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Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs Universal Analytics: Key Differences

If you use Google Analytics on your WordPress site, you may already be familiar with how the platform works. However, now that Google has released a new version of its analytics tool, you may need to take a good look at GA4 vs Universal Analytics in order to adapt to this change.

To help you out, we’ve laid out the key differences between UA and GA4. By comparing the features of each version, you should be able to prepare yourself for a smooth transition. Plus, it can help you make the most of GA4.

GA4 vs Universal Analytics.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at GA4. Then, we’ll review Universal Analytics vs Google Analytics 4 in terms of tracking methods and other essential features. Let’s get started!

⚠️ Note: You were supposed to only have time until July 1, 2023, to switch to the new Google Analytics 4. That date was when the standard Universal Analytics properties should have stopped processing data. That said, some Universal Analytics properties can receive a one-time processing extension until July 1, 2024.

An overview of Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

You’re probably already familiar with Google Analytics. This is an analytics tool that enables you to track traffic to your site.

At the moment, you might be using Universal Analytics (UA), which is the standard version of GA. However, this should have stopped processing data from July 1, 2023, and been replaced by Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

If you haven’t yet switched to GA4, you’ll probably see a message advising you to do so:

GA4 vs Universal Analytics: the warning on Universal Analytics.

GA4 offers a different analytics experience, one that focuses on user journeys and privacy. Additionally, it enables businesses to track traffic and engagement on both their websites and apps.

Note that after July 1, 2023, you are able to access your old data in Universal Analytics for at least six months. However, UA will eventually shut down, so we recommend that you export your old reports.

You can do this by selecting the Export button on your report:

Exporting reports in GA.

You’ll then be able to import this data into your GA4 property.

GA4 vs Universal Analytics: Key differences 🎯

Google Analytics 4 is quite different from Universal Analytics. It has a new interface and presents key metrics in a different format.

To help you understand how it works, we’ll be comparing GA4 vs Universal Analytics in terms of features, reports, data acquisition, and more.

The data model 🗄

One of the key differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics is the data model.

UA follows a session-based data model, where user interactions are grouped into sessions. A session is a period of user activity that starts with the first interaction and ends after a period of inactivity.

A session can contain multiple pageviews, events, and ecommerce transactions. These actions are logged with cookie-based tracking. By storing a cookie in the user’s browser. UA is able to record the session and monitor the user’s behavior on your site.

Meanwhile, GA4 uses an event-driven data model. These events can include actions such as page views, clicks, video plays, downloads, and more.

Google Analytics 4 still uses cookies to distinguish different users on your site. However, it also uses Google Signals. This is a feature that enables Google to fetch session data from users who are signed into their Google accounts on a website or app and who have turned on Ads Personalization:

Google Signals.

Therefore, GA4 can track user behavior across websites and apps, and provide cross-device reporting. Plus, its event-based model gives you more granular control over your reports (as we’ll see in the next sections).

Custom reports 📊

Universal Analytics offers a selection of pre-made reports, based on traffic sources, user behavior, and other metrics. However, it’s not very flexible when it comes to creating event funnels or dissecting the available data. In fact, UA offers three main parameters: Category, Label, and Action.

GA4 provides a more flexible and customizable approach to data analysis. The Explorations feature enables you to create a report from scratch or use an existing template:

GA4 vs Universal Analytics: the Explorations feature in GA4.

It has a user-friendly reporting interface that enables you to build custom reports using a wide range of dimensions, metrics, and segments:

Creating custom reports in GA4.

Under Segments, you’ll find different sources of traffic, including paid, direct, and organic search. For Dimensions, you can select the gender, country, browser, device, and other attributes.

Finally, the Metrics section enables you to track views, engagement rates, sessions, event counts, and more.

You can also select a date range and choose your preferred chart style for the report.

Engagement 🖱️

As you may already know, one of the key metrics in Universal Analytics is the bounce rate. This measures the percentage of users who land on your website and leave without interacting or visiting another page.

When you switch to GA4, you’ll notice that the bounce rate is no longer present on the main report. Instead, GA4 focuses on engaged sessions. These are any sessions that last longer than ten seconds, yield a conversion, or have at least two-page views.

In GA4, the engagement rate is the percentage of engaged sessions on your website or mobile app. You can see a breakdown of this metric by navigating to Life Cycle > Engagement:

Engagement overview in GA4.

If you still want to track your bounce rate, you’ll need to create a custom report and add it to the Metrics field:

GA4 vs Universal Analytics: Creating a report for bounce rate in GA4.

In GA4, the bounce rate is the opposite of the engagement rate. It measures the percentage of sessions that were not engaged (i.e., users spent fewer than ten seconds on a page and didn’t interact or visit another page).

User privacy 🔒️

As mentioned earlier, GA4 prioritizes user privacy. Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), IP addresses are personal information that must be protected. While in UA you have to manually configure settings to anonymize IP addresses, GA4 automatically does this for you to ensure GDPR- compliance.

Additionally, Google has introduced a privacy consent mode in GA4. This enables site owners to respect user preferences regarding data privacy.

The user’s consent status (granted, denied, or default) is passed on to GA4. If consent has been denied, it won’t use first-party analytics cookies to gather data from that user.

You might be wondering how this will affect your reports. Well, Google uses a feature called modeling that enables it to report online conversions without identifying users or compromising their privacy.

This means that, if a user does not give their content for data collection, GA4 will try to fill in the gaps. It does this by identifying trends between observed and unobserved conversions, and then predicting the overall conversion attribution (e.g., organic or paid).

User ID 🧑

Another main difference between GA4 vs Universal Analytics is the way User ID is handled. In UA, the User ID is scoped at the property level, which means the same ID is associated with a user’s interactions across all the tracked properties (“websites”) within the same GA account.

On the other hand, GA4 enables you to set User IDs at the event level, giving you more granular control over your reports. For example, you can use these identifiers to connect a user’s behavior across different sessions or devices.

GA4 interprets each user ID as a separate user. This should help provide more accurate user counts. Plus, it can give you a clearer picture of a user’s relationship with your business.

To get started, you’ll want to make sure that you’re using a reporting identity that includes the User ID option:

GA4 vs Universal Analytics: the Reporting Identity feature in GA4.

You can check out the official Google Analytics guide on User ID to learn how you can utilize this feature for your business.

BigQuery ⌛

The last thing we’ll be looking at in this GA4 vs Universal Analytics comparison is integration with BigQuery. This is a fully managed, serverless data warehouse that’s designed to help site owners analyze large volumes of data and turn them into valuable insights:

BigQuery.

With Universal Analytics, only paid users have access to BigQuery. However, GA4 can be fully integrated with BigQuery for free.

For more advanced insights, you can export your GA4 data to BigQuery tables. This will give you more flexibility and control over analytics reports, which can be very useful for large ecommerce sites.

Conclusion on GA4 vs. Universal Analytics🧐

Universal Analytics will soon be entirely replaced by Google Analytics 4. Understanding the main differences between the two versions can help you prepare for a smooth transition.

GA4 uses an event-based model, which comprises actions such as page views, clicks, and downloads. It also enables you to create custom reports, using a variety of variables. Plus, it places greater emphasis on engagement and user privacy.

Do you have any questions about GA4 vs Universal Analytics? Let us know in the comments section below!

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John Hughes

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