GA4: How to prepare for a completely different analytics suite

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If you’re a marketer that manages your institution’s website, then you are probably familiar with Google Analytics. If you’re not, this short article should quickly familiarize you with the basics of Google Analytics Introduction to Google Analytics .

For those familiar with Google Analytics, you may have heard that a new version of Google Analytics is coming in July of 2023 called Google Analytics 4 (or GA4). Without doing any research, most people might assume that this new version is just an upgrade of the current Google Analytics system with maybe some changes to the interface and what data it collects. 

The truth is, GA4 couldn’t be more different than the current version of Google Analytics (also referred to as Universal Analytics or UA). Switching over will take some serious effort and know-how. But, if done correctly, the switch over to GA4 can provide you with much more valuable and intuitive data and visualizations to help you manage your website and get the most out of your marketing budget. Hear from 25th Hour’s Senior Director of Web Development, Grant Hubbell, who has over 10 years of experience in web development and marketing data analysis. Grant has worked with a variety of programming languages, content management systems and frameworks; as well as a number of different web analytics platforms. 


What's changing

GA4 is different in just about every possible way from UA. Broadly, UA has a lot of preconfigured reports and data collection, whereas GA4 is a custom system that encourages you to customize your dashboard to see the data relevant to your site, audience and goals. 

UA is basically a plug-and-play system. You create a UA account and property (analytics-speak for the website you’re tracking), install the tag on your site, and data begins to feed into your UA interface. This interface has many pre-built reports, graphs and visualizations (more on these later) to show you some basic information on your users and how they’re interacting with your website.

On the other hand, GA4 takes an entirely different approach. The setup process is somewhat similar; you log into the Google Analytics dashboard, create a property, install the GA4 tag on your website, and start collecting data. The main differences lie in what data is collected, how it’s collected and what reports you have access to in GA4.



Let’s start with reporting. By default, UA gives you roughly 40 reports already preconfigured and populated with data (after your tag is installed). GA4 gives you roughly 15 preconfigured reports found in the “Reports” section. Most of the reports you’ve become accustomed to in UA don’t exist by default in GA4. And this is where the new “Data Exploration” section of GA4 comes into play. In this new area of Google Analytics, you can customize reports to see exactly the data that is relevant to you. 

For example, suppose you’re a community college marketer and would like to see how your Application Funnel is functioning on your website. In that case, you can configure a “Funnel” report to show how many users on your website are moving through that Application Funnel (going from your homepage to your programs page to your apply page, for example) and how many of them are dropping off at different steps in your funnel. This can tell you if you might need to run a marketing campaign to drive traffic to a specific page, if a page needs a redesign, or if you need to take a broader look at how you’re defining your funnel on your website. 

Another example of the benefits of this report customization would be if you’re running an e-commerce website and would like to see the steps users take to land on your checkout or cart pages. In this instance, you can set up a “Reverse Path Exploration” report, which allows you to start with where your traffic ends up and backtrack to where your users are coming from within your site (such as a cart page, homepage, etc.). This can show you website trends that you would never be able to see in the UA system, as this is a brand new report type exclusive to GA4.


Data Collection

In UA, data collection is straightforward. By default, once you install a tag on your site, you are all set up to collect “Session Data.” If you’ve used GA-UA before, this is all the data you’re familiar with: Pageviews, Unique Pageviews, Session Duration, Bounce Rate, Exit Rate, etc. In UA, you can also set yourself up to collect “Event” data. Event data includes clicks, scroll depth, form fills, video views, etc. Event data tells you how users interact with your page, rather than just statistics about the page more broadly (session data).

In GA4, rather than having session data and event data differentiated, all data is now collected as event data. When you set up GA4, it will automatically configure some event data for you (like pageviews). Still, you also have the ability with Google Tag Manager to configure custom events, like click tracking, scroll depth, form fills, video views, etc. In addition to collecting that event data, GA4 also allows you to feed additional information into the system every time an event occurs by using parameters.

For example, you can configure a click event to fire every time a button a user clicks a button and then use the parameters to report the button’s text, the page URL, and where the user went afterward. This allows you to collect a much richer dataset associated with the different actions performed on your site than you were ever able to accumulate with UA.


Get Ready 

So, with the differences between UA and GA4 now explained, what can you do right now? And what should you plan to do in the future?

  • Right now: Create a new basic GA4 instance and install the tag on your site
    1. This will ensure that you have some historical data in your GA4 instance before making the switch. 
    2. UA data will not migrate into GA4, so it’s crucial to have GA4 set up as early as possible, so you don’t lose any of your site usage data.
  • Right now: Do not switch over to only using GA4 until it is entirely out of its Beta phase
    1. Currently, GA4 is in what’s called a “public beta.” This means that Google believes the software to be good enough for users to start learning, testing and configuring but not good enough to replace UA yet. 
    2. Until GA4 is out of Beta and into Production, do not entirely switch over to GA4.
  • In the near term: Start discussing the types of data that will best serve your organization, and configure your GA4/Google Tag Manager instance to collect that data.
    1. Different institutions will find other data types more relevant, so it’s important to start discussing what data to collect. See below examples
      1. E-Commerce: For an E-Commerce website, pageviews, clicks, conversions and demographic information would be the most critical data to collect. These data points would tell how users interact with your website and how many are ending their visit with the purchase of a product or service. Whereas scroll depth and video view duration would be less critical as E-Commerce sites typically have shorter pages and fewer videos than other sites.
      2. Blogs: For a Blog website, pageviews, scroll depth and outbound clicks would be the most important data points to track. Scroll depth will tell you how deep into your different blog posts your users are reading, and outbound link clicks will tell you how many affiliate links or sales links your users are clicking. In this instance, conversions and demographic information might be less useful.
  • In the near term: Start discussing and playing with the different types of data visualization available in the GA4 Data Exploration section.
    1. This goes hand in hand with the data type discussion, as different data types are best understood when visualized differently. For example, user demographic information would be visualized differently from a user journey or page flow. 
    2. This step will take some trial and error if you’re trying to set it up yourself and will take several iterations until you end up with a set of reports that display the data in a way that’s easy to understand.

If this process sounds like an absolute monster of a project, you would be right. But it’s an essential process to undertake. GA4 is coming whether you are properly configured or not, and if you aren’t ready, you could lose all of your data and spend the next six months trying to configure your new environment. But we are here to help. Our GA experts can help you install, customize and configure your new GA4 instance easily; while ensuring that your organization is trained in accessing and interpreting your unique data points and reports. Let us handle it all for you so that you can maximize the utility of your website without burning weeks of your IT/Web department’s time.