Google Analytics 4: Preliminary Takeaways for Marketers and Website Owners

GA4….great, another upgrade! 🙂 And a major upgrade it is.

In general, I love the direction Google Analytics is taking, but there are a few things to be aware of. As you ponder the transition to GA4 from Universal Analytics (UA), here’s a round-up of what I think are some important considerations.

What’s New in GA4

Unlike prior versions, GA4 is not focused on websites, and is built for future extensibility. In 2019, App + Web started this transition with the inclusion of data from mobile apps. GA4 continues that evolution with a flexible approach that enables it to accommodate new platforms or technologies. This is a net positive, but requires a shift in our approach to using it.

Part of that shift is an orientation around data streams in GA4. Data streams can come from a variety of sources, only one of which is your website analytics.

Another is the shift from a page-based orientation to a broader and more general event-based orientation. The concept of web pages still exists, along with screens (mobile apps and/or other devices), but the implementation is different and completely event-based. E.G., session_start and page_view are default GA4 events.

Events are also highly flexible and configurable. Along with this flexibility comes a responsibility on our part to do the configuring. This will be a common theme in GA4.

Regarding page metrics, you’ll notice the absence of Entrances, Bounce Rate and Exit Rate. FWIW, I think the utility of bounce and exit rates is highly variable or even questionable. I will miss the Entrances metric, but presume it can be replaced with the session_start event?

GA4 is also substantially focused on users and user insights, rather than mere metrics. Again, this makes it powerful and…insightful, but requires a little more work on our part to gain those insights. An interesting feature will be GA4’s heightened emphasis on AI-based insights.

Funnels in GA4 are much more robust and flexible than in UA…finally! Supposedly, the new funnels are also retrospective. Wonderful. However, yet again, this power and flexibility requires more configuration work from us .

Conversions are also more powerful and flexible, and are completely event-based.

The new Analysis Hub provides templates for a variety of data analyses. It’s almost as if Data Studio features have been pulled into GA4. Not sure what that might mean, but given that I’ve increasingly been using Data Studio for analysis and reporting, I hope this does not bode ill for Data Studio.

Some Limitations and Problems

For those of you accustomed to UA, there are a few missing features and/or problems to be aware of and to plan for.

Historical data Is not available. At this time GA4 only reports data collected for your GA4 property, and does not include historical UA data. You will need to plan for how you’ll use data and reporting to bridge that disconnect.

No annotations. That’s right, there is currently no way to add an annotation. Hopefully this is forthcoming.

Limited filtering, e.g., for filtering out traffic from specific sources. The filtering in UA was much more robust. Again, hopefully forthcoming.

Real Time Analytics in GA4 is not quite real time, with a lag of a couple-ish minutes.

Self referrals seem to be a new problem for many of us, e.g., traffic to your website coming from your website. I’m experiencing this and have seen this complaint in several places online, with all of us noting that we are not seeing self referrals in our UA properties. Not clear if this is a problem in our GA4 implementations, or a problem in GA4 itself.

The Final Take

I thought the transition from Classic Analytics to UA was completely painless, but GA4 is sufficiently new and different that there will be growing pains. But love the new features or hate them, GA4 is the future of Google Analytics, so you should start getting your head around it.

Given some of the limitations and problems, as well as the magnitude of the transition, I think it advisable to run your new GA4 property in parallel with your old UA property, which can be done.

As you gain proficiency with GA4, also begin planning for the transition, e.g., how UA conversions will be replaced by GA4 conversions, the kinds of events you need or want to track, etc. This will be an excellent opportunity for marketers to re-approach and refine their metrics and KPIs.

Note: it appears that first-time Google Analytics users may have no choice but to begin with GA4.