Getting ready for the new Google Analytics

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Introducing GA4

Yesterday, October 14th, Google officially announced it’s new version of Analytics. Google Analytics 4 (or GA4) was released as beta last year under the name App+Web. This name helps you understand one of the key reasons Google has looked to upgrade its Analytics product:

To unify tracking across apps and the web.

If you’re wondering why it is called GA 4 and not 2, then this can be explained by the historical evolution of the product. When Google first acquired what would become Google Analytics in 2005, the software was called Urchin (this is why Google’s tracking parameters begin with utm_, it’s an abbreviation of urchin tracking module) - which can be thought of as GA1.

This then became Google Analytics (GA2), before an update to the tracking code (ga.js to analytics.js/gtag.js) saw the launch of Universal Analytics properties (GA3). This latest overhaul, the first major change since 2013, can therefore be thought of as the 4th iteration for Google Analytics.


So what's new?

The fundamental difference between the new property and the previous ones lies in how the underlying data is collected. Previously Analytics has been built with page views as the basis - every time a web page was loaded a page view hit was sent to GA, which then grouped these into sessions and assigned the session to a user.

GA4 has moved to a more flexible approach of sending events and parameters. You can still send page views as an event where it makes sense, but these are no longer the building blocks on which your Analytics data is based.

If you think about it this makes a lot of sense. Back in the earlier, simpler days of the web where most sites consisted of multiple, fairly simple pages, then the page view was the core metric - the more pages someone viewed on your site, the more engaged they were.

Fast forward to 2020 and the web is a different beast, where for example single-page and mobile apps are not fully catered for using the basic page view model.  

As an example - if you’re using a music playing app that you open and leave running in the background for several hours, occasionally reopening to skip a song. How would this be counted in GA - a new page view every time you open the app? A single session or a new one initiated every time you reopen?

The new event-based model offers a solution to this, whereby sessions and page views are no longer the crux of how the data is presented, offering better insights for specialist apps as well as more standard websites. Users of Firebase analytics will be more familiar with this approach as it is built on the same event-based concept.


Why should I care?

This is the biggest update since the switch to Universal Analytics in 2013, and arguably the biggest since Google first acquired Urchin. If you work with GA and can’t get excited by this then maybe a change of career is needed!

There are a host of new features being released with GA4. Some of the main ones are covered below, but there’s an important reason why you should take notice of this update now. The new underlying model based on events and parameters means that the way data is collected by GA is completely changing. 

You will not be able to simply migrate your existing property over to GA4 and keep all the historical data in one view. You’ll need to set up a new GA4 property and begin the data collection process from scratch - therefore, the earlier you begin this process the better.

Whilst there is no immediate need to switch, it is to be expected that at some stage Google will sunset support for Universal Analytics tracking and expect everyone to move to the new GA4 property, which has already been made the default option when creating a new property.

If you wait until this point you will be left with your data split across two separate properties, making historical analysis all the more difficult. The best approach for now appears to be to set up a new GA4 property alongside your existing Universal Analytics setup. This will allow you to get used to the new format and check that accurate data is being collected, as well as building up some historical data before making the full switch to using only the new property.


What next?

So that’s what you need to know, and what you need to do now.

In the second half of this series we will look at the new features in some detail, and think about how to get started, manage the transition - and look to optimise the new methods of reporting.


And in the mean time, if you want to speak to our experts about it, just get in touch.