How we prepared for GA4.
Four years ago, Google unveiled a beta version of its newest iteration of Google Analytics called Google Analytics 4 or GA4. This new release was set to completely replace its previous version, Universal Analytics (UA) by July 1, 2023 and included some large-scale changes impacting the way we and many others measure website activity and engagement.
As this new version of the popular analytics tool evolved over the past four years, so did we. Our analytics team used every second of GA4’s development time to prepare for its full launch and the official end of UA.
The launch date came a lot quicker than any of us thought it would, but when UA finally stopped collecting data, our team was fully versed and ready – and had already successfully migrated about 50 UA properties to GA4.
Wondering how our team was able to transition so easily?
Here’s an inside look at our process, including some of the setbacks we faced during GA4’s development.
Our first step started back in September 2019, when we created GA4 properties for all our active websites to go along with the existing UA properties. It was at this time that we also started launching new websites with both a UA and GA4 property. This strategy is referred to as parallel tracking and allowed us to capture data early on so that year-over-year analyses in GA4 could be performed later down the road. This early work also helped our analytics team familiarize themselves with the new user interface, metrics, and data model.
GA4’s most significant change was its event-based data model. UA had various “hit” types for different interactions like pageviews, events, user timing, and transactions. With GA4, every interaction is captured as an event, essentially changing the way the tool captures and measures data. We won’t go into detail about this, but if you’d like to learn more about these differences, you can check out Google’s official documentation.
Events always existed in UA, but under a fairly rigid structure with only three parameters: category, action, and label. With GA4, we could now send any event name and variables we wanted to the tool. Unfortunately, with this much freedom, we had to rethink how we managed and named our events in Google Tag Manager (GTM). We started by listing all our common events and their variables, adjusting names accordingly, adding and removing variables, and even eliminating a few events all together. This was probably the largest and most important part of our migration to GA4.
Understanding new features.
With the rise of general data privacy concerns, GA4 introduced new features that had to be considered when setting up data collection. How long could data be accessed in Exploration reports? Should we use Google Signals? How do different reporting identities impact data? All of these questions had to be answered since they weren’t part of UA. Testing each of these privacy features allowed us to find the combinations that best fit our data needs and added to our familiarity with the new user interface.
Early GA4 versions lacked a number of features that made UA great and had been used regularly by our team. While we were confident these features would be added eventually, we did have to be patient. We also had to come up with some contingency plans in case they didn’t make the cut. And because every Google Analytics user was going through the same thing, everyone was eager to share new information as it became available. This made monitoring social channels a key piece of our prep, as information typically showed up there long before any official documentation from Google.
Four years of experience, testing everything GA4 had to offer, following its most recent updates and changes, experimenting with configurations, and fine tuning how we used the tool ultimately gave our team a running start on July 1, 2023. On that day, our team had the knowledge and the confidence to successfully utilize this new tool to its fullest with plenty of data available to analyze, so our clients never had to miss a beat.
Our analytics team is ready to put GA4 to work for your website. Get in touch today to learn more.