Google Analytics 4: What You Need to Know

Learn more about Google Analytics 4, how it differs from Universal Analytics, why Universal Analytics is sunsetting, and how this affects your product and marketing analytics.

July 20, 2022
Image of Mallory Busch
Mallory Busch
Product Marketer, dbt Labs
How Google Universal Analytics Sunsetting Impacts You

Note: The information in this blog post is based on a panel discussion from June 2022. Updates made to Google Analytics 4 after June 2022 may not be reflected in this post.

In June, Amplitude hosted a webinar together with marketing analytics consultancy to discuss the new Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and the subsequent sunsetting of Google’s Universal Analytics (UA). Adam Greco, Amplitude’s Product Evangelist, was joined by McGaw’s Andrew Seipp, Director of Growth Marketing, Hamed Kian, Analytics Manager, and Nik Friedman TeBockhorst, Vice President of Solutions.

The panel discussed a number of topics ranging from:

  • Google’s shift to GA4
  • Considerations for migrating to GA4
  • What that entails
  • Whether GA4 is ready for prime time

This was followed by a Q&A session where the panel addressed queries about how teams can migrate to GA4 and how they can make the most of it.

[Watch the full panel discussion]

What is Google Analytics 4?

GA4 is the latest version of Google Analytics. One of the major changes with GA4 is that it enables app analytics as well as web analytics. UA is only focused on web analytics.

The structure of how data is handled with Google Analytics has changed. While UA has a number of ‘hit’ types, including page hits, event hits, ecommerce hits, and social interaction hits, GA4 is entirely event-based. This means that any interaction can be captured as an event. It allows for additional information to be passed to GA alongside each interaction. This change makes it easier for users to create funnels, making it more flexible.

Why is Google making the switch to GA4?

According to Nik, the event model used by GA4 (and product analytics solutions like Amplitude) is the way of the future. Until now, the panel noted, Google Analytics was falling behind where the market was heading on event-based analytics. UA was essentially “stuck” on vanity metrics like sessions and page views. This move, Nik said, is essentially Google “keeping up with the Joneses.” In other words, keeping up with the likes of Amplitude, Mixpanel, and Adobe.

How is GA4 different from UA?

The main difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics lies in the data structure. The panel discussed a number of ways the two differ and how this affects users.

Event hits

UA used to have different hit types like page, events, and time, but GA4 only has events. The way GA4 treats event hits is also different.

With UA, users had access to additional fields like category, action, label, and customer when sending event hits. With GA4, you simply have an event name. At the most, users can add parameters when sending additional information.

Amplitude Analytics has been working for years on event-based analytics in a similar way to GA4. Adam explained how Amplitude is used to working with companies that have a lot of events and properties. By having multiple options to choose from, you have more flexibility to choose your own properties to include with different events.

Other data structure differences include how each solution treats users and session counts. UA works with new users, but GA4 only measures active users. With UA, new campaign parameters would be treated as a new session; this doesn’t happen in GA4.

Attribution models

Attribution models are also different in GA4, and this is a major sticking point for many current users, according to Nik. Multi-channel reports still exist, but they’re not going to be trained when the switch to GA4 happens. Since these are machine-learning based, this means GA4 users will be starting from scratch.

AdSense integration

As it stands, GA4 is missing the AdSense integration. There’s a chance that this will be added later on, but Nik brought up the idea that Google could soon be sunsetting AdSense, too. According to Nik, the product isn’t selling, and Google is pushing its users toward display ads and search ads instead.

Built-in reports

Google Analytics 4 has fewer built-in reports than its predecessor. Users will need to build from scratch instead. You can find channel reports and goal reports, but others like behavioral pattern reports are missing.

Hamed also noted that GA4 has an inadequate number of report options for in-house ecommerce compared to UA. He did indicate that Google is most likely working on resolving this.

Unless users are working within Google’s recommended event structure and schema, you cannot rely on it to build all of your reports for you. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Google to compete in the canned reports sphere, as services like Amplitude offer their clients solutions that are customized to their own apps, websites, and businesses.

Google Signals and first-party data

While Google Signals is technically a new feature in GA4, it’s something Google was already doing. The main difference now, the panel noted, is that Google has given this feature a name and is marketing it. Signals is essentially how Google users are using first-party data and first-party cookies for ad personalization.

According to Nik, “Since everyone is logged into Google — lots of people are running Chrome… Google can use their proprietary data to tie everything together. If you let them.” He noted that Google is likely promoting this feature because many people are worried about the imminent phasing out of third party cookies and identity resolution.

Nik pointed out that Google enjoys 60-70% of browser market share through Chrome, so, as third-party cookies are phased out, they can still dominate since they have direct access to user data. Adam predicted that the European Union will step in and shoot down Google Signals within a year to eliminate Google’s unfair advantage due to its browser monopoly.

What can you do to prepare for and implement GA4?

For the final part of the webinar, the panel took some questions from the viewers relating to how users can implement and prepare for GA4. We’ve briefly presented several of them below.

1. Get familiar with GA4’s limitations

Throughout the webinar, numerous limitations of GA4 were discussed. Companies considering switching to GA4 need to be aware of these limitations and make the necessary adjustments to their internal account setup. How will these limitations affect their analytics needs?

During the session, the panel also mentioned a number of character limits GA4 has put in place that’s been a common bone of contention with many of its current users. Such limits include:

  • You can only have up to 500 personalized event names
  • You can only send 25 parameters alongside each event
  • User properties have a 24-character limit, and they cannot be deleted
  • Event names are limited to 40 characters
  • User property values are limited to 36 characters
  • There are sampling and data retention limits

The panel also discussed whether or not they felt that GA4 is a strong enough product for enterprise customers—particularly at its current maturity level and with its current limitations, especially for product analysis. Nik pointed out that GA4 is built on top of Firebase. He said that anyone he knows in product analytics only uses Firebase to track things related to the Google Play Store since that’s unique and hard to aggregate anywhere else.

He also pointed out that Google is investing heavily in areas like app analytics, so he imagines it’ll become more competitive going forward.

2. Set up an implementation plan

To do this, map all events you want to have and what parameters you want to send alongside each of them. A good tip is to stick with the naming conventions GA4 has. This makes it easier later for Google’s Machine Learning capabilities.

Decide what reports you want to use. Evaluate your KPIs and determine which won’t be covered with GA4’s new reporting structure. You’ll need to plan for those by seeking out alternatives.

3. Export data from UA to GA4

Unfortunately, there’s no official way to export data from UA to GA4. You’ll need to use an API to export the data into third party tools like BigQuery and run reports from there.

Another option would be to backsell data via Segment and other similar tools. Segment has a replay function that will replay 60 days’ worth of data.

4. Import AdSense revenue into Amplitude

With Amplitude, users will soon be able to pull advertising impressions, costs, and clicks into Amplitude, so people won’t have to be as reliant on Google. The Amplitude team recently announced that this functionality is moving from alpha to beta. By the end of the year, you should be able to import any information you would typically get from advertising from Google into Amplitude instead.

Nik pointed out the significance of this move since, right now, the only reason you really have to use GA4 is for the ad integration. He also pointed out that migrating to GA4 essentially means you’re starting from scratch. If you’ve considered trying other tools like Amplitude (the market leader in product analytics) instead, now would be a great time to do so!

Use Amplitude’s Google Tag Manager template to migrate data from GA to Amplitude in less than an hour.

5. Consider using GA4 and UA in parallel

If you’re migrating to GA4 from UA, Andrew suggested using both solutions in parallel. This way, he said, you can load tags at the same time.

Andrew also emphasized the importance of migrating to GA4 as soon as possible. Since there’s no historical backfill, you want to put data into GA4 right away so you can compare data coming through to ensure that it lines up with each other—and maybe even with other tools you have like Amplitude. You can also use the free version of Google Analytics to track basic page and sesion views, while leveraging a product analytics solution for deeper analysis.

Final Thoughts

The general consensus of the panel was that the speed at which Google has been making improvements to GA4 is impressive. This is particularly true of their ecommerce capabilities which, until recently, weren’t there. According to Nik, “If you’re not following the Google Analytics team on Twitter, you’re going to be missing a lot of information there that’s going to tell you what’s possible today that wasn’t possible yesterday.”

At the same time, the sunsetting of Universal Analytics and forced migration to Google Analytics 4 means that UA customers will have to rebuild their digital analytics, essentially from scratch. This presents an opportunity to explore and invest in analytics solutions that may better fit your team’s needs.

To learn more about Google’s migration to GA4 and how that’s going to affect you, watch the full webinar here. To explore product analytics more, download the Digital Analytics Product Buyer’s Guide or sign up for a free Amplitude account. You can also migrate your GA data to Amplitude in less than an hour.

Get started with Amplitude
About the Author
Image of Mallory Busch
Mallory Busch
Product Marketer, dbt Labs
Mallory Busch formerly ran the Amplitude blog, frequently named a best blog for product managers. She also created AmpliTour, the live workshop for beginners to product analytics and 6 Clicks, the Amplitude video series. She produced the Flywheels Playbook, wrote The Product Report 2021 and produced The Product Report 2022. A former developer and journalist, Mallory's written work and coding projects have been published by TIME, Chicago Tribune, and The Texas Tribune. She graduated from Northwestern University.