On Wednesday 16th March 2022, Google officially announced the sunset date for Universal Analytics (UA / GA3).
Since Google Analytics 4 (GA4) officially launched as the default Google Analytics solution in October 2020, it's really no surprise that Google has given us an end date to UA. In this blog post, I will cover what this means for your current Google Analytics accounts, what you need to do to prepare for the change, and what you can do to help your future self.
So, what actually is happening?
Last week, Google released a statement regarding their plans for Universal Analytics (UA). In their statement, they announced that on the 1st July 2023, UA will stop tracking any new hits. In addition to this, all historical data in UA will be accessible for at least six months after this.
So from July next year, UA will no longer collect any data from your website: GA4 will be the only Google Analytics tool you can use on your websites and apps. All historical data that has been collected in UA will be available for at least six months, suggesting that there will come a point when the website data we've been collecting over the years will not be available to us anymore!
In the past, when newer Google Analytics tools have been released, older tracking methods have still worked (i.e. analytics.js and gtag global site tags), and backwards compatibility in terms of data history has always been available. Even though this may seem quite daunting, there are a number of things you can do now to prepare for July 2023.
What are the differences between UA and GA4?
Since the release of GA4 in October 2020, people have noted many differences between UA and GA4. Here are (in my humble opinion) the top 3 biggest differences between the two tools:
- The user interface: Even though it's a simple change, it's a big one. It's already clear that users find it much harder to navigate through GA4 compared to UA. This could just be due to the fact UA has been around for so long and so we're used to it. However, tools update their user interface all the time, so why are people struggling with this change so much? This leads me nicely onto my next point…
- Fewer ‘out-of-the-box' reports: Once you know where to look, UA has most of the standard reports you could ever need to help you answer all types of questions, from ‘what products did I sell last week?' to ‘where are users starting their journey on my site?' Taking UA's landing page report as an example, in GA4 there actually isn't a standard built-in report to show us this! Twitter user Dana DiTomaso has an extremely useful Twitter thread about how to recreate a landing page report in GA4. Even finding something as simple as a landing page report is quite convoluted in GA4.
- Data collection model: Perhaps the biggest difference between UA and GA4 is how your actual website data is collected, stored, and presented back to you. With UA, there are many different hit types, including page hits, eCommerce hits, and event hits. In contrast, GA4 is based solely on event hits, with the idea that any interaction on your website can be captured as an event. Even the way events are captured in GA4 is different from UA (there's no longer a need for your event categories, actions, and labels). Related to how data is modelled and collected, there are a number of things that are now automated with GA4, including IP anonymisation of users. I have outlined some optional automated events that can be tracked later on in the blog. There are many other differences between UA and GA4, and if you'd like a more comprehensive list, head to Optimize Smart's useful post for all the info.
What can I do now?
If you haven't already, you should get yourself set up with a Google Analytics 4 account. The best way to implement GA4 is through Google Tag Manager (GTM), so if you don't have a GTM account already, it is time to make one!
To start, you should set up the general GA4 configuration tag; this tracks page views as standard and gives you the option to automatically track scrolls, outbound link clicks, site search, video engagements, and file downloads. Already we can see an improvement in both the types of actions that can be tracked automatically as well as the ease of setting this particular tracking up.
Once you've set up the configuration tag, if applicable, you should also set up a purchase event tag to capture all eCommerce data on your site. Again, this can be done through GTM.
What can I do next?
Now you're collecting data in both your UA and GA4 property, you can start to think about the future. Here are some questions you can answer to give you an idea of how you can future-proof your setup.
- Do you have lots of historical website data you'd like to keep from UA? Start planning how you can download and store any useful metrics from your UA property.
- Are there any other website metrics or user interactions you'd like to track that aren't covered in the GA4 general config or purchase event? Create a tracking plan of all the custom events you'd like to add.
- Are there any specific reports/questions you'd like to learn how to find the answers to in GA4?
Ask yourself a question and see if you can find the answer by only using GA4 reports. You can create custom reports for questions you know you'll be asking again and again, so you can find the answers with ease the next time. Familiarise yourself with the tool and its reporting capabilities, as it is vastly different to UA.
I'm still not totally convinced…
You're not alone in thinking this is a big change from Google - because it is! Even though right now there will be some concerns around historical data retention, ticketing and eCommerce platforms integrating with GA4 in a useful way, and simply getting to grips with an essentially new tool, there are a lot of good things that will come out of using GA4.
The Universal Analytics data collection model is almost 20 years old, and GA4 has a new model that makes it easier to interrogate the data in more useful ways (even if it doesn't feel like so at first). Privacy is also becoming more and more important in the online world, and user privacy is at the heart of GA4's model. Not only this, but with the use of AI and once enough data is collected, GA4 has trend prediction capabilities that will provide actionable insights to all areas of your business.
It will take some time and hard work from us all, but once we've got to grips with GA4 we'll be in a whole new world of data - analysing and answering questions we could have only dreamt of before. Trust me, one day UA will be just a nostalgic distant memory and we'll wonder how we ever lived without GA4.
We are here to help
As this is one of Google's biggest changes to Google Analytics in its history, it's no surprise we're all feeling a little overwhelmed with where to even start. But that's what we're here for! Whether you need help with setting up a new GA4 property, want to have some training on how to best use the reporting features of GA4, or even just want help planning how you can consolidate all of your existing historical data from UA, please do just get in touch.
If you're one of our existing clients, I started the process of setting everyone up with a GA4 account, so you may have already heard from me. If you haven't heard from me yet, don't worry! I will be in touch very soon with all the details about your new GA4 account.
As always, if there's anything else you'd like to talk to me about, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org