Performance Marketing

Understanding the New Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

BY: Adam Brodsky | Director, Analytics

PUBLISHED: 12/4/2023

Google recently released a new version of their popular analytics tool called GA4. This new tool is a significant upgrade from Universal Analytics, with advanced features that offer more insights and flexibility to businesses of all sizes. As such, GA4 has for all intents and purposes become the new default tracking method for analytics users. This article is the first of a three-part series where we will discuss what GA4 is, how it differs from Universal Analytics, and what it can do for your business. 


Why Understanding GA4 is Important


Google introduced GA4 in 2021, commencing a two-year period to retire Universal Analytics reporting as of July 1, 2023 and all archived data by July 1, 2024. Despite the looming deadline, many brands and organizations are still unclear about why this change has occurred and what it means for their analytics tracking and reporting.


To understand GA4, it’s necessary to go back to when Google Analytics first came onto the scene in 2005. Back then, internet speed was slower and mobile apps had not taken over. Universal Analytics, though updated, was still built for the internet of the early 2000’s. And over time, as the internet evolved and speeds increased and many more internet enabled devices came online, those limitations hampered Google Analytics’ ability to provide the proper level of insights. Google understood it was time for something new.

GA4 is not an update to Universal Analytics, but a fundamentally new approach, built for the modern cross-platform customer experience. Not only does it offer seamless web and app tracking and analysis capabilities, but it is also built with user privacy in mind.

How is GA4 Different – Key Concepts and Areas

The major differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics comes down to the changes necessary to deliver proper insights into consumer behavior on the web. GA4 offers more advanced tracking and analysis of website and mobile app data, including user behavior, conversion tracking, and marketing attribution. Unlike Universal Analytics, GA4 is powered by machine learning, which enables it to deliver more precise insights. Additionally, GA4 provides new and improved data reporting capabilities to its users.

This series will go into these changes, explaining why they’re happening and how we can leverage them to gain better insights into our digital marketing activities and our customer behaviors. The key changes we cover are:


  1. Event-Based Tracking in GA4 vs. Universal Tracking
  2. Cross-Device Tracking Improvements in GA4
  3. Differences in User Session Definitions 
  4. User Engagement in GA4 vs. Bounce Rate in Universal Analytics
  5. GA4 Reports
  6. Differences in Attribution

1. Event-Based Tracking in GA4 vs. Universal Tracking

In GA4, Event-Based Tracking represents a significant shift from Universal Analytics. GA4 automatically captures basic information on a wide array of user interactions and offers a seamless and comprehensive understanding of customer behavior across pages or app screens. Like Universal Analytics, specific events should be tagged proactively, but GA4 includes features to expand on the events that are already being tracked - allowing insights into consumer behavior, even if access to tagging is limited. This transition to an event-centric model enhances the agility and depth of analysis across the entire customer journey. 

While many behaviors are tracked automatically, it’s important to note that the depth of information about those behaviors will be limited if just using default tracking. A meticulous audit of the website is crucial to determine whether custom tagging is properly implemented for specific interactions. Engaging an expert for this audit ensures that event tracking and reporting align appropriately with the unique needs of the business, optimizing the value derived from the analytics.

2. Cross-Device Tracking Improvements in GA4

GA4's cross-device tracking represents another notable advancement over Universal Analytics. GA4 employs a flexible user-centric model offering a cohesive view of the consumer journey, even as users switch between devices. The enhanced user identification capabilities in GA4 contribute to a more accurate representation of cross-device behavior without the need for complex setup. 

This not only provides marketers and analysts with a holistic understanding of user engagement but also aligns with the contemporary multi-device landscape, ensuring a comprehensive and accurate depiction of user interactions. As always, User ID is still the standard for customer journey and behavioral analysis, but GA4 fills in gaps where Universal Analytics was not able to operate across identifiers.

3. Differences in User Session Definitions 

GA4 transforms the concept of user sessions compared to Universal Analytics, adopting an event-centric model where any user interaction extends the session. One of the most important improvements is granular session-duration tracking, rather than calculating time on site from pageview or event timestamps. 

GA4 also no longer opens a new session when a new campaign click occurs within a session, so the session counts more accurately reflect reality. The advantage of tracking sessions using this method provides better insight into how effective digital marketing campaigns are even when not tied directly to a conversion event, providing marketers with a comprehensive perspective of campaign performance and user behavior. 

However, this does change the way we analyze campaign attribution. For example, consumers may be exposed to multiple campaigns that are tracked within the same session, therefore campaign level performance may not be directly tied to the outcome from that session. Measuring campaign performance may require tying specific events to campaign success. This may cause some difficulty comparing campaign performance directly to YoY data from Universal Analytics.

A tailored approach is necessary for measuring specific goals, underlining the importance of aligning event tracking with business objectives for precise insights into campaign performance within the evolving GA4 landscape.

4. User Engagement in GA4 vs. Bounce Rate in Universal Analytics

GA4’s granular session duration tracking also provides new metrics for evaluating campaign effectiveness. Relying solely on bounce rates is outdated due to the advancements in website design and internet usage. The notion that viewing just a single page on a website automatically indicates an unproductive session has obscured the fact that in today’s environment, users are often able to land on the exact page they’re looking for and/or are able to complete whatever task they want on that single page.

By enabling granular session duration metrics, we’re now able to consider the actual amount of time a user spends on the site even during a single page visit. Because of this, GA4 introduces a new success metric in Engagement Rate - where we not only consider whether a user has clicked on more than one page, but we also consider whether a single page visit lasted longer than 10 seconds - or even just by setting that single page up as a conversion event. That way we now have much greater insight into whether that visit was productive or not.

5. GA4 Reports

In addition to the new structure, GA4 brings with it enhanced reporting views. Standard reports are similar to Universal Analytics, allowing users to take a quick look at surface-level data and dig deeper with additional dimensions. These are great reports for channel and campaign reporting, and overall site performance, but where GA4 really starts to impress is in the “Explore” feature, which replaces UA’s custom reports.

Explore allows users to deeply segment our campaign and customer data to derive deeper insights. Funnel, cohort, and pathing reports enable us to examine customer journeys in greater detail than ever before. And the best part is, it is presented in an easy-to-use drag and drop format.

Beyond even the powerful Explore feature, GA4 enables all accounts to connect to Google BigQuery - previously, a Google 360-only feature. With BigQuery, we can retrieve very granular data within a given dataset enabling business intelligence insights far easier than with an ad-hoc connector. Easily being able to apply your GA data to business intelligence use cases extends the capabilities of your data analysis greatly. 

6. Differences in Attribution

Attribution modeling in GA4 also differs from Universal Analytics. UA attribution focused on the last touch and was designed so that each campaign click would open a brand-new session. With GA4, this is no longer the case. If a session is active, new campaign sources to that session will be included in that session, however the default will be the first campaign touch in that session, altering your data presentation. 

Fortunately, GA4 provides tools for further exploration. Data-driven attribution is now available for all GA4 accounts which uses a machine learning algorithm to analyze patterns in your converting traffic and identify influential touchpoints - even if it’s not the last touch. Keep in mind, it works with converted traffic, offering insights into successful channels, but it’s not for campaign budget analysis. This reveals contributions to success that a last touch model might obscure.

Making the Switch to GA4

Ultimately, GA4 is a more powerful analytics tool than its predecessor, Universal Analytics. It provides businesses with more granular and precise data, improved tracking and analysis capabilities, and better privacy features. GA4 makes it easier to analyze website and mobile app data, analyze campaigns across multiple channels, and make data-driven decisions. With GA4, businesses can gain deeper insights into user behavior, improve their marketing campaigns, and increase their ROI. If you haven't yet made the switch to GA4, it's time to consider upgrading your analytics tool for better business performance and let MERGE be your top partner for bringing your data practice to life.


See the second installment in our GA4 series below:


GA4's Event-Based Tracking and Enhanced Measurement


Looking to get ahead of the game? Connect with MERGE and partner with our team of experts to help prepare you for the challenges of today and tomorrow!