Retail, Performance Marketing

GA4's Event-Based Tracking and Enhanced Measurement

The introduction of a new tracking model and features within GA4 offers greater insight into user behavior

BY: Adam Brodsky | Director, Analytics

PUBLISHED: 12/19/2023

GA4’s implementation of a new tracking model and features means that it’s important to think about how the changes in tracking might improve the way you track your website. The new event-based tracking model puts user interactions front and center. Previously, our web analytics were more pageview-based and we would tag events only when necessary. GA4 is built around these interactions, giving us far greater insight into our users’ behavior on our site.

GA4 is built so centrally around user behavior that it includes a new feature called “Enhanced Measurement”, which automatically captures basic information on a wide array of user interactions:

- Scrolls
- Outbound clicks (links that take people off your website)
- Site searches
- Form interactions
- Video engagement
- File downloads

This is great for smaller websites without enough resources to fully tag their website. There are limitations to what these features can track, however. It’s important to determine whether or not the Enhanced Measurement tracking will provide enough detail about these interactions. Those limitations are:
- Scrolls only record scrolls to the bottom of the page. For granular scroll tracking, like 25%, 50%, 75% and so on, you will need to place custom event tags.
- Site searches rely on common URL query identifiers, such as q, s, search, query, and keyword. If your system differs or doesn't use a URL string, adjust settings or use custom tags. For better search analysis, tag your site search functionality with custom events.
- Form interactions only track properly if forms on your site are embedded Google forms. MERGE recommends tagging any form submissions on your site with custom events.
- Video engagement only tracks activity for embedded YouTube videos (as YouTube is part of Google’s technology stack). If you have embedded video on your site that is provided by a different technology, you will have to place custom event tags.
- File downloads are tracked for the most common file types. This includes documents (such as .doc, .pdf), compressed (.zip) files, applications (.exe), video (.mp4, .avi), and audio (.mp3, .wav). However, this functionality does not include the name of the file being downloaded in reporting. MERGE recommends tagging any important file downloads on your site with custom events.

Fortunately GA4’s custom event model makes tracking levels of detail easy to do. Custom events can be tracked on any interaction and even on page views of particularly important pages. These events can also incorporate Parameters, essentially adding custom dimension capability to the interactions you track. This allows for even greater slicing and dicing of data.

Once tracked, these interactions can then be set as Conversions which allow for more data on the behaviors of users leading up to these actions - giving us actionable insight into how we may optimize our website design / flow and our marketing to better funnel new users towards these conversions.

Especially for businesses selling products online, expert solution design is imperative to ensure all important interactions are tracked properly and custom dimensions are set up to take full advantage of the rich data being collected.

Cross Device Tracking Improvements in GA4

GA4 initially came out of the gate providing user data based in part on Google Signals, a technology Google uses to help fill in gaps in returning user behavior. Google Signals essentially helps identify numbers of users based on Google’s own user data set, which is obviously very large. This enabled GA4 to offer cross-device and user journey analysis without the need to implement a user ID system and initially seemed like an excellent solution. 

Privacy concerns meant, however, that even this aggregated data had to have protections in place to ensure that Google Analytics customers couldn’t dig so far into the data that they could potentially identify individuals based on their Google Signals data. Thus, Google placed threshold limits on that data that would require a certain minimum number of users, otherwise it would not incorporate that data into the report. As businesses have begun using GA4 more, they found that those threshold limits were almost always bumped into with Google Signals data enabled. This caused reports to display incomplete data and frustrated users especially in smaller businesses where web traffic numbers weren’t as high.

Google responded by giving GA4 clients the option to disable Google Signals data from being used in reporting identity - essentially limiting it to how it was used in Universal Analytics, only appearing in the Demographics reports. This option proved to be necessary for most businesses to be able to rely on the data their reports were showing them, and so Google made the announcement in December 2023 that Google Signals would no longer be used in reporting identity after February 2024. This returns the analytics landscape to the previous reliance on cookie and user ID data to determine user journeys.

Cookies aren’t what they used to be, though - privacy legislation such as GDPR and CCPA/CPRA limit what can be tracked, and industry standards like ITP proactively set limits on cookie expiration. Add in the proliferation of “Do Not Track” settings and cookie blockers, and reliance solely on cookies is a much more limited proposition than ever before. 

This just reinforces User ID as the standard for customer journey analysis, using your customers’ accounts as the identifier. This brings the added benefit of allowing greater insights into the full customer life cycle while still preserving their privacy online. Some reliance on cookies will still be necessary for new user acquisition of course, since we can’t identify customers we haven’t already established a relationship with. Fortunately, the transition from a cookie-based newly acquired user to an established, user-ID based customer is seamless within GA4.

A Word About Server-Side Tracking and Cookie Deprecation

One of the major topics among digital marketers over the past few years has been the looming deprecation of cookie technology. Third-party cookies (those set by vendors rather than the business’ own website) are already on the way out, and the transition to a “cookieless future” without even first-party cookies is often discussed. While that deadline continues to be pushed out due to lack of a viable replacement solution, it’s never a bad idea to get ahead of the game and start preparing for how businesses will need to implement analytics tracking once that standard is finally reached.

Server-side tracking using Google Tag Manager is the recommended solution for this. Simply put, it works by capturing the usage of the website from the server responses rather than information gleaned from users’ browsers (client-side tracking). It’s more complicated and takes a bit more time than a standard GA4 setup. It will also require more hands-on work from developers and experts, meaning increased costs as well. While the details could fill an entire article on their own, what’s most important at this point is beginning to prepare for that implementation within the next two years.


See the first installment in our GA4 series below:


Understanding the New Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

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!