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Understanding the Differences Between Universal Analytics and GA4

In March 2022, Google announced that Universal Analytics will no longer collect new data as of July 1, 2023.  Additionally, you will only be able to access your old data for 6 months after that point. 

Because of the differences between Universal Analytics and GA4, you will not be able to easily compare data between the two systems.  In addition, due to these structural differences, Google is not providing a mechanism to import old data from Universal Analytics into GA4. 

For website managers and marketers, this is a significant change that might induce panic and fear.  In reality, this should be viewed as an opportunity to re-evaluate how your organization tracks, uses, and views its website, ads, and search data. 

In this three-part blog series, we’ll cover the differences between Universal Analytics and GA4, several types of website metrics to track with GA4, and 3 options for website metrics reports with GA4.

Background on Universal Analytics and GA4

Universal Analytics was released in 2012 when the Internet was a very different place.  Fast forward 10 years, this tool no longer fits with how users interact with websites and apps and does not handle users’ growing demands for privacy and anonymity online. 

GA4 was released in October 2020 to better serve the needs of marketers and to account for how modern users act and engage online. This includes support for cross-device tracking, enhanced integration with Google Ads, and the use of machine learning and predictive analytics. 

Data Structure Differences Between Universal Analytics and GA4

The main difference between Universal Analytics and GA4 is the underlying data model.  UA data is session-based while GA4 data is event-based.  This fundamental shift in how data is tracked means it will be difficult to compare data between the two systems.  While they both use many of the same terms (event, user, session, etc.), their meanings are different in each tool.  Google published a handy comparison chart to understand these differences.  Here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Users: if you see the term “users” in the interface without any additional qualifier (ie. new, returning, active, etc.), it refers to total users in UA but active users in GA4.  The concept of an “active” user does not exist in UA, but in GA4, it represents users who have been active on the site at some point in the last 28 days. 
  • Sessions: Sessions represent a period of active time for a user.  In UA, sessions expire after 30 minutes of inactivity, if a user acquires a new campaign attribute or when the local time for that user reaches midnight (at which time a new session is created).  In GA4, sessions still expire after 30 minutes of inactivity but do not expire at midnight. 
  • Page Views: Page views are roughly the same in each tool.  Numbers might be different as a result of filters in UA that exclude data (this does not exist in GA) or if you are tracking both web and app views.  In UA, these numbers are reported separately but are combined in GA4. 
  • Goals/Conversion: What were called “goals” in UA are referred to as “conversion events” in GA4.  In UA, only one conversion per goal is counted per session, but in GA4, every conversion is counted.  Clicking the same button 5 times in UA would result in 1 conversion but will count as 5 conversions in GA4. 
  • Bounce v. Engagement Rate: This is one of the biggest areas of change for people to wrap their heads around. 
    • Bounce Rate (UA): A bounce in UA represents a session with a duration of 0 seconds and no interaction by the user.  The duration of a page view in UA is only set when a user clicks another page.  So, if a user comes to your site to find your phone number, scrolls down the page until they see the number, and then leaves, that counts as a bounce, even though an objective was achieved.  There is currently no bounce rate metric in GA4 (but keep reading…).Engagement Rate (GA4): Engagements on GA4 include all user interactions, including page views and scrolls.  The engagement rate metric in GA4 is the percentage of sessions that last for more than 10 seconds and have an engagement or 2 pageviews. 
    • Bounce Rate (GA4): while this metric does not currently exist, it is rumored to be in development.  However, it will not be the same as UA.  In GA4, the bounce rate will represent the inverse of the engagement rate.  But since page views and scrolls count as engagements, it means that this metric would represent sessions that last less than 10 seconds, and that may or may not include an engagement.  We will just have to wait and see what the documentation says.    
  • Events: in UA, events are defined interactions (i.e. clicks) to which you can specify categories, actions, and labels.  In GA4, everything is an event.  The good news is that many common events (i.e. downloads, video views, search, scroll) are built into GA4.  Additionally, you can define custom events but the concepts of category, action, and label do not exist.  Instead, you can associate multiple parameters with any event to tell them apart.  Different events can have different associated parameters.

Benefits of GA4

While the differences between Universal Analytics and GA4 data may seem overwhelming, several benefits are baked into these changes. 

  • Built-in tracking for common events: As mentioned above, since everything is an event in GA4, they’ve built in some common events that used to require additional work to create and track in UA.  These include clicks on outbound links, scrolling, using the on-site search tool, and downloading files.  For sites that do not have complex tracking requirements, this may be all you need and no extra work is required.   
  • Cross-Device Tracking: One of the biggest benefits is being able to measure the customer journey across multiple devices.  A user may start their journey on their mobile device but ultimately make a purchase on their desktop. 
  • Lifecycle Reporting: Built-in reports are grouped around the customer journey (called lifecycle in GA4) – Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization, and Retention.  See how your site and marketing efforts are performing at each stage so you can better target your efforts.   
  • Predictive Analytics and Insights: To account for the reduction in the use of cookies, Google is using machine learning and predictive analytics to fill in the gaps and to help you target future marketing efforts.  Additionally, Insights provides bits of analysis that you might not have noticed. 
  • Integration with Google Ads: If you run paid ads through Google, this is probably one of the most exciting changes.  You can easily connect your GA4 and Google Ads accounts to see ad performance data within analytics and use conversion and audience data from GA4 to enhance future ad targeting and remarketing. 

Data and Analytics Services

While the change can be overwhelming, the best thing to do is jump in and start learning.  Now’s the time to get used to your new metrics while you still have the “safety net” of Universal Analytics and start exploring the benefits that GA4 can offer.  Learn more about our data and analytics services.