3 Recommendations for Bidding Farewell to Universal Analytics with Confidence

August 18, 2023

Since standard Universal Analytics (UA) properties stopped processing data on July 1, I have been seeing quite a few grumblings on the interwebs about how Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is a disappointing sequel. Some dissatisfied marketers are even using GA4 to simply recreate the types of UA dashboards they are familiar with.

I’m pleased to report, however, that we have been hearing fewer negative comments from our clients about GA4 over the last couple of months.

I think that’s partly because we’ve been encouraging them to start getting familiar with GA4 since it launched in 2020. Also, the enterprise version of UA will still be running normally for a few more months, so our clients using it don’t have as much of a hard stop. 

But I think the main reason we’ve had it mostly quiet on the GA4 transition front is that we have – and have been communicating to our clients – a quite positive impression of GA4. 

That isn’t to say I’m not a little nostalgic for UA. Google Analytics has functioned more or less the same for about 20 years, and many of us digital professionals have gotten used to the way things were . But it’s time to say goodbye to all that, and I have a few recommendations for doing so with confidence: 

First, know that there are good reasons that GA4 is different from UA.

Today, GA4 isn’t perfect. It is a work in progress. (Quite fast progress, though, as Google is shifting over most of their UA talent to the new platform.)  

For example, there can be some difficult-to-explain inconsistencies between built-in Standard Reports and Exploration Reports, which don’t use modeled data. There are also data sampling thresholds and hidden fields to tangle with. And there are some oddities like the GA4 “Bounce rate” being an entirely different metric than the one with the same name in UA. 

But these sorts of growing pains are worth putting up with. The growth is in the right direction. GA4 is built to do things that UA never could, particularly when it comes to gaining comprehensive visibility of entire user journeys across devices without third-party cookies. 

GA4 events track users, not sessions, and therefore create a rich variety of user-level use cases for marketers in multiple industries to activate on. In the travel business, for example, it’s quite common for consumers to research hotel options on their mobile devices while they are out and about before making bookings on their computers at home. In GA4, the resulting mobile app data and web browsing data can be easily stitched together around a user ID to build a full picture of the consumer journey. 

In this respect, my favorite feature of GA4 is Exploration Reports. The concept is not new – Exploration Reports have always been available in UA – but GA4 has taken it to impressive new levels of flexibility and interactivity. I have seen surprisingly few clients taking advantage of UA Exploration Reports, but I expect GA4 Exploration Reports to be a quite popular business intelligence-style tool for more advanced users – who know the proper dimensions and metrics to use – to gain on-the-fly insights. Users who are just getting started can stick with the standard GA4 reports for quick answers to common business questions. 

Second, keep in mind that no web analytics solution is a silver bullet.

UA was not built to be a single source of truth, and GA4 is not being built to be one either. Both are tools for answering questions about online user behavior. You can expect GA4 to do so better than UA, and I see it becoming digital marketers’ go-to web analytics solution over the coming years – especially thanks to its native integrations with other Google marketing tools.   

But don’t expect GA4 to do everything. In particular, Here I want to highlight that switching to GA4 will not automatically solve your data privacy compliance headaches. It is designed to support user-level activation without relying on third-party cookies and is therefore relatively more privacy-safe than UA by default, but it is up to you and your legal team to make sure you are staying within the boundaries here. 

Third, remember that anchoring biases for older tech almost always disappear.

GA4 is probably not the only example of a new technology tool you have been doubtful about using simply because it looks or operates differently.  

I remember, for example, not being totally convinced that I would like the iPhone touchscreen interface after using the physical buttons on my trusty old Nokia for so long. Now, scrolling and tapping are second nature.

The fact of the matter is that as technology tools evolve, they tend to have more settings and fancier interfaces allowing you to make the most of their greater capabilities. GA4 is no exception. If you’re missing the “simplicity” of UA today, you’ll probably feel the same again in 20 years about GA4 when Google upgrades it to GA5 (or whatever they end up calling it).  

Personally, I can’t help but be a little attached to UA. But setting aside that bias, I think GA4 is a solid product. It’s pleasant to use, runs fast, and has a modern UI. And it will get better – I expect the kinks to be worked out nicely by the time the enterprise version of UA sunsets. 

Lean in! GA4 is a good tool that will be better, and plenty of support will be available. And, by the way, it’s currently a bargain! If you have been priced out of UA, with GA4 you can have access to more affordable (and more advanced) enterprise-grade analytics.