Engage University Ep. 4: Preparing for GA4
Jennifer Greenjack: Hello! Welcome to the fourth episode of the Engage University video series. My name is Jennifer Greenjack. I’m standing in for Lauren this week. I’m the Director of Marketing at BNP Engage in Philadelphia. I’m here today with the super fabulous Jim Van Horn who is Engage’s SEM Program Manager. Jim, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jim Van Horn: Thank you, Jennifer. Let’s see. I started in the industry a little over 10 years ago. But I’ve been in marketing ever since college. I got my start in paid search and data analytics and then slowly folded in most aspects – everything from social media distribution, SEO, down to programmatic and email marketing.
Jim: Great! Well, today, we’re here to specifically talk about GA4 and how to prepare for the change coming this summer of 2023. So, why don’t we get started with a couple of questions.
Why is Universal Analytics (UA) transitioning to Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?
Well, aside from the fact that Google updates their platforms pretty regularly, this happens to be a big transition. They’re sunsetting Universal Analytics and moving forward with only the GA4 property after July 1st of this year. There’s really two huge reasons why they’re doing it. One is centered around user privacy and data security.
In the past, they got around that by anonymizing user content and giving it a big query number that was just a bunch of strings. But ultimately, very savvy data engineers and hackers were still able to get those anonymized addresses or anonymized data points and apply it to real-world scenarios. To increase that level of security for the consumer, Google took that out of the equation. It helps enhance user privacy, but it also helps prepare for a cookie-less world in the future.
I’m sure everybody’s heard that more and more platforms – like Apple iOS was the first one to implement it – but more and more and even Google at some point will roll into the idea of no longer tracking a user throughout their online journey by placing cookies on sessions. So, you can see the user’s behavior and all the content that they consume along their journey online. So, basically shifting it from being cookie tracking – which is how Google Analytics exists – GA4’s can be based more primarily off of modeling.
The big question is, if we take cookies out of it, how do we know where users are coming from? The solution that Google came up with is a lot of first-party data. Actual hits on the website – not users necessarily – but hits on the website. Google then applies all their modeling and algorithms to help give a clearer picture of user engagement data. At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily as important to see a single person when you have a hundred thousand hits on your website per month. What’s more important from a business standpoint is seeing the overall impact.
If you do a website redesign, you’ll want to know that it gets more traffic or better engagement than the old design did. It’s not necessarily all the way down to that level of needing to find that singular user and trying to figure out what they did specifically on their website.
What new features will GA4 bring and what will be lost?
I’ll discuss what’s being lost first. I think this was the biggest shock that a lot of marketers or internal business employees that handle the day-to-day data measurement or analytics tracking saw was. It’s really easy today to go into Google Analytics and tell them I do or don’t want to track this specific traffic source. You can put in filters that apply for internal usage for the website development department, marketers themselves, or even internal employees at a business outside of an agency. It helps you negate that traffic out so it doesn’t skew results.
Today, that’s a very easy process. With GA4, though, that’s something that kind of disappears. And it’s more Google telling you we can understand what internal traffic means. So, it’s like a pre-applied filter. Time will tell if it’s 100% accurate. Maybe down the road they will give that functionality back to us. But as it stands right now, that’s one thing that we’re going to lose.
As I mentioned previously, too, we lose that honed-in look at individual user journeys and how one anonymized person might engage with your website; in lieu of creating a modeling system around how everybody enjoys your website and engages with it to impact performance. Some of the features that are gained, though, from GA4 that are very difficult right now to track with the Google Analytics is with GA4.
One of the biggest shifts was it merged application and web. Today, if you wanted to set it up- say you launch an application tomorrow. It’s extremely difficult to track if somebody’s on your website and then they engage with your application and then they kind of bounce back and forth between it. It’s really difficult to tell the engagement because sometimes it’ll pick up two different users or two different sessions because it’s based on two different tracking principles too.
Currently, Google uses Firebase SDK for app tracking and the UA tracking code with cookies on websites. So, you’re really trying to bridge the gap between two different reporting principles, whereas GA4 kind of took all of that guesswork out. When you set up a GA4 account, it combines the measurements. Note this is applicable only if you have a downloadable application that somebody would download from like the app store or Google Play Store.
It’s just one code across all your digital properties that then Google models to show you the full clear picture of maybe this individual visited five pages on your website and then they downloaded your app. And then even within the app, you can see that a visitor interacted with certain features. If there are multiple levels to your app (maybe it’s a resource app and they visited multiple different resource pieces), it will relay that information back within the same analytics platform. So, you can optimize more holistically instead of trying to create two different silos of how your website performs vs. the engagement your app downloads are getting.
When will people need to switch from Universal Analytics to GA4?
Here at the agency, we got prepared very early on. A lot of the literature and a lot of the forums that we regularly review highly recommended setting it up as soon as possible. Knowing that Universal Analytics sunsets in July (2023), doing year-over-year reporting would require that you had set GA4 up in mid-2022. So, we put our own “dead date” to transition or at least create an additional property for GA4 crossover client accounts last year before July hit. So, we have that full year-over-year picture when we’re making a comparison.
When the shift happens, what a lot of individuals, businesses, agencies, may see if they’re not prepared and they wait till the 11th hour, GA4 will just start tracking data on July 1st (2023) with no historical implications. Then, eventually, when Google shuts it down completely- this is something that they do often. They bounce back and forth between release date, sunset dates, how long you can download something, you can import and you can’t export, etc. So, it’s kind of like a moving target as far as Google’s concerned.
But as it stands now, the best recommendation to give is if you don’t already have it set up and you confirmed it’s tracking properly today, do it as soon as possible. Come July 1st, if you’re trying to even take a look at month-over-month comparison data, it’s not going to be accurate. It’s not going to be a clean connection even though some of the existing metrics will carry over, like users.
Users right now include anybody that hits the website and is at least on your site long enough for the analytics code to load. Then, it’s registering that as one. It’s saying that’s one user. That definition shifts with GA4. So, just landing on the website is no longer good enough. That active user doesn’t register on the website until they’re on your site for at least 10 to 15 seconds, and/or visit a second page or engage with it, like hit a play button on a video, downloaded a white paper, submitted a form, things like that. Action items. Went pages deep or were actually engaged for at least a little bit of time – 10 to 15 seconds. Then, it will register an active user.
I like the way it’s redefining the metrics because a lot of times you’d see these metrics or data come out that would say, “1,000 site hits yesterday but you had a 100% bounce rate.” So, technically speaking, all 1,000 of those site visitors could have been irrelevant or accidental clicks. They got to the website and said, “oh, no, this isn’t what I want, so I’m going to leave.” Before today, it would just record one user with 100% bounce rate.
How it will be recorded with GA4 would be since they kind of disappeared immediately and they didn’t engage at all with the website, it wouldn’t even count them. So, it wouldn’t impact your engagement rate – which is kind of the new version of bounce rate – which is just sort of inverted.
While bounce rate tells you when somebody does not engage with your site, engagement rate is Google telling you when people do engage with your site. So, it’s an inverted principle. It gives you a clear picture of when people act, when people engage, and how many users mean to be on your site as opposed to those accidental clicks.
How long will data will be stored in Universal Analytics?
There hasn’t been any hard set date, at least not that I’ve seen recently come out from Google. Some of the early windows that Google had put out last year was around the six month cut off. So, you’d have access to your data for up to six months afterwards. But it’s a moving target.
When the announcement first came out, there was a clear cut off. It made it look like Legacy Analytics or GA3 is dead on June 30th at 11:59 PM and GA4 is taking over officially at 12:01 AM on July 1st and that’s it. Your data’s gone forever and all you have is GA4 from that point forward. Now, that’s evolved. Feedback from the community – especially larger publishers, larger websites, and larger clients – was that it’s not feasible to download all of that data to recreate in a whole new platform.
So, they’re saying right now that it’s adjusted to a 6-month window or by end of 2023 for most regular Analytics customers. For Analytics 360, which is the Enterprise version of Google Analytics, they’re extending it by a year. They get an extra year pad. The cutoff is July 1st, 2024 for those clients. But for most individuals, by end of 2023.
I’d just get it in your mind that all this data is going to disappear. So, how do I want to preserve it? Google is stepping up and they are making some changes. For instance, they had an auto migration which would auto-migrate your existing account over into a new GA4 property. That occurred earlier this month. They also gave the option and the ability to essentially download all your existing analytics data that you might have, upload it in the BigQuery, and then export it out of BigQuery into your GA4 account.
Google is starting to put in stop gaps and measures to help businesses out and agencies out. So, it’s not kind of one of those, “it’s the 11th hour and I forgot to do this,” or “I didn’t have time to do it,” or “there’s been issues with doing it.” They’re at least giving the fallback if you’re at the deadline and you haven’t migrated over yet and you don’t even know you’re doing yet. All else being said, you can create a BigQuery account. You could store your data there until you’re ready. Then, just export it out into GA4.
What are some other ways to prepare for GA4?
Number one would definitely be get used to the interface. Again, this is not just a reiteration of the platform. This is, in all senses, a new Google Analytics tracking platform. So, it takes some getting used to. The things on the left-hand tree are not where they should be. They’re not even named the same thing. The first impact that I noticed was I’m so used to just going on that left hand tree in GA3 and having all these options available to me. Acquisition data, on-site engagement behavior data, conversion data, audience data. All that was just right there at your fingertips.
With the new interface, there’s limited options because of the modeling and because of the fact that we’re not really honing in or collecting the type of data we used to. That takes some getting used to. So, I’d say the first step is just get in there get in there. Use it. Poke around. Make sure it’s tracking the data. Number one, let’s make sure it’s tracking the data. And then, as it is, just compare and contrast GA4 vs. Google Analytics. Once you get comfortable with it and you know where the information is, start comparing and contrasting.
I know the biggest thing that we dealt with at the agency was that a lot of our clients use bounce rate as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). It’s not the end-all that bounce rate isn’t in GA4, but it took some discussions and it took some brainstorming. “How do we take this KPI of bounce rate that’s a measure of if a user is engaging with your website but reflect that in GA4 where there isn’t bounce rate?” They have the average engagement rate, but it’s not the same thing. It takes a little getting used to.
Secondly, I’d say take a look at what’s important to you today. See how it’s portrayed in GA4 and how it flows in there. Step three would be if you don’t see the information you need housed in GA4 today, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it. The platform is extremely flexible. You can create your own dimensions. You can even create your own metrics if you want to and you can include it within any kind of default reporting or custom reporting that you might create.
So, if you do see something, it just takes some legwork to figure out how things are calculated now in Google Analytics. And then you can just import that. You can add that to GA4. You could create your whole dimensions and your own metrics that match GA3 as it stands today depending on how ambitious you are.
That leads me into the fourth and final step for those that leverage custom reporting heavily in Google Analytics. For some, it could be lengthy if there’s dozens of different custom reports built in GA3. I’d start working on that now because, like I said, sometimes with those custom reports when you get into it, it’s not going to be as simple as just recreating that custom report in the new analytics interface.
You may have to go a step further and create those custom metrics or custom dimensions that feed in your custom report because that can start tracking immediately as well so you don’t miss a beat when the changeover happens.
Make a seamless switch to GA4
Well, I want to thank you, Jim. This was a lot of wonderful, very helpful, and valuable information. If you wish to learn more, please subscribe to our YouTube channel. In addition, you can reach out to us on our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you with any answers to your questions. Thank you so much and take care, y’all!