Preparing for Google Analytics 4

If you haven’t already heard, Universal Analytics (one of the most important digital marketing tools over the past decade) is being shut down as of July 1st, 2023. As of that date, all existing Universal Analytics (UA) properties will stop processing new data. In it’s place, Google is offering a new, next-generation measurement solution called Google Analytics 4 (GA4). 

While UA has been a fantastic tool over the years, it’s beginning to show its age. Google is telling us that GA4 will help us get “a complete view of consumer behavior across web and app by using first-party, modeled data. Improved machine learning features, actionable reporting, and new integrations help you adapt to an evolving privacy and technology landscape to keep getting the insights you rely on”.

Unfortunately, with all of these new features comes a substantial learning curve. Also of note, it’s not possible to import pre existing data from Universal Analytics properties into Google Analytics 4 properties. Google has been broadcasting this plan throughout 2022, but you’re far from alone if your business either hasn’t begun migrating to GA4 or you’re not feeling comfortable with the interface yet.

The rest of this post will cover some of the most important differences between UA and GA4, as well as some crucial aspects of recreating your experiences from UA in the new GA4 platform.

Key Differences between UA and GA4

Bounce Rate vs Engagement Rate

Bounce rate has been a key, if imperfect, metric for marketers for years. By definition, bounce rate measures the percentage of single page sessions in which there was no interaction with the page. However, with the decline of 3rd-party cookies and with single-page website design becoming more common place, bounce rate is becoming less and less informative/accurate. That’s because a user could visit your site and review content for several minutes, but unless they clicked on a link or triggered an interaction event, they’d count as a bounce.

GA4’s engagement rate aims to rectify this with Engagement Rate. In many ways, it’s a more accurate measurement of inverse of bounce rate. That is, it aims to tell us the percentage of visitors that had an engaged visit, which is defined as a session that lasts 10 seconds or longer, has 1 or more conversion events, or has 2 or more page or screen views.

This is obviously a big improvement! So if you’re wondering where bounce rate has gone in your GA4 reports, look instead for engagement rate and the clearer picture it provides re: your website’s performance.

Defining a User

In UA, the primary definition of a user is the total number of users (or more accurately, unique devices and/or browsers) that register a hit on your website.

In GA4, Google shifts the focus from total users to total active users. An active user is defined as any distinct user who has an engaged session (as defined above) or when GA4 collects a first_visit event from your website.

It may be a subtle difference in definition, but GA4 clearly puts the emphasis on more on quality visits as opposed to aggregate numbers. Thus, it’s likely that you will see differences in Users between counts in UA and counts in GA4 simply due to the change in primary user definition.

Counting Conversions

There are some key differences between UA and GA4 when it comes to conversions. First, there is no native calculation inside GA4 for conversion rate.

That’s right. You’ll need to use another software (or pen and paper, or your brain) to divide conversions by users, which by the way is data collected by and stored in GA4. 

But I digress.

GA4 also counts conversions differently than UA. UA only counts one conversion per session for each goal. On the other hand, GA4 counts every instance of the same conversion event, even if the event is triggered multiple times during a single session.

How does this impact marketing performance review? Well, let’s imagine you’re tracking a form submission. In GA4, if a user submits the same form twice, that will count as two conversions. For most lead-based conversions, we’re only interested in tracking the first instance of the conversion. With the new GA4 approach to counting conversions, we find ourselves opened up to the increased possibility of inflated conversions without much recourse to rectify the issue. 

Setting Up Conversions

There’s a significant difference when it comes to setting events and conversions inside GA4, as opposed to Goals in UA. While I don’t mind the retirement of the term “Goal”, it’s fair to say that the rest of the conversion set-up can be a little confusing. 

Before we get started, I recommend that you use Google Tag Manager to implement event tracking on your site. It’ll make your life a lot easier, and I’ve already provided a Quick Google Tag Manager Guide for first time users. 

Assuming you’ve finished your set-up in GTM, conversions events should be sending to your website once your GTM container is published and those events are taking place on your live website. 

Where I found it particularly confusing is that there is a significant propagation delay (upwards of 24 hours) between events being published via GTM and being recorded on GA4. This is the opposite of UA which is nearly instant, comparatively speaking. So if you’re pulling out your hair wondering why your events aren’t showing up in GA4, give yourself a break and come back a day later!

It’s important that you do come back, though. That’s because you still need to take an extra step and denote your most important GA4 events as conversions. You can easily do this by navigating to the Configure overview, which should default to the events listing. If not, make sure that you’ve selected Events from the left-hand menu.

Assuming that your events are being recorded in GA4 (if not, see above section on propagation), you should see them under the “Existing events” list. Further to the right, you’ll see the column “Mark as conversion” and a series of on/off toggles. Set the appropriate events as conversions, and you’re all done!

In Closing

Now, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that there are numerous other differences between UA and GA4, but we’d be here all day reviewing those! The above guide is meant to provide you with a firm understanding of some basic differences between the two platforms, since you don’t really have a choice about adopting GA4.

If you still feel like you need further help understanding GA4, don’t hesitate to send me a message through my contact page. If you want to learn how to implement a full-scale set-up including custom reports, I recommend checking out my “Understanding Google Analytics 4” workshop, available below.

Thanks for reading!

Written by Dylan Hergott

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