of Google Analytics.

What are the major changes?

1. Event-based measurement

Whilst UA is session-based in its measurement approach, GA4 is event-based. What does that mean? A session is a group of interactions recorded when a user visits your website, ending when they leave or after 30 minutes of inactivity (whichever comes first), i.e. each user visit is counted as a session. UA monitors sessions and page views and you can analyse the data within that framework. An event is a specific action that a user makes on your website, e.g. clicking on a button, playing a video, submitting a form, etc., and this is what GA4 tracks, allowing you to easily set up conversions for specific events. You will still be able to see session data but it will be more detailed, broken down into individual events –  every metric is an event and can contain its own parameters.

An important side-note to this is that, because of GA4’s move away from session-based measurements, bounce rate no longer exists. Instead, this metric is replaced with ‘engagement rate’. If a ‘session’ lasts longer than 10 seconds, contains more than one page view and contains more than one conversion event, it is counted as an ‘engagement session.’ The engagement rate is calculated as the number of engaged sessions per total number of sessions. This is a far more reliable measurement than bounce rate and is another positive move by Google Analytics.   

2. Cross-device tracking

Users today use multiple devices to complete their user journeys, switching between desktop and mobile for example, which was harder to track in UA. GA4 no longer focuses on views, replacing them with data streams. In GA4, a data stream can be a website, an iOS app or an Android app. So whereas the structure of UA is Accounts>Properties>Views (where you had a unique property for each source of data), the structure of GA4 is Account>Property>Data streams so each property can include one or all three data sources. What this means is that, whereas under UA your app and website would be two distinct properties within a single account, with GA4 a single property contains data for both the app and the website.

3. Interface design

Something that will be very noticeable is the difference in the design of the interface. The general design has changes but it will likely be the reports section that catches your eye. The large number of immediately available reports has diminished but many of those wouldn’t have been entirely relevant to you. Instead, you will have more flexibility in what you track. This does mean that you will have to inform GA what reports you would like to see, meaning more work to begin with, but it allows you to gain greater insights into metrics that directly feed into what you need to know at any given time.

4. Increased privacy protection

Users are increasingly concerned about the protection of their data and tracking (or third-party) cookies are becoming obsolete as a growing number of browsers have blocked or plan to block them. GA4 does not rely exclusively on cookies and does not store IP addresses – a really positive move in a world where consumers and brands want increased data security.

How an early switch-over will help you

The switch-over from UA to GA4 may not occur until next year but setting GA4 up in advance will help in numerous ways. Most importantly, by setting it up to run alongside UA for the next year, you will be able to collect and retain data, building historical data before UA stops processing new hits. That way you will continue to use UA as your ‘source of truth,’ giving you enough time to collect historical analytical data in GA4 before the switch-over when UA will cease to operate. Without setting up GA4 now, when UA stops working you will lose all historical data – it cannot simply be migrated – so this is critical. If you do need to keep any historical data, you can download reports before 1st July 2023 and save them to a safe place on your computer or in the cloud. It’s also important to note that GA4 is different in many ways to UA so the earlier it is set up, the more time you will have to begin to understand its myriad benefits.

What you need to do

If you are a RecWebs client with an analytics account that we have set up, you don’t need to do anything as we will set up GA4 for you. If we don’t own your analytics account but you are a RecWebs client that has given us access to it, we need your approval but, again, we can set it all up for you. If we don’t have access to or own your analytics account (whether you’re a RecWebs client or not), we strongly advise you to set up GA4 immediately. If you have any questions or need any help, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Making the most of your analytics dashboard

This is a great time to get re-acquainted with your analytics dashboard. All RecWebs clients have one, set up in the backend of your website, so that you can easily see useful data coming straight from your website. Here are 3 tips from our Data Analyst Kamila on making the most of your dashboard: 

  1. Make sure your website has goals/ conversions setup in Google Analytics to measure your website success and visitor engagement. 
  2. Customise reports with stats and metrics that are tailored to your business needs. 
  3. Review your website performance regularly. 

Change can be daunting but GA4 boasts a host of benefits that UA lacks, including features that were only previously available on the paid-for Analytics 360. The event-driven data model allows you a better insight into journeys across multiple devices and greater flexibility in terms of the reports you want to see. It will feel different to the Google Analytics that you’re used to but this is even more of a reason to switch over now, giving you the time to get used to it before UA is shut down permanently.

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