The future of analytics is here.
At least, that’s how Google’s touting the rollout of the new Google Analytics 4 in their press releases. But does the new GA live up to the hype?
We’ve taken a deep dive into Google Analytics 4 and discovered some great features—but the full story doesn’t entirely live up to the press release.
We’re going to tackle four big questions:
- Should you upgrade to Google Analytics 4?
- What features have improved?
- What features have gotten worse?
- Do you still need the old Universal Analytics account?
We’ll start with what’s good about GA4—but stick with us, because you’re going to want to know about the bad stuff before you make the switch.
Should you upgrade to Google Analytics 4?
Short answer? Yes.
Long answer? It depends.
Google Analytics offers some incredible new features, most of which are built around simplifying the setup, integrating app and web data, analyzing user retention and engagement, and tracking all of your different monetization methods through a single channel.
They’ve created an amazing, one-size-fits-all analytics platform that you can set up in minutes—which is great if one-size-fits-all fits your company.
But the truth about one-size-fits-all is that is elastic-band track pants aren’t exactly ideal for every situation. Sometimes, you need a fitted suit. And Google Analytics 4 is the exact opposite of a custom fit.
GA4 is great if your site is focused on user retention. It’ll be perfect for you if you are:
- A blog
- A news outlet
- A site with multiple revenue streams
But if you’re a B2B company that doesn’t expect people to come to your site daily, or if you’re a web agency obsessed with UX (like us) you’re not going to find what you’re looking for using GA4 alone.
Some things have gotten better, and some people are going to love that—but don’t disconnect the old Universal Analytics account just yet.
What features have improved?
Revenue tracking in Google Analytics 4 is on a whole other level.
The new monetization reports take into account that a lot of today’s businesses don’t just run an ecommerce shop on a website and stop there. If you’re running paid ads, selling things online, and offering in-app purchases all at once, Google Analytics 4 will let you track all of that in one place.
On a single page, you can see:
- Product impression and revenue
- Promotion impressions and revenue
- Ad impressions and revenue
- In-app purchases
That could be your whole digital ecosystem tracked in one spot – and that’s pretty incredible.
Blog and news sites are going to love the new retention reports.
Google Analytics 4 gives you unprecedented insights into user engagement and retention. The second you land on a site, GA4 is monitoring not only how much time you spend on the site, but even how close of attention you’re paying.
Read the whole article? GA4 tracks that.
Jumped over to another tab? GA4 tracks that.
Briefly shifted your eyeballs away from the screen? I mean, OK—maybe it doesn’t track that yet, but we’re getting pretty close.
It gives you hard data on how invested people are in your content. And then even more data on how often people come back.
You’ll see, at a glance, if people visit your site daily, weekly, monthly, or just once in a blue moon.
If your site thrives on getting people to come back every day, this is going to invaluable.
If you’re a data analyst, you’re going to freak out over this feature. And, since I’m a data analyst, here goes.
Google Analytics 4 lets you track the user journey in ways that were never possible before.
Google has always let you setup checkout funnels and user flow maps that let you see the user journey that leads to purchases or conversion goals, but now you can do that for literally anything.
Want to see how people reach your contact form? Want to see if there’s a step that’s making them drop out before they get in touch?
You can see a user flow map for that now—and for pretty well anything else you can imagine.
You can put in any steps you’re interested in and see any insights into the customer journey that you can imagine, even if they don’t lead to a major KPI.
What features have gotten worse?
GA4 makes event tracking easy—but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
When you set up your account, you’ll automatically start tracking Google’s recommended events. You don’t have to do anything in Google Tag Manager (other than the initial setup), and you don’t have to get your developers to write any code. You just turn it on and it goes.
That’s great if you want to track Google Analytics 4’s default settings. But what if your website isn’t exactly like every other website on earth?
If you need to track something a bit more specific than “pageviews” and “file downloads,” GA4 is going to do everything in its power to make that as hard on you as physically possible.
Google Analytics 4’s documentation say that, if you track custom events, it will not display the data. That doesn’t seem to be true — tests we’ve run have found that these events do show up — but it’s not entirely clear if that’s supposed to be happening or not, and a little nerve-wracking to think that, soon, it might stop working.
When the data does come in, it’s built for programmers and analysts.
One of the things that made Universal Analytics great was that you could categorize, label, and filter your data so that it would be easy to read for marketers and executives.
That’s gone. Event categories and most of the custom labeling features have been removed, and now you just see variable names and parameters — little pieces of code that are going to be a real pain to read for anyone who can’t code.
Artificial Intelligence insights
Google Analytics 4’s AI insights are supposed to be one of the biggest selling points of the new GA. It all sounds pretty exciting on paper, so let’s take them for a test drive.
Are we really getting to a point where AI programs can give the real insights we once relied on human beings to provide?
Let’s ask Google Analytics one of its top recommended questions: “What are users doing on my site?”
They’re looking at pages. Sometimes, they’re scrolling. And, every now and then, they’re clicking on things, but we can’t tell you what.
Wow. Talk about actionable insights.
Maybe you’d better keep a data analyst on the retainer after all.
Cookies, IP addresses, and filtering
There’s a reason Google’s invested so much in GA4’s AI capabilities, and it’s got nothing to do with giving you actionable insights.
They’re turning to AI because they don’t have a choice.
Google is under increasing pressure to conform to privacy laws. More and more people are blocking cookies in their browsers and, in 2022, Google Chrome is going to be disabling third-party cookie tracking, too. That’s going to affect Google Analytics.
GA4 isn’t just about giving you new features; it’s also about conforming to the future of web privacy. It’s an app designed to work on browsers that block cookies and that anonymizes the IP information for all of your users. It’s great for privacy — but it’s not necessarily going to give you deeper insights.
A lot of the features you’re used to from the old GA—even basic things like view, filters, and event tracking—are going away with GA4.
Do you still need the old Universal Analytics account?
Short answer? Yes.
Long answer? Oh, God, yes. Absolutely. Desperately. Never let it go.
Google Analytics 4 has some cool features that let you do things that were never possible before. But it takes far more than it gives.
This is a bitter pill coated in sugar. It’s Google’s way of getting ready for a future with stricter privacy laws packaged with a few bells and whistles to make it look like an upgrade instead of a downgrade.
Those bells and whistles are great, and it’s worth setting up a GA4 account alongside your old one to get access to them. But if you don’t keep your old account active, you’re going to lose a lot of flexibility and a lot of insights.
But Google’s right about one thing—the future of analytics is changing.
Google’s cutting off support for third-party cookies in 2022, and cutting off updates to Universal Analytics effective immediately.
We’re entering a world that requires us to be CCPA and GDPR compliant, and digital companies and analysts are going to have to adapt.
Questions about GA4? Ready to speak to someone about tailored analytics for your website? Get in touch. We’d love to chat.