Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs. Universal Analytics: A Comparison

The very first version of Google Analytics was released in 2005, taking on a few iterations before becoming the Universal Analytics standard for website tracking in 2012. Then, in early 2020, Google started beta testing an “App+Web Property” as an evolution to their tracking system. This eventually became what we now know as GA4.

It’s a common misconception that GA4 is an upgraded, updated version of Universal Analytics. However, GA4 is a completely different version that works better for event-driven models, monetization recording, and includes different reporting dashboards. Google has mentioned that GA4 is the future for tracking, but is it time to stop using Universal Analytics altogether and dive headfirst into GA4?

The short answer is no. But you should consider using them in tandem. Universal Analytics is still a great data measurement tool to track the success and areas for improvement on your B2B website, but GA4 offers alternative ways to look at your data with a different context.

Here’s what you need to know about Universal Analytics and GA4.

Sessions or Events – What’s the Difference?

The biggest difference between GA4 and Universal Analytics is the base measuring tools that they each use. Universal Analytics measures user activity by placing a cookie on each user’s browser, which provides data centered around page views, user sessions, and the actions that took place during each session.

In comparison, GA4 tracks all user activity with events and event-specific parameters. In doing so, many of the reports that were previously available in Universal Analytics no longer exist and have been removed or replaced with variations on similar (but not the same) data. When comparing data between Universal Analytics and GA4, the numbers may not completely align and that’s because of the discrepancy in the way that each platform reports and measures its data.                                    

With Universal Analytics’ reporting, you can track metrics to easily measure different user engagement levels, such as average session duration and bounce rate. Universal Analytics gives you a deeper dive into how each individual user is interacting with your website.

However, these have been removed from GA4, in favor of three new engagement metrics:

  • Engaged Session: According to Google, this is “the number of sessions that lasted longer than 10 seconds, or had a conversion event, or had 2 or more screen or page views.”
  • Average engagement time per session: Google aggregates and averages data from all engaged user sessions and turns them into this key piece of data, based on the length of time the user is actively engaging with any part of your B2B website.
  • Engagement rate: The final metric that is new to GA4 is engagement rate, which creates a ratio based on the number of engaged sessions relative to total sessions in a given time period.

Read more: Structured data for your B2B web design.

A Changing Point of View

Another major shift in Analytics is the ability to track different views for your B2B website. Universal Analytics allows you to set up views based on different filters that you want to track or exclude from your data. In fact, you can have up to 25 different reporting views to take as much control of your data as you want. For example, you may have one view called “Master” which contains all data and sessions recorded on your website. You may have another view called “Filtered” which excludes your office IP address, employee home IP address, and any known spam IPs that frequent your site. The last view you may have is a “Test” view, where you could be testing traffic unique to a recently launched campaign.

In GA4, everything is tracked under a single view, so there is no way to set up filters for different views, which isn’t beneficial when testing multiple variations of your B2B website. Data filters are still available under your property settings but don’t give users the flexibility to switch in and out of different views to compare data. The workaround is to create another GA4 property with different filters and data streams, but this can get cluttered quickly. 

Where Did My Conversions Go?

Finally, conversion tracking is one of the biggest changes between the two systems. Universal Analytics makes it much easier to set up conversion goals to track the success of different forms and key touchpoints on your B2B website. With a Universal Analytics goal setup, you can track when someone fills out forms and determine exactly which source that specific lead came from (e.g. Organic, Paid, or otherwise). Universal Analytics also allows you to create goals for target session duration or pages per session.

However, since GA4 doesn’t track session data, these goals are not available to set up. Instead, GA4 relies on events built into its measuring tool. GA4 collects information about your users in one of four events that can be manipulated to fit your needs:

  • Automatically collected events
  • Enhanced measurement events
  • Recommended events
  • Custom events

Google touts GA4 as the future of analytics but still recommends that users continue to use Universal Analytics alongside it. B2B marketers should continue to use Universal Analytics as it provides the detailed data that we’ve all become accustomed to, but regularly spending some time to get familiar with GA4 can be helpful as that platform continues to develop.

Do you still have questions about which analytics platform is best for your B2B website? Contact us to review your Google Analytics setup.

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