Universal Analytics (UA) is now in its final year of existence. As Google makes way for its latest iteration of the platform, website owners, developers, and marketers will no longer have access to UA come July 2023.

The introduction of Google Analytics 4 was made back in October 2020 and will soon replace Universal Analytics in its entirety. That’s right, Google will no longer support or introduce any new features for UA, and the tracking of visitors will come to an end.

In this article, we explore the differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics, helping you understanding the changes and what to expect with the switch.

A revised Google Analytics interface

At first glance, the GA4 reporting view may seem daunting. Many of the familiar reports and metrics are no longer there and have either been removed or replaced.

There are different sets of data displayed in the standard GA4 view, and you will not see many reports out of the box. This is because reports are only generated once you begin tracking events.

A huge difference that many will notice right away is the language surrounding “engagement”, “monetisation”, and “retention”.

  • Engagement has replaced what was once “Behaviour” however, covers many of the same things with added reports on conversions (previously known as “goals”)
  • Monetisation has replaced the “Conversions” report, giving you valuable data about any ecommerce-related ads and subscriptions, including ad impressions, revenue and number of ecommerce purchases made online.

    Note: If you don’t track anything that is directly related to monetary value (i.e form fills, brochure downloads, etc.) the monetisation section in GA4 becomes useless.

  • Retention is a new topic that helps you understand how frequently and for how long users engage with your site or app after their first visit. It also helps you understand how valuable users are based on the additional revenue you generate after their first visit.
GA4 interface

Measuring model update: A new way of tracking visitors

The biggest difference that comes with shifting from UA to GA4 is the measurement model they use.

UA uses a measurement model that is based on sessions and pageviews. A session relates to a group of user interactions (hits) within your website and take place over a given timeframe. Each session can contain multiple pageviews, events, and goals.

However, GA4 uses a slightly different way of capturing data. Using a measurement model based on events and parameters, the latest version of Analytics captures each interaction as an event.

This, at first, can seem confusing for long-time Google Analytics users. With all previous versions of the platform using a session and pageviews measurement model, an event would have a category, action, and label. In GA4, this is no longer the case. Every hit is an event and events can (but do not have to) contain parameters.

GA4 events vs UA

Event tracking in UA vs GA4

As we’ve seen, GA4 will now measure each ‘hit’ to your site using events. In fact, it’s fair to say that everything is now an event with GA4. This means that not only are events treated differently, but also passed through GA differently as well.

To understand how this works, we should first look at how events are set up in UA and then compare the new way in GA4.

How events work in UA

In Universal Analytics, events can be created with the help of Google Tag Manager (GTM). When creating an event with GTM, you can set up tracking for something that Universal Analytics does not track automatically. There are four parameters that can be set with every event in Universal Analytics:

  • Event Category (required)
  • Event Action (required)
  • Event Label (optional)
  • Event Value (optional)

The Event Category and Event Action are required, while the Event Label and Event Value are optional. These parameters can be found when creating a new event tag in GTM, and they will also be present in your UA property reports. The names you give to these parameters in GTM will be the same names that appear in your Universal Analytics reports.

As an example, here’s what an event inside UA might look like when tracking video plays:

  • Event Category: Video
  • Event Action: Play
  • Event Label: *insert YouTube URL*
  • Event Value: 0

How events work in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

With a new way of tracking events, the Event Category, Action, Label, and Value is no longer used in GA4. Instead, there are two components you’ll need to understand:

  • Event Name: Self-explanatory. This will be the name you decide to assign to a given event.
  • Custom Parameter: This provides additional context to depict a user’s action (you can add up to 25 custom parameters per event). These Custom Parameters can be used to gather more detailed information about the event and help you better understand and analyse user behaviour on your website or app.

Event categories in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

In GA4, events can be classified into four different categories. These are:

  • Automatically Collected Events
  • Enhanced Measurement Events
  • Recommended Events
  • Custom Events

Let’s explore each event type in further detail.

Automatically collected events

Given away in the name, these events are automatically triggered and recorded on certain pre-defined user activities (so long as you’ve installed the GA4 tracking code to your site or app).

These pre-defined user activities can include, but are not limited to:

  • Performing a site search
  • Loading of a web page
  • Downloading of a file
  • Completing an in-app purchase
  • Visiting a website for the first time
  • Video play
  • End of video
  • Viewing of ad, etc.

Here are a few examples of automatically collected events and their corresponding parameters:

This event is triggered when a user downloads a file from your website.

This event is triggered when a user clicks on a mobile ad.

This event is triggered each time a web page loads in the browser window.

Enhanced measurement events

Like the automatic events, enhanced measurement events are also triggered and logged on certain pre-defined user activities. The difference? Enhanced events will give you additional information on the otherwise automatic events, allowing you to view data such as the number of users who scroll 90% of a certain web page, how many progress to a certain time stamp in an embedded YouTube video, etc.

Note: These events will need to be enabled inside your GA4 property before user activity is triggered and data is collected.

Recommended events

Recommended events are the events recommended by Google. They aren’t automatically triggered by user activity unless you manually implement them. These events are recommended based on the type of business you operate, whether that be retail/ecommerce, travel, or gaming. You can take a look at Google’s recommended events for GA4 here - https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/9267735?hl=en

Custom events

In GA4, a custom event can be created in two different ways:

  • Using Global Site Tag (gtag.js) – requires hard coding on the website. Or,
  • Using Google Tag Manager (Recommended)

Note: Before creating a custom event, make sure that there is no automatic, enhanced measurement, or recommended event that can provide what you need. You may find it just needs enabling, so have a look and save yourself some time.

Is bounce rate in GA4?

If you’ve dabbled in GA4 previously, you’ll most likely have noticed this next point almost instantly -because we sure did.

“Where is bounce rate?!”, “I can’t see bounce rate”, “surely Google haven’t got rid of bounce rate?”.

Yes, from what we know as “bounce rate” from UA is no longer with us in GA4. But not to worry.

Google has chosen to take a more “positive” approach and report on figures for engagement rate instead. Simply put, engagement rate is a ratio metric presented as a percentage, and the formula is engaged session/sessions.

But what are engaged sessions you ask? These are sessions that lasted at least 10 seconds, has at least 1 conversion event, or had at least 2 page views. Meaning a session will not be counted if someone “bounces” before taking any action or reaches the 10 second mark.

So, does bounce rate really not exist in GA4?

Technically it does but is just calculated and displayed a bit differently in GA4. Because bounce rate is the percentage of sessions that were not engaged sessions, your “bounce rate” is now the inverse of your engagement rate.

Does GA4 provide additional benefits over UA?

Google states that:

  • GA4 can “measure, unify and de-duplicate” user interaction data to help us understand the user journey.
  • Through machine learning, GA4 “reveals intelligent business insights”.
  • GA4 helps to “more effectively take action on your data” to achieve business goals.

When it comes to learning the platform, the biggest benefit comes with knowing that Google has told us GA4 will be the new standard. So, it’s a question of “when” not “if” it replaces UA for website owners, marketers, and other measurement teams.

When and how to deploy GA4

Setting up GA4 sooner rather than later will mean you can start collecting fresh data from the day it’s set up.

How you go about this will depend on where you are in the Google ecosystem right now, but assuming the majority are already using Universal Analytics, you can follow this step-by-step guide produced by Google.

Once set up, it’s important to make sure your new GA4 property is fit-for-purpose. This involves diving into events and setting up valuable reports, ensuring Google Tag Manager is set up and anything else that may be relevant to your business.

Need assistance with your GA4 property or wider marketing efforts? We’ve got you covered. At Bigger Picture, we are dedicated to taking ambitious brands to the next level. Why not get in touch with our expert team to see how we can help with your marketing strategy today.

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