Every website needs a way to collect information about visits and visitor behavior – an analytics gathering tool. Information collected by analytics tools allows a website owner to make data-driven decisions about how to improve the site and grow their business or brand online. Fortunately, there’s a free website analytics tool that’s available to most website owners: Google Analytics (GA).
Because it’s so useful and affordable, GA is one of the most widely used web analytics platforms in the world. As is always the case in digital marketing, however, change is inevitable. In 2019, Google began testing extensive changes to the way GA functions. A number of the changes will become the default standard in a new version called GA4 starting July 2023, and will impact every business using GA to analyze web performance.
Worried about what this means for your website? Never fear! Shift is here to help you understand how GA works, how GA4 will work, and what these changes will mean for your business.
The Basics of Google Analytics
Why It’s So Popular
GA is widely used by digital marketers because it does a comprehensive job of gathering and displaying valuable information, making it available for us to better analyze information and draw conclusions. The information from GA offers insight into business owners’ most common questions, such as:
- Who is visiting my website? What are their locations, genders, ages, devices? What are their interests on the web?
- What are people looking for on my website?
- How are people finding my website?
GA’s data collection and reporting capabilities answer these questions and more, offering powerful insight into a website’s efficacy as a marketing and business tool.
How It Currently Works
To add Google Analytics to a website, you add several lines of tracking code into the HTML of the site. This tracking code interacts with Google’s servers and records each user’s actions within the site, as well as other information attached to that user’s digital account. For example, if someone is logged into their Google account while browsing online, and they visit a website, the GA tracking code will recognize the age and gender associated with that user account. The recorded information is then sorted into different categories and reports within GA.
Since 2012, Google Analytics has organized user data under a reporting model known as Universal Analytics (UA). Within the UA setup, marketers could access reports that categorized data at the following levels:
- User level (i.e. the actions taken by users)
- Session level (i.e. individual visits to the website)
- Pageview level (i.e. insights into individual pages)
- Event level (i.e. the total number of button clicks, video views, etc.)
One major limitation of the UA reporting model is that session data is aggregated under different properties. Historically every website, mobile app, or similar digital platform has required a unique tracking ID. This means that for reporting purposes, each website or app has been considered a unique property.
As a result, the default reports in GA have made it difficult for companies to track and understand the relationship between their websites and apps. The workaround has been for teams to utilize additional resources and tools, including setting up cross-domain tracking.
What’s Changing In Google Analytics
The UA reporting methods that have been part of the service since 2012 will be retired in July 2023. Starting then, all web traffic reporting will be handled by Google Analytics 4 (GA4).
Impact on Reporting
According to Google, GA4 reporting is meant to “unify app and website measurement.” It uses a measurement model based on events and parameters, where every user interaction is captured as an event. For example, loading a page, clicking a link, and completing a purchase are all interactions GA4 measures with events. Different events fall under different categories, including:
- Automatically collected events
- Enhanced measurement events
- Recommended events
- Custom events
GA4 also offers reporting insights that are categorized by different points in the customer lifecycle — acquisition, engagement, monetization, and retention. UA reporting only offers acquisition insights, so the expanded reporting capabilities of GA4 are set to provide more visibility into the other parts of the user journey.
Combining Web and Mobile App Data
A major benefit of the change to GA4 is that the new tracking model combines web and mobile app data. Under UA reporting, marketers would review data for websites and apps separately, and would need to either make estimates about any overlapping data between them or use an additional tool to set up cross-domain tracking. Being able to measure app and web activity together, within a singular report, makes it easier to map out a user journey across platforms.
Addressing Privacy Concerns
Finally, GA4 relies on machine-learning to do predictive modeling instead of third-party cookies. GA4 will provide useful data to marketers while also accounting for increasing concerns around privacy. The changes also make it easier to comply with universal data privacy laws, like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
It’s Time To Prepare
GA4 will become the only version of GA available to marketers and businesses in July 2023. Don’t procrastinate! Even if your website currently utilizes Google Analytics, now is the time to take action and set up GA4. By setting up GA4 now, you’ll be able to:
- Look back on (some) YoY data. Year-over-year (YoY) data is particularly valuable to businesses that experience seasonal bursts of activity online, but for any organization it provides information about how website activity changes over time. Of course, that data won’t be available in GA4 if GA4 is not installed on a website. The sooner a business adds GA4 to their website, the more data they’ll have to look back on in 2023.
- Get familiar with GA4. While the changes in GA4 are overall positive ones, GA4 is very different from UA. The sooner you set up GA4, the more time your team will have to get familiar with the new reporting capabilities — and the less work they’ll have to do next year.
- Optimize GA4 event tracking. The move from UA to GA4 isn’t as simple as hitting an upgrade button. While some reporting options in GA4 begin automatically upon its setup, others require additional installation. This means that reporting in GA4 may not work perfectly upon launch. By setting up GA4 now, you will have more time to find and fix any breakdowns in reporting. The work done now will in turn set up your team for success in 2023.
Would you like expert assistance in switching to GA4, or with optimizing its new reporting? We’d love to help you make the move and prepare for 2023 and beyond. Learn more about options for GA4 implementation.