GA4 Essentials: A Comprehensive Guide for Digital Marketing Professionals
When you hear about GA4, what are the first words that come to your mind? Take a moment to think about it, and perhaps even write them down.
As digital marketing professionals, we all have our own unique thoughts and feelings about GA4. For me, the words “fear,” “mystery,” and “excitement” immediately come to mind.
- Fear because GA4 represents a significant departure from the familiar Universal Analytics we’ve all grown accustomed to.
- Mystery because it introduces new features and concepts that might seem overwhelming and confusing at first glance.
- Excitement because GA4 presents us with a powerful new tool that can help us better understand user behaviour, improve our marketing strategies, and ultimately grow our businesses.
Although you will need to experiment with GA4 and probably spend countless hours using it to become a true GA4 master, with this comprehensive guide on GA4 Essentials, I aim to help you feel more comfortable with this new Analytics solution.
As Google has announced, Universal Analytics will stop processing data on July 1, 2023, and it’s essential to switch to GA4 as soon as possible to ensure a seamless experience.
We will explore GA4’s features and functionalities together, covering the following main sections:
Table of Contents
- What is GA4
- What Changed With GA4: Account Structure
- What Changed With GA4: Standard Features
- What Changed With GA4: Metrics
- What Changed With GA4: The New Explore Section
- What Changed With GA4: Custom Reports (within the library)
- What Changed With GA4: Events and Conversions
- What Changed With GA4: Attribution Models
- What Changed With GA4: E-commerce Tracking
- What Changed With GA4: Google Signals
- What Changed With GA4: The Google Tag
- GA4 Remaining Pain Points
What is GA4
Google Analytics 4, or GA4 (released in October 2020), is set to replace Universal Google Analytics (launched in 2012) as the unique analytics product offered by Google Analytics.
GA4 was developed and launched to provide marketers with a reliable, privacy-compliant solution in accordance with privacy protection laws like GDPR and CCPA. Unlike Universal Analytics, GA4 relies solely on first-party cookies for data collection.
Universal Analytics utilised various types of cookies to track users, enabling multi-device tracking, multi-channel attribution, and the creation of detailed user segments.
With the shift to GA4, these features will now be powered by machine learning and predictive analytics, which, although less accurate than before, allows for better compliance with privacy regulations.
What Changed With GA4: Account Structure
In UA, we used to have three different levels in the account structure:
Account > Property > View
Views were used to track different applications such as websites, mobile applications, or a subdomain. They were also used to have different levels of tracking settings for the same application. It was common in UA to see a Raw Data view, a Master or Reporting view, and a Test view.
In GA4, we no longer have views since all the “streams”, such as a website or a mobile application, are supposed to all be centralised under one property:
Almost all previously available settings in views are now available at the property level in GA4.
What Changed With GA4: Standard Features
The organisation of the reporting features has completely changed. You’ll need to go into the “Reports” section to access the types of reports you were used to in UA, such as Real-Time, Audience, Acquisition, Behaviour and Conversions.
Quite simple and easy, except that almost all these types of reports have been renamed:
This new labelling may look confusing because it is meant to include different types of reports for both web and mobile applications. That’s why in the monetisation report category, we can see a section dedicated to In-app purchases:
These labels, such as “Monetisation” or “Acquisition”, are now called “Collections.”
The way we can manipulate the data in the reports has also changed. If we go to the Traffic Acquisition report (the equivalent of the UA Acquisition > All traffic > Channels report), we can see the below modifications:
- We no longer have segments at the very top of the dashboard. Instead, we can add several levels of comparisons.
- We can simply filter the data If we don’t want to compare datasets.
- The date dropdown widget is slightly different but should not cause much trouble.
- Comparisons can also be edited from this section, and our main options in Universal GA have been grouped and nested behind nice icons. If you don’t like how your acquisition dashboard looks, you can change it by clicking on the pencil icon.
What Changed With GA4: Metrics
The most significant changes to be aware of in GA4 concern the metrics we will all use in our report:
- Users: UA has two User metrics (Total Users and New Users), while GA4 has three (Total Users, Active Users, and New Users). GA4 focuses on Active Users as the primary user metric, whereas UA focused on Total Users.
- Pageviews: UA and GA4 report pageviews similarly, but GA4 combines both web and app data in the same property, while UA measures screen views in separate mobile-specific properties.
- Purchases: Web purchase counts should match closely between UA and GA4, but there are differences in how the purchase events are fired and collected.
- Sessions: Unlike UA, GA4 does not restart sessions at midnight or when new campaign parameters are encountered.
- Conversions: UA supports five goal types, while GA4 only supports conversion events. UA counts only one conversion per session for the same goal, while GA4 usually counts multiple conversions per session for the same conversion event (this can be customised, though).
- Bounce Rate: UA calculates bounce rate as the percentage of single-page sessions with no interaction, while GA4 calculates it as the percentage of sessions that were not engaged sessions. Also, GA4 is pushing for the use of the User Engagement metric.
- Event Count: UA events have a Category, Action, and Label and are their own hit type, while GA4 events have no notion of Category, Action, or Label, and all actions are events. In GA4, events have parameters instead.
You can find more information in Google’s documentation.
What Changed With GA4: The New Explore Section
One of the main changes we can see in manipulating the data in GA4 is the creation of the Explore section.
GA4 exploration is a more advanced feature marketers can use to dig deeper into their analytics data.
It can be overwhelming when we open it for the first time, but it can be convenient to uncover specific insights or better understand what is being tracked in an e-commerce report.
Creating and storing the custom exploration reports you wish to share with other users looking at the same GA4 account is recommended.
Unfortunately, the default reports available in GA4 have quite essential limitations. One of them is that turning the line chart into a monthly-based line is impossible. If you need specific reports like a monthly line chart, that’s where you’ll need to go to the explore section.
In the early days of GA4, the exploration feature was the only way to create reports similar to the ones we had in UA.
Nowadays, the default report section is quite comprehensive. Therefore, using the exploration may not be necessary for most GA4 users. And if you need to amend the basic reports view, you can now create your reports.
What Changed With GA4: Custom Reports (within the library)
At the bottom of the Reports view, you will find a subsection called Library:
In there, you will be able to create custom reports and visualise the data the way you prefer. These custom reports differ from exploration reports as they are less advanced or comprehensive. But they can be quite helpful to build reports that will look like the UA reports you may be used to.
You can jump in there and hit the Create new report button, and you’ll be asked to create either an overview report or a detail report. Here you can add different cards reporting on different elements in overview reports.
You can create new reports based on existing templates (the reports you already have in your current collections) or create them from scratch.
It seems better to create them from an existing template because when created from scratch, historical data won’t be available (it could be just a bug).
What’s great about these custom reports is that you can also create custom collections and store your reports there:
What Changed With GA4: Events and Conversions
By default, GA4 is installing several events, and at the installation steps, it also proposes enhanced measurement.
Suggested measurements (based on the default events)
If you have a highly customised website with many different types of forms, for example, you will need to edit these events to ensure they track the data properly. But, overall, you can trust most of these events by default.
If additional events need to be added for a web application, you can create them from Google Tag Manager or directly into GA4. At the moment using Google Tag Manager is still the preferred method.
You can find all the events in the dedicated section in the property sub-menu:
Any event can be turned into a conversion directly from this dashboard. And you can easily create custom events out of the default ones for most of the conversions you’ll need to track, simply because almost all interactions you can have on a website are being tracked and stored by default (especially clicks).
What Changed With GA4: Attribution Models
As we mentioned earlier, attribution models have changed with GA4. Due to the lack of third-party cookies in the GA4 tracking system, it is now impossible for Google to precisely know where a user reached a specific website for the first time from.
GA4 is pushing marketers to use the user_ID custom dimension to track attribution with precision. user_ID is a unique alphanumerical value attributed to users when they enter their email address somewhere (it could be another unique key, but the email address is used most of the time).
This means that when a user gets a unique user_ID, no matter where he came from, as long as we can recognise his email address, GA4 will be able to connect all these different sessions together.
On most websites, people do not leave any e-mail address anywhere as they don’t need to log in to the website. How can we play with attribution in such cases?
This is where we have to rely on Google Analytics Machine Learning & Predictive Analytics capabilities.
By default, the attribution settings will be set on the “Data-driven” attribution model.
You can read more about this attribution model in the Google documentation.
Still, this machine learning model will try to calculate the conversion attributions by balancing what it measured and what could have occurred (based on predictive analysis). It is recommended to use this method as it will keep being updated and improved by Google Analytics.
What Changed With GA4: E-commerce Tracking
Nothing much changed within the e-commerce reports except for adding the mobile app monetisation reports.
The way we track the purchases and the funnel has changed, though, as it is now 100% based on events.
For that reason, by default, the possibility of better purchase funnel tracking has been enhanced. We now can easily see all the steps a user may go through within the cart. It is possible to track the billing address field step, for example, and to know if any errors occurred at this stage. The same goes for any field to fill or action to go through to get to the checkout confirmation page.
With user_IDs integrated into GA4, and the possibility to upload external data, it is possible to feed your GA4 property with data coming from your CRM or from the software you use to track paid subscriptions to keep calculating the lifetime value of a specific user.
GA4 aims to become the platform where marketers can easily integrate all the data they have on their audience, prospects and clients.
What Changed With GA4: Google Signals
Google Signals is a Google product that is integrated with GA4. It is the product that will allow marketers to keep doing the following:
- Audience creation
- Cross-domain tracking
- Cross-device tracking
In a nutshell, it is the way Google will operate first-party cookies.
The data collected by Google Signals is aggregated and anonymised, meaning you would still benefit from third-party cookies features but without third-party cookies. Although, the accuracy of the data collection may not be as precise as it used to be.
It is essential to activate Google Signals by enabling the Ad Personalization feature in GA4. This can be enabled from the setup assistant panel.
What Changed With GA4: The Google Tag
Back in the day, we used to have many different types of Google tags. We had the Google Analytics tag, the Google Ads tag, the Google Manager tag, etc.
Well, now there’s only one tag, The Google tag. This is so new that when you search for “Google tag” on Google, you get Google Tag Manager ranking at the top of the SERP:
Here is the link to the Google doc related to the Google tag.
I believe this was released because Google really wanted people to start using GA4 instead of UA, so they created a solution to allow people to integrate the Google Tag directly from the Google Analytics interface.
And while developing this technology, they thought it would be a good idea to integrate all the other Google tags.
It does not mean we won’t need GTM anymore. Google Tag Manager will still be the best place to handle the different trackings, especially the ones from other vendors such as Meta, TikTok or any A/B testing solution.
GA4 Remaining Pain Points
Unfortunately, all the data that was previously collected in Universal Analytics will be lost unless it is exported and stored on a server (or with Google Sheets)
While we have access to a Real-Time report, for some reason, we can’t have precise data in the common reports for the same day and even for the previous day. This will hopefully be fixed at some point.
Currently, the visualisations in the common reports could be better and can’t be customised.
People are complaining a lot about many UX issues.
- One of them is that if you get a report supposed to list URLs, the column will need to be bigger to display the full URL.
- Others are complaining about the monthly line charts that are no longer, by default, available in the standard reports.
- There are too many remaining small issues to list them all here.
Transitioning to GA4 might seem daunting, but there’s no need to be apprehensive. The new interface is more manageable than you might think. However, ensuring that your current GA4 property is well-integrated and taking advantage of all available features, such as Google Signals and Ad Personalisation, is crucial.
The sooner you familiarise yourself with the new interface, the better off you’ll be.
If you’re not a regular user of Google Analytics, stick to your Google Data Studio reports and leave GA4 configuration and customisation to more advanced users. Google Data Studio, or other data visualisation tools like Tableau and PowerBI, will consistently provide better analytics intelligence than Google Analytics.
If you have any questions about GA4 or need assistance with your data migration, feel free to reach out to our team of experts. We’re here to help you make the most of this powerful analytics platform and ensure a seamless transition for your digital marketing efforts.
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