Google Analytics 4: Time’s Running Out. Are You Ready for a Change?

Starting July 1, 2023, Universal Analytics as we know (and love) will no longer exist. Instead, the official website's tracking statistics service will be Google Analytics 4. The news has worried a number of marketers around the world, but this change is not necessarily bad.

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Google Analytics 4

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

What is Google Analytics 4? 

Before we answer your doubts about Google Analytics 4, the question is: What was wrong with the existing service? And why do we need a new one?  

Up until now, Google Analytics was operating by marking a user’s device, tracking the behavior on the page, and assigning an identification number to the user’s search engine. 

The website can then use the data to find out the number of visitors and their interests. But, since Google Analytics is the tech giant’s service, user data passes through Google servers and reaches the United States. 

google-analytics-4

Illustration: Milica Mijajlović

That’s where we get to the first problem. European regulatory bodies are warning about Google Analytics’ overseas data sharing. 

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The user agrees and instructs that Google may store and process users' personal data, which includes data from Google Analytics, in each country where Google or its sub-processors maintain objects. All data collected through Google Analytics is stored in the USA.

Google’s official response to the Austrian DPA

The last sentence probably answered everyone’s question about why the need for new regulations related to the cookie policy, and thus in Google Analytics. But why now? 

Over the past year, watchdogs from a number of European countries have reported that GA is violating its privacy policy. Namely, it is not in compliance with Article 44 of the GDPR, which refers to data transfers to countries that do not have essentially the same privacy protections as in Europe. 

Not only that. The US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act states that keeping users’ personal data outside the US is not as protected as in the case of their citizens. In theory, this means that surveillance agencies can use the vast amounts of data stored in their country. If they applied this to US citizens, they would directly violate the Fourth Amendment. But, if they are foreigners, it is not a violation of the Constitution. 

This is one reason, but not the only one, why cookies will be abolished by the end of 2024. 

What do UA and GA4 Differ in?  

When news of the Universal Analytics shutdown was announced, what interested all users was – will they be on their own in adapting to the new service? And how complex will it be compared to the previous one? 

Photo Illustration: Freepik

GA4 was actually introduced three years ago as a unique way of combining data from websites and apps. However, it’s only now becoming a major tool for tracking analytics. Moving from the UA to GA4 should actually be preparing us for a world without cookies, so marketers must no longer blindly rely on them. 

Therefore, the most obvious difference is that the UA was based on desktop access, individual user sessions, and easily visible statistics from cookies. On the other hand, GA4 is intended for cross-platform use. Moreover, it doesn’t rely as much on cookies but rather on the interaction of users and elements on the site, i.e. events. As a result, this new, behavioral model exceeds simple metrics such as the number of views or traffic by channels and enables more precise personalization

This logic, or event-based model, may already be familiar to you from the UA. If you wanted to track interactions such as downloading a file or clicking on widgets, you had to generate the event and define at least three basic descriptors – event category (e.g. video), event action (e.g. progress), and event label (e.g. 75%). 

However, what is most important is that GA4 will not store the IP addresses of the user. 

What can I Expect from Google Analytics 4? 

With the increasing expansion of Web 3.0, users’ awareness about data ownership rights is also growing. The desire to take matters into their own hands and protect themselves from cyber-attacks has never been so present.

According to the GA4 official announcement, the priority of the new service will be user privacy. It will include all previous functionalities from Universal Analytics regarding privacy protection, but will further expand them with: 

  • Cookieless measurement 
  • Built-in predictive audiences 
  • Event-based trackers 

The aforementioned novelties will have a qualitative function in monitoring analytics. They will provide marketers with more meaningful information, as opposed to merely listing statistics. 

You can also influence the accuracy of the data obtained by using up to 25 parameters. In this way, you can customize the description of each interaction, thereby obtaining reliable information about the user’s behavior. 

We mentioned that you can cross-use GA4 on different platforms. But, for this data to be compliant, marketers should use an identical classification system (taxonomy) for web, Android, and iOS devices. 

How do you Prepare your Business and Clients for a Change? 

The way Google Analytics worked so far was very convenient. A number of marketers have become accustomed to it so it’s unbearable for them to change, especially not this much. However, keep in mind that novelties that Google introduced so far were initially intimidating, but turned out to be more efficient and socially responsible. 

Photo Illustration: Freepik

The industry will now have to rethink its strategies and come up with new functional ways, in line with current legislative frameworks around data protection. The transition will inevitably happen, the marketers just need to know what’s the best timing for them. 

Google experts advise the following: 

  • While cookies are still in use, adopt new methods for measuring and start relying on them more. 
  • Although the official switch has not yet happened, use UA and GA4 in parallel and compare results. 
  • Present this change to your clients as something that will qualitatively improve your reports. 

Expect that it will take you some time to adapt to the new environment and your workflow will slow down a bit. But once you get a hang of it, you’ll start noticing how much GA4 has improved your analytics tracking. What’s more, you’ll feel like you’ve advanced to a new professional level. 

A guide to switching from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 

Before you start panicking, you should know that: 

  • If you started using Google Analytics tracking before October 14, 2020, you are a user of Universal Analytics; 
  • If you started after October 14, 2020, you’re probably already using GA4 and don’t have to do anything about switching to a new service.

You can also check which group you belong to through the Google Guide

When you decide to start using GA4, it will not be possible to directly and automatically transfer the data saved to the UA. They’ll be available to you six months from the day of the shutdown, after which they’ll disappear forever. That may sound dramatic, but you’ll have more than enough time to export everything from your old service to GA4. 

How can you do that? 

Google will try to simplify the whole process as much as possible. But that still doesn’t mean it will be very simple. You’ll be required to devote yourself to adjusting to the new system, and follow instructions from official sources: 

  1. Introduction to Google Analytics 4 
  2. Google Blog 
  3. Google Support 

Once you enter the service itself, you will be able to learn about the new environment step by step, thanks to built-in pop-up tips and definitions of different elements. 

Since it’s a change that’s new to all of us, take all the tips you find on unofficial blogs with a grain of salt. Even with the best intentions, they may not be fully reliable and you’ll risk missing an important migration step. 

This is also an opportunity to build a name for yourself as one of the pioneers of GA4. If you’re an early adopter, you’ll easily make your skills appreciated and desirable in the circles of marketers. 

If you’re not sure you have the necessary competencies for quality data migration, consider hiring a specialist. They can introduce you to new functionalities and explain how to use these tools independently. 

If you don’t manually transfer all the relevant data to the new service, you risk losing statistics you’ve generated over the years. Although July 2023 seems to be a long way off, it is advised to make the switch to a new service as soon as possible. 

A journalist by day and a podcaster by night. She's not writing to impress but to be understood.

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