Answering Questions Around Google Analytics Sunset & GA4

Adam Greco

Product Evangelist, Amplitude

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11 -minute Read,

Posted on May 12, 2022

Answers to your questions surrounding the sunsetting of Google Universal Analytics and GA4

Google Analytics Sunset

As a free digital analytics platform and ubiquitous ad platform, Google Analytics holds the largest share of the digital analytics market. Many Amplitude customers use Amplitude and Google Analytics. Even our most devoted Amplitude customers often also use Google Analytics because it is so tightly integrated with Google’s advertising network, which has monopoly-like power in the digital advertising space.

Ever since our Amplitude customers learned that Google is sunsetting the Universal Analytics product, we have been inundated with questions. I’ve had several conversations daily with customers about this topic. Therefore, I thought that I would share the most common questions I have received and some of the answers I have provided in these conversations. Please keep in mind that most of the people I spoke with were ones that were a bit worried/concerned about the impacts of Google’s recent change, so their questions will paint an overly pessimistic view. Also, keep in mind that I am not a GA expert and am mainly summarizing what I have heard from our customers and my responses based on my career in digital analytics. The goal of this post is not to debate whether GA4 is better/worse than Universal or whether Amplitude is better than GA4. It is simply to begin answering questions we are hearing in a more scalable way. While the focus of this article is Amplitude customers, anyone who uses Google Analytics might find value in seeing the questions the Universal Analytics sunset announcement is spawning in the marketplace. I will also be participating in a live webinar in June to discuss some of these topics and take additional questions next week. You can register for that webinar here.

Why did Google change to Google Analytics 4?

The digital analytics industry has been going through a lot of changes in recent years. As more people leverage websites and mobile applications, the traditional “website analytics” model of sessions and page views as the core focal point has become outdated (though sessions will always exist). As digital experiences become more complex through single-page applications and multi-platform journeys, most vendors have moved to an event-based data model for digital analytics. Since Google Analytics wasn’t originally built for mobile apps or an event-based model, it acquired a company called Firebase that was geared towards mobile apps and had an event-based data model. After the Firebase acquisition, Google had GA customers leverage Firebase for mobile app analytics and as mobile apps and the event-based model grew in popularity decided to make Firebase the platform of the future (initially as GA App + Web and now as GA4).

Should I migrate to GA4? What does that involve?

Google has advised that its clients migrate to GA4, their newest product release. But migrating to GA4 isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. GA4 uses a different data architecture, and moving from Universal Analytics to GA4 can be as much work as moving to an entirely new analytics solution. For example, if your organization uses GA’s e-commerce tracking there are very specific steps you need to take to migrate and there could be backward compatibility issues.

Some organizations I have spoken with have been asking themselves, “if there is a decent amount of work to be done, does it make sense to stick with Google Analytics, or should I evaluate other platforms?” Whenever there is a forcing function like this, it is always a good opportunity to take a step back and assess how much value your organization is currently receiving from its technology investment. Many of the organizations I have spoken to tell me that their current [Universal] Google Analytics implementation is on “autopilot.” By this, they mean that it is there and useful, but hasn’t been updated in a long time and isn’t always providing actionable insights. I described this phenomenon in this blog post a while back and is, unfortunately, very common for technologies that have been around for over a decade.

For some low-maturity GA implementations, GA4 will add some great new out-of-the-box functionality (e.g. outbound links, search terms, download files, etc.). There are also many other cool new features that bring GA in line with other digital analytics platforms. There will be many organizations that simply upgrade to GA4 and it will work for them, but I recommend that you take advantage of this opportunity to evaluate where your digital analytics program is today, where you want it to be, and whether GA4 is the platform to get you there.

While we expect that many Amplitude customers will continue to use Google Analytics in some capacity for the foreseeable future, one of our platform goals is to eventually enable enough product and marketing use cases that Amplitude can be a single platform and not require the use of Google Analytics (some cool new feature announcements about this will take place at our upcoming Amplify conference, which is free to attend virtually). If you are a current Amplitude customer who is interested in working with our product team to share your GA use cases, please reach out to me or your account manager.

What about my historical Google Analytics data?

Many of the people I speak to mention the impending sunset date of Universal Analytics as a potential reason to panic about losing historical data. Given the dates that Google has published, many organizations are panicked that if they don’t do something right away, they will not have year-over-year data. In our industry, there is a fascination with year-over-year data, though I don’t see too many organizations that actually use it. Given new data retention policies, if your organization truly cares about historical data, it should already be feeding its analytics data to an internal data warehouse, so I would not panic over specific sunset dates. But if retaining historical data is important to your organization, it may benefit you to add your most important KPIs to a GA4 instance before July 1st (one year before Universal Analytics data collection is scheduled to stop) to be safe (you can also use Amplitude’s free GTM template (client-side or server-side) to send data to Amplitude in addition to GA). I think it is better to think about which platform you want to invest in for the future versus making a short-term decision based upon arbitrary dates put out by a vendor.  I also have a feeling that given the angst around the sunsetting announcement there is a strong likelihood that Google eventually extends the Universal Analytics sunset date.

Is the GA4 product ready?

Many of the people I have spoken to have heard some rumblings that GA4 cannot address all of the use cases that are possible with Universal Analytics. It’s easy to find Twitter and LinkedIn posts describing shortcomings in GA4. Some describe it as “not yet ready for prime time” in my conversations. While it looks like GA4 has some cool improvements over Universal Analytics, there have been some concerns. The following are some of the items that have come up in my conversations:

  • GA4 makes a shift from having many out-of-the-box reports to relying on the Exploration reporting interface. This new interface may ultimately end up being more powerful, but in the short-term could be jarring to previous Universal GA users (especially novices) and could require a lot of re-training
  • GA4 has limits on dimensions and dimension character lengths that can be problematic. There are situations where Universal GA customers may have deployed more dimensions than are available in GA4. While part of me likes that it will force customers to prioritize, customers with large implementations could end up in a bind.
  • GA4 may have situations where dimension cardinality in one dimension can impact other dimensions (in Standard reports)
  • GA4 may have situations where dimension cardinality can cause different metric totals to be shown in standard reports vs. exploration reports
  • GA4 has more integration with BigQuery, which can be a great thing for power users, but may require casual data users to learn a new and more advanced user interface
  • GA4 data exports to BigQuery will be capped at one million events per day, which will force many organizations that have been using “free” analytics to begin paying Google
  • GA4 “free” version has a data retention maximum of fourteen months. This means that you will need to store any data you want to preserve in BigQuery and will be unable to use the Explore reporting interface for reporting over long periods of time
  • GA4 currently has few 3rd party vendor integrations

What about Google’s privacy issues in Europe?

Another topic that comes up in my conversations is the scary headlines about Google Analytics in the news. These headlines, especially those in Europe, discuss whether Google Analytics will be deemed to be legal. Much of this is short-term noise, but there are some very valid issues associated with a digital analytics product that is so connected to an advertising network and a multinational conglomerate. Customers I speak to worry that some random legal ruling that they cannot control could instantly force them to lose all visibility into their digital properties. I can empathize with that fear, but hope that it will never come to pass.

But there are some specific parts of Google Analytics that could increase the risk of privacy issues. One example of this is Google Signals, which is a mechanism Google Analytics uses to identify anonymous visitors and enrich data. Google Signals allows Google Analytics to do two things that no other digital analytics product can match:

  • Leverage its advertising network to perform cross-device tracking of users (including anonymous users)
  • Add demographic information about users such as age, gender, and advertising interests

Google Signals does this by taking advantage of the fact that most people use one form of a Google product (e.g. Chrome, Gmail) and do not turn off the “Ads Personalization” feature. Since Google has a massive advertising network, it can gather demographic and interest information about users and anonymously share it with Google Analytics. For example, if your grandmother uses Gmail, Google Analytics can see her demographic information and interests from her Google Account. As a digital analyst, it’s great to get additional demographic and interest information, but your users likely don’t realize that Google’s advertising network is feeding this information about them into Google Analytics. Google Signals can be turned off by administrators in Google Analytics, but most organizations that use Google Analytics have it enabled and very few Google users know about disabling Ads Personalization within their Google account. In addition, Google Analytics currently only allows organizations to track users by User ID if they also include Google Signals instead of letting them have an option to use only User ID and Device ID.

While Google Signals is currently viewed as ok for use with GDPR if you follow all of the consent requirements, there could be a scenario in which the European Union forces Google Analytics to remove the Google Signals feature or make it “opt-in” since it goes against many principles of GDPR. If this happened, Google Analytics would lose some of its current advantages.

How important is analytics to Google’s overall business?

Some of the people I speak to have grown up in a world where they always had access to a powerful (and often free) digital analytics product in Google Analytics. I like to remind these people that Google Analytics was initially acquired (Urchin) and given away for free as a way to help organizations measure the performance of their Google digital advertising campaigns. Google knew that data was the key to getting companies to spend more on digital advertising. Google Analytics is inextricably linked to Google advertising.

As organizations consider which digital analytics platform they want to use for the next decade, it is important to recognize that Google’s advertising business is much more critical than its analytics business. If digital advertising were ever to go away or diminish significantly (possibly due to privacy issues), would Google continue to fund a free/subsidized version of Google Analytics? I am sure hosting GA servers and supporting the GA product costs Google a lot of money, which is fine when the advertising cash cow continues to produce unlimited funds. But what would happen if the advertising money dried up? And what would happen if Google Analytics caused so many legal issues that it began to hurt Google’s core advertising business? If Google ever feared that it would lose advertising revenue due to its analytics product, the analytics product might be treated like the proverbial red-headed step-child! Given all of Google’s privacy/litigation issues, there could be a scenario in which the analytics product turns into a weight around Google’s ankle. While it is difficult to predict the future, some organizations I am speaking with worry that relying on a vendor whose primary business model is advertising versus analytics might one day come back to haunt them.

In addition, while Google probably has more engineers on Google Analytics than many other pure-play analytics vendors due to its sheer size, it is possible that the analytics product could one day get lost in the behemoth that is Google. Some of the people I have spoken to have mentioned that feature requests and bug reports they have made are seldom acted upon these days, which was not the case years ago. One of the advantages of working with a vendor whose sole mission is analytics is that they are highly motivated to develop and improve their product.

Will there be any changes in how Google provides support and services?

Some of the organizations I spoke with mentioned that they have always wanted more direct support from Google. Traditionally, Google Analytics customers have not had much direct interaction with Google, but rather, worked with Google agencies and partners. While there is no doubt that Google Analytics has an army of passionate agencies and consultancies at its disposal, sometimes when you have issues, you want to talk to the vendor directly. Before committing to several more years of Google Analytics, some of the folks I spoke to wondered if Google Analytics 4 would bring with it any new direct Google support options. So far, I have not seen anything new on this and assume GA4 will be supported the same way it has been in the past.

How does Google Analytics 4 promote data quality and governance?

Most current Google Analytics customers manage their implementation from a Google Sheet that lists their data taxonomy. One of the things that Amplitude customers like about our product is how much we have invested in data governance and I think they want Google Analytics 4 to have some of the same functionality. While event-based analytics platforms are certainly more powerful for tracking and analyzing customer behavior, they also require more investments in data management. A robust toolkit for data governance is essential and a Google Sheet documenting your analytics implementation is not sufficient. Events must be planned, instrumented, validated, organized, transformed, and observed over time to enable high-quality insights that lead to great decision-making. Without great data governance tools, long-term costs of low adoption due to untrustworthy data and re-instrumentation become high. This data death wheel is why most analytics efforts fail.

Data-Wheel-of-Death

To promote higher data quality, happier engineers, lower data platform cost – our customers are hoping that Google Analytics 4 (or at least GA360) will eventually offer:

  • Built-in tracking planning
  • Observability for event validation
  • Developer-first experience (Jira integration, command lines, SDKs, branches)
  • More robust data property transformation types

It remains to be seen how much of an investment Google will make in the data governance area for Google Analytics 4.

What data and marketing integrations does Google Analytics 4 offer?

The modern organization uses many tools – including Data Warehouses, CDPs, email engagement and messaging platforms, ad networks, attribution and location intelligence tools, and experimentation platforms. Currently, Google Analytics 4 has integrations with BigQuery and Salesforce Marketing Cloud. Beyond that, backend development/API work is required. If you want to integrate your stack, so teams have a single customer behavioral profile, a complete view of customer engagement and journeys, and the ability to take action on data across various channels and tools, GA4 may have some limitations. And increasingly, organizations are leveraging data warehouses like Snowflake, Amazon S3, BigQuery, and others in conjunction with their digital analytics platforms. Currently, Google Analytics is limited to BigQuery out-of-the-box and requires customer development to integrate with other data warehouses.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned in the beginning, there are a lot of questions and unknowns out there when it comes to the sunsetting of Universal Analytics and GA4. Amplitude customers are impacted by this in the same ways as many other organizations. Hopefully the information provided here begins to answer some of these questions whether you are a current Amplitude customer using Google Analytics or a Google Analytics customer with similar questions. With any major technology change there will be questions and concerns. Since Google Analytics is so ubiquitous, these types of questions and concerns are often magnified. I am sure many of these questions will be better answered by Google and its active community of users (who know a lot more than I do about GA) over the next year. As with most things, there is often no reason to panic, but it is important to continuously re-assess all technologies used by your organization and determine the best path forward.

If you want to hear more about these topics and/or ask your own questions, I will be participating in a webinar on June 7th with one of our partners (McGaw) who has in-depth GA expertise. The webinar is open to anyone and registration can be found here.

GA-Webinar

Adam Greco

Adam Greco is one of the leading voices in the digital analytics industry. Over the past 20 years, Adam has advised hundreds of organizations on analytics best practices and has authored over 300 blogs and one book related to analytics. Adam is a frequent speaker at analytics conferences and has served on the board of the Digital Analytics Association.

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