The announcement of Google to sunset Universal Analytics in 2023 caused an earthquake in the digital marketing landscape. Emotions are not a good basis for an objective opinion, so let’s find out if the changes in the most popular web analytics tool will do your organization or business any good.
The official reasons Universal Analytics will end
Google is so big that even when it whispers, it is heard on the four corners of the world. It didn’t spill many words to explain why UA will be replaced. There are only a few official Google resources about the reasons behind the end of UA.
- July 31, 2019: The first time Google mentioned the new way of analytics tracking.
- After the 14th of October 2020: the default property was GA4, as mentioned in this support article.
- March 16, 2022: A post on the Google blog that made the end of U official.
I used these limited sources to answer one question.
Why did Google evoke this storm of disbelief, panic, frustration and even rage amongst data-driven marketers and organizations?
It all boils down to 4 main reasons.
#1 UA was built for desktop
Universal Analytics was released in 2012. That’s 5 years later than the introduction of the first iPhone generation and 6 years after the birth of the Android phone.
A decade later, Google officially admitted that UA was built for a world in which desktops ruled.
Universal Analytics was built for a generation of online measurement that was anchored in the desktop web
Source: Google (March 16, 2022)
It may feel weird that GA did not take the expanding mobile internet into account years ago. But if you think deeper about it, there is a logical explanation.
It was only in 2018 that Google announced the roll-out of mobile first indexing. Apart from the 360 version, Google Analytics is not generating revenue.
Business priorities clearly decided the timeline of the end and renaissance of GA.
- First, the world was ready for mobile.
- Companies followed and adapted their sites to the small devices that are a permanent window to the world. In order to not miss the expanding mobile market, apps were added to the list of must-haves.
- Then Google search changed to generate more money from Google Ads on mobile devices.
- Finally, we have reached the era in which Google Analytics is catching up.
The outdated desktop world is closely related to the next reason to end UA.
#2 Cross-device tracking in UA is painful
People jump between devices. At work, home, and everywhere in between. Tracking users and their journey in UA is a pain.
Google expresses this in a more nerdy way:
Unify app and website measurement
In GA4, it is a lot easier to follow users on their journey across devices. Further below, I will get back to this.
#3 GA4 is future proof
Google claims that its new analytics platform is future proof.
it’s built to keep up with a changing ecosystem
Russell Ketchum, Director, Product Management, Google Analytics
assume/hope (pick your choice)
that Google is building a new analytics platform that will last for the next decade.
Learning GA4 can be hard and, for sure, many marketers hope they do not have to struggle through this challenge every other year.
At this moment, only one thing is for sure.
The Internet of today is not the one of tomorrow
New inventions are launched at the speed of light. Some of them fade away. Others are unthinkable at this moment.
AGI (Artificial Generative Intelligence) is stirring up the next wave of debate, panic, and anger. Only time will tell if GA will be able to deal with the never-ending changes in the digital landscape.
The same goes for businesses and industries. People around the globe fear being replaced by tools that are so evolved that they can explain why they cannot answer certain questions. For now.
Here is the thing. You are in a good place.
A data-driven mindset and strong data analytics skills are more relevant than ever before.
#4 UA is not privacy focused
Respect for the privacy of users is another reason for Google to end UA.
These solutions and controls are especially necessary in today’s international data privacy landscape, where users are increasingly expecting more privacy protections and control over their data.
Russell Ketchum, Director, Product Management, Google Analytics
Also privacy is intertwined with the other reasons to end UA.
Obsolete technology doesn’t go well with users who jump all day from desktop to smartphone.
Of course, there is another side of the story: heavy penalties for privacy breaches. But it is unfair to blame big tech solely for this.
In the end, companies and organizations need data. Otherwise it is simply impossible to understand user behavior, traffic sources, products and services, pricing offers, etc.
In its own words, Google also ends UA because it wants to help businesses.
Google Analytics 4 is designed with your key objectives in mind.
It really was about high time to end UA.
Let’s find out if GA4 can live up to its promises to help your organization…
Is Google Analytics 4 better than Universal Analytics?
The answer depends on the criterion you use. These can be, for instance, the main reasons Google is replacing UA with GA4. Another option is to look at key features that are required for any analytics tool.
Comparing UA one-on-one with GA4
Since UA and GA4 are publicly available, it’s possible to compare them one-on-one. And yet, it feels like comparing the capabilities of a teenager and a baby.
UA was once a baby too, but as Google righteously mentions, it is mainly a generation of Analytics.
Since its launch, new features have been added to the tool. Some of them are still in beta and will never get out of it.
In comparison, GA4 is in complete beta. That makes you probably wonder if it is risky to migrate from UA to the newest version?
The answer is yes. And no. The best strategy is to use both versions of GA until UA ends, as some early GA4 adapters suggest.
#1 GA4 is mobile first
The switch from desktop to mobile data collection is an enormous improvement in GA4. In the same property, you can now track users on your site, iOS app and Android app.
Why is this a big improvement?
- In UA, you had to set up 3 separate properties. This made it harder to implement GA correctly.
- Analyzing data is obviously easier in 1 property than in 2 or 3.
Once your app(s) are connected to GA4, you can find the data under Reports > Firebase.
Here you can see, for instance, App versions, the Latest app release overview, App stability, etc.
#2 Better insights in the user journey in GA4
It’s not clear on the surface, but GA4 is packed with reports, metrics and data that give deeper insights into the user journey.
If you are new to GA4, there are, however, two downsides.
1. Find your way in the new GA interface
- Explorations (versus traditional static reports in UA)
- The administrator settings got a facelift in GA4.
- Events and reports. GA4 contains new reports. What’s even better: you can customize them to your data needs. If you don’t need a report, you can hide it from the navigation menu. And the reverse.
2. Understand concepts that differ from Universal Analytics.
- User properties. GA4 is an event-based model, versus the hit-based model of UA.
- Engagement rate. This is calculated differently in GA4.
- Active users. They matter most to your business and it makes therefore sense to see how they interact with your site or app.
- The measurement ID. The key to collecting your data is completely different from UA.
- Recommended events. GA4 is all about events. Whereas you had to set up most of them manually in UA, GA4 now tracks them automatically for you.
You may not experience it the same way, immediately, but all these changes are an improvement in themselves.
#3 Future focused analytics platform
It’s no secret that Google has been actively working on Artificial Intelligence. GA4 already contains some exciting features.
- Machine learning. As you know, this is no longer a vague dream. It is happening right now. Everywhere.
- Predictive metrics. Based on the past behavior of users, GA4 can partly predict their future behavior.
- Predictive audiences. This is closely related to the above mentioned exciting feature. For big sites and apps with many users, this has the true potential to change the rules of the marketing game.
This is most likely only the beginning of what to expect soon.
Although some futuristic features are also available in UA, they are less reliable because GA4 tracks data more accurately.
#4 Privacy improvements in GA4
There is still a debate going on about whether GA4 complies with all possible global privacy regulations. On the other hand, there are some big improvements compared to UA.
- Anonymizing IP addresses by default.
- Cookieless tracking in GA4. This technology is on the roadmap of Google. Since there is so much at stake, a solution will be found.
- Dealing with data deletion requests is easier in GA4. But in the end, the final responsibility to do this, or break the law and promises to users, is solely up to companies and organizations.
Although it is still early for a final judgment, GA4 is making huge efforts to live up to its promise: make Google Analytics 4 useful for businesses and organizations.
Alas, that still doesn’t mean that this will be the best possible analytics tool for you.
Is GA4 a good analytics tool compared to other tools?
Jeff Sauer, the founder and lead instructor of Data Driven U, conducted his own research in June 2022. The goal was to find out if Google Analytics has real competitors.
He assigned a score to 7 criteria for any analytics tool and then compared GA with a bunch of other tools.
You may be surprised, but in June 2022, Universal Analytics was better than Google Analytics 4.
- Is foreseen with a ton of new features.
- Fixed annoying bugs.
- Added a lot of what was missing in GA4 according to experts.
That’s not all.
The moment UA will retire, GA4 will be a toddler
And what is even more important.No answer to the question which version is better will change a thing.
UA will disappear. Although you can downgrade to UA, there is absolutely no point in doing so.
The only thing you can change is your opinion about GA4
To do that, you need to understand it and actually use it, like we have been doing at Data Driven U.
On March 19, 2021, Jeff Sauer published our first blog article about the new version of analytics. That was almost one year before Google officially announced it would end UA.
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