What Broadband Operators Need to Know About Google Analytics 4

J. Schelstrate

J. is the CRO of Atlas Digital Group.
5 min. read

Are you ready for change?

Starting July 1, Google's Universal Analytics will no longer process new data. Google's newest version of its data-tracking platform, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) will officially replace Universal Analytics (UA). And it’s not just a new name, it’s a completely new way of tracking and reporting website traffic. To continue using Google to track and report website traffic, you’ll need to become familiar with GA4 and how it is different than UA. This post takes a closer look at some of the surprises in store.

Why GA4 Is Coming

UA operates on a session-based data model that was developed 15 years ago. It was designed by Google to evaluate independent sessions, which are essentially clusters of user interactions within a specific time period on a desktop device. However, this method of measurement has become outdated. In UA, goals are not evaluated per user, but rather per session. For example, if a user views four videos within one session, this interaction is only recorded as a single conversion. In contrast, GA4 adopts an event-based data collection approach to offer businesses a more precise understanding of user behavior.

Google says that GA4 will deliver many benefits, such as integrated insights across websites and mobile apps, machine learning to alert you to significant trends in your data and predict future actions that users may take, a deeper integration with Google Ads, respect evolving consumer privacy needs, and more.

Disruptive Changes 

The new event-based data model is a promising change, but time will tell whether GA4 lives up to the high expectations set by Google and its workhorse predecessor. Furthermore, the change in the data model brings with it several other disruptive changes, and it’s important that businesses be aware of these changes. For instance, you should expect:

  • A significant delay in how often GA4 updates user data. UA reports updates in close to real time. Say goodbye to that capability unless you are willing to pay a premium price for Google’s GA4 360.  And even then, it may take up to an entire day for GA4 to update user data (although Google has not been clear about the length of the time lag). This change in updating is going to come as a shock to UA users who rely on intraday or daily web performance reports.
  • Limits to data inoperability. Tools for pulling data out of GA4 for other uses such as data visualization will be limited. If you use tools like Looker Studio (a free tool that turns your data into informative, easy to read, easy to share, and fully customizable dashboards) with UA, you’ll find that Google will impose daily limits to how much data you can pull for data visualization. These limits are complex and not well explained. This much is clear: heavy consumers of data visualization tools will find reporting potentially nonfunctional. 
  • Changes in metrics. The way GA counts metrics is changing, so don’t be surprised if you see inconsistencies in your data after July 1.  As an example, the count of sessions – probably the most widely used metric – will likely be less than is currently reported in UA.  With GA4, there are fewer events that will cause a new session to start and GA4 uses a statistical model rather than a definitive count to provide an estimate of total session volume. 
  • Your UA reporting history will go away. All the historical data you’ve been using courtesy of UA will not be available forever. Google has said the historical data will be available for six months, but has not set a definitive date yet.  Consider July 1 to be a reset of your data. Your new history starts July 1 when GA4 officially replaces UA. So, how do you track year-over-year data during this transitional period? Well, if you haven’t been running GA4 for the past year you’ll technically be able to do year-over-year views by cobbling together your new data from GA4 post-July 1 with UA data pre-July 1. But it won’t be easy.  GA4 doesn’t structure reporting the way UA does and – as just discussed – the counting method for some metrics are changing, making apples-to-apples comparisons tricky. Oh, and once Google removes access to UA data roughly six months after July 1, using UA for year-over-year comparisons prior to July 1 will be impossible.
  • The user experience will change. GA4 ushers in a completely new interface with different reporting views and data organization. A new user experience is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, you might prefer the GA4 interface over UA. But there will be a learning curve and it will take time to adjust to it.

What You Should Do

  • By now everyone should have GA4 up and running, but it goes without saying that it’s more important than ever for you to get as familiar as you can with GA4. Schedule milestones for your team to learn and master GA4.
  • Manage your expectations. For example, accept the reality that you will have more limited reporting from GA4, with updates only happening once or twice a day rather than the near real-time reporting available in UA. Manage the expectations of your own clients and internal stakeholders. Let them know how you are adapting to the limitations.
  • Come up with a plan to get access to your historical UA data before it goes away six months from July 1.
  • If an outside partner is running GA4 for you, check in with them. Find out how they’ve been managing these limitations. 

Finally, if you are an Atlas Digital Group client, rest assured: you have nothing to worry about. We’ve been on top of the GA4 transition for quite some time. While GA4 is a valuable tool, it only represents a fraction of the data and analytics used with our Atlas CORE product. We have you covered!