Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics: What are the Differences?

In 2023, Google is retiring Google Universal Analytics and moving fully to a program known as Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Since Google is discontinuing their older analytics standard, it’s essential that you learn GA4 to get the most out of Google Analytics. This update to Google Analytics has made notable changes in regards to data […]

Yuza Taddeo
Yuza Taddeo

Oct 10, 2022 | 10 min. read

google analytics tools

In 2023, Google is retiring Google Universal Analytics and moving fully to a program known as Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Since Google is discontinuing their older analytics standard, it’s essential that you learn GA4 to get the most out of Google Analytics. This update to Google Analytics has made notable changes in regards to data control and accessibility, which is why your knowledge of the Google Universal Analytics tool won’t be sufficient once you start using GA4.

Google has implemented GA4 to ensure a more scalable and privacy-centric system. The tracking framework that this tool is outfitted with is event-based. There are also a considerable amount of cross-devices capabilities that allow for a more holistic view of the data across mobile applications and websites.

Keep in mind that the functionality and features of GA4 are still evolving, which is why you should keep up to date with any changes before the Universal Analytics service is discontinued. This guide is designed to serve as an in-depth comparison between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics, which should make it easier for you to acclimate to the differences between the programs in question.

Set up conversions in Google Analytics

What is GA4?

Google Analytics 4 is the fully updated form of Google Analytics. Before it was revealed, it was referred to as App+Web Property during the beta. The reason for this name is because the program is able to track web and application visits with a single Google Analytics tool.

Before GA4 was introduced, these visits needed to be separated into completely different Google Analytics properties. Google announced in March 2022 that GA4 would become the only option available to website owners who want to take advantage of Google Analytics and all that it has to offer.

What is Universal Analytics?

Universal Analytics is a version of Google Analytics that existed before Google Analytics 4. GA4 was introduced in late 2020, before which Universal Analytics was the only generation of Google Analytics that website owners had access to. Since late 2020, Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 have both been available to site owners. Around the beginning of 2023, Universal Analytics will be phased out.

Understanding the Differences Between GA Universal and GA4

Because of the many changes that have been made between GA Universal and GA4, it’s important that you know the difference between these two programs. The upgrades and changes that have been made to the GA4 feature-set can make a difference for you and your website.

Reporting

One primary difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics involves how reporting works. GA4’s standard reporting interface is more simplified and streamlined to make the program easier-to-use for site owners. GA4 uses a considerably more flexible interface known as “Explore”. When the GA Universal 360 beta was ongoing, this feature was known as “Analysis”.

Universal Analytics provided users with real-time reports, standard dashboards, and fully custom reports. However, custom funnel reports weren’t available. Users were only able to obtain 20 reports per property. On the other hand, GA4 provides real-time reports with improved granularity. You’ll also benefit from custom funnel reports and the ability to obtain 100 reports per property.

analytics reporting

Data Collection

As for data collection, this isn’t expected to change too radically in Google Analytics 4. Features like enhanced eCommerce, UTM campaign tracking parameters, custom dimensions, and custom metrics are basically untouched from Universal Analytics.

Universal Analytics accommodated 20 goals for every view. GA4 has increased the number of allowed goals to 30 for every property. The number of custom dimensions has increased from 20-75. GA4 separates these dimensions into 50 event-scoped dimensions and 25 user-scoped dimensions. The number of custom metrics has also increased from 20-50.

google data collection

Product Integrations

When taking product integrations into account, the Google Marketing Platform offers a sizable advantage over all other analytics tools. The ability that Google Analytics has to integrate with other tools available in this platform means that you’ll have access to a wide range of benefits and features only available with Google Analytics. Keep in mind, however, that not every product linking option has been added to GA4 yet. However, the recent addition of a BigQuery integration means that GA4 is a sizable upgrade over Universal Analytics.

The types of Google services that were already available in Universal Analytics include Google Ads, Google Optimize, and Display & Video 360. While all of these services are expected to be added to GA4 over the next year, Google Ads is the only one of the three that has already been implemented.

Keep in mind that GA4 offers two Google services that were never available with Universal Analytics. These services include Google Ad Manager and BigQuery, the latter of which is a cloud data warehouse that allows users to convert big data into actionable insights. Google Ad Manager gives you the ability to properly manage every ad that’s created through the Google platform.

product tracking google analytics

Admin Configurations

If you want to use Google Analytics to collect data, you must first configure your Google Analytics property, which refers to an application or website you’d like to track. In the Admin area, it’s possible to manage user permissions, set up your base architecture, delete data, set up alerts, and filter out any unwanted traffic. GA4’s admin configurations have been improved compared to the configurations available with Universal Analytics.

When looking specifically at the account architecture, Universal Analytics allowed data to be collected at the property level with reports being viewed at the view level. In Comparison, GA4 allows data to be collected at the stream level and reports to be viewed at property level. In Universal Analytics, data was able to be retained for anywhere from 14-50 months. GA4 allows data to be retained for a period of 2-4 months.

Just like Universal Analytics, GA4 provides analytics alerts on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. However, GA4 also allows these alerts to be made on an hourly basis if you’re using the web version of this program. Two features that are completely new with GA4 include customized report navigation and data deletion.

admin configuration analytics

Data Processing

Data processing is another important focal point of GA4. The GA4 version of Google Analytics focuses on higher data thresholds, user privacy, and less sampling. There are many differences between Universal Analytics and GA4 when it comes to data processing functionality.

For instance, session are defined differently between the two programs. In Universal Analytics, sessions would expire following 30 minutes of inactivity, which is the same with GA4. Universal Analytics also had sessions expire at midnight, if a session was longer than four hours, and after any UTM parameters change. GA4 has streamlined this approach to session expiration by getting rid of the three additional triggers mentioned previously.

For user definition, Universal Analytics used GA client ID for standard views and custom user-ID for user ID-enabled views. GA4 combines these two approaches with Google Signals.

In Universal Analytics, the data sampling threshold was set to 500,000 sessions via the property level. As for GA4, their data sampling threshold is 10 million events for every query. While Universal Analytics didn’t accommodate query time imports, user data and item data can be imported with GA4. When using Universal Analytics, it was possible to configure bot filtering. In GA4, bot filtering is automatically enabled and doesn’t need to be configured.

business goals and data processing

Switching From UA to GA4

It’s highly recommended that you switch from Universal Analytics to GA4 before Universal Analytics is retired in 2023. Keep in mind that the main benefit of this change is that GA4 will become the new standard for Google Analytics, which will benefit website owners and developers alike.

Universal Analytics properties will stop processing any hits on July 1, 2023, which means that you have around nine months to become fully accustomed to GA4 and how it works. If you have any experience with Universal Analytics, you shouldn’t find it too difficult to learn how to use Google Analytics 4. In fact, GA4 is meant to be a streamlined and more effective version of Universal Analytics, which might help you become acclimated to the program at a quicker rate.

At the moment, a large portion of marketers are set to continue using Universal Analytics as their main measurement standard, which makes sense while they get up and running with the GA4 program. During that period of time, these marketers will learn how to operate GA4 and create a new measurement environment. Now that you know that Universal Analytics is set to be discontinued, you should prioritize learning GA4 over Universal Analytics.

Since Universal Analytics will no longer be supported by Google, GA4 will become the new standard. While many of the features remain the same between these two programs, there are numerous changes that will render your knowledge of Universal Analytics moot. Keep in mind that GA4 is still changing on a regular basis and will continue to be updated until its full launch in July 2023. In the meantime, start using GA4 to become more comfortable with the user interface and all the new features you have access to.


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