Universal Analytics Vs. Google Analytics 4: What’s the Difference?
You may have heard that Google is changing its analytics platform, but you’re not sure what the difference is between Universal Analytics (UA) and Google Analytics 4 (GA4).
Like most business owners, you don’t have time to read through long blog posts (or even shorter ones). You just want to know the key differences so you can decide which platform is best for your business.
That’s why we wrote this article for you. In this post, we’ll break down the differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4, so you can determine what exactly sets them apart and what you need to do if you decide to upgrade and migrate your data from UA to GA4.
What Is Google Analytics 4?
GA4 is the successor to the Universal Analytics platform, and it’s designed to help you collect better data about your website visitors.
One of the critical features of GA4 is the use of events to track user interactions on your site.
Events can be anything from clicks and page views to form submissions and video views. By tracking events, you’ll get a better understanding of how users interact with your site.
One of the biggest differences of GA4 is its built-in machine-learning capability. GA4 can automatically identify patterns in your data and provide insights that you might not have otherwise been able to see.
For example, GA4 might notice that users who visit your site on Tuesdays are more likely to convert than users who stay on Thursdays. This insight could help you optimize your marketing efforts to focus on Tuesday traffic.
History of Google Analytics
Google Analytics has been around in some form since 2005.
Initially launched as Urchin, this software was a paid service allowing website owners to track their visitors precisely.
Urchin. Circa 2005.
In 2006, Google acquired Urchin Software Corporation, the company behind Urchin, and relaunched the product as Google Analytics. Since then, GA has become one of the world’s most widely used digital analytics platforms.
The original Google Analytics was designed for a very different internet than we have today.
In 2005, most website traffic came from desktop computers, and there were only a handful of ways to get people to visit your site. The web was more straightforward back then, and GA reflected that simplicity.
Google Analytics. Circa 2007.
Over the years, GA has slowly added more features and capabilities to keep up with the changing digital marketing landscape.
However, the basic structure of GA has remained essentially unchanged since its launch. This all changed with GA4.
Universal Analytics. Circa 2022.
GA4 is a complete redesign of Google Analytics from the ground up. It’s built for the modern web, where most traffic comes from mobile devices, and people interact with brands in many different ways.
GA4 also incorporates significant changes to how data is collected and processed. These changes make GA4 more accurate and reliable than any previous GA version.
How Universal Analytics Works
Before GA4, there was Universal Analytics. Many website owners and marketers are still using UA for their websites while preparing to migrate to GA4.
The Universal Analytics platform was designed to upgrade to the original GA platform.
It introduced several new features, including mobile device support and tracking user interactions across multiple devices.
UA also made it possible to collect data from non-website sources, such as apps and offline channels.
Finally, UA added support for custom dimensions and custom metrics, which gave users more control over their collected data.
Here's a breakdown of Universal Analytics from the experts at Google. Google Analytics has remained largely unchanged for 10 years. All of that changes on July 1, 2023.
Despite these improvements, UA still used the same basic structure as the original GA platform. This meant that UA was subject to the same limitations as GA, such as limited tracking capabilities and inaccurate data collection.
Universal Analytics includes several features that are designed to help website owners and marketers better understand their users. These features include the following.
User ID Tracking
User ID tracking allows website owners and marketers to track an individual user’s interactions across multiple devices and platforms. This gives website owners and marketers a complete picture of how users interact with their sites. One of the benefits of User ID tracking is that it helps website owners and marketers identify power users or those who regularly interact with their site.
Custom Dimensions and Metrics
Custom dimensions and metrics allow website owners and marketers to track custom data points that are important to their business.
For example, you could use a custom dimension to track the user’s country of origin, while a custom metric could be used to track the number of page views per session.
Custom dimensions and metrics give website owners and marketers greater flexibility in tracking and analyzing their data.
Enhanced Ecommerce is a feature that allows website owners and marketers to track users’ interactions with their site’s Ecommerce functionality.
This feature gives website owners and marketers insight into the user’s shopping behavior, such as what items they’re adding to the shopping cart, what products they’re viewing, and what products they’re purchasing.
Enhanced Ecommerce also allows website owners and marketers to segment their data based on Ecommerce transactions, Ecommerce hits and other Ecommerce interactions, which can be helpful for targeted marketing campaigns.
Universal Analytics also includes several other features, such as:
- Content groups
- Event tracking
- Social interaction tracking
- Cross-domain tracking
- Demographics and interests reports
- Remarketing audiences
These features allow website owners and marketers to fine-tune their analytics setup to meet their needs better.
How Google Analytics 4 Works
Google built Google Analytics 4 with the future of the web in mind.
It’s designed to work with today’s modern web applications and websites. Of course, GA4 will also work with the upcoming wave of smart devices and connected products.
GA4 also offers improved data collection and processing, which will help you gain insight into your website or application’s users and their behavior.
The first thing to know about GA4 is that it uses a different method to collect data than its predecessor, Universal Analytics (UA).
UA relied on cookies to track user behavior on a website or application. GA4 uses the Google Measurement Protocol to collect data from various sources, including websites, apps, IoT devices, and CRM systems.
What does that translate to for business owners? You're not just reliant on the old methods of tracking interactions with your business. GA4 will provide a larger view into these interactions through their Measurement Protocol technology.
This change in data collection means that GA4 can provide more accurate data. This is especially useful on cross-device tracking and users who block cookies.
It also means that GA4 can provide insight into user behavior across all customer journey stages. Previously, you could only track user behavior on your website or app.
GA4 also changes how data is processed.
In UA, data was processed in batches, which could sometimes result in delayed reporting.
With GA4, data is processed in real time so that you can see results more quickly. This change also allows for more complex event tracking and analysis.
The switch to real-time data processing will help you gain insights and make decisions more quickly.
Difference Between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4
Now that we’ve looked at each platform let’s compare them and see how they differ.
When it comes to UI, GA4 features a brand-new interface that is inspired by Material Design principles. The interface is clean and easy to navigate.
One of the best things about the new interface is that it allows you to customize your dashboard. By doing this, you only see data that is relevant to you.
This is a significant improvement over the previous version of GA, which could be pretty overwhelming for users, particularly those unfamiliar with web analytics.
Google Analytics 4 home screen interface.
In terms of UX, GA4 features an overhauled event-tracking system that makes tracking user interactions with your website more accessible.
This includes interactions such as:
- Page views
- Form submissions
The event tracking system in GA4 is more flexible and scalable than in UA. This means it can grow with your website as it expands.
Additionally, GA4 features a new attribution model that gives you more insights into how different channels (e.g., paid search, organic search, email marketing) contribute to conversion goals.
As mentioned, another difference between UA and GA4 is how they collect data.
UA uses the traditional page view tracking method, which tracks users as they navigate from one page to another on your site.
GA4, on the other hand, uses event tracking, which tracks user interactions with specific elements on a page (e.g., clicks on links or buttons).
Event tracking provides more detailed information than page view tracking, but it can also be more challenging to set up.
UA may be a better option if you’re not comfortable working with code. However, if you’re willing to work to set up event tracking, GA4 can provide valuable insights into how users interact with your site.
Data Collection and Processing
UA and GA4 also differ in how data is collected and processed. UA collects data in sessions, which are bundles of information about a user’s interactions with your site during a given period (usually around 30 minutes).
This data is processed by Google’s servers and available in your UA reports.
GA4 collects data in streams, similar to sessions but containing more detailed information. These streams are then processed by Google’s servers and available in your GA4 reports.
The main advantage of this system is that it allows you to see data in near-real time; however, it can also result in higher data processing costs for Google (which may be passed on to you in the form of higher subscription fees).
One of the most significant benefits of GA4 is its increased customization flexibility.
With Universal Analytics, you could create custom dimensions, metrics, and conversion events, but you were limited to a maximum of five custom reports.
GA4 goes a lot further — you can now create unlimited custom reports and hit types allowing you to slice and dice your data in any way you see fit.
This is a significant advantage for businesses that want to get the most out of their data.
One of the first things you’ll notice about GA4 is that it offers a new way to group related activities on your website.
This feature, called activity groups, allows you to bundle similar events (such as clicks on a specific button or views of a particular page) to track them as a group.
Another way to customize your data collection in GA4 is by setting up custom events. Custom events allow you to track specific user interactions on your website — regardless of whether or not those interactions lead to page views.
This event-based model means you can get a more accurate picture of how users interact with your site.
Here are some of the top recommended events to set up in your GA4 to help your small business data collection.
Google Analytics 4 uses predictive modeling to generate insights. This means it looks at past data to identify patterns and then uses those patterns to predict future behavior.
For example, if you run a website that sells tickets to events, GA4 might use predictive modeling to identify patterns in ticket sales and then use those patterns to predict how many tickets will be sold for future events.
Predictive modeling is a powerful tool because it can help website owners and marketers plan for future traffic spikes and waves.
One potential downside of predictive modeling is that it relies on historical data to make predictions. This means that if no historical data is available or the information is inaccurate, the projections will also be incorrect.
However, as long as the data used for predictive modeling is accurate, GA4 should be able to provide relatively accurate predictions.
Here's an example of predictive modeling in GA4. Click here to see the steps in action.
UA, on the other hand, only tracked past data. This means that UA could not make predictions about future user behavior. While UA could still be used to improve your marketing campaigns and website strategy, it could only do so retrospectively.
You could use UA to see how past campaigns had performed and then make adjustments to future campaigns based on those results.
However, with GA4’s ability to predict future user behavior, you can adjust your campaigns in real time based on current data to get the best results possible.
Steps To Migrate From UA to GA4
On July 1, 2023, Google will stop supporting Universal Analytics, and you will need to migrate your data over to GA4. While previous UA data will still be available to view, it will no longer process new data.
The transition may be difficult if you’re not acquainted with the process yet. Here are some steps to take when migrating from UA to GA4.
Step One: Set Up a New GA4 Property
The first step in migrating from UA to GA4 is to set up a new GA4 property. You’ll need to create a new account if you don’t already have one, then create a new property and select “Google Analytics 4” as your Property Type. Give your new property a name and check the box next to “Data Sharing Settings.” Once you’re done, click “Create.”
Step Two: Configure Your Property Settings
Next, you’ll need to configure your property settings. Click on the “Admin” dropdown menu and select “Property Settings.” You can specify which data sources should be included in your reports and set up advanced configurations like cross-domain tracking. Once you’ve made your changes, click “Save.”
Step Three: Create New Data Streams
Once you’ve set up your new GA4 property and configured your settings, it’s time to create new data streams. Data streams allow you to collect data from different web properties and devices in a single place. To create a new data stream, click on the “Admin” dropdown menu and select “Data Streams.” Then, click the “New Data Stream” button and enter the required information. When you’re finished, click “Create Stream.”
Step Four: Migrate Your Tags
The final step in migrating from UA to GA4 is to migrate your tags. Tags are snippets of code that help you collect specific types of data. To migrate your tags, go to the “Admin” dropdown menu and select “Google Tag Manager.” Then, click on the “New Container” button and migrate your tags over from UA. Once you’re done, click “Submit.”
As you can see, UA and GA4 are two very different ways of tracking user behavior. While UA is a well-established standard, GA4 offers some unique advantages in speed and flexibility.
On July 1, 2023, GA4 will replace UA entirely, so it’s crucial to start migrating your data now.
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