Google Analytics 4, or GA4, is a reimagining of the analytics platform for a world that is post page views. Many of us still think of web traffic in older terms like hits, pages, and sessions – however, the mobile space and rich internet applications have changed how the web works.
Imagine Instagram and think of a typical interaction. The infinite scroll removes pagination and page views, exchanges can be tracked by the length you pause over an image or clip, and taps – while they happen – are not the core way most users interact.
Even the concept of user sessions can seem weird when we track a popular site like Reddit, where users visit multiple times a day. All of these changes have forced us to step back and rethink how we should analyze our traffic data – and, better yet, overlap streams of data to compare websites to others, such as mobile traffic. Some Reddit users may move from the web when using a desktop to the mobile application on the run.
GA4, for the first time, allows Google analytics to pull in data streams from multiple sources and generate reports across many distinct platforms. Do you offer an e-commerce experience over the web, mobile, and tablet? We can create data streams to pull data from each source, offering a view of engagement that is more holistic than before. Goal funnels that allowed you to see abandoned cart rates now can let you compare those funnels across all platforms and see trends.
So how does this all work?
At the core of GA4 is a new focus on data streams, events, insights, and reports, all combined with a querying system that embraces the ideas of reporting platforms like PowerBI or Tableau.
In the olden days, each Google analytics account represented a website. GA4 has chosen to embrace multiple data sources and allow those data sources to live across platforms. This is excellent for a company with various brands like Gap. In this new world Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic could overlay data streams to better understand KPIs and measure trends across sibling sites.
As I described above, mixing mediums provides even more power. For folks like many of our clients with mobile and web experiences, analytics have lived in two different and distinct platforms: firebase and Google analytics. Firebase provides analytics targeted to a mobile experience. As such, they tend to focus on concepts around events: think taps or swipes. They also focus on time and intent, as many screens on a mobile application depend on how much time one has focused.
GA4 allows us to pull all these platforms together using data streams, providing a single source to view traffic and analytics across your entire portfolio of experiences.
Once upon a time, we considered interactions at a page level to give us a view of a user interacting with our content, but that is no longer granular enough. In GA4, events like JQuery or CSS selectors allow you to drill into components of a page to listen for particular types of interactions with content. GA4 also allows developers to use custom code to create unique events they may want to track.
Out of the box, google analytics helps us do this by automatically collecting tons of events. It also provides an easy interface to track enhanced events such as scrolling. Unlike automatic events, enhanced events are specific to how your website functions. For example, a blog that offers an infinite scroll to see new articles vs. pagination could use a scroll event to capture the equivalent of a new page view. Some websites may also find value in a hover action, something that may autoplay a video or animation.
You can also create custom events that tie unique interactions and track those interactions across a multitude of devices. If you look at recommended events, one can easily imagine monitoring the purchase of a product or a login interaction across mobile and the web. These events also take parameters that can capture additional insights, such as how a user logged in – did they use Google, Facebook, or Apple to log in vs. a traditional username and password?
A developer can also record custom events if the combination of automatic, enhanced, and recommended events does not cover your specific needs.
Google uses an immense amount of data to provide insights using artificial intelligence and machine learning. While how it works is a large black box, we do know that most websites use Google Analytics to track traffic and user interactions. This treasure trove of data allows Google to learn more about how our customers interact with the web and your competing website than any other company. It also can use this data to give us new trends or correlations that we may otherwise miss.
These correlations are interesting, but it can be hard to make them actionable. For example, analytics might notice that iPad users have a higher likely hood of completing a purchase.
I avoid using most company websites to complete commerce transactions and prefer a mobile device and an app. The app experience of using Touch or Face ID to unlock and easily store card options makes it much quicker. It’s not abnormal for me to shop on one device and complete a transaction on another. Analytics insights can help you find these trends.
You can also create custom insights to see correlations quickly. For example, if revenue is up in the last hour or if conversions are strong in the state of New York.
To complete this move, Google Analytics hopes that we reconsider how we view a website or mobile app to determine success. To do this, it is eliminating many of the default reports and dashboards we have come to expect. Gone are views that reference antiquated terms like page views and instead, a powerful custom reporting tool that allows you to build reports that better reflect the KPIs you use to measure success.
If you, like many, already have the older version of Google Analytics, migrating can be pretty easy and painless. First, off the existing google tag you installed will work for both Universal Analytics and the new GA4. Once done and associated as a data stream GA4 will also attempt to analyze site traffic to determine events and provide information it thinks you will find helpful. Of course, you can also customize events as discussed earlier to better track specific interactions.
The biggest concern is that the data structures that underly GA4 is very, very different than the old GA. This means that you can not move previous data over. In this sense, it is less of a migration than a new and different GA4 setup.
If this historical data is valuable or something you hope to refer to in the future, I recommend exporting GA data before the planned July cut-off.