This post offers the nuts and bolts explanations about Google Analytics 4 updates and features that have changed since the previous version, Universal Analytics, sunsetting soon. Consider this a handy feature-change cheat sheet for GA4 updates.
We’ve written extensively about Google Analytics 4, but we wanted to sum things up nice and neat for brands who are migrating right now. We’re opting not to throw screenshots in this post to keep the list tight, but we can certainly walk you through things if you need more visual signposts.
Note: If you’re not sure whether you should migrate, it’s the perfect time to take our free assessment and get individualized considerations and a step-by-step guide to help you plan and execute your transition to GA4.
What problems do GA4 updates solve?
Google Analytics 4 was designed to help marketers understand user behavior in a world of restricted and blocked cookies. Here are the two main problems that GA4 solves for.
- Applications- We’ve moved away from static websites: single-page and mobile applications are now huge. UA wasn’t built to measure engagement on these, so GA4 integrates with Firebase Analytics—using the event-driven data model—to do that. The result: You can now better describe behavior, measure user engagement, and seamlessly roll-up data across websites and mobile applications.
- Privacy- It’s getting harder to identify users. GA4 builds on top of Google Signals and Data Modeling to apply machine learning that repairs known data gaps caused by cookie restrictions. It provides predictive audiences and insights. The result: You can now better identify and understand audiences and target ads, even without traditional cookies.
What GA4 features have changed?
- Account Structure
- Data Streams: Within each property, there are now data streams. These are now where you’ll find your measurement ID, and they combine your web and app data.
- Sub-properties: These are only available in GA4 360, and they let you look at a subset of your property. Sub-properties can filter data and user access, similar to a view.
- Roll-up properties: Also only available in GA4 360. Similar to existing roll-up properties, these roll up multiple other property data
- App and Web Data Combined
Say you have a web data stream, an iOS app data stream, and an Android data stream. GA4’s Firebase links these and rolls these up into one single property.
- New Data Model: Everything is an Event!
The event-centric data mode is flexible and simple enough to apply to all different types of websites and mobile apps. Big differences you’ll notice in this model: All hit types (notably pageview hits) are now event level, event level events are still events, the category/action/label is retired. Everything is an event!
- Built-in Events
There are automatically collected events (both web and app). Three that span both web and app are session start, first visit, and user engagement (which is the vehicle for the engagement time parameter). These can not be turned off because they’re essential to standard reporting.
- Enhanced Measurement
Built-in events specifically for websites deliver automatically enhanced measurement. These include a lot of go-to events that people typically set up as custom events, so it’s a big help that they’re out of the box. You can’t alter these, but you can turn them up and set up a custom event in its place using GTM or the gtag.
- User Engagement Focused Metrics
Bounce rate, pages/session, and average session duration have been replaced with engaged session metrics, qualified by a user being actively engaged with your website or app in the foreground for at least 10 seconds, a conversion event firing, or 2 or more screen or page views firing. These flexible new metrics are also applicable across all types of websites and apps.
- GA4 Conversions vs. UA Goals
Conversions (formerly ‘Goals’) setup is now based solely on events (every time an event happens vs. whether this thing happens in a session) with easy activation via toggle feature. These are your most important events that are set apart in reporting, and they often inform Google Ads optimization.
You get 30 conversions with GA4 standard and 50 with GA4 360. Since these are now just based on events, they’ve lost their Goal logic—so you can no longer say, “I want this event to be a conversion IF this parameter = whatever.”
- Event Creation and Modification within User Interface
An analyst or marketer can now easily create a new event based on an existing event (i.e., specific pageview based on page_view event sent from GTM) without developer help or GTM knowledge. You can also modify existing events (i.e., event name change). These automated events and event creation features are really convenient, but you can still set events specific business needs using Google Tag Manager or manually using the gtag.
- Custom Dimensions
These are the parameters set along with your events that translate to your GA4 reporting. In GA4, these can only be event- or user-scoped right now. Product- and session-scoped options are on the roadmap for the future.
In GA4 Standard, you get 25 per event and 50 event-scoped custom dimensions and custom metrics per property. For GA4 360, you get 100 per event and 125 event-scoped custom dimensions and custom metrics per property. In UA you got 20 in the free version and 200 in 360. This means you need to think strategically through the names of these custom dimensions so that you can potentially reuse them for custom events. We’ve thought a lot about this and can help if you need it.
- Three New User Groups
- Audiences: Saved subset of users targeted in Google ads. Not retroactive, typically under a time limit, e.g., If someone added an item to their cart but didn’t purchase it, you could add them to a specific audience, target them with a specific ad for 30 days, then they would fall out of this audience. You get 100 audiences with GA 4 standard and 400 with GA4 360.
- Segments: Like UA segments, but they’re now specific to Explore reporting, not standard reporting. Can be saved, and are retroactive since their purpose is for analytics vs ad targeting. Can build an audience based on a segment. 10 allowed per exploration.
- Comparisons: Temporary subset of users that can be used for quick comparisons in standard reporting. Retroactive. Can build a segment off a comparison if you want to keep it.
- Audience Trigger
Saved audiences now have a trigger function that fires an event when a new member joins an audience. This makes it easy to see how many leads have been generated during a time period from a certain action.
- Enhanced User Identification
Google Signals, Google’s identity software, can recognize users as they navigate across devices if they’re logged into a Google account and if they’ve enabled ads personalization. This enables robust cross-device user identification across a user’s journey—without site login. It must be turned on in the Admin section—it’s not enabled automatically.
Google Signals Used as Reporting Identity
Now, instead of just being used for retargeting, Google Signals can provide the identifier that’s used to calculate users in your GA4 reports. GA4 gives you the option of leveraging logged-in userid identifier (if collected); then, if they can’t be authenticated that way, they’re identified by Google Signals; then, if they can’t be authenticated by either of those two, it falls back to the device cookie to best identify distinct ‘users’ in reports.
Google Signals and Machine Learning Used for Conversion Modeling
Now, you can model what your unidentified users did (currently being played out in conversion modeling) and what they’re probably going to do. In GA4, if there are gaps in your data where users can’t be identified BUT there’s enough observable data to model from, Google will apply machine learning to predict what will probably happen.
This helps attributions be more accurate, rather than dumping anything that can’t be attributed into the ‘Direct’ channel. This is why it’s really important to start tracking your GA4 data ASAP, so you have a full year’s worth of data when UA sunsets to do accurate comparisons.
Google Signals and Machine Learning Used for Predictive Audiences
Now, GA4 can predict which users are probably going to convert or drop off soon. Predictive audiences are built on behaviors such as buying or churning. As with the previous feature change, Predictive Audiences requires sufficient data history to be able to accurately make predictions, so pitter-patter, start tracking ASAP.
Note: We offer a Google Analytics Historic Data Migration Solution. Read about it here, and reach out if this seems right for you.
Search Discovery is a Google Premier Partner and has been a certified Google Analytics 360 sales partner since 2012. This means we can offer competitive pricing for GA4 360. For both the paid and free versions, we can help you transfer your historic data as you implement, perform tagging updates, train your teams, and integrate your media platforms. We started migrating clients to GA4 during the beta program in 2019, and we make the process quick and efficient for you.