Future-Proof Analytics: The 411 on GA4

Podcast / 01.11.2023
Red Door /

10/25/2023 4:53:24 PM Red Door Interactive http://www.reddoor.biz Red Door Interactive

Have you been keeping up with GA4 updates from Google? They've recently stopped collecting data with Universal Analytics. If you're wondering what this means and how it affects you, keep listening.

The tech giant has launched Google Analytics 4 (GA4), an even more powerful analytics tool that works across your top channels, the implementation of GA4 delivers predictive insights via machine learning, drives better results, and prioritizes user privacy. In this episode, you will learn about what GA4 is and what the benefits are, how to migrate to GA4, and how the move will affect marketers. 

Why is Google sun-setting Universal Analytics?

Reid: Well, this is an exciting topic. A lot of people have been talking about this. I want to level set here first. Why is Google sunsetting Universal Analytics, or as we often refer to it as UA?

Ron: I mean, I could take a stab at this first. Really Universal Analytics I think launched around 2011. It's showing a little long in the tooth. Just the way that it collects data, the privacy controls and things like that are outdated. Google's been working on GA4 for a while now. It just came out of beta earlier this year. It's time to move into something a little bit more modern and prepped for the modern world.

Reid: That is, you'd say Google Analytics 4, or GA4, that's the platform prep for the modern world?

Ron: It is from Google, absolutely 100%. I mean, there are other analytics packages out there. There are folks that are offering packages that are combined with other things, but for a pure analytics package that is on pretty much 100% of the websites that we deal with, Google Analytics and Google Analytics 4 is the choice. Even folks who have Adobe Analytics generally have GA running parallel.

What is Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?

Reid: Running concurrently. Well, why don't we get actually even a little more detailed on it. What is GA4, Google Analytics 4? Andy, maybe you can tell us a little bit about that.

Andy: In GA4, it's largely a rethinking of beta capture from Google and really they rebuilt it from the ground up to be more universal across platforms. Universal Analytics, formally Urchin, from back in the-

Reid: Oh, yeah. A San Diego company, yeah.

Andy: It was largely based on events that happen on a website. Down the line we had Firebase and Google Analytics for application, but now Google recognized the need to bring data into the same format for data capture and think a little bit more universal. That's effectively what they've done here is that both scalable and more customizable and doing what's called event-based data capture, where everything is an event. A page view is an event, and a lead, a purchase, all of those are events versus views and those kinds of things. Google built that from the ground up with that in mind so that you could have that more universal capture across platforms.

What are the benefits of GA4? 

Reid: Obviously with all those events, I mean, that's ultimately what marketers want to capture. They want to know are the promotions I'm doing, something like that, resulting, as you say, the events that I want to have happen? That's ultimately how we are going to use Google, their Universal Analytics package. I mean, beyond that, I mean, are there other benefits that people should know about?

Andy: There's a lot of benefits, more than we can go do through during a 30-minute podcast, but Ron touched on the privacy benefits, which are huge. Google saw this coming down the line, the need to more granularly control what is shared with Google's broader Google marketing platform. The ability to control what data on a per-hit, per-event basis is actually used for remarketing and sales or marketing efforts was a huge focus for Google. As well as just rolling in some things that to some degree have existed for a while in Google Ads and across the Google marketing platform. But machine learning, so being able to model conversions when data is not there, predict users when privacy restrictions have started to pull back the capabilities in some cases, Google has built G4 in a way where we can model what the total were or get very close. Google saw ahead that the need to roll that into the platform across all metrics and dimensions.

How will the move to GA4 affect marketers?

Reid: I always thought that was one of the more interesting things that people do need to wrap their head around a little bit is it's, to a degree, imprecise. I mean, particularly now with privacy coming along and that sort of thing, it's not like it's 100% accurate, but it's certainly the best you're going to get. There are some models that have to play out so marketers can get the understanding of what's happening on their website. I think they've found this equitable relationship between the amount of information that they can get from users and the amount of information they can use as a marketer to improve what they're trying to do and how they're approaching it. I mean, ultimately though, at a higher level then, how will this move to GA4 affect marketers more broadly?

Ron: Yeah, I mean, just even continuing on what Andy said is some of the features and functionality, things that I'm excited about is like the ad hoc funnels. Before you had to in Universal, or UA, had to set up your funnels. Then they started collecting data at that point forward.

Reid: Elaborate on funnel.

Ron: It's just basically the steps somebody takes to a conversion or steps somebody takes to a purchase. What you can with GA4, once it's enabled, is be able to go ahead and just be able to create that funnel, but it will also look backwards to gather that data too. You can get historical once you put that funnel in place. The BigQuery integration is really, really cool. Being able to get access that data within a data warehouse, bring it into your business intelligence platform, better, faster access to data, more integrated with other types of data is really, really cool. It affects marketers also because there's going to be changes within GA4 and how we track in specific measurements.

Reid: Maybe elaborate a little bit on the value of the integration with BigQuery or other tools like that. I  mean, this is also something becoming more and more common for people.

Ron: I mean, one of the biggest things about Google Analytics is just the volume of data that is available. It takes a lot of work to get unsampled data. Putting something into a data warehouse allows us to get that pure, raw data. Then, once you have it in BigQuery, that's your just regular database access. Being able to mash that up with your other marketing data to get a full picture of how your marketing's doing, bringing in spend, bringing in all your ad data, bringing in your social data, then being able to combine that and visualize it. BigQuery just is a big advantage. Previously, it was only available in GA360. You had to pay $100K plus to get access to that. It's now built into GA4 for everybody for free.

Reid: Isn't that wild, right? I mean, going from that amount of money down to free, I mean, talk about something that's a major change for marketers. I mean, it preserves some of their budget to move toward more proactive marketing and things like that.

What are the benefits of GA4? 

Reid: Adam, then from your perspective, you see other benefits as well of GA4. What are some of the ones that you see?

Adam: The opportunities are immense. The biggest one is we're going to be able to get a clearer view of the consumer. It's something that we've always been striving to do, but in a lot of ways, Universal Analytics has restricted that. Now with GA4, we're going to be able to go beyond session, beyond the page view and look holistically across the entire experience for the consumer, which completely changes how we can deliver insights to clients and to brands.

Andy: On that front, just to jump in to what Adam said, and I guess part of the BigQuery thing that Ron was speaking to, it's a little bit strategic by Google because they are deliberately sunsetting UA pretty quickly partly, I'm sure, as a cost-taking measure and offsetting that with just giving people the BigQuery integration for free. But also Google has more tightly restricted data retention settings in GA4. By turning on this BigQuery integration, they're really steering people towards leveraging this more raw data extract that is available, which surely they're going to start promoting more of a data studio use for dashboarding and outside of GA and those kinds of things because I think partly some of the privacy things, they don't want as much data on their own platform.

Reid: Yeah, it's not entirely altruistic.

Andy: For sure. It's strategic, for sure. But to Adam's point, having that raw data in BigQuery means you own it. It's in your database. Now you can start feeding in data from your other platforms to stitch together to, like Adam said, start getting that full view across platforms. Your CRM data can be stitched alongside your GA data in your own database, but it's fully structured in your database from the Google export. Some pretty huge things that can be built upon this data, just leveraging GA4 as the conduit to some degree.

What’s the best method for migrating over to GA4?  

Reid: What's interesting is there are all these benefits. We're really excited about these benefits. We want to take advantage of the benefits as soon as we can, but the fact of the matter is this is getting sunsetted and you have to move over to this if you're going to stick in the Google ecosystem. That being said, ultimately, it has to happen. There are a lot of benefits, but more specifically at this point is what's the best method for migrating over to GA4, assuming you want to do this right away? I mean, I think what we're trying to say is there's really not a lot of reason to wait to do this.

Ron: No, and I'll take a broad overview then hand it over to Andy and Adam to give some more details. But yeah, there is no reason to wait. In fact, it's good to start now because really you're only going to get essentially a year's back, you want to get 12 months worth of data into GA4, which is why we recommend at least turning it on right now just to collect the basics of data. But then as soon as you can get everything else that you're tracking within Universal Analytics in there also so that you have year-over-year look within GA4 because the structures between UA and GA4 are not the same. It's not quite apples to apples. I can just use the old data to look at my year over year. It's important to get that done now and start collecting that data. But we've put together a playbook essentially as to how to help brands move from Universal Analytics to GA4. That helps us spot all of those different areas with which when we need to make changes, do updates, and how are we going to approach this and how long it'll take. But I'll let Andy and Adam give you the details on that.

Reid: Yeah, Andy talk, just Ron, just turn it on. Maybe you can explain that a little bit more.

Andy: Well, that's pretty accurate. One thing that Google has done is they built in more capabilities within Google Analytics to be able to do some pretty custom or pretty extensive tracking, just configurable right in the platform. If you can slap a tag on your site through GTM, you can get some of these more customized things that typically require GTM to start tracking, like scroll tracking form fills, those kinds of things. I definitely encourage everyone to be on GA4 immediately. Then start, as Ron was saying, we have that playbook to start mapping things like conversions from Universal Analytics to your GA4 conversion events. That's the equivalent for GA4.
Andy: The other things that are pretty critical right now is just start. Like Ron said, the data's not captured in the same way. You need data capturing in both places to be able to butt them up against each other and see why are these off? There's going to be expected differences, and there's going to be some pretty big unexpected differences that you need to resolve while you're still capturing from both places. We're seeing that already for a lot of clients.

Andy: Migrating your analytics audiences from Universal over to GA4 and all the steps needed to set those up and start filling those audience pools before the day stops capturing Universal. Those kinds of things are necessary. Our playbook goes through beyond just data capture and making sure there's parity in the events that are tracking and those kinds of things. What are all the other things around your audience management, your Google marketing platform, Google Ads integrations, BigQuery setup, those kinds of things are all part of deploying GA4 fully so that you can run with it once GE Universal is ready to go away, and not the least of which is training. Adam can probably speak to some of the business deployment aspects of that as well because that should not be discounted. That's probably the bigger hurdle is an option.

Reid: Adam, I'd be curious too to elaborate is what should our marketers or clients, what should they expect? You talked about, Andy alluded to maybe some discrepancies, but once you've turned this on, once you've got a little bit of data, and certainly we've had this experience with some of our clients, what should somebody expect? What are maybe some examples of some of the discrepancies so that there shouldn't be alarm that something's awry?

Adam: Great question. I think maybe coming back to that in a second, just talking about why we should be moving fast. There is a real cost to this. Some of it will be very direct. It's in the form of implementations. Some of it's not going to be directly felt, but there is a cost associated with having your team migrate dashboards or having your team take a training or training somebody else on the new metrics, which goes to what are some of the things that may result? Well, page view doesn't exist anymore. Bounce rate isn't really a metric that we can track the same way in GA4. They've swapped it out as engaged engagement and they backed down a little bit. Yeah, Google backed down a little bit. I think probably under the weight of pressure that people wanted bounce rate, but it's different in the way it's captured. It's going to be very different. Even the exact same metric name is going to capture in a different way. But, yes. It's changing weekly. To your point, people need to start having conversations about GA4 to start keeping up with what the changes are.

Andy: The initial swap of bounce rate was to a metric around engagement, which has long been a metric that we've tried to include into our reporting because it is helpful. We had to piece it together and use segments and that kind of stuff. GA4, you can customize that right within the admin, which is very helpful. I mean, just basic metrics are changing. Then from a backend setup, talking about the dashboard transitions, the metrics are called something different. If you have any formulas that are working on a metric name, all those formulas have to change, which can be a big lift for somebody that's on Power BI, Tableau, Domo, something like that.

Reid: There's some configuration then. If you're using some of these other tools, there's configurations you're going to have to do in those to adapt to this circumstance as well.

Ron: Absolutely. It's going to affect a lot of downstream tooling, and in biggest cases reporting whether you're using a BI tool or not. I did want to mention two important dates that marketers need to be paying attention to. One is next July. That's when Universal Analytics will quit or stop collecting data. At that point-

Reid: July 2023.

Ron: Yep, just stops. The other one is January 1st, 2024. That's when all of the data that's stored for Universal Analytics gets dumped.

Reid: Interesting.

Ron: You have to migrate that data out of Google into a BigQuery in order to preserve it and have that historical record for as long as you'd like it.

Reid: I think so many people want their year-over-year histories or certainly changing conditions. I mean, what happened back two years ago, you might want to preserve that because who knows however far in the future we're going to look back on a year like that and say, "Okay, maybe I want to learn something from it." That's a really good point. Thanks for bringing that up.

Reid: One thing I want to go back to, Andy, that you mentioned was the idea of Google bowing to certain pressures. When people say, "Hey, this metric was really valuable to me," I mean, how do you have this conversation? I know how to have a conversation with any one of you. I can walk up and ask you a question or ping you, but how do you have a conversation, or how do you surface these kinds of things with somebody like Google?

Andy: Google has, as a certified partner with Google, we have some of those channels available to have a more open dialogue about our feedback. We participate in those. A lot of the active conversations in the forums, I'm in there every day to see people talking about new features and having dialogue with Google about things that are missing and why they're missing, whether we can expect them to come out. That's proven to be a pretty valuable resource. Then we obviously keep our clients up to speed on those things. I think that's the only way we can handle it because Google, some of these things are changing so quickly, our clients appreciate that we have that level of visibility. Even outside of the forums and things, we're monitoring just the release notes. Personally, I monitor the API pages to see if there's been updates to an API page hourly. Just being able to stay on top of those things and communicate to clients. Sometimes it's painful if it was something that we had planned for and now it's changed, but as with any kind of huge transition, that's going to happen. We just have to keep that dialogue open with our clients. Then with Google on what can we expect and when.There's a partner-facing roadmap for GA4 that we can see. Then there's also the public-facing GA4 roadmap. We have some sense of what to expect there.

Reid: Well, I mean, that's why we have professionals, like yourselves, to make sure that we're staying on top of that and relaying that to clients and getting ahead of it as best we can, or in some cases, reacting to it as fast as possible because you have the awareness and acumen to do that. A little shameless plug there as to why it's so valuable to have certainly a Google Partner agency help you do it, as well as, again, capable professionals, such as yourselves, making that happen.
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