Wondering how Universal Analytics (GA3) and Google Analytics 4 compare? Take a closer look at these four main differences.
Analytics | May 26
Melissa King on May 24, 2021 • 23 minute read
In October 2020, Google introduced Google Analytics 4, the next product in its analytics platform.
Google Analytics 4 (AKA GA4) isn’t just the Google Analytics you know with a new paint job — it delivers new features like machine learning and app compatibility.
With these new capabilities on the table, should you add GA4 to your analytics toolbox?
What should you do with Google’s current Universal Analytics (UA)?
These are questions on many marketer’s minds as Google slowly phases out Universal Analytics (UA).
So we decided to ask marketing pros if they’ve upgraded to GA4 already, and nearly 60% said yes.
What factors contributed to these marketers’ decisions? We asked them why they recommend upgrading to GA4 or waiting and will share their insights here. Plus, we’ll explain how to upgrade to GA4 if you want to try it:
Let’s get going.
The 59.1% of respondents who have Google Analytics 4 upgraded for three reasons:
About 45% of this group switched because of the improved tracking, making it their most popular reason.
Marketers who upgraded or plan to upgrade soon listed these reasons for their decision:
First things first — let’s establish something super important. Even if you upgrade to GA4, you’ll still have your UA features on hand. Many of the marketers we contacted pointed this fact out.
“In my opinion, it is a perfect time for marketers to upgrade to GA4,” says Mark Condon from Shotkit. “There is absolutely no reason for them to avoid it since Google allows businesses to use GA4 and UA together. So one can get used to working with GA4 without giving up UA.”
Plus, if you keep UA and add GA4, you’ll be able to take advantage of both platforms’ strengths. UA and GA4 balance each other out with different features that have their own merits.
Take it from Blink SEO’s Sam Wright: “GA4 is definitely an interesting product, and the enhanced measurement feature can be really powerful in particular. However, there are a number of features and reports that can be found in Universal Analytics that just aren’t in GA4 yet, such as detailed Google Ads reports. A lack of historical data can’t be ignored, too.”
In addition to recommending you run GA4 and UA together, Wright highlights the importance of historical data in the transition. “No timeline for sunsetting Universal Analytics has been announced, but the longer you can have GA4 running the better in terms of reducing the impact of losing historical data. As new features are added, you might find it will become a more important part of your workflow until UA can be abandoned altogether,” Wright informs us.
In other words, you’ll be able to feel out GA4 while collecting data to use if you decide to make the full transfer.
Stephen Twomey from Kennected agrees, adding, “Google Analytics 4 has quite a few features to offer that UA doesn’t, but it also has a few missed points. If you upgrade and switch you’ll lose old data, miss crucial reports on the journey through a customer’s lifecycle, but you’ll also see some big pros, like more complex AI insights and growing features.
To take advantage of GA4 without losing the pros of the UA platform, set up your website to track both — why choose if you don’t have to?”
For most folks, running GA4 and UA is a win-win situation. Why not give it a shot?
Google prides itself on GA4’s machine learning and predictive analytics, and for good reason — some of the marketers we talked to brought them up as a reason to install.
“As a digital marketer for over 14 years now, I believe that any company utilizing Google Analytics should consider upgrading to GA4,” Blue Water Marketing’s Christopher Marrano affirms. “The reason for this is that based on the announcements from Google, GA4 will be utilizing a more sophisticated AI that will eventually be able to provide more information into data and provide better insights into understanding the data moving forward.”
GA4’s predictive modeling features have plenty of potential for eCommerce professionals. They’ll help you predict sales and stay nimble in an ever-changing market.
Miklos Zoltan of Privacy Affairs explains how GA4’s predictive capabilities make it a great fit for eCommerce businesses: “The reason why you should upgrade to GA4 is the ability to predict future outcomes based on historical evidence. Machine learning is used in the latest ‘predictive metrics’ feature to model the possible future transactions and revenue for e-commerce sites. Advertisers can target advertising on Google properties to users who are more likely to buy in the next seven days using ‘predictive audiences.’”
Zoltan continues, “These predictive features are currently limited to e-commerce sites and are focused on the purchase, sales and churn metrics. I can see a future where GA4 can classify visitors who are most likely to convert based on marketing objectives like lead form submissions, video views or other forms of interaction.”
Since GA4’s machine learning features are still in the works, the platform will likely introduce even more AI tools in the future. We can’t wait to see how GA4 will evolve alongside the AI revolution in marketing.
Before you check what GA4 projects your visitors will do in the future, check out what they’re doing right now. The Google Analytics 4 Engagement Overview Dashboard Template from Databox displays your website and app’s overall engagement in a single dashboard.
When you upgrade any technology, you hope that it’ll become faster and stronger, right? Fortunately, GA4 follows that trend with more efficient reporting than UA.
“If you’ve ever used GA with a high-traffic location, particularly with GA 360 assets, you’ll be all too familiar with the dreaded ‘Loading…’ bar, which can take several minutes to load,” explains Litta’s Daniel Foley. “Universal Analytics was ultimately based on 10-year-old data mining, and although the GA4 user interface seems to be identical, Google has redesigned it from the ground up for speed and functionality. Normal reports in GA4 produce faster and are more powerful at the same time.”
Foley isn’t the only one impressed with GA4’s speed. At Force by Mojio, Daivat Dholakia upgraded to GA4 specifically for faster insights. “The Insight feature has been completely revamped. It provides moment-to-moment analysis and projections based on your website analytics,” Dholakia says.
They continue, “I also like that GA4 now delivers Life Cycles, which track users from when they start to visit your website to their conversion into customers. Even though we’re still getting to know it, I’m excited about how much more potential it has to help us out with metrics and conversion tracking.”
So, if you have a lot of numbers to crunch in Google Analytics, you might enjoy the switch to GA4 for this factor alone. With less time spent waiting for your analytics to load, you’ll have more time to work on improving them.
In addition to speeding up reporting, GA4 has more powerful stats to share, as Tony Kelly from CameraGroove highlights. “You’ll learn a lot about your users and other facets of your market, which will help you make better business decisions. Report models, discovery templates, funnel analysis, tree diagrams, overlapping audiences or segments, cohort analysis to compare users with similar habits, and more are all accessible. You can customize these models by adding measurements, metrics, and segments, as well as exporting them in various formats,” Kelly tells us.
As Daft Punk would say, GA4’s reporting is harder, better, faster and stronger. And another way to make up your reporting game and take a holistic approach to your website and app analytics is to connect Databox with your Google Analytics 4 account.
If you decide to stay with UA for now, though, you can try its custom dimensions and metrics for more versatile reporting.
With apps becoming an important property, GA4 enables you to track analytics for websites and applications. In fact, you can pull analytics from multiple properties to see all your data across channels.
Jitendra Vaswani from Affiliate Bay has an in-depth explanation to share: “GA4 is made for marketing experts who intend to integrate information from several residential or commercial properties such as sites or mobile apps. Tracking individuals across numerous properties has traditionally been challenging, especially when trying to associate revenue (eCommerce deals or mobile application acquisitions) to several touchpoints in the consumer journey.”
How does GA4 manage this? According to Vaswani, “GA4 enables individuals to set up multiple ‘Information Streams’ within each residential or commercial property. A stream can be an iOS application, Android app or an internet site. Individual information, interaction metrics and conversion data from each stream are combined into GA4’s coverage interface to repaint a more total photo of how individuals travel between sites as well as applications on their course to a purchase.”
So, in other words, GA4 takes the entire customer journey into account by examining how a customer travels among your channels. For example, you’ll be able to see if your website tends to drive users to your app or vice versa.
If you’ve ever interacted with a brand from more than one digital presence, you’ll understand why GA4 made this move. It better reflects the ways that internet users interact with businesses.
Some of the marketers we consulted had a common-sense answer to share: We’re all going to have to use GA4 in the future anyway, so why not try it?
“Eventually, everyone will have to since Google is phasing out UA, so why not jump in early?” Robert Brandl of Website Tool Tester asks. While changing technology might feel overwhelming, Brandl considers the adjustment worth it.
Brandl also points out, “At the pace that tech is moving, every brand will eventually have some sort of digital presence and probably some sort of app. Marketers need to know who visits their brands’ pages in order to successfully curate campaigns and promotions for their clients, and that’s something that sets GA4 far ahead of UA.”
“Ignoring major upgrades from Google is futile. I think upgrading is not critical right now but definitely a green light overall,” Alex from BAM Studio adds.
They also bring up the fact that Google designed GA4 to adapt to the internet’s future. “For example, the idea behind GA4 is to better accommodate for user experience, as the web is getting more and more saturated and Google can only continue to structure granular data. The provisions of such data can only be attributed to new microelements such as user behavior and not just page visit and duration (and other fundamentals). Google search is becoming more precise, and for them to structure it, they encourage you to understand and structure your web presence tailored for your target market,” they explain.
As Google’s algorithm evolves, it aims to become more user-friendly — think user intent over keywords and bounce rate. Google created GA4 to account for the human factors behind visitor behavior and make them measurable.
Emily Lutz from Perfect Search Media emphasizes that switching to GA4 now will allow for an easier transition overall. “If you set up GA4 now, you are able to compare metrics between GA3 and GA4 and see how your analytics are going to be impacted by the change in measurement. You will also be able to get familiar with the platform and how to set up needed reports before GA3 is discontinued,” Lutz elaborates.
While Google will eventually make GA4 the only property option, it hasn’t announced a specific date for sunsetting UA. So, you have plenty of time to set up your transition.
Due to GA4’s data collection methods, taking it on early can help you get better analytics later.
Here’s how Emily Matthews from Gentle Dog Trainers explains it: “GA4 has machine learning capabilities but can’t use historical data. It can only use data that it has gathered over time. To get it up and running, you should allow it to collect data immediately. This is the basis of all its analytics prowess and will dictate how powerful it will be. Simply put, the more data, the more time, the better output/analysis!”
Since GA4 uses machine learning to provide insights, you need to “train” it with data over time. Even if you don’t make a full switch right now, you can start feeding it information to make better use of it in the future.
Lisa Sinnwell from Blue Compass has a similar opinion, adding, “When any new tool rolls out, we recommend our clients implement and monitor the tool, but avoid making a full shift until it is more established. That being said, we recommend getting GA4 set up sooner rather than later, and tracking data concurrently in Universal Analytics and GA4. This gives marketers a chance to compare metrics and allows the tool time to collect data so you have historical comparisons for your website by the time you switch over.”
Take note that Sinnwell mentions that you can run UA and GA4 side-by-side while GA4 collects data. You can keep focusing on UA or focus on both platforms equally — either way, you’ll start building historical data.
Nate Tower of Perrill highly recommends operating UA and GA4 at the same time as well. Why?
Tower has a few reasons, saying, “GA4 offers a lot of enhancements and potential advantages over Universal Analytics, but there are not a lot of out-of-the-box integrations for common platforms right now, especially eCommerce. Therefore, it might not be possible for you to easily track everything you need to track at the moment. Since you aren’t able to move your historical data from UA to GA4, you need to keep your UA running for now so you can easily compare year-over-year data.”
Tower concludes, “In short, I recommend upgrading immediately, but making it a gradual upgrade where you add additional layers to your tracking over time.”
The relationship between GA4 and UA is still pretty flexible, so you can adjust to GA4 at your own pace. But, consider getting it set up for the time being to make the most of it when it’s the norm.
A lot of modern marketing counts on tracking tech like cookies to collect data on consumers. But, with users starting to push back on tracking, platforms like Google Analytics need to accommodate. GA4 is designed around this idea.
Edward Mellett of Wikijob puts it like this: “The reason I recommend marketers to upgrade to GA4 is that GA4 anticipates cookieless tracking and stricter privacy rules for customers in the future.”
How? “GA4 can use modeling powered by machine learning to paint an image of visitor habits by filling in gaps where user data is not accessible as cookies are phased out or blocked by computer makers, browser developers or government regulations. Conversion models won’t provide the level of detail that we’re used to as marketers, so there will be some limitations, particularly for smaller data sets,” Mellett tells us.
What will Google Analytics look like with fewer cookies? You might see different information on your Audience Overview Report. But, we’ll also have consumers who feel safer and happier with business advertising.
Editor’s note: Get your most vital audience demographic details from the Google Analytics 4 Demographics Details Dashboard Template. It shows information on your visitors’ region, average purchase revenue, and engagement time.
Here’s one final benefit of using GA4: It puts you in the same mindset that Google has for the future. Google is moving toward an experience-based search algorithm that you’ll see reflected in GA4’s analytics.
“I think marketers should upgrade to GA4 because it provides good insight into the way the Google team is thinking about search,” William Chin of Your Digital Aid puts it. “Out of the box, engagement is the default for GA4. The reason for this is, Google is trying to prioritize user experience above everything else along with page rank.”
GA4’s future features will likely also provide insight into Google’s approach to search. Google understandably keeps its algorithm under wraps, but its technology can help us make an educated guess on how to work with it.
Out of all of the marketers we surveyed, 22.7% haven’t upgraded to GA4 but plan to, 9.1% aren’t sure and 9.1% don’t plan to upgrade. Some of them recommend having both and focusing on UA, while others don’t suggest transferring at all. They mentioned six reasons for waiting to switch:
A few of the marketers who don’t recommend shifting your focus to GA4 bring up a valid point for waiting: GA4 isn’t out of beta yet.
“Google is really pushing users to migrate to its Global Site Tag (gtag.js) to begin using GA4, but for most sites, this is simply not necessary. If you have been tracking web and app properties separately, this could be beneficial as it consolidates data across both, helping to gain better insights into cross-platform behavior,” Browser Media’s Vic Spall explains.
Spall continues, “GA4 is still in beta and is missing many of the features that we’ve become familiar with. Even experienced Google Analytics users will struggle to navigate their way around, and the built-in reports that we’ve been using for years are no longer available — there is no reporting view, as such.”
In other words, GA4 doesn’t have all of its features yet, and the features it does have require a steep learning curve. Spall suggests setting up a GA4 property, but not switching all the way yet.
SEO With Jenny’s Jenny Abouobaia has a similar take. “Most normal people do not really need to do the upgrade as currently, GA4 can run alongside Universal Analytics without migrating completely, and even if you go with GA4, it is recommended to still send data to your existing GA property,” Abouobaia says.
Abouobaia continues, “So, you will have the chance to get used to the new features, new interface and reports, but take note that although your existing properties and views will not be replaced, the new GA4 property will be empty. If you are a big company, a global brand, then moving straight to GA4 might be more of a priority, although it would be wise to heed the opinions of the analytics community and not upgrade until GA4 has been thoroughly tested and all the bugs are worked out.”
So, if you’re a small to medium business trying GA4 out, there’s no rush to make the full switch to GA4. Consider adding the property, but keep the rest of the process at a pace that works for you.
If you’re used to some of UA’s reports, you’ll need to put a lot of work into GA4 before you can get similar reporting features. You might want to push back a full transition from UA to GA4 until you have every detail set up as you need it.
Alysha Schultz from Intuitive Digital recommends, “Make sure you clearly understand the differences [between UA and GA4], as there will be a ton of manual setup required if you still want to access many of the same reports you’ve become accustomed to pulling up automatically in Universal. Build yourself a tiered and timely GA4 implementation plan. Or, if you’re an in-house marketer, and you don’t have the analytics chops to do this, start talking with your agency now about what the upgrade and implementation plan is for your Analytics account.”
For Vernon Riley from Smart Marketing Reports, the right choice depends on if you use Google Firebase or UA. If you use Firebase for an app, Riley thinks you should switch, but it’s not as necessary for UA users.
Riley has a technical explanation for this reasoning: “The concept of ‘webpage’ is used to support most websites. Universal Analytics reflects this and relies on pages. As soon as the Universal Analytics snippet is installed, a huge number of reports just work.
By contrast, modern apps are based on screens and smaller elements. They do not have pages. GA4 is designed for apps.
GA4 uses the ‘event’ as its fundamental concept. But the significance of an event can range from trivial to huge. It could be a click on a scroll bar or a click on the buy button for a 6 figure product. The developer and marketer have to do the work to ‘show’ the difference.
Because of these differences, GA4 has fewer pre-made reports than Universal Analytics. Organizations have lots of users who are familiar with page-based analytics. GA4 can’t currently compete with this. This isn’t about investment — it’s about user behavior and willingness to change.”
What does this mean? GA4 records events differently than UA, and this difference might work better for businesses with apps. Get to know the tech behind each platform before you commit to one or the other.
Depending on your analytics goals, GA4’s base version might fit your strategy better than UA’s base version. But, what happens when you bring third-party integrations into the mix?
According to Bobby Gill from Blue Label Labs, “We currently use Google Analytics for sites that we build as well as for our own site but it’s not as comprehensive as certain other tools and formerly lacked the ability to comprehensively analyze most mobile apps except for Firebase which not all products use.”
So, what will they do for the time being? Gill explains, “Right now, the plan is to keep using third-party solutions we know and trust as the primary method for analyzing apps. In time and should GA4 prove to outperform solutions on the market, we’ll consider using this as our sole reporting system.”
Take note that Blue Label Labs specializes in app development, so the right app analytics tool is likely more important to them than the right website analytics tool.
Of course, you shouldn’t assume that Blue Label Labs has the same situation as your organization. Gill suggests an individual approach, saying, “I think that marketers should make the decision to switch on a case-by-case scenario as every product is different. I definitely urge trying [GA4] alongside other solutions you already have in place to see what kind of benefits you gain.”
It’s also worth noting that most third-party integrations on the website side of UA might not work with GA4, so take care if you switch on the website end. Carefully compare your UA and GA4 resources to decide which you should invest in.
Hoping that GA4 will give your analytics data a clean slate? Not so fast — if you don’t have your UA data in shape, your GA4 data won’t be, either.
“With the release of GA4, now is the ideal time to assess the current state of your analytics and ensure that it is in line with your goals and policy. If the UA code is still deficient, migrating to GA4 without fixing the issues is a waste of time,” Bram Jansen from vpnAlert tells us.
According to Jansen, GA4 makes you look at your data through a new framework: “You’ll log any activity as an occurrence with related criteria, rather than page views and activities. Conversions can be configured instead of priorities. You’ll create data sources instead of views.”
“So, regardless of the status of the current GA deployment, you’ll need to rethink and redesign how you catch the experiences, measurements and segments you’ll need to calculate and refine your website, app or digital marketing efforts,” Jansen explains.
“It’s a good idea to build or upgrade your analytics calculation strategy to inform your design decisions before starting a GA4 deployment project,” Jansen suggests for folks looking to switch. “Your evaluation strategy should include a list of your market goals, the digital strategies you’ll use to achieve them, KPIs for evaluating the effectiveness of each approach, and segments for identifying main target audiences. This will include the best guide for choosing how to organize your GA4 implementation design’s events, parameters, conversions and other elements.”
Elizabeth Weatherby from CSI Financial Group adds, “GA4 tracks goals as universal analytics does, but tracks them as only ‘events’. Your methods of goal tracking may be different on GA4 compared to Universal Analytics. I would definitely explore and experiment with GA4, but would keep the old version of your analytics as well to refer back to if need be.”
If you don’t have your Google Analytics data in order, what should you do? How can you even know if you have accurate data? Our chat with Keith Moehring will provide some guidance.
What goals do you have in mind when you use Google Analytics? They could impact your experience with GA4 vs UA.
“I think it depends on the situation and what you are trying to achieve,” CreditDonkey’s Ronald Samson says of the choice between GA4 and UA. “If you’re using GA to identify whether or not a user has visited your site, then there is no reason to upgrade. In fact, I would say your conversion rate is going to drop because of added complexity.”
After all, GA4 uses an event-based framework instead of focusing on visits. But, even if you prefer to track events over visits, you still have some factors to consider.
Samson elaborates, “If you are trying to target users that perform an event on your site, then you have to decide which is important. Are you optimizing towards all sessions or just the people who perform this event? The data in GA3 is the same as GA4, so if you’re only tracking events and want to make sure that the event is being triggered, then I think upgrading should be up to individual preference.”
Ultimately, the choice is up to you.
There are plenty of reasons to upgrade to GA4 or wait — like anything else in marketing, there isn’t a “correct” answer. If you do decide to add GA4 to your Google Account, you can add a GA4 property at any time.
(A quick side note: GA4 is the default platform for people with new Google Analytics properties. If you haven’t set up your account yet, you won’t have to worry about this process.)
According to the Analytics Help Center, you should follow these steps to add a Google Analytics 4 property to your Universal Analytics property:
That’s it. Happy data-crunching!
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