Helen | 19 Oct 2022
What is Google Analytics 4?
Google Analytics 4 is, as the name suggests, a new version of Google Analytics. But we’re not just talking about a slightly improved version of the existing package. It’s an entirely new product, rebuilt from the ground up.
What this means is that, next summer (July 1st 2023), ‘old’ Google Analytics (Universal Analytics) will cease collecting new data. To continue using Analytics you’ll need to set up the new version. If you just set up the new version from scratch on June 30th, you wouldn’t have any historic data in the account, it would just start tracking from scratch on that date. For this reason, we are recommending that people set up Google Analytics 4 as soon as possible, so that some data starts to build up prior to the big switchover date.
Why do I need Analytics anyway?
You could, of course, just let Analytics die, and not replace your old Universal Analytics setup with anything. But given that the package itself is free, and gives you masses of useful information to understand the performance of your website and any online advertising you’re doing, we don’t recommend it. Other Analytics packages are available, of course – but Google Analytics really is an amazing product for free, and if you’re using other Google products such as Ads or Search Console, the integration between those products is extremely helpful.
What’s different about the new version?
It really is a whole new ball game. There are different reports, different metrics, and a much cleaner, simpler interface which new users may find less overwhelming.
As a business that has been using Universal Analytics day in, day out, it’s fair to say that it’s taking us a while to get to know and love the new product. But needs must.
Just to give you a flavour of some of the changes, here are a few of what we see as the key highlights:
- Automated tracking of some events, that previously you had to set up manually
For example, scroll tracking, outbound clicks and file download tracking.
- Hello to new engagement metrics
The new ‘engagement rate’ metric is the flip side of bounce rate. It tracks how long a user was actively engaging with your page (rather than leaving it loaded in a tab they’re not actively using, for example).
- (Hopefully) goodbye spam data!
There’s long been an issue in Universal Analytics with fake data being injected by spammers – if you’ve seen massive spikes in traffic on specific days for no apparent reason, you’re likely a victim of this. GA4 has better spam protection.
- Better funnel reporting
Funnels help you analyse the behaviour of your website visitors through a particular path you want them to take (the obvious example is a checkout funnel). You can create much more advanced funnels in GA4, see how they perform over time, and create them on-the-fly too.
- Better privacy features
This is something clients are asking us about a lot, so warrants a whole section on how GA4 could help with your GDPR compliance…
GA4 and GDPR
GDPR – everyone’s favourite four letters?
One of the key benefits of GA4 is that it may bring you closer to compliance with GDPR.
I say ‘closer’ because no matter what else you do, ultimately GA4 (like UA) currently processes data outside the EU, and there are no agreed regulations on data transfer between the EU and the USA (and therefore, between the UK and the USA, as our regulations largely mirror the EU GDPR rules). A framework called the Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy Framework (TADPF) is being negotiated to sort this out, but will not be in place for at least a few months.
Putting that to one side for the moment (as there’s not much the average UK SME can do about the above), in other respects GA4 is a big step forward for GDPR compliance.
GA4 anonymises IP addresses by default, which could only be done in UA by manually activating the feature. This is important, as IP addresses are classed as personally identifiable information.
It also stores personal data for a shorter period – you can choose from either 2 months or 14 months. Under GDPR, businesses are only meant to store personal data for as long as it is needed, so having a shorter storage period is ‘safer’ for compliance.
It also gives us the ability to delete an individual user’s data within a set time range (another feature of GDPR is that users have the right to erasure).
And it has a feature called Consent Mode which allows you to instruct Google to track users’ behaviour according to their consent preferences.
GA4 and Cookie Widgets
Another frequently asked question is whether websites still need to have a cookie widget or banner once they have replaced UA with GA4. The answer (as with, it seems, almost any question people ask me about digital marketing) is ‘it depends’.
I’m not at all qualified to give legal advice – so do check with your legal advisors – but it does appear from our research that if you are using IP anonymisation (which you most likely will be, as it’s the default setting) and you don’t share any data with other Google products such as Ads, and you’ve disabled GA4’s advertising personalisation feature, and you don’t use any other marketing cookies on your site that require consent, then (depending on the country your users are in – the rules are slightly different from country to country), you may not always need explicit consent for GA4 tracking. But – you’re likely to want to err on the side of caution and implement one anyway.
One thing you definitely do need to do is to make sure that your privacy statement informs your users about your use of GA4 and its associated international data transfer.
If you use Google Ads, you definitely will still need a cookie widget either way.
How do you set up GA4?
The good news is that Google are providing lots of support to help you get up and running. If you want to work through the setup yourself, the instructions are here:
If you’re not able to do it yourself (and it can be very complicated, particularly if you want to set up e-commerce tracking, lead form tracking etc) then you’ll be happy to know that Ascendancy offers a GA4 migration service to help you get up and running.
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