Google Analytics 4 Migration: Your Guide to Getting Started
Now that Google Analytics’ latest release has been out in the wild for some time, you may be wondering how to approach your Google Analytics 4 migration from your existing Universal Analytics implementation. Given that GA4 is a major overhaul of the Google Analytics platform, it can be daunting and confusing as you consider how to update your existing tracking and reporting.
While change is never easy, it provides a good opportunity for you to take a step back and evaluate how well your current implementation is supporting your business. Read on to understand some of the major differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4, along with tips on planning your migration.
But First, Some History
Google’s Universal Analytics, that we have come to know and love, was released in 2012. It was an attempt to update the platform in order to meet the needs of maturing businesses and allow more flexibility. We were given custom dimensions/metrics, data import, robust ecommerce tracking, user IDs and many more features that allowed businesses the ability to better tailor their implementation and reporting to match their needs.
While it was a huge step forward, it was still steeped in a desktop-based world. As visitors increasingly started using mobile devices, the ability to track native mobile apps as part of Universal Analytics was added. Since native app tracking was a whole new world, Google loosely translated their tried and true desktop tracking model to fit.
Despite their best efforts, Google’s Universal Analytics never felt truly mobile focused — until now. With the release of Google Analytics 4, Google now has a robust platform that meets the needs of a cross-device world and enables non-desktop tracking to be a first class citizen.
With the release of Google Analytics 4, Google now has a robust platform that meets the needs of a cross-device world and enables non-desktop tracking to be a first class citizen. Click & Tweet!
Show Me the Data (Model)
Universal Analytics relies on various hit types such as pageviews, ecommerce, social and events. With the upgrade to Google Analytics 4, you essentially have a single hit type: events. You may be thinking to yourself, “But Universal Analytics already has event tracking.” You’d be right, but the existing event tracking structure is limiting and confusing to many users. I’m sure on many occasions you thought long and hard as to what values you would put into the Category, Action and Label fields — more often than not with mixed results.
Google Analytics 4 greatly simplifies this by utilizing a straightforward event name and parameter structure. This allows you to track whatever you’d like without having to worry about which hit type to use and their associated limits. This freedom expands your ability to capture rich information across all user interactions and devices in a uniform way.
Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics
In order to start planning your Google Analytics 4 migration, it is important to understand some of the core differences between Universal Analytics and the latest release.
One of the major differences between the two platforms is the introduction of Data Streams with the upgrade to Google Analytics 4. Data streams are considered data sources that feed into a property. This allows you to send data from multiple sites and apps to a single property while using a consistent tracking structure. Google Analytics 4 also introduced what is called “Enhanced Measurement.” These are out-of-the-box events that are enabled on a data stream and track automatically without setting up additional tags. They include page views, scroll, outbound clicks and file downloads. You now have the ability to enable/disable each of these individually.
In addition, filtered views are now gone so if you’d like to see a subset of your data you’ll have to utilize comparisons within the Google Analytics 4 interface, the equivalent of segments in Universal Analytics. This is important to keep in mind as you start planning your upgrade to Google Analytics 4.
While Universal Analytics offers a wide range of reports, the number of available reports have been pared down in Google Analytics 4. One of the main benefits of this is increased focus on the most important reports. However, some of the drawbacks of this approach are the need to switch primary dimensions in order to replicate a previous stand-alone report along with other reports being buried underneath dashboard cards. Since the new reporting is a drastic departure from what we’re used to, it will take time to get acquainted with the new reporting interface. Before completing your Google Analytics 4 migration, you’ll want to ensure that you and your team are comfortable with the new reporting interface and know where to find the data that is important to them.
Another major change is the elimination of the “Customization” section that previously housed dashboards, saved reports and custom reports. While “Analysis Hub” has been around for a little while it is now the preferred method for creating custom reports and performing exploratory analysis, with Data Studio the primary tool for creating dashboards. Both tools offer a lot more power and flexibility than was previously available in the Universal Analytics interface.
Sampling is also handled differently in Google Analytics 4. Gone are the days of complex and sometimes confusing rules that are applied when querying your data in Universal Analytics. Instead, Google Analytics 4 relies on the total number of events returned by a query, which in the case of the standard version of GA4 is 10 million events.
The majority of configuration settings have now moved to data streams. This includes cross-domain measurement and internal traffic filters. One of the nice things about Universal Analytics is your ability to utilize advanced filters to manipulate the incoming data. While your ability to filter data in GA4 has been greatly reduced, I anticipate Google will roll out additional filters in the future.
Custom Dimensions are now configured within the reporting interface and not on the property directly. The free version of Google Analytics 4 allows you to configure up to 50 custom dimensions and 50 custom metrics. In addition, you can configure up to 25 user properties. This should greatly expand your ability to capture custom data with your tracking compared to the 20 custom dimensions available within Universal Analytics.
One of the more powerful features introduced with Google Analytics 4 is the ability to configure new events from existing events and parameters. This is especially useful when you want to base a conversion on the combination of an event name and parameter. Unlike Goals in Universal Analytics, Google Analytics 4 conversions are based on a specific event name. A way to get around this is to create a new custom event based on a combination of event name and parameters.
One of the more powerful features introduced with Google Analytics 4 is the ability to configure new events from existing events and parameters. Click & Tweet!
For instance, you may have an event that tracks form submissions such as “form_submission” along with a parameter to identify the specific form. By creating a custom event based on the combination of the “form_submission” event name and a form name parameter value, you can create a new event labeled such as “form_submission_registration.” You can then designate the new event as a conversion.
Another new and powerful feature is the ability to modify incoming event names and parameters. This allows you to fix minor issues with incoming data and ensure consistent reporting without the need to make changes to your underlying tracking code. One important thing to note for planning your Google Analytics 4 migration is that the modifications are applied going forward and not on historical data.
Preparing for Liftoff
So how should you approach this new event-based world of analytics? I like how Napkyn Analytics put it:
“Page views are events. Transactions are events. Clicks are events. Chat interactions are events. Searches are events. Customer reviews are events. You get the idea: everything that happens on a website is an event.”
The point being that all interactions can and should be tracked as an event.
Document Your Current Tracking
The best way to get started with your Google Analytics 4 migration is by understanding what is currently being tracked and how. I recommend creating a spreadsheet that outlines the details of all of your existing tracking such as virtual pageviews, events, custom dimensions, views and properties. From this you can start thinking through how you want to structure your data streams and GA4 events. Documenting your existing tracking will also help you identify if there are any gaps in your current implementation. If you have an existing Firebase implementation be sure to include this as well. Since it shares the same data model as GA4, it may give you a head start on how to structure your events.
Naming Conventions for Your GA 4 Migration
Understanding how to assign event names and their associated parameters will be key to ensuring a smooth transition. According to Google’s documentation, the preferred format for event names and parameters is lowercase text along with underscores in place of spaces. Google relies on this format in order to populate data in some of the built-in reports, so it is wise to follow this when creating your own events.
Understanding how to assign event names and their associated parameters will be key to ensuring a smooth transition. Click & Tweet!
My preferred method for creating custom event names is by describing a specific feature or category of data along with a specific user action, i.e. “category_action.” Some examples are:
Event parameters are more open-ended, but should be specific and applied consistently across events. Some example event parameters are:
- ‘error_message’ : ‘<< ERROR MESSAGE >>’
- ‘signup_location’ : ‘<< SIGN UP LOCATION >>’
- ‘notification_type’ : ‘<< NOTIFICATION TYPE >>’
Tagging Both Implementations
Once you have documented your new Google Analytics 4 tracking it will be time to start implementing it. I strongly recommend dual tagging your existing implementation along with your GA4 upgrade before making a complete switch. Since GA4 is a drastic change compared to Universal Analytics, it may take some time to become comfortable with the new tracking and reporting. Dual tagging will allow you to continue leaning on your existing reports while building out new ones. In addition, it allows you time to clean up any mistakes you make with your GA4 tagging before fully committing. It is also important to understand that Google is continuing to build out features and functionality for GA4. This may influence your decision as to when to fully complete your Google Analytics 4 migration.
App Tracking Alignment
One of the major benefits of Google Analytics 4 is its ability to easily combine data from both web and mobile apps. If your business has a mobile app it is important to include it as part of your GA4 planning and implementation process. This will ensure consistency between your web and mobile app tracking.
One of the major benefits of Google Analytics 4 is its ability to easily combine data from both web and mobile apps. Click & Tweet!
In order to send data to GA4 from a mobile app you need to implement tracking through Firebase. Since GA4 and Firebase share the same data model, you’re now able to consistently apply tracking across both platforms. This means you no longer have to worry about how to translate tracking from one platform to the other.
Wrapping Up: Why You Should Upgrade to GA4
Event-based analytics have been around for a while but it is now quickly becoming the norm. Shifts in user behavior (e.g., increased touchpoints), growth of cross-device activity, and maturing use of data have all contributed to increased adoption of event-based analytics. Flexibility, greatly improved scalability and modern business intelligence (BI) features make Google Analytics 4 a robust platform for deriving insights into user behavior and your business.