Preparing for Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
Posted: August 29, 2022
About two years ago, Google started working on their new Analytics software: Google Analytics 4, or GA4. Then this March they announced a deadline. On July 1, 2023, Google is retiring your historic and current Google Analytics account (also known as Universal Analytics, or UA) to move everyone over to GA4. This is a very important deadline and one that you should be preparing for now if you haven’t started yet.
Now why is that, and what do these changes mean? On that day, your current account will no longer record any data. You’ll have no information on how many people are visiting the website, where they came from, what pages they’re looking at, or what actions they’re taking – including conversions, like filling out an RFI form. We want to make sure that you have all of that information (and more) so that you know how your website and marketing campaigns are performing. Here is what setting up the new GA4 account today will ensure:
- You’ll keep receiving all of your Analytics data after the deadline (just in a new place).
- You’ll have historic trending in place, in order to understand things like year over year application increases.
- Your digital marketing campaigns can run without interruption. Currently you might have features like goal tracking or website visitor remarketing lists that rely on that UA set-up, and therefore wouldn’t work after July 1, 2023.
While that setup is incredibly important, it’s not the easiest process. GA4 is quite different from UA, and in some ways, it can seem a little more difficult to use. That’s why we want to walk you through how to set up that account, how to get everything in place before the deadline, and how to start using GA4 for your reporting and website analysis.
Creating a GA4 Account
Fortunately, while fully setting up the account has some fiddly details, creating the account itself is simple. Log into your Google Analytics account and go to the admin panel. There, you’ll see a link for the GA4 Setup Assistant.
From here you’ll click on “get started” and create the property. An important note here: Typically, you would need to add a new tracking code to the website in order for the GA4 property to receive data. You do not have to pause and do that in order to create the account. In fact, it’s usually easier to get your account set up and then add the code. After that, you’ll want to wait until some traffic has been recorded in order to a) make sure you are getting data and the code works and b) test out the new event tracking. Google says that it can take up to 30 minutes after code installation for data to start appearing in the new property. In our experience, giving it a full day (24 hours) guarantees you’ll have enough data to truly test things.
Once you click “create property,” it exists! This is the full list of items that Google recommends reviewing and implementing in the new property, and we do recommend working with your web or marketing team to move over any unique customizations you had in UA, like custom dimensions or referral exclusions.
That said, these are the four most important and universally needed items to take care of:
- Add the new tracking code.
- Activate Google signals.
- Link associated accounts.
- Set up conversions and events.
To get the new tracking installed, go to the Data Streams tab and you’ll find the code for your web team to implement. If you have Google Tag Manager installed on your site, you can actually use that to add the code yourself in just a few minutes.
Next, under Property Settings in the Setup Assistant, you can turn on Google Signals, as well as manage users and set up conversions (but we’ll come back to conversions last) Activating Google Signals captures important data about your users and is especially crucial for remarketing campaigns. Correspondingly, this is also where you can set up audience lists. This segments the data for not only remarketing but also current campaigns, like targeting prospective students who are similar to those visiting your STEM program pages.
Also in the Setup Assistant, you’ll want to associate your other google accounts. Linking to Google Ads and Search Console will provide you more information about your users, like what content Display ad users read or what organic keywords brought people to the website. This is also where you can import CRM data or link to other third-party resources like BigQuery. For all of these steps, it’s just a few clicks built right into the admin panel as displayed here:
At this point in the process, you’ve accomplished a lot! You are set up to receive all the standard analytics data and are now building the historic reference before that 2023 deadline. The one thing left to do here is create or move over your conversion tracking: goals and events. While this is obviously crucial for ROI modeling, it’s also unfortunately the most confusing part and not just a few clicks like we’ve done with everything else. In fact, the exact steps here are going to be custom to your website and your tracking. But there are three key things to keep in mind:
- Import all possible UA goals. GA4 does have this built in and sometimes you can accomplish everything you need in a few clicks. In other instances, conversions can’t be immediately transferred over (more info in step two). Keep in mind that GA4 will rename those events to follow its own naming conventions. These names are similar enough (such as “pdf downloads”), but the different format is something to be aware of.
- Create any new goals. Another thing to keep in mind: GA4 cannot always import certain conversions. Those will need to be created anew. That being said, this is a great opportunity to review your current set-up and make sure you have everything you need, such as adding in events to measure mobile clicks on phone numbers or getting rid of an old goal that no longer works. In total, you can have 30 conversions in your GA4 property. (A nice upgrade from 20 per view in UA.)
- Update current event tracking to GA4. Now, this brings up a crucial difference in UA vs GA4. Historically in UA, goals could be many different things. A goal could be a hard-coded event, or you might use a goal set-up that was built into the framework like a destination goal (a visit to a thank you page). In GA4, everything is an event. Even a visit to that thank you page. Now from a reporting perspective that doesn’t really matter; you’ll still be measuring the same important website action as before. But what you do need to consider is if you have any events on your website that were not goals – and thus weren’t just imported over For example, you might be tracking a PDF download. That event tracking, whether hard-coded on the website or in GTM, needs to be edited to not only send data to your old UA account, but also the new GA4 account. Otherwise, that data won’t be sent to the right place. As some good news, GA4 does have some additional events built in for you! For example, users no longer have to manually add scroll depth tracking to see who engages with at least 90% of the page.
Using a GA4 Account
Goals aren’t the only thing different about Google Analytics 4. GA4 doesn’t just look different, it also shares different information. Some reports you’re used to have to be created manually, and even some of the specific metrics have changed. For example, GA4 is getting rid of what we considered bounce rate. Instead there’s a new metric of engagement rate which looks at users who converted, viewed at least two pages, or interacted with the page for longer than ten seconds. The opposite of this engagement is the new bounce rate, and those are fairly similar ways to see what pages kept a user’s interest, but they clearly aren’t identical. All of these changes mean you may need to rethink much of your reporting methodology. Because of this, let’s evaluate how to use GA4 with those big changes and why Google is making them.
UA was built on cookies. Fundamentally, the program worked by identifying every interaction with a website via a generated ID and that worked pretty well for a long time. But UA has run into more and more issues, necessitating to Google the need for GA4. For one, there are (rightfully so) concerns about privacy and cookie tracking that Google is trying to get ahead of. But even if that wasn’t a problem, tracking by cookies isn’t perfect.
To explain: when you first visit a website, you are recorded with an ID and every time you come back, the website can track that “user 123 in North Carolina has been looking at MBA programs.” But that requires “user 123” to always be using the same browser and the same device or at least the same logins. We know that’s not how people exist online. They use Chrome on one computer, Firefox on their tablet, and Safari on a phone – and it might not even be the same person using all of those devices. It can be a mess.
So GA4 drops some data, like IP addresses, in favor of measuring more holistically across web and mobile devices. Rather than breaking data up by different sessions and different browsers, everything is reorganized into the series of events a user takes across your website – like reading a program page, downloading scholarship information, and then filling out an application.
Long term, this is going to make GA4 better. But it does completely revamp the analysis process, and so we recommend getting used to GA4 now so that you can get comfortable with it and compare it to current UA data to really understand how your long-term reporting might shift. The below screenshots compare the two accounts. You can see how much is built into UA as go-to information compared to the broader grouping of GA4 and the need to custom build the reports you want to look at most often.
This actually brings up three important takeaways.
- GA4 has just outright dropped some features, ones not connected to the whole cookie privacy debate. We already mentioned the changes to bounce rate, but GA4 is also getting rid of things like annotations, custom channel groupings, and scheduled email reports.
- Along with some features and metrics, the biggest change outside of the session-to-events model is the fact that GA4 is only a property. So, in Universal Analytics you would have your property (the account for your website), and you could have several configured views. GA4 does not have these views. You instead have to segment out that data into reports within the same property. If that’s currently an important feature for you, we recommend setting those reports up now to have them ready to go.
- In GA4’s defense: It is still in development. It’s ready to use, but Google is constantly adding new features, so don’t take what it looks like and can do today as the permanent state of affairs. The goal import functionality is actually pretty new, for example. So if you feel right now like GA4 looks pretty stripped-down… you’re not wrong. But, it is adding new features all the time! And it does have a lot of what you want already, it’s just tucked away rather than front-and-center.
- But back to one last piece of bad news. After the July 2023 deadline you’ll still have access to the old UA data for about six months. But Google has announced that they will start deleting that historic UA data on or around January 1, 2024. This means you need to create a plan to archive all of that data well ahead of the end of next year, or you risk losing all of your historic information.
So knowing that GA4 looks and acts differently, what reports do you want to make and have ready? While there are always custom reports particular to your needs, these four are universally important but not easy to immediately view in GA4:
- Who are your users?
- Where are they coming from?
- What content are they interacting with?
- Are they turning into prospective students?
And for any report, we have here a screenshot of a crucial feature. This widget, available at the top of almost every section in GA4, is where you can:
- Add a comparison. This corresponds to segments in UA (although custom segments are also still available). For example, you can compare organic users to paid users and see who is driving more RFI forms.
- Change the date range.
- Share the report you’ve made, as a link or download.
- View insights. Analytics Intelligence has been moved over and improved from UA and is an easy way to make GA generate a report for you. It has built-in insights, or you can ask it questions just like a Google search (“compare new users from paid search vs organic search”) and it’ll take you right to that data.
- Customize report. This is where we will build and save each custom report we’ll need.
To understand who your users are, you’ll visit the demographics section and customize the report. This is where you can add or create “cards,” which are pre-defined ways to splice data. We recommend creating a report of users by age, users by state, and users by city. This way you understand who is getting to your website and if you’re successfully engaging them with your content. The good news is that for all reports, the cards make it very easy to drag and drop in the most crucial data in a clean and easy to view way. Just click to add as much as you want, remove what you don’t need, or click “edit” to get into the more granular details on configuring that section of the report.
The downside is that getting detailed data does take more work. Right now in UA, if you went to look at users by city you’d see users, new users, average session duration, bounce rate, and more. GA4 is reduced. It’s designed with the idea that most users probably only need to know a few things at a time: core information like users and conversions. You’ll have to manually edit each table to build out additional information and even then, that metric list is much smaller than what you’re used to.
For example, there’s not “session duration” or “bounce rate,” just “engaged session.” One way to think of GA4 reporting is that it’s fast and easy to put together a quick slide on top performance for the board no matter how familiar you are with any analytics software – but a little limited and reduced for power users in the typical reports.
Measuring the source of where our users came from is crucial. This lets us measure how well our marketing strategies are working, whether that’s how much organic traffic we’re getting from SEO or whether Snapchat or TikTok is driving more RFI submissions. Under the Acquisitions report, you’ll by default get a report on the source of campaigns. Editing this will allow you to see the source and medium, like Google organic versus Bing organic traffic. To drill down further, you can add in the session campaign. This is really useful for measuring paid advertising, as this splices out data by campaign, like traditional undergraduate versus adult education targeting in Google Ads. To splice out by each ad within campaigns, you’ll add a column called “session manual ad content”. (This name has been changed from just “Ad Content” in UA).
Content engagement is really important because it lets us know what pages people are looking at, how well that content is doing, and what pages are prompting important conversion actions. This has been moved to the Engagement section of GA4, and thankfully needs very little customization to use. By default, you’ll have not only the top pages but also how many views you received, how long they were engaged, how many people scrolled down at least 90% – a brand new reporting feature – and how many times the page prompted an event.
You can customize this report by landing page, to see what content is drawing users into the website, and – like all reports – add additional filters to view the pages by demographic data or source. Now, another frequent report people look at for content is the page path – what pages people clicked on as they moved around the website. This you won’t find in the Reports section. Instead, you’ll want to check out the Explore tab for a built-in “path exploration” report.
Tip: If you can’t figure out how to edit or create a report you’re used to, it’s probably hidden away in the Explorations section. GA4 provides a lot of templates and allows you to create new in depth reports here. This is also where you would create custom segments to apply elsewhere in Google Analytics. Why can this section build more powerful reports than the section called “reports?” That’s a mystery only Google can answer. But we do recommend exploring this section to see the new features GA4 offers.
Last, but perhaps most important, the Engagement tab is also where you’ll find out how your website goals are performing. GA4 has this split out into events and conversions like UA, with “conversions” being those events you define as conversion actions. Do be cautious on the difference here. Because GA4 exists on everything being an event (even page views) you don’t want to inflate success with false data because historically your events have been important website actions. A lot of “events” don’t automatically translate to a successful week of traffic.
You’ll see that GA4 lets you click into an event or conversion for additional data. Unfortunately, you can’t edit that default report. This is another time where the Exploration tab is more useful. In the above example, we’re creating an Exploration report together. Add a new report and then select the “event name” and “event count” as the primary dimension and metric. From there, you can add any additional ways to understand the information, like the traffic source of that conversion.
After selecting the data you’d like to see, the table here will populate and you can right click on any particular event or conversion in the table to drill down into it and get even more information. We’ve done that on the right to zoom into a particular career-focused conversion. That right-click action is not intuitive or easily visible, so we wanted to explain it here as a helpful tip! Right click again to “exclude” that visualization and get back to the main table. With this set up, you’ll have all you need to zoom in and out of your conversions and have that report saved for ongoing reporting.
Hopefully our explanation of report customization here doesn’t seem too complicated. The fact is, GA4 is a little more complicated than what we’re used to in Universal Analytics. It does also have some brand new features that are fantastic to have. And frankly, whether we like it or not, we all have to start using it soon.
Work With Us
We hope this article gave you some insights into how to accomplish that, or at least gave you a peek inside GA4. Want some extra assistance with GA4 or a chance to chat further about the changes? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation call.