Know what the next generation of Google Analytics has in store for marketers and web managers

Google has been active lately in areas like tracking, metrics and privacy. One recent move that affects many website managers and marketers is the release of a new version of Google Analytics.

When setting up a new Google Analytics property, you’ll now see it defaults to Google Analytics 4 (GA4) — the successor to Universal Google Analytics (Universal), which has been in service for many years.

There are some significant variations you’ll need to understand, from changes to the front-end to the way tracking data works. In this post, I’ll cover some of the key changes to help expedite your learning process.

Changes to the core methodology

Universal used a session- and page view-based measurement model. GA4 uses a model based on interaction, like events and parameters triggered by user activities (e.g., scrolling, clicking things, etc.). In fact, page views are now technically recorded as an event.

Many of the changes between the old and new versions relate to this fundamental principle.

GA4's interface requires some acclimation

The menu structure is quite different, with reporting now separated into a few new categories:

  • Life Cycle: contains reports for things like Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization and Retention. Basically, high-level details about website usage and performance.
  • User: contains Demographics and Events. This is the section you’d use to learn who was on your website.
  • Explore: contains the Analysis hub, which is basically a new version of Universal’s Custom Reports, paired with a means of building out reports for some things that are no longer reported by default, like Conversions. A few existing templates are included to help users.
  • Configure: contains technical customization options, such as defining custom demographics and metrics, and a debug mode. Only the most advanced users will use this area.

Plan on spending a little bit of time getting accustomed to the changes. There’s a lot of data; but it presents differently and it’s probably not where you would expect to find it. The rest of this blog will help you to find it.

Google Analytics 4 menu structure

Engagement metrics have changed, and many will appear lower

GA4 provides a new set of engagement metrics that include Engaged Sessions, Engagement Rate, Engaged Sessions per User and Engagement Time.

These engagement metrics look similar enough to previous Universal tracking metrics (e.g., Engagement Time vs. Session Duration), but there are some changes to provide more accurate reporting. One significant change is that GA4 engagement metrics only track when the reporting website is actively pulled up and maintains focus in the browser. If a user minimizes the browser or clicks to another tab, which is coined “losing focus” in the tech space, the counter stops. In Universal, the counter would have kept running in those instances for up to a 30-minute session duration. 

Bounce rate is no more

Yes, you read that correctly. Bounce rate was a knowingly flawed metric. If a user lands on a blog page, spends five minutes reading the whole thing and leaves, this is a successful visit. But it would have counted as a bounce in Universal, since there was no additional page visit or click that Universal had deemed as “engagement.” 

GA4 is programmed to think about engagement differently and consider things beyond a click. For the scenario above, GA4 shows us how long that user was on the page, and if they scrolled all the way down (which is now a default engagement metric in GA4). This is more accurate and a valuable portrayal to the user’s visit than just saying they “bounced.” 

The old bounce rate metric is now more or less replaced by an inverse metric: Engagement Rate. Some “bounced” traffic will trigger engagement metrics that would have been missed by the old bounce rate metric. 

Events take longer to record

Events in GA4, which are also often used as conversion metrics, take longer to record (up to 24 hours). While this will normally be a minor inconvenience, make sure you pad reporting 24 hours out from the last day you want to include to ensure you have all data in the system. If you’re looking for short-term, day-of events or event-based conversions, accurate reporting may not be available. Real-time tracking is still available for the sake of testing.

Events are different

We’re all used to tracking events based on category, action and label parameters in Universal, and perhaps value if there is a numeric or monetary metric that’s being captured. We were limited to only those fields to collect data about a specific event, which sometimes left us having to create more categories to give us the flexibility we needed to differentiate granular events. 

In GA4, this category-action-label structure no longer exists. Instead, it tracks activity based on four event categories:

  • Automatically collected events
  • Enhanced measurement events
  • Recommended events
  • Custom events

Each of these events can have up to 25 custom parameters assigned to them. These can include data that would have normally been placed into the action, label and value fields in Universal. For example, you can have a Video custom event where you define Start to play and Video name as parameters. To expand on the example, we could also add a parameter for video type, like “product”, “testimonial”, “about us”, and even “landing page” to help us understand these engagements in greater detail. These parameters are backend tags that can then be assigned as a dimension, which are a GA4 metric that can be added to reports or assigned as conversions. 

Here is an example showing a new GA4 event dimension that will capture the traditional event_label tag. 

Google Analytics 4 event definition

Google recommends looking for existing event tracking in the Automatic and Enhanced categories before building custom events. GA4 has included these based on events they expect users to look for, and they collect default parameters that may get you where you need to be with little or no extra effort.

Sessions are different, and may appear lower

There are three session metrics in GA4:

  • Sessions: the number of sessions that began, as triggered by the GA4 code initially firing
  • Engaged sessions: the number of sessions that lasted 10 seconds or longer, or had one or more events (which includes clicks and scrolling to 90% or more of the page length)
  • Engaged sessions per user: the number of engaged sessions per the number of users

Universal creates a new session when campaign source (part of the provided UTM data) changes. GA4 handles UTM codes as a part of a higher-level parameter set, and sessions are no longer restarted by such a change. According to Google’s session documentation, if you see discrepancies between Universal and GA4, this is why.

UTM codes have changed (kind of)

Universal limited us to three metrics to track acquisitions: utm_campaign, utm_medium and utm_source. According to this test, GA4 will still automatically pick those up if you’re using them, but they’ll be interpreted as three of the 25 event parameters we have to work with in GA4. While this approach is different, the added flexibility will likely be very valuable in the long run. 

No more tracking views

In Universal, it was common practice to set up “views” for different data sets, based on filters. For example, you could set up views for all data (unfiltered), and filtered views where you would remove internal employees, vendors and other traffic that didn’t provide much SEO or conversion value.
In GA4, views no longer exist. Instead, it uses something called data streams, which are very similar to stand-alone sub-properties in Google Analytics, complete with their own Google Analytics Tracking ID. Data streams have a means of defining segmentation rules, which requires us to set up a rule to create an internal traffic segment. Once rules are set up, every event (keeping in mind that events are now the core metric for everything in GA4) has a traffic_type parameter that can be used to ignore a certain segment in a report.

Views were also used to separate things like subfolder-based language instances of the same website (such as /en, /es, /zh), as well as another view that compiled traffic from all languages. Although GA4 does pull some user demographics, which include the user’s default language (based on their browser settings), that doesn’t necessarily mean they accessed that particular language subfolder.

If you have to differentiate multi-lingual traffic based on subfolder usage, separate data streams would have to be set up for each language, and then they would be called programmatically on the website based on the subfolder. For websites that use Google Tag Manager to load their GA4 code, triggering rules could potentially be implemented to pass data into the right data streams based on the current path.

Summing it up

Yes, GA4 is different, and it will take some time to get used to. The interface changed enough that finding what you’re looking for can take a moment, and there will be some discrepancies in data and numbers when it comes to reporting. Those are just the simple facts we’ll all have to live with.

All that said, I love the conceptual changes in GA4. 

First, those of us in marketing technology, UI/UX and digital marketing roles are always thinking about our websites and apps in terms of user engagement. Google’s previous “session-based” mentality always had an inherent disconnect, and GA4 takes a nice stride forward in helping to overcome some deficiencies in tracking actual user engagement. For example, sometimes driving the right person to the right page meant their journey would only include one page. This may be the best-case scenario for us and for the user. Regardless, this was a bounce in Universal: a metric with a negative connotation. GA4’s engagement-based methodology views that kind of scenario more favorably. It also aims to cut back on the manual and often programmatic events tracking we had to do to gauge interaction. 

Second, it offers some increased flexibility. Specifically, the three built-in parameters for events and UTM tags often required creativity to properly organize and differentiate user activity. The change allowing 25 parameters per event will definitely help with that.

There are still some quirks within it (like the delay in recording events), and I also feel I’m going to miss some things Google eliminated, namely Views. Through the years, I’ve found many valuable use cases where they’ve helped me to report by either targeting or excluding certain audiences. As we roll out GA4 on more websites and apps, maybe I’ll better understand the data stream method better. 

If you’re ready to make the move and need some help, please reach out. We’re on standby to assist you.