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"Hey Google, What's Up With Universal Analytics?"

Do you think that you have finally gotten the hang of Google Analytics? Well, we’ve got bad news for you – get ready to readjust to this platform once more. Universal Analytics will be replaced by GA4, with UA ceasing to process new hits in July 2023.


Changes in the world of digital? Who could have ever possibly foreseen this occurring? Well, all sarcasm aside, Google has actually been warning us about GA4 for years, and it launched in beta back in 2019. So, while this may be less-than-ideal news if you fear change, the new iteration of Google Analytics is designed to provide the data digital advertisers need while also accommodating the new privacy-first world that we are all trying to get accustomed to. With GA4 officially taking over for good in less than a year, you may want to become comfortable with GA4 sooner rather than later.

So, let’s dive in and learn more about GA4 and how it differs from the Google Analytics we all know and love. We’ve all got some adjusting to do.

Google Analytics 101

Since its introduction almost two decades ago, Google Analytics has provided countless marketers the ability to gather and analyze information from users visiting their websites. Google Analytics, or GA, is the machine that allows marketers to identify from which sources people arrive on their sites, see how users engage with site content, track eCommerce purchases and other conversions, and much, much more. The third version of Google Analytics is called Universal Analytics and has been so firmly entrenched for years that it was unimaginable that a world would ever exist without it.

That is, until Google made the shocking announcement that in 2023 Universal Analytics would be no more and would be supplanted by the fourth version of Google Analytics, called GA4. After the shock subsided (it may still be subsiding for some), marketers quickly learned that not only will there be a new GA platform to learn, but that GA4 will function quite differently than the prior version of Google Analytics. Let’s take a look at a few of the ways UA and GA4 differ from each other.

Structural Differences in GA4 – Properties, Apps and Websites

GA4 is now officially the recommended property type of Google Analytics. It was first introduced in beta in 2019 with the name App + Web Property. Why the specific name? Well, the new property is now capable of tracking both app and web visits in a single Googe Analytics property, as opposed to having those different platform visits being separated into two GA properties.

So, exactly what is a Google Analytics “property?” According to Google, “a property is a website, mobile application, or device (e.g., a kiosk or point-of-sale device.)” from which all the data is collected that is processed by Google Analytics. Essentially, it’s where all the *magic* happens in Google Analytics. A property resides within a Google Analytics account; the account is the level of hierarchy that is used to help organize your properties. Prior to GA4, a company that has both an app and a website would own a single account with two distinct properties, one for their app and the other for their website. Now, with GA4, a single property will mesh the data from these platforms into one entity. This provides advertisers a method of creating efficiencies by measuring data across their website and apps together. That’s cool!

Measurement Differences in GA4 – Session-Based vs. Event-Based

In addition to new functionalities related to properties, GA4 will also register and measure website visitors very differently than UA. This is perhaps the biggest fundamental difference between the two GA versions. With Universal Analytics, website traffic is collected via “cookie-based” tracking. A website with UA places a cookie into a user’s web browser, allowing the platform to monitor and record web activity that occurs on the given site during the user’s session. This measurement approach is coined as a “session-based data model.” GA4, however, will track website traffic with a method called “event-based” tracking without a reliance on cookies.

Still confused? Let’s hear from the source itself, Google.

“Hey Google, what’s a session-based model for Universal Analytics?”

In UA, data is grouped into sessions, and these sessions are the foundation of all reporting. A session is a group of user interactions that take place within a given timeframe on your website. During a session, Analytics collects and stores user interactions (such as pageviews, events, and eCommerce transactions) as hits. A single session can contain multiple hits, depending on how a user interacts with your website.

“Thanks, Google. One more question. What’s an event-based model in Google Analytics 4?”

In GA4, you can still see session data, but Analytics collects and stores user interactions with your website or app as events. Events provide insight on what’s happening on your website or app, such as pageviews, button clicks, user actions or system events. Events collect and send pieces of information that can specify the action the user took or add further context to the event or user. This information could include things like the value of a purchase, the title of the page a user visited, or the geographic location of the user.

Now, this doesn’t sound like that much to those who aren’t in the know – but this is a vast difference.

With UA, page views, events, user timing, app/screen views – the list goes on – are regarded as different “hit types” within a session. Now, these segments of varying data will all be labeled as an “event” in GA4. With event-based tracking, GA4 will automatically collect certain pieces of information (such as button clicks, form-fills, scrolls and video views) without the need to set up any custom tracking.

Types of GA4 Events

There are four different categories of events in GA4.

First, we have “automatically collected events.” These events record the following parameters by default: language, page_location, page_referrer, page_title and screen_resolution.

“Enhanced measurement events” entail page views, scroll tracking, outbound clicks, site search, video engagement and file downloads.

“Recommended events” include events with predefined names and parameters that are ideal for varying business types. These events require unique code changes and can be implemented via Google Tag Manager.

Lastly, we have “custom events.” Like recommended events, custom events need custom code changes and can be used with Google Tag Manager, too. However, unlike recommended events, Google does not provide any direction as to how the events should be named. This is where events such as link clicks come into play.

The main takeaway is that in GA4, there are datapoints that are automatically collected that would require a custom tracking setup in UA.

Since UA tracks data based on pageviews, user actions that do not enable a new page to load on the tracked domain will not be counted. This includes actions such as clicking to play a video. To measure “events” such as link-click tracking, UA requires the assistance of Google Tag Manager.

GA4, rather, is not based on pageview tracking, and automatically collects events such as button clicks and scrolls without the assistance of Google Tag Manager. This is an enhancement for data-hungry marketers everywhere.

New Reporting Interfaces and New Metrics


We’ve covered some structural changes taking place in the transition from UA to GA4, as well as some of the changes in how data is actually collected and processed. Now, we can discuss how this will be reflected within the GA4 interface and also introduce some new metrics while saying goodbye to others.

UA was designed to be a comprehensive collection of standard reports. By contrast, GA4 will have fewer standard reports and will be best suited to use with exporting data and custom reports. GA4 will have three standard reports that will be available within Acquisition reporting (how various types of traffic are performing on a site). These three include acquisition overview, user acquisition and traffic acquisition. However, it is missing Source/Medium reporting, a fan favorite. Source is the origin of your traffic, whereas Medium is the general category of the source (ie. google / organic). In order to analyze your data at a more granular level, you may need to export your data or create a custom report.

Yeah, we know – more work. But…GA4 will also possess three new metrics within its reporting.

First, we will have “engaged sessions.” According to Google, this metric counts the number of “sessions that lasted longer than 10 seconds, had a conversion event or had two or more screen or page views.” Average engagement times per session is the “user engagement duration per session.” In other words, this tracks the duration of time the user is legitimately engaging with the page (with the page being the primary window that is being viewed on one’s screen). Lastly, we have “engagement rate.” This metric is the ratio of engaged sessions in comparison to the total number of sessions that you have. Digital marketers will need to quickly become acclimated to these new metrics, which will replace other metrics we all know and love, like bounce rate. Yes, a world without bounce rate is coming soon, and the time to prepare is now.

The Ward Group: Digital Metrics Specialists

We know we threw a lot at you! Cookieless data, event-based tracking, new metrics – my head hurts. Believe it or not, this only captures a small snippet of how we’re entering a new frontier of digital analytics with the advent of GA4. Other areas, such as data modeling and reporting lag time, are conversations for another time. But if you haven’t begun migrating to GA4, now is the time!

Don’t worry, you’re in good hands! As one of DesignRush's top digital marketing agencies, The Ward Group is used to adapting to change in the digital media world, and this is no exception. Contact The Ward Group today to get started!

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