As we’ve discussed before, Google Analytics is one of the most powerful free marketing tools available. It allows you to track and analyze website and customer behaviour, which is central to executing your marketing plan. In October 2020, Google released a new version of the platform: Google Analytics 4 or GA4. Responding to the demands of users and advertisers, the new version represents a complete overhaul of the old model in order to better represent and aggregate user behaviour and data, while also taking into consideration concerns about data privacy and the possibility of a cookie-less world.

As with anything new, GA4 brings new possibilities as well as potential drawbacks. Here are some of the highlights and exciting new features that GA4 brings to the marketing/analytics table, as well as some of the potential problems it may pose for your business.

Google Analytics 4 Update You’ll Love

Tracking a Unified User Experience with Events

The proliferation of different platforms and devices has led to fragmented user data information because users interact with both websites and apps using different devices. GA4 attempts to account for this in order to provide a unified understanding of a customer’s interaction with your business across devices and platforms. Understanding these interactions as the actions of a single user will help you better understand the journey your customers’ take from discovery to conversion to, hopefully, retention.

To do this, GA4 moves from the sessions-based approach of Google Analytics’ traditional version, to an events-based approach. While sessions are focused on individual interactions with your company from multiple devices, browsers and platforms, the events-based approach tracks standardized data for all interactions. It then compiles them into a single user touchpoint, using marketer-provided user IDs, Google Signals, and device IDs.

To give an example, let’s say a customer discovers your company through a web ad, which brings them to your website. They then explore your website and also download your app. They continue to browse products via a computer and place the item in their shopping cart, but ultimately make the purchase through your app. By unifying this data into a single touchpoint, GA4 counts these as separate events tracked to a particular user and only counts the double shopping cart add as a single purchase. Ultimately, combining these interactions into a single user profile, GA4 provides a unified vision of the customer’s journey.

Machine Learning AI and Privacy

GA4 uses advanced machine learning to provide a number of benefits. First, it can provide automatic alerts in response to data trends. For example, if there is rising demand for your products, it will notify you immediately, allowing you to adjust to this rising demand. Second, it can help to predict future customer actions, including churn (or customer loss) probabilities. This  allows you to try to combat these trends through efficient investment to retain customers. Third, Google continues to add new metrics, including ones that predict potential revenue from particular customer segments. By allowing you to understand why some customers are more likely to purchase products or spend more on products, you can target particular audiences with Google Ads to maximize return-on-investment.

GA4 also uses machine learning to further its privacy-first approach to user data. This approach is designed to address two major concerns:

  1. The emergence of stringent restrictions on the collection and use of consumer data in legislation like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  2. Missing or inaccurate information that emerges with cookie consent options, which have driven Google to prepare for a world without third-party cookies.

To address these concerns, GA4 utilizes a gtag.js library that does not require cookies to work. Likewise, GA4 has IP anonymization set as a default, which cannot be reconfigured. In this context, GA4 uses new data modelling AI features to fill in data gaps from blocked cookies or JavaScript. Using this modelling, it extrapolates from existing data points and draws predictive conclusions about user behaviour and site traffic.

Less Coding

One of the more difficult things with tracking events in the classic version of Analytics was that it required coding or gtag.js scripts. GA4 cuts down on some of the need to edit events through on-site coding. For the most common categories, it allows you to edit, track and fine-tune events through the user interface if you have the GA4 property set-up on your site correctly. This includes tracking and measuring on-site and in-app events in real-time, including page scrolls and video plays. The events that still require code are ones that are recommended for particular business verticals or custom events that you want to implement yourself.

Deeper Integrations

GA4 leverages new integrations with Google’s marketing products to help improve your return on investment. This starts with a deeper integration with Google Ads, which allows you to create audiences and serve them more relevant and useful ads when they interact with your business. Because of the unified event nature of GA4, this happens across platforms, apps, and browsers. Moreover, because it no longer separates website and app users, one of GA4’s biggest upgrades is with its YouTube integration. It allows you to track how YouTube campaigns affect audience interaction with your website, including bounce rates and conversions. Ultimately, when these integrations are combined with Google and non-Google paid channels, as well as organic traffic from Google’s search engine, as well as social and email, GA4 gives you a better view of the effects of your total marketing efforts.

An additional integration benefit: while the previous incarnation of Google Analytics the BigQuery Export feature was only available on the paid version, GA4 provides this feature free to everyone. But this comes with a drawback: the scheme for exporting data to BigQuery requires more data processing compared to alternatives, including the traditional version of Google Analytics.

Google Analytics 4 Updates That Will Take Time to Get Used To

Changes to Reporting

Because of the large methodological changes that GA4 brings, there are changes to reports and the user interface. To begin with, some of the default reports no longer exist and other features have changed. For instance, the tiers of data organization have changed. While the previous version had three (Account, Property and View), GA4 only has two (Account and Property). Moreover, the data won’t look the same because GA4 deals with a different methodology that measures hits according to events and other new parameters, as mentioned above.

As a result, the data won’t measure identically to the old version. Put in other words, your sessions will appear lower because they’re measured according to a different metric. As Google explains: “some aspects of session counting differ between the two platforms. For instance, in [Google Analytics’ old version], a new campaign will start a new session regardless of activity, however, a new campaign does not begin a new session in Google Analytics 4. This may lead to lower session counts in your Google Analytics 4 reports.”

While this might sound complicated, Google made these changes in response to customer feedback with the intention of providing marketing insights that are more intuitive and revolve around the customer journeys you want to track. In a nutshell, it’s intended to track customer lifecycle. Consequently, GA4 allows you to track user acquisition with one report and see what marketing and advertising avenues are driving acquisition. Then, with engagement and retention reports, you can analyze the actions customers take and whether you retain them as customers after conversion.


While it comes with cutting edge features, GA4’s biggest drawback is migration from the legacy version of Google Analytics. Because of the massive changes in the basic methodology, GA4 represents a complete rebuild of many of the features that users have become used to on the old version, including removal or replacement of various default reports, changes to dimensions and metrics, and a new process for adding tags. While this obviously involves learning a new system, it also involves complications for your current website set up. If your website currently depends on code and Google Tags Manager for tracking, you have a large website with subdomains, or you don’t have experience with BigQuery or Firebase Analytics, the learning curve will be steeper and the migration process will be more difficult.

RFDM and Google Analytics

While GA4 is still very new, it further contributes to Google’s status as the industry leader in marketing and analytics platforms. We’re looking forward to digging in deeper and finding out more about how it can help you execute your marketing plan.

For more information on Google Analytics, legacy version or GA4, contact us for a free consultation.

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