What is GA4? (Part 2)

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Following on from part 1, in this blog post we are exploring what the differences are between Google Analytics and GA4. We also look at previous limitations and how they have now been resolved in GA4.

If you haven’t read part 1, check it out here.

What are the 3 key differences between previous versions of Google Analytics and GA4?

The platform layout.

Regardless of which version of Google Analytics you use), the look and feel of the platform is consistent throughout. 

However, in GA4 the layout and style of the platform differs somewhat, with some sections and reports taken out and some admin and configuration settings streamlined, amongst other changes. This ultimately means that if you are accustomed to the previous versions of Google Analytics, it may take you a bit of time to adjust to where to find things in GA4.

For example, as shown in the following screenshots you can see the difference in list of sections and reports, between previous version and GA4.

Before Google Analytics 4.

Google Analytics 4.

At first glance this may startle you, but as we cover the following areas you will hopefully be able to make more sense of this and how you can benefit from it for your own analysis.

Finding and building reports.

As we can see from the previous screenshots, in GA4 you now find pre-existing reports in different areas of the platform, but with a vastly reduced list of reports. A key reason for this being that GA4 puts the onus on its users to build out our own custom reports.Previously we had to create custom reports or add secondary dimensions to create more specific reports in Google Analytics, but now we have greater flexibility to be able to fully customise our reports across a range of report types.

In GA4 these different report types can be found in the ‘Explore’ section, allowing you to pick your preferred report type, as shown in the following screenshot. 

Again, whilst this blog post is not a how-to guide for GA4, the following screenshot should give you an initial idea as to how you would then be able to customise your reports specifically for your reporting requirements.

No page views and bounce rates as metrics.

Whilst the previous 2 points are more related to where to find specific reports and then how to set them up, this point purely relates to changes in the dimensions and metrics available in GA4.

Whereas previously reports were heavily reliant on reporting on page views and bounce rates as key metrics… these do not exist in GA4 as metrics!

As we have covered in more detail under the later ‘Creating events’ and ‘Setting up goals’ subheadings, GA4 has a pure reliance on events in order to track goings on on the website. As part of this, there is now a default event ‘page_view’ which fires when a page is viewed. Whilst this does mean that you can report on pageviews for a specific page, you would now find such data under the events, rather than a separate metric.

In relation to bounce rate, gone are the existing dreaded questions of “What does the bounce rate mean?” and “how is it different from the exit rate?”. This metric has now been replaced by the “engagement rate” metric. The engagement rate is the percentage of your sessions which are engaged, with engaged sessions being identified as those website sessions where users are actively interacting with your website by:

  • Staying on the page for 10 seconds or longer

  • Viewing more than 1 page

  • Completing a conversion event

It is suggested that such a metric is more accurate than the previous bounce rate as it considers both time on page and conversions, whereas bounce rate was more limited in its calculation.

What are 3 key limitations have we found using previous versions of Google Analytics? How are these resolved in GA4?

From reading about GA4 so far in this blog post you may start to ask yourself whether GA4 actually resolves issues (from previous versions of Google Analytics) or creates new issues for marketers with its significant changes to the platform? In this subsection we have looked at 3 existing issues we have found with Google Analytics, and how we believe that GA4 have resolved these issues.

Creating events.

Events are extremely useful to allow us to track user interactions across the website, ranging from if they have clicked on specific links or CTA buttons, watched a certain % of a video or made an online purchase, amongst other interactions.

By default there were no existing events available for you to report in in previous versions of Google Analytics. This meant that we had to add our own events to the website, whether that be through a developer hard-coding an event in the code, creating event tags and triggers in Google Tag Manager (GTM), or in some instance using CMS plugins (for example, for ecommerce actions with platforms such as Shopify or Woocommerce).

With GTM and CMS Plugins not being available for all websites, this has often meant that historically we have had to brief developers to manually add events into website code, which becomes a timely process, especially when you consider testing time and the potential need for multiple website deployments to achieve this.

In addition, not all websites have historically used the same version of Google Analytics, meaning that developers have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Google’s vast documentation as to the relevant code setup for these different versions.

For example, if you wanted to add a more general ‘Outbound links’ event to specific links to the website, a developer would have to manually add these to the specific links on the website.

GA4 has introduced functionality to allow you add several events to your website by default, meaning that you can report on more popular user actions to your GA4 reporting quickly by merely selecting them in the platform configuration section.

It should be noted here that as per previous versions of Google Analytics you are able to setup event tags for GA4 through Google Tag Manager (GTM). In fact, we would still recommend using GTM to create more specific and advanced tag setups for use in GA4. However, we believe that this is a great starting point when setting up your GA4 account, so that you can start tracking user interactions on the website as soon as you add the GA4 configuration tag, without having to setup event tags first.

Setting up goals.

Within Google Analytics you are able to setup goals based upon the ‘type’ of goal (as shown in the following screenshot), with the most popular being the ‘Destination URL’ meaning that a goal fired when a user arrived on a certain URL (for example a thank you page).

From the get go, we can probably say that the majority of these goal types were not relevant enough for most websites to track key user actions, most notably ‘Duration’, ‘Pages/Screens Per Session’ and ‘Smart Goal’. Whilst in theory the ‘Smart Goal’ sounded a great use of machine learning to identify the most relevant user actions on the website, when available it often reported on very high volumes of events, providing little insight into what these entailed.

Similarly, we have found over time that setting a goal by URL has become less reliant, meaning that we now tend to create events to track key user actions (such as completing an enquiry form or an eCommerce purchase). We have found more recently that using events (specifically custom events) to track such actions allows for more accurate volumes of goal completions and less risk of duplicate conversions being recorded, and more accurate funnel analysis.

This signals probably one of the biggest differences between previous versions of Google Analytics and GA4 as we no longer have ‘Goals’.

Instead high priority user actions are now to be tracked as ‘Conversions’, with all conversions based upon ‘Events’. A key reason for this has been to allow for easier reporting of conversions across websites and mobile apps (as Firebased already reported on ‘Conversions’ instead of ‘Goals’), but to also streamline the above goal setup process.

When setting up conversions now, you merely have to provide a name for a new conversion and ensure that it matches one of the names of the events, or just mark an event as a conversion, as shown by these examples.

Different reporting platforms for websites and mobile apps.

A key issue with Google Analytics has been that you are not able to report upon your website and mobile apps within the same reports. Previously you would have had to setup your website analytics tracking and reporting through Google Analytics, and your app analytics and reporting tracking through Firebase.

Similarly, the way the tracking for both platforms are setup differently, essentially requiring your development team to undertake multiple tracking set up tasks, taking longer to do so. As we are only too aware, this means more time and money to complete such tasks.

This issue has been resolved in GA4, as you are able to add a website and a mobile app (both iOS and Android versions) into the same account, meaning that reports for both can be reviewed together. Within GA4 selecting whether you are reporting upon a website or mobile app or both, are handled under the name ‘data streams’, as shown in the following screenshot example.

In fact, if you have used Firebase before, you are ahead of most marketers in learning about the platform, as GA4 and Firebase have very similar layouts and naming conventions for different sections in the platform.

Whilst this blog post is not a ‘how to’ guide on how to setup conversions, events and reports amongst other attributes, just these screenshots alone should suggest to you the vase different in appearance and configurations in GA4.

Do you want to get ready for GA4?

Across both parts of this introduction to GA4, we hope that we have provided you with a good background knowledge of GA4 – what it is, how it differs from previous versions of Google Analytics, and how you can get yourselves GA4 ready!