Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics

One of the most commonly asked questions for marketers is how is Google Analytics 4 different from what you are used to with Universal Analytics?

There are several differences, including how it looks. However, one of the most important pieces to know is that it’s not a complete replacement of your old version of Google Analytics yet and that you can set up tracking for both versions to begin building history and getting familiar with the new features (we’ll cover set up for this in section 5). For example, you can’t have different views in a Google Analytics 4 property like you can in Universal Analytics. This has been a best practice that many marketers have used and it will make sense to experiment with Google Analytics 4 while keeping your current setup with Universal Analytics, especially if you’ve got a good system going.

Let’s break down the analysis of Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics and some of the key differences:

The measurement model

Universal Analytics (UA) follows a measurement model that is based on pageviews and sessions. It tracks data from sessions like pageviews, events, and transactions as “hits,” and looks at every action taken by the user over a given timeframe.

Google Analytics 4 is different in that its measurement model is based on events and parameters. In this case, even a pageview is considered to be an event. Every activity the user goes through will be considered an event in GA4.

GA4 existing events

How is this a key difference? To track additional interactions in Universal Analytics, you need to have more advanced knowledge of event tracking and Google Tag Manager. Google Analytics 4 comes with this “out-of-the-box”:

UA and GA4 chart differences

Source

Events

Google Analytics 4 events fall into four categories:

  1. Automatically Collected – these are automatically logged from the gtag or gtm configuration
  2. Enhanced Measurement – these are a special set of events that can be enabled or disabled via the GA4 interface.  Events include file_download, scroll, and video_start.
  3. Recommended Events – these are events with predefined names and parameters that are recommended for different business types. These events require additional code changes either through Google Tag Manager or code modifications on the page. (Google’s support documentation includes some recommended events for different business types)
  4. Custom Event – these are events that you name and implement yourself (similar to Universal analytics). These events also require similar modifications to the standard tracking code as outlined in Recommended Events.

Tracking web and mobile app data

Previously, if you wanted to track a mobile app’s data in your Google Analytics account, you relied upon a Firebase integration to do it. This was sometimes a bit confusing in terms of getting a clear picture of what you were looking at.

Under Google Analytics 4, web and mobile app data is brought together – you can view, track and manage it all in one platform. If you happen to already use Firebase, your data will be carried over. If not, GA4 will not pull historical data from Universal Analytics because it operates on a different data model.

Bounce rate replaced with engagement rate

Google Analytics 4 doesn’t use bounce rate as a measurement at all. Instead, they have replaced it with a metric called engagement rate, which gives you similar information.

So, how does engagement rate work? It consists of engaged sessions and the criteria within the session must result in one of the following: a conversion, a session length of more than 10 seconds, or multiple screen or page views.

GA4 engagement chart

This means it might look a bit different from the numbers you’ve been used to for bounce rate. For example, what would have been counted as a bounce previously might now be an engaged session if the visitor lingered for 10 seconds or more.

The reporting interface looks different

You’ll find when you look at the reporting interface in Google Analytics 4, many reports and metrics you may have been used to using are no longer there. These have either been removed or replaced by something else.

You also won’t see a lot of reports when you first glance at Google Analytics 4 because many are now only generated when you begin tracking events. If you were a Firebase user, it will look more familiar to you as the interface is similar.

User and event data retention

How long do you keep your user-specific data? Under Universal Analytics, you have the options of 14 months, 26 months, 38 months, 50 months, or “do not automatically expire.”

In Google Analytics 4, you now have the choice of either 2 months or 14 months. At this time, there is no longer an option for indefinite storage of data.

woman scanning box at desk with laptop in shipping warehouse

Ecommerce users

At the time of writing this, ecommerce tracking capabilities in Google Analytics 4 are still under development and don’t offer the same powerful tools as Universal Analytics yet. Similar data can be captured using Custom  Events and Event values as we discussed above, but the limitations are certainly something Google plans to address in order to make GA4 complete. Here is a good guide to using Google Tag Manager to track ecommerce data in Google Analytics 4.

Key Tool: Google Tag Manager

Since it was first launched in May 2016, Google Tag Manager has become one of the more important tools in a webmaster’s toolbox. Its ability to help you manage tags in a fast and efficient way is truly a timesaver, and can be even more useful if you’re not really into coding. Having one place to create and manage all of your tags removes the need to manually code each tag on your website. Gone are the days of needing to rely upon your development team to implement new tracking code!


Tags can serve a variety of functions on your website, from embedding third-party JavaScript code to implementing your Google Analytics ID or Facebook Pixel. Google Tag Manager also makes things easier as you consider moving to GA4 – you can easily run your new GA4 tracking code alongside your existing Universal Analytics tracking. When you are ready to fully make the switch to GA4 your data will already be established and ready to work for you from day one!


Up Next: New Key Features of GA4


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