Sep 26, 2023
Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics: Key Changes + Pros and Cons
The new Google Analytics version, called Google Analytics 4 or GA4, has been around for almost two years. However, some website owners might still be unfamiliar with it or refrain from using it in the first place.
Google has announced that it will stop data processing from Universal Analytics properties as of July 1, 2023. This means that business owners will eventually have to migrate to the new Google Analytics 4.
One significant difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics is their measurement model. The latest version uses event-based tracking, whereas the older version relies on the session-based data model.
This comparison article presents changes you need to know about Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics. Knowing what makes the two versions different will be helpful for a smoother transition, especially for eCommerce stores.
The User Interface
The user interface differences are already noticeable on the analytics tools’ home screens. At a glance, the Google Analytics 4 interface looks less colorful than its older counterparts. It also has an improved Search feature where site owners can search for reports and ask questions.
In terms of reporting, one significant difference between the two versions is that Google Analytics 4 is more conversion-centric. As a result, Google Analytics will only start generating reports as site owners begin tracking events, and some may require manual setup.
Looking further, website owners can find differences in the navigation pane.
On Universal Analytics’ navigation pane, they will see Home, Customization, and the Reports sections. The latter contains five collections – Realtime, Audience, Acquisition, Behavior, and Conversion.
Google Analytics 4 groups the navigation pane into Home, Reports, Explore, Advertising, Configure, and Admin.
The Reports section comprises the Reports snapshot, the Realtime report, and two collections – Life Cycle and User.
Let’s review some key interface differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics.
Once logged in to Universal Analytics, website owners will find information about Users, Revenue, Conversion Rate, and Sessions on its reporting interface.
In the case of Google Analytics 4, the Reports snapshot removes and replaces some of the previous version’s key stats. Here’s what site owners will see on the Google Analytics 4 Reports snapshot window:
- Users – represents the overall number of users.
- New users – informs the number of new users in a specified time frame.
- Average engagement time – measures, on average, how long users stay on the website, online store, or app.
- Total revenue – estimates how much revenue business owners receive from their search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.
Realtime updates web or app activities as they happen. By default, the Realtime section this information:
- Users in Last 30 Minutes – displayed in numbers, shows how many active users were present within the period of last 30 minutes.
- Users per Minute – provides an in-depth graph for how many users were active per minute.
- Device Category in Last 30 Minutes – breaks down what type of devices users are using to access the site, including desktop and laptop computers, mobile devices, and tablets.
- Users by User Source – specifies where users are coming from, which can be from campaigns, search results, or outbound links.
- Users by Audience – informs who the users are in terms of geographical location and user engagement.
- Users by User Property – enables site owners to include other user attributes, such as User ID and Client ID, to track user behavior.
- Views by Page Title and Screen Name – defines who the users are based on the content they engage with.
- Event Count by Event Name – identifies overall event count based on users’ behavior within the funnel.
- Conversions by Event Name – tracks conversion count based on the metrics users complete within the funnel.
This section contains information about the user or customer journeys, enabling website owners to better understand their clientele’s behavior from the point of acquisition to conversion. Here’s a deeper look at each of the subsections:
- Acquisition – lays out information regarding new and recurring users as well as the acquisition method. Acquisition has three subcategories – Overviews, User acquisition, and Traffic acquisition.
- Engagement – users’ session information, including events, conversion events, and web pages they visit. Engagement comprises three subsections – Overview, Events, and Pages and screens.
- Monetization – collects revenue information from eCommerce purchases, in-app purchases, and publisher advertisements.
- Retention – contains information related to new and returning users.
Universal Analytics doesn’t have the User section. Instead, it offers the Audience section where website owners can find information regarding the Acquisition, Behavior, and Conversion metrics.
The User section of Google Analytics 4 contains two subsections:
- Demographics – covers personal user information, such as age, location, language, gender, and interests.
- Tech – lists the platform, operating system, and device used to access the website or app.
Important! Unlike Universal Analytics (which reports all audience insights in the Audience tab) Google Analytics 4 divides the information into two collections – Life Cycle and User.
Conversion and Engagement
The older Google Analytics version classifies the Conversion tab into Goals, eCommerce, and Multi-Channel Funnels.
On the newer version, Conversions go under the Engagement section.
- Conversions – contains campaign’s most crucial metrics, such as begin_checkout and first_visit.
- Events – presents a table report of all the events that website owners collect. This subsection also includes Parameter Reporting, which contains all event parameters to add context to the event data.
The Explore -> Analysis section was only available in Universal Analytics to Google 360 users. Now, it’s included for every Google Analytics 4 property.
Clicking on the Explore menu, website owners will see Explorations, where they can create a custom advanced analysis report to gather deeper insights into user behavior.
Exploration provides several report visualization styles and techniques to choose from. For example, funnel analysis, path analysis, and cohort analysis. Website owners can also select the use case and industry from the Template gallery.
The Configure section enables website owners to create and modify Events, Conversions, and Audiences.
Important! Google Analytics 4 enables website owners to create predictive audiences from Configure -> Audiences. This helps model future transactions, improving revenue and return on investment.
Moreover, the Custom definitions section allows site owners to create custom dimensions and metrics.
Here’s how to create custom dimensions:
- Click the Create custom dimensions button under the Custom dimensions tab.
- Fill out the Dimension name and Description box and choose your Scope and Event parameter.
- Once you’ve added all the custom dimensions you want to track, click Save.
Here’s how to create custom metrics:
- Click the Create custom metrics button in the Custom metrics tab.
- Fill out the Metric name and Description box and choose your Scope, Event parameter, and Unit of measurement.
- Once finished, click Save.
The Admin area allows configurations related to administrative features. In Google Analytics 4, website owners can locate this menu at the end of the navigation pane.
Admin contains Account and Property settings. Under Property, website owners can see the new Data Streams option.
This new feature enables website owners to add up to 50 data streams, web and app combined. Once added, each data stream will have a measurement ID, enabling data transfer to the Google Analytics property.
Changes in Metrics
Metrics are measurable values for finding out a project or campaign’s effectiveness. With Google Analytics 4, users can utilize its dozens of performance metrics as well as create custom metrics that cater to their needs.
In this section, we’ll present what makes the metrics in both analytics tools different. Before we jump into it, here’s a quick comparison table for Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics metrics:
|Google Analytics 4
|Manually generated and uses the category-action-label-value schema.
|Automatically generated and more flexible.
|Uses a session-based measurement model. Includes pageview, event, social interaction, eCommerce, user timing, exception, and app/screen view hits.
|Uses the event-based measurement model. Records Universal Analytics hit types as events.
|Pageviews and Screenviews
|Separates Pageviews and Screenviews reports. Has Pageview and Unique Pageview metrics.
|Combines Pageviews and Screenviews into Views. Removes the Unique Pageview metric.
|Content grouping is accessible from Admin -> Views -> Content Grouping.
|Enables content grouping using the content_group predetermined event parameter.
|Automatically starts a new session after 30 minutes of inactivity, at midnight, or due to a campaign change.
|Doesn’t have a time limit for how long a session should last and doesn’t create a new session due to a campaign change.
|User and Client IDs
|Requires website owners to create a separate User ID reporting view.
|Offers a native User ID reporting view and provides a cross-platform, cross-device view.
|Uses the term Google Analytics Goal for conversions, which include URL destination, session duration, and pages/screens per session goals.
|Allows users to create custom metrics for tracking conversions.
|Both Google Analytics versions report little to no significant difference regarding web purchase counts.
|Bounce Rate and Engagement
|Uses bounce rate to measure user engagement.
|Uses engagement rate to measure user engagement.
Events refer to user interactions within a website or an app, like button clicks, video plays, and file downloads. If you’ve been using Universal Analytics, you must have been familiar with hits, one of which is the event hit.
The Universal Analytics reports record user interactions using a schema comprising of a Category, Action, Label, and Value. Therefore, site owners must specify each event parameter and add them to their code to collect events.
Google Analytics 4 uses machine learning at its core, which offers automated event collection as a result. Google Analytics 4 also doesn’t use the category-action-label-value schema. Instead, its report only includes the event_name and other parameters users choose to add.
Here’s an example of Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics event collection:
|Google Analytics 4
|Event Category: fileEvent Action: downloadEvent Label: video-file-download
|event_name: file_downloadfile_extension: videofile_name: how-to-make-a-website
Google Analytics 4 has four event models – automatically collected events, enhanced measurement events, recommended events, and custom events. The first two fall into the “automatically collected events” category and the rest are additional events that users can add to their code.
- Automatically collected events – include ad_click, file_download, in_app_purchase, and session_start, automatically logged from the Google Tag Manager configuration, Global Site Tag, or the Google Analytics for Firebase SDK.
- Enhanced measurement events – covers outbound clicks, site search, and video engagement. While these user interactions are also automatically collected, be sure to enable the Enhanced Measurement option under Admin -> Data Streams to start tracking.
- Recommended events – takes in events that users create but have predefined names and parameters. They are perfect for specific business verticals, especially retail, travel, or gaming-based industries.
- Custom events – enable users to create individual events and set up their own reports. Like recommended events, custom events require a bit of coding knowledge and further configuration, which can be implemented from Google Tag Manager.
In Google Analytics 4, users can reuse the same event name as many times as they want and differentiate them through different parameters. This contrasts with Universal Analytics, where each event name should be unique.
Google Analytics 4 uses client-side event batching with some unique distinctions:
- Google Analytics 4 will transmit conversion events immediately, although they’re part of a batch.
- To support real-time DebugView, containers loaded in debug mode will never batch events.
- If website users move from one page to another, events won’t be held client-side and will immediately be sent instead.
- If a browser environment does not support the sendBeacon API, there won’t be any batching.
Universal Analytics, using the session-based data model, tracks and records user interactions in the form of hits. These seven hit types in Universal Analytics include:
- Pageview hits
- Event hits
- Social interaction hits
- eCommerce hits
- User timing hits
- Exception hits
- App/screen view hits
In comparison, Google Analytics 4 uses the event-based measurement model. This makes all Universal Analytics hit types recorded as events in Google Analytics 4.
Pageviews and Screenviews
Pageviews and screen views show the total number of views within a website or a mobile app. Pageviews collects information about web pages users visit on a website or web app. In contrast, Screenviews shows content that users view within a mobile app.
Universal Analytics separates its Pageviews and Screenviews reports. While page views are available on the Audience tab -> Overview, users must go to their mobile-specific Universal Analytics property to access the Screenviews report.
In contrast, the newer version enables Pageviews and Screenviews tracking in a single Google Analytics property. For this, users will only need to locate the Views report in the Engagement section -> Pages and screens on the Google Analytics 4 interface.
Content grouping lets users create a set of related web pages based on a specific theme or topic. Furthermore, content grouping can consist of one or more content groups. For example, the Desserts content grouping may consist of Pie, Cake, Pastry, and Confection content groups.
Content grouping enables business owners to track and compare one content group to another. Therefore, it’s crucial to have content grouping as it helps determine the best strategy to boost sales.
Universal Analytics users can create a new content grouping in the Admin section -> View -> Content Grouping. From there, they can click the red New Content Grouping button and start customizing.
In Google Analytics 4, creating content grouping is feasible by generating the content_group predefined event parameter. That said, Google Analytics 4 only allows one content grouping.
Sessions reflect user interactions within a given period of time. As we move from the Universal Analytics session-based measurement model to the Google Analytics 4 event-based tracking, session counts drastically change.
A Universal Analytics session reports and groups user interactions based on a specific time frame. The problem with the Universal Analytics session count is that it considers time expiration and campaign change as a reset event.
For example, the analytics tool will start a new session once website users are inactive for 30 minutes within a website. As a result, they can generate more than one session in a single day.
Google Analytics 4 sessions are logged from session_start as one of the automatically collected events. Also, it records a more accurate session count as it does not create a new session on a visitor’s second visit to a web page or a screen.
While session counts in Google Analytics 4 will be lower than those in Universal Analytics reports, the new Sessions report enables website owners to conduct a more thorough analysis of user behavior and traffic generation.
Website owners can find the Sessions reports by navigating to Acquisition -> Traffic acquisition.
Once in, they will find the three types of session-based metrics in Google Analytics 4:
- Sessions – accumulate the number of sessions based on the session_start event.
- Engaged sessions – reflect the number of sessions lasting 10 seconds or longer, having one or more conversions, and having one or more Pageviews or Screenviews.
- Engaged sessions per user – divides the number of engaged sessions by users.
User and Client IDs
Google Analytics uses two metrics – User ID and Client ID to help site owners track user behavior, assess user retention, and conduct remarketing. Meaning that Google Analytics will generate a unique identifier to differentiate every user visiting the website.
A User ID is a random string of characters assigned to users who have created an account on a website or an app. Therefore, any activities from a User ID will be identified as coming from the same user.
On the other hand, a Client ID is a random string of characters for devices, browsers, and users, read automatically from the _ga cookie.
In terms of data collection, there aren’t many differences in mapping User IDs in Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4. Regarding the reporting view, Google Analytics 4 offers an improved version.
In Universal Analytics, website owners must create a separate User ID reporting view to differentiate them from clients. The absence of a Master View feature is limiting, as it would be challenging to analyze the Google Analytics data related to user behavior on a deeper level.
The good news is that Google Analytics 4 provides a built-in report for User IDs, resolving the problem with the Universal Analytics separate view. To access the report, go to Configure -> DebugView.
Google Analytics 4 also comprises a cross-platform and cross-device view of how users interact with a website or an app. However, site owners must create and assign a unique User ID to every new and returning user, enabling them to accurately assess the user count.
Here’s how Google Analytics 4 groups users and clients:
- Google Analytics 4 will check whether a client has passed a User ID value to the website or app backend for the authentication process.
- If the unique User ID is available, Google Analytics 4 will use Google Signals to help track user behavior and improve user experience.
- If not found, Google Analytics 4 will automatically generate a Client ID for the user.
The User ID and Client ID metrics are significant factors in the Retention reports under the Life Cycle collection.
Conversions refer to any completed and valuable activity crucial to a business. These can be anything from submitting a contact form, adding items to the cart, or making a purchase.
Universal Analytics uses the term Google Analytics Goal for conversions. It comprises five goals – URL destination, session duration, pages/screens per session, event, and smart goals. Universal Analytics allows site owners to set up to 20 goals.
In Google Analytics 4, website owners can access their Conversions report through the Engagement section. In addition, site owners can add up to 30 conversions to track. However, it’s best to have a shortlist of key actions to help identify the most effective way to boost return on investment.
A purchase is a critical event for every business owner. From the data collection standpoint, web purchase counts will have little to no significant difference across both platforms, as long as site owners collect a unique transaction_id value in Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4.
Bounce Rate and Engagement
This last metric relates closely to assessing user engagement. While Universal Analytics uses bounce rate as the determining factor, Google Analytics 4 focuses on the engagement rate.
One of the issues with bounce rate is that it doesn’t have a time threshold. Therefore, Universal Analytics will record the session as a zero-second session if a site visitor bounces from a web page.
In Google Analytics 4, here are some conditions that can result in an engaged session:
- Lasts more than 10 seconds
- Has one or more conversion events
- Has two or more page/screen views
As a result, website owners can get more information about how users interact with their sites or apps. For the report, locate the Engagement Rate column in Acquisition -> Traffic acquisition.
Cross-Device Reporting and Cross-Domain Tracking
Cross-device reporting provides data streams of every user visiting a site using multiple devices. This report lets website owners fully comprehend how each touchpoint, session, and user interaction connects.
Cross-domain tracking enables site owners to pass website users’ identifiers from two related sites and preserve the session information. Therefore, site owners can track the same user across different domains.
While Universal Analytics offers three tracking codes – Analytics.js, Google Analytics SDKs, and Measurement Protocol, it does not support cross-device reporting as Google Analytics 4 does. Here are some factors why Universal Analytics doesn’t support the feature:
- Differences in how both platforms record user interactions – Universal Analytics is tracking sessions, which are time-sensitive. On the other hand, Google Analytics 4 uses event-based tracking, which is more suitable for monitoring user behavior.
- Differences in the User ID reporting view – the separate User ID view in Universal Analytics makes it challenging to track the same user across multiple devices.
In relation to cross-domain tracking, Google Analytics 4 enables website owners to easily set up cross-domain management. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do just that:
- Navigate to the Admin settings -> Data Streams.
- Select the property that you want to cross-domain track.
- Go to Additional Settings -> More Tagging Settings.
- Choose Configure your domains.
- Type in all domains you want to include in your cross-domain tracking setup.
- Finish by clicking the Save button.
Important! The cross-domain tracking in Google Analytics 4 is still in beta.
Universal Analytics applies limits or quotas not to overwhelm its servers with too much data. Those limits include:
- 10 million hits per month per property for Universal Analytics
- Up to two billion hits per month per property for Google Analytics 360
- 200,000 hits per user per day
- 500 hits per session
Universal Analytics also applies timing hits, limiting how many hits website owners can send via their chosen framework within a specified second.
- gtag.js and analytics frameworks start with 20 hits + two hits per second
- gaj.s framework starts with 10 hits + one hit per second
- Mobile SDK starts with 20 hits + one hit per two seconds
The data processing latency in Universal Analytics is between 24 and 48 hours. This latency can be an issue for large eCommerce sites receiving more than 200,000 sessions per day. Such data will only be processed once a day, resulting in a two-day delay for the reports.
The above limits and data processing latency isn’t relevant in Google Analytics 4 as it uses the queuing system to bundle multiple events in the same network request, resulting in less stress on its servers.
Rather than using data limitation, Google Analytics 4 introduces event collection limits, which cover:
- 500 distinctively named web events
- 40-character limit for web events’ names
- 25-event parameter limit for each web event
- 40-character limit for web events’ parameter names
- 100-character limit for web event’s parameter values
- 25 user property limits per property
- 24-character limit for user properties’ names
- 36-character limit for user properties’ values
- 256-character limit for User IDs’ values
Data Reporting Views
The View or Reporting View functionality has its own configuration settings. This feature enables Universal Analytics users to create up to 25 data reporting views for each property. Some of the best use cases for reporting views include fixing data issues and stripping parameters.
However, the built-in Reporting View functionality isn’t available in Google Analytics 4. To fulfil this functionality, website owners can integrate Google Tag Manager.
That said, website owners can also create Data Streams and customize Audiences to filter the Master View. They can also utilize the Exploration feature to analyze data beyond what the standard Google Analytics 4 analysis can provide.
The prevention system for fake Google Analytics data is among the key differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics.
In Universal Analytics, “threat actors” can easily populate a Google Analytics property with spam hits. To commence their action, all they have to do is find the property’s ID, which is publicly available information, and use the Measurement Protocol.
To prevent spam referrals, Google Analytics 4 has forced Measurement Protocol hits to include a secret key. Said key is only visible in the Google Analytics 4 data stream setting. As a result, only Measurement Protocol hits with valid keys can send data to a Google Analytics property.
How to Set Up a Google Analytics 4 Property
This short guide is for website owners who already have a Google Analytics account and want to migrate to Google Analytics 4. If you’re just starting with Google Analytics, you don’t have to worry about migration. Your new Google Analytics property will automatically be set up in the Google Analytics 4 environment.
Here’s how to set up a Google Analytics 4 property:
- Click the Admin settings in Google Analytics.
- If you have more than one Google Analytics account, check if your desired account is selected.
- Go to Property and select the Universal Analytics property.
- On the same Property page, click GA4 Setup Assistant.
- Under the I want to create a new Google Analytics 4 property notification, click Get started.
- Click Enable data collection using your existing tags. If you use Google Tag Manager or analytics.js, you will have to add the tag yourself.
- Click Create Property.
When all is done, the You have successfully connected your properties notification will appear at the top of the Setup Assistant page.
Explore Google Analytics 4’s AI tools in our tutorial.
Throughout this article, we’ve walked you through key changes in the new Google Analytics version and what makes it different from Universal Analytics.
Due to the difference in the data model, Google Analytics 4 offers a new way to analyze data. Combined with the flexible configuration, business owners can get a more tailored result of how their marketing campaign is performing.
Here’s a short recap on what’s new in Google Analytics:
- Interface – contains Home, Reports, Explore, Advertising, Configure, and Admin sections.
- Event-based analysis – records what used to be hits in Universal Analytics as events, including page views, eCommerce transactions, and social interactions.
- Flexible configuration – enables website owners to create custom dimensions, metrics, events, and conversion events.
- Debug View – unifies User and Client ID reports.
- Data Streams in the Admin panel – enables website owners to track users from different touchpoints.
- Cross-device and cross-domain tracking – summarizes how each customer touchpoint, session, and interaction connects.
- Spam prevention – forces every Measurement Protocol hit to include a secret key.
While Google Analytics 4 still has some limitations, we may see future changes as the platform continues to evolve.
FAQ on Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics
This section answers some of the most common questions related to Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics.
Is Google Analytics 4 Better than Universal Analytics?
Google Analytics 4, offering loads of new and improved features, is on track to be more powerful than Universal Analytics. Furthermore, not only does Google Analytics 4 support cross-device reporting, but it also helps business owners model future transactions, thanks to its flexible configuration.
Will Google Analytics 4 Replace Universal Analytics?
Yes. Google announced that Universal Analytics will stop processing data as of July 1, 2023.
That said, website owners can still access their reports for at least six months after July 1, 2023. During that time, it’s strongly suggested to export the Google Analytics data. In the case of Google Analytics 360, Google grants a one-time processing extension until October 1, 2023.
Should I Upgrade to Google Analytics 4?
Yes, because sooner or later, website owners will have to migrate to Google Analytics 4. Also, the sooner they migrate, the more historical data they’ll get to keep. This is because Google doesn’t allow data import from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.