Google Analytics the single most relied-upon data gatherer in the world. Since 2005, Google Analytics (eventually branded as Universal Analytics) has been tracking visitors to millions of websites while opening the door for web-owners to understand what aspects of their sites are driving traffic or pushing people away. Every year around November, Google makes semi-significant updates to some of its products. Less frequently, they roll out a complete overhaul of one of them. As if 2020 needed any more drastic changes, Google went ahead and coded us into the future with the new Google Analytics 4 that will eventually replace the Universal Analytics we have all become accustomed to. Let’s see if the minor headache is worth the major insights.
Was Universal Analytics ever Smart?
When I first began my own deep dive into the world of website data many years ago, I felt as if I were stepping into the Land of Oz. There were so many unexpected twists and turns down the yellow-brick road of Sessions, Bounce Rates, Time on Page, and seemingly endless filters that my eyes grew wide at every turn. After spending some serious time there, I was curious to know what the wizard looked like behind the great, green curtain, and just like Dorothy, I was…underwhelmed.
In what turned out to be less of a mastermind and more of a Toto, the great secret behind all this data was more or less a cookie. A simple tracking code that only sent a hit back to headquarters when someone landed on a webpage. If they were interested enough to click on another page on the same website, the hit would give you a little more insight into what they were doing and how long they were doing it.
Basically, the tracking code could tell you:
- If a user visited a page and where they might be from
- If a user clicked through to other pages of your site
- If they clicked through, how long they spent on each page
- If they left the site
- If they came to the site from a Google Ad or certain social media sites
It was a glorified calculator. It’s limitations led to obfuscated data in so many scenarios.
If a visitor viewed your website on their phone and then decided to switch to their laptop, Google had no way to realize that they were in fact the same person and they would be counted twice. Additionally, if a visitor came to your website from a different site, Google almost never knew where they came from.
In a world where the user journey is the most important knowledge a marketer can possess, the old man behind the curtain had to step aside for a more advanced A.I.
There’s No Place Like Home: GA-4 Is All About the Visitor’s Backyard
While the original Universal Analytics platform took a limited dataset and extrapolated tons of useful information from it, it was missing key steps on the visitor’s journey. It is no longer enough to know that a visitor found you. Today, we need to know precisely how they found us and exactly where they came from. It wouldn’t hurt to know what else they are looking for when they are on the internet leading up to discovering our site. Once they do land on our site, it would be wonderful to know how much of it they are reading. I am not talking about whether or not their laptop screen is showing our blog page, I am talking about their hand scrolling through the content. Precise, polymetric, and predictive are the adjectives I would use to describe the new Google Analytics 4.
Let’s break these down in light of some of the new features:
Precision: GA-4 breaks down data into individual users which can be collected into audiences to reveal grouped patterns of purchasing and other behavior. If you have an app and a website, GA-4 can now unite the data offer a more accurate accounting of one user’s journey.
Polymetric: User Sessions are no longer the standard upon which other metrics are centered around. Instead, GA-4 uses Events. These events can be named anything you like and you can build your dataset accordingly. Not unlike the setting Goals in Universal Analytics, you can now track in much more granular detail the behavior of users on your site to get the data that matters most to your unique audience or user.
Predictive: GA-4 leverages machine learning on your behalf to create market predictions of your users in your niche. Through analyzing events on your website and on others in your niche, GA-4. For instance, it can help predict when to focus on customer retention vs customer acquisition based on market data combined with your own data.
Honorable Mention: Big Query Is Now Free!
Google’s Big Query is a warehouse to collect data from many sources. It allows you to blend internal company data with Analytics data to further drill down into your successes and failures. While this used to be a paid feature for users of Google 360, it is now included free with new GA-4 properties. Big Query is an entire article (or several) on its own but worth mentioning here. Check out the ins and outs of Big Query here.
Expanding the Backyard
Essentially, the journey of your web visitors is more accurately defined in the new Analytics. Coupled with more robust audience reporting and integration with Google Ads, the new Analytics promises to be one of the most significant shifts in data-based marketing we have seen to date. It has become about the personal experience of each user on your site combined with the larger picture of your grouped audience experience. Your website becomes the user’s backyard and as Dorothy said, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with… There’s no place like home.”
So, Can I Just Click My Heels Together and Start Using the New Google Analytics?
While it sounds like a great moment to dust off our ruby red slippers, integrating the new Google Analytics 4 will take a bit more patience than that. Firstly, consider the fact that this is not an update to Universal Analytics but rather an entirely new product. Google requires (and recommends) that you create a new property in addition to your existing analytics property. Moving forward, all updates to Analytics will be for this new product. Eventually, Universal Analytics will become obsolete.
What About All My Current Data???
The good news for those of us not quite willing to start from scratch after building up years of useful data on our websites is that there is an option to run the new Analytics alongside your Universal Analytics property. This might be the most prudent option. The data generated between the two will not likely match up the way you expect due to the fact that user sessions are counted differently than user events, but since you will still be collecting the data you are accustomed to it will make for a smoother transition in the short term.
The process is not impossible although it does require some administrative knowledge of the Analytics tools dashboard and a little elbow grease. In the end, however, you will be a part of a new way to look at user data.
Now Anyone Can Be the Wizard
For the first time in a long time, everybody is starting at ground zero. Now is the time to capitalize on this revolution and relearn Analytics in order to best compete in the marketplace. With advanced reporting options, robust real-time data, custom events, and high fidelity user information, GA-4 is a new Oz in data collection. There may be a few bumps along the way and a wicked witch or two during the transition, you will ultimately be able to be your own wizard with fantastic and powerful tools to set the course for your future success. Go forth and good luck on that bright yellow road!