Real Talk About GA4: Is Now the Right Time to Switch?
Emily Judds, Thu Jan 07 2021, 10 min
GA4: An Overview
In October 2020, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) was officially launched. As the newest iteration of the Google Analytics platform, it’s triggered a frenzy of marketers and analysts who are scrambling to figure out where GA4 fits into their marketing efforts.
While a ton of information is available regarding the new capabilities GA4 has to offer, what’s not so clear is how these changes will affect your company’s data more tangibly. Is Universal Analytics being replaced, or can you use both UA and GA4 simultaneously? Is it even worth it to switch over to GA4? And if so, what does that process look like and how long will it take?
Before we dig into those questions, though, let’s briefly recap the list of changes and new capabilities you’ll find in GA4.
What’s New in GA4?
Let’s start with the question everyone’s asking: what new features does GA4 bring to the table?
Perhaps the most interesting feature touted by GA4 is its shift in focus from page-based tracking towards event-based tracking. Although you’ll still find your pages in GA4, Google has taken a step towards adding additional events on top of its typical reporting.
To go along with this change, GA4 allegedly also provides users with the ability to edit and fine-tune these above mentioned events straight from the UI, without using code. GA4 now offers Enhanced Measurement, meaning that (in theory) events such as scrolls, outbound clicks, file downloads, and video engagement will be automatically tracked. You’ll also be able to edit these automatically tracked events retroactively. On the surface, this sounds fabulous. A way to track my most important site events without chasing my developers or wasting time in GTM? Yes, please!
But...it’s not that simple.
For one thing, the default events that GA4 now automatically tracks for you, such as ‘file downloads’ and ‘clicks’, don’t tell you a whole lot. Although your website clicks are technically being tracked, you’ll still have to differentiate between your click events and define what exactly you’re wanting to track in order to see anything you can really act on. For example, GA4 will tell you how many file downloads your site had, but in order to see exactly which files were downloaded, along with any information about the visitors who downloaded them, you’ll have to set it up yourself. You can hire an expert to do this for you, of course, but that will require writing code, which is probably the very thing you were hoping to avoid. And, since custom events are not retroactive in GA4, there is still this issue to contend with. Suffice it to say that, at present, tracking events in GA4 will still require coding, maintenance, and proper planning.
It’s a similar situation with GA4’s ecommerce reporting, too. There’s a new set of reports, which are meant to cover three types of revenue: subscription, ecommerce, and ad revenue. Great! But, while these reports are useful, the actual integration is far from simple. As there’s currently no out-of-the-box installation solution—even for widespread platforms like Shopify, for which universal Analytics offered easy implementation—you’ll need a developer to get things set up for you, which can cost you precious time and resources.
Another thing that GA4 attempts to address is the growing consideration of user privacy. Although it is still very much cookie-based, GA4 acknowledges the potential shift away from cookie-based tracking and has rolled out a data modeling feature that may help to fill in gaps where data is unavailable due to privacy measures. This is an interesting feature, but as Google’s AI works mainly behind the scenes, it’s not going to be your primary stop for actionable answers to simple questions.
The final feature that’s got GA users buzzing is the expanded reporting capabilities that are available in GA4, which also were only available for Google Analytics 360 users. Benjamin at Loves Data details the list more thoroughly, but the most prominent new capabilities include event-based funnels, cohort analysis, user lifetime value reports, and a segment overlap feature. On the whole, GA4’s new reporting features are promising.
However, once you start to dig in, it becomes apparent that many features are still limited. Take the segment overlap technique, for example. This feature will show you the amount of overlap between two or more subsets (segments) of your data. So, if you want to see how many of your site visitors who came as paid traffic were also located in the US—great. But, what does this actually tell you? It could be that 2,000 of your 8,000 US visitors came via paid traffic, but how does that 25% compare to the rest of your site visitors? Are your US visitors more likely to come via paid channels or less likely? This information is crucial to knowing where to focus your marketing efforts, but GA4’s segment overlap feature omits this part of the equation.
So, while some interesting new capabilities have been rolled out for GA4, we can also see that these features are still in their infancy and have a long way to go before they’ll bring real value.
With all that said, you’re probably wondering: should I migrate to GA4?
Good question! Let’s look at the pros and cons.
Is Migration to GA4 Worth It?
Now that we’ve seen what GA4’s new capabilities are, let’s get down to the real questions. Should you hustle to migrate from UA to GA4, or is the switch too much of a hassle?
First, the advantages:
We know from past iterations of Google Analytics that, eventually, all GA users will need to migrate to GA4 properties—that’s just how it works. So, even though you’ll most likely be able to continue using your Universal Analytics properties for the foreseeable future, migrating to GA4 now while continuing to use your regular GA for day-to-day reports will allow you to build up a historical data set before a hard switch becomes necessary. Since the two iterations are built from completely different data models, making it unlikely you’ll be able to merge historical data later on, thinking ahead here is important.
Another advantage of getting started with GA4 sooner rather than later is that you’ll already have gotten used to the UI by the time GA4 replaces Universal Analytics. The GA4 interface is pretty different from what we’ve been accustomed to seeing in UA, so familiarizing yourself with these changes little by little will take some steepness out of the learning curve. For a tour of the new UI, you can check out Krista Sieden’s video walkthrough.
Now, for the disadvantages.
The biggest disadvantage to GA4 migration is pretty obvious: GA4 isn’t yet ready for stand-alone usage. Bugs are still being ironed out, many integrations are missing, internal filtering options are scant, and many features are not yet developed enough to give you the data you need to make smart business decisions. If you’d like to go more in-depth, CXL offers a more detailed look at some of these missing integrations. Although you can choose to start collecting GA4 data now for the sake of building up your historical data set, it’s not recommended to switch to GA4 for your reporting.
That, of course, leads to the other bad news: migration to GA4 is a huge hassle. While an upgrade option for existing GA users is being rolled out, it’s not yet available for all properties—and even then, the migration process depends heavily on how your GA was initially integrated. Depending on your GTM set-up, re-implementing events can take quite a bit of time. For example, if you’re using GA for user behavioral analysis and want to migrate these many events into GA4, you’re looking at a migration process that’ll take anywhere from a week to a month, depending on how fast your developers work. Yikes.
GA4 is moving in promising new directions, but it still requires code to leverage successfully. The features that Google has promised don’t quite live up to the hype just yet, and you’ve got to be pretty tech-savvy to get things implemented in a way that’ll actually bring you value. If you’d like to start using GA4 in parallel with your current UA properties, keep in mind that the migration will be a lengthy process, and that you’ll be working on two systems simultaneously, often with conflicting data points.
Are there other options?
Absolutely. The issues with GA4’s implementation and difficulty of use are exactly the problems Oribi aims to solve for its users.
If you’re looking for an actually automatic way to track your website’s events, without needing to use code to define them, Oribi may be a good solution to check into. Once you add the Oribi tracking code to your site, every single button click and page visit on your website will be automatically tracked and grouped in your Oribi account—no need for a developer. It’s also worth noting that Oribi’s events are completely retroactive from the moment the script is installed on your site, meaning that you can edit, group, and analyze to your heart’s content—even if you add buttons or pages down the road. You’ll even be able to export your events to Facebook and Google Ads so you can build laser-sharp audiences and create much more focused ad campaigns.
If you’re an ecommerce business looking for an analytics solution, Oribi has a one-click revenue integration for both Shopify and WooCommerce users. You’ll be able to see all your revenue (and even your Facebook ad spend metrics) in a specialized ecommerce dashboard without needing to go through your developer for set-up.
Oribi comes fully equipped with a powerful set of features, all of which are easy to use and give you insights in seconds. Oribi’s funnels are a cinch to build, can be compared against previous time periods, and even include actionable insights so you don’t have to dig to find the info you need. And remember that data that GA’s segment overlap leaves out? Oribi’s got it covered. The Event Correlation feature not only provides you with that missing data, but spells it out for you in plain English so you always know which steps to take next.
The Bottom Line
Google is taking steps in the right direction with its GA4 rollout. Event-based funnels are now available for all users, clicks are beginning to be tracked, and new features like user lifetime reports and cohort analysis bring added benefit. However, as GA4 is still in its very early days, installing it won’t be for everyone—it’ll still require coding, dual usage in parallel with Universal Analytics, and will likely cost you time at this point, rather than saving it. Hopefully, with time, these kinks will be ironed out; in the meantime, we recommend using other tools to auto-track your events, either in parallel with or instead of your current GA implementation.
Long story short: while there’s no doubt that GA4 has some really nice additions to its list of features, there’s also no denying that, unless you’re a business with extensive analytics resources, getting the actionable information you need out of GA4 is still going to be a hassle.