Skip to main content

The Reed College of Media and College of Creative Arts will merge to form the new WVU College of Creative Arts and Media as of July 1, 2024. Get details.

The State of Google Analytics in 2023: GA4 Overview


The State of Google Analytics in 2023: GA4 Overview

Starting on July 1, 2023, Universal Analytics properties will no longer process new hits. At that point, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) will be the only tracking option for those of us who use Google Analytics.

This is not great news for many of us who were familiar with Universal Analytics. But the team at Google didn’t ask us, did they? Rude! In this blog we’ll get you prepared for what GA4 will mean. And the good news is that there are some distinct advantages to the new GA4.

  1. A little background on UA vs. GA4

  2. How does GA4 “work”?

  3. All about events in GA4

  4. Using Google Tag Manager with GA4

  5. What should I be doing right now?

GA4 vs. Universal Analytics

Universal Analytics had been the default Google Analytics property type since 2013. That’s a long time and it became quite popular over those years, achieving nearly ubiquitous standing in the world of digital analytics.

But that long run is coming to an end. Now, those of us who use Google Analytics are increasingly seeing the new GA4 interface when we log in to check out our analytics. And this will become official and permanent in July.

Image of GA4 Interface

Here is a short list of some of the biggest differences between the two property types. Although if you want a full list, you might want to check out this GA4 vs. Universal Analytics comparison.

  • Some metrics are different. Bounce rate, for example, is the percentage of single page sessions in Universal Analytics. If you have 100 sessions on your web site and only 13 of them advance to view a second page, you have a bounce rate of 87%. In GA4, bounce rate is the inverse of the “engaged session rate.” What’s an engaged session? By default, an engaged session is any session that had a conversion event OR was 2 or more pageviews, OR had a at least 10 seconds of engagement time by the visitor. Know what your GA4 bounce rate is if you have 100 sessions on your website, and 13 of them advance to view a second page and the other 87 spend at least 10 seconds of engaged time on the first page? That’s right. It would be 0%. Pretty different stuff.

  • The navigation is different. The new interface takes some getting used to for those who were used to UA.

  • The data model is completely different. We’ll get into that in the next section called “How Does GA4 Work?”

Reports are in different places. In UA, nearly all reports were accessible in the same place. In GA4, there are Standard Reports, Explorations, and Advertising Reports. They all have different functions and (sometimes) even different metrics and dimensions that are available. Standard Reports live within the “Reports” menu item. Explorations can be found within the “Explore” menu item. Advertising Reports are accessible through the “Advertising” menu item.

Why the Change?

Why did Google decide to make such a major change to the web analytics platform that is running on over 80% of the world’s top 10,000 web sites? Well, if you fully buy what Google said in their original announcement on March 16, 2022, GA4 is a more “modern” and “user-centric” solution that will help to “get greater value from your data.”

Reading between the lines, however, tells a slightly different story. The reference to “today’s international data privacy landscape” is my personal vote for what is the real driving factor here. All told, there are 7 references to “privacy” in the announcement. Here are 4 of them below! So I’m sure I’m not exactly revealing an incredible mystery.

GA4 Interface

Universal Analytics relied heavily on cookie-based tracking. But cookies may not have an indefinite life span, especially in places like the European Union (with GDPR) and California (with CCPA) crack down on privacy. The GA4 data model is more flexible and isn’t as cookie-reliant as UA. And more flexibility is great news for Google.

Capabilities of GA4

How Does GA4 Work?

The biggest differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics stem from how two properties measure data.

Universal Analytics collected data through various different “hit types.” For example, a user timing hit type tracks how long a visitor is on a page. A page view hit type records each time a new page is viewed. An e-commerce hit type helps to measure the online purchase process. There were also event hit types that could be used to measure things like clicks and scrolls and file downloads. As these web interactions (“hits”) are logged during a single visit from a single visitor, they get grouped together as a distinct session. This is what the table above means when it refers to UA as a “Session based data model.”

In GA4, on the other hand, all data is measured as an event. With this being the case, the session becomes a less important analysis vehicle. Instead, the specific interactions (the “hits”) which are collected as events, become the primary focus.

Types of measurement in GA4

If you want to understand how GA4 works, it’s important to understand the 4 different types of events that are available.

Events in GA4

GA has an event-based measurement model. Some of those events are collected by default, while some require custom work to set up. There are technically two distinct types of events that are collected by default:

automatically collected events and enhanced measurement events.

The events requiring custom work also fall into two types: recommended events andcustom events. Let’s briefly review all of them.

Automatically Collected Events

Some events are tracked automatically by GA4. Events like session_start, user_engagement, and first_visit are collected automatically and they can’t be turned off even if you wanted to (but you don’t want to).

Enhanced Measurement Events

There is another set of events that are collected by default. These events, however, can be turned off if there are any that you don’t want to track in this way. These are called enhanced measurement events.

You can see them below. The first event (Page views) is always on, but the others can be toggled on or off depending on your specific measurement plan and implementation.

Enhanced measurement in GA4

  Recommended Events

Recommended events are events that you need to set up yourself. This typically involves creating a GA4 event tag in Google Tag Manager. They are called “recommended” because Google has provided recommended event naming conventions for these events.

Custom Events

Custom events are similar to Recommended events in that we need to do the hard work to actually create them. Custom events differ from Recommended events in that Google does not recommend a specific name for any of these events. This is both highly flexible and also seems like it would sometimes be nice to have a little more support from Google.

Things can get a little confusing because there are some enhanced measurement events that perform the same function (albeit in a more limited way) than some custom events.

For example, the scroll enhanced measurement event will automatically track scroll activity. However, it will only track scrolls that achieve a 90% scroll depth. If you, like me, are more interested in knowing multiple scroll depth thresholds (25%, 50%, 75%, and 90%) then enhanced measurement won’t help you. In that case, you would want to create your own custom scroll event with the help of Google Tag Manager and deactivate the enhanced measurement version of the event to prevent duplicate data.

These finer points definitely take some getting used to!

Using Google Tag Manager With GA4

Google Tag Manager is not exactly required for GA4, but it certainly makes the tool much more usable than it would be otherwise.

What is Google Tag Manager and What Does it Do?

Google Tag Manager (GTM) is a “tag management tool” that allows you to organize and manage your website codes and snippets in a 3rd party tool instead of hard coding all of those “tags” onto the backend of your website.

Once the GTM “container code” has been deployed on a website, all other tags (like the GA4 measurement ID or the Facebook / Meta Pixel or the LinkedIn Insight tag) can be sent to the website through the GTM container code.

Tag Manager can also create “event tags” for GA4 which create the custom event data mentioned in the section above. If you want to track a specific button click or measure multiple scroll depth thresholds, you’ll need a custom event like this.

Let’s look at an example.

A Sample GA4 Event Tag

This is a GA4 event tag for a custom scroll event. This screenshot is from the Google Tag Manager interface.

GA4 Interface

We can’t review the entire process for doing this here (although there are other guides available on YouTube and other places), but we can define some of the major components.

  • Tag type: When creating a tag in GTM, we need to specify what type of tag it is. As you can see, this is a GA4 event tag.

  • Configuration tag: In this field we link our GA4 property with the tag we are creating so the data flows into the proper place.

  • Event name: This is where we name our event. The ‘scroll’ name here, means that is the specific name we’ll see in our GA4 reports for this custom event.

  • Event parameter: We are sending a parameter called ‘scroll_depth’ that will send in a value of the Scroll Depth Threshold. Event parameters are additional pieces of data that provide further context for events.

  • Firing Trigger: All tags need a corresponding trigger in order to fire. The tag is what sends the data to GA4. The firing trigger is what identifies when the action has taken place that corresponds with the data.

Without Google Tag Manager, this kind of detailed custom event creation would not be possible.

GA4 Without Google Tag Manager

Google Analytics 4 will work without Google Tag Manager. However, it will be more limited and - in the opinion of this author - generally less useful.

The event-centric model of GA4 inherently makes Google Tag Manager more central to GA4 than it was to UA. With UA, there were user interactions (“hit types”) such as user timing and others that were measured within the UA data model. With everything being based on events in GA4, the best way to get to user timing is often through a custom event that requires the help of Google Tag Manager.

Of course, some installations of GA4 will be fine without Google Tag Manager. The primary determination will be the specific measurement plan of the organization that is running Google Analytics. Read on below for a bit more about that.

What Should I be Doing Right Now?

Let’s first start with what you should not be doing. You should not start by watching a bunch of GA4 custom event tutorials so you can track all the button clicks, scrolls, and extensive interactions that take place on your site. That is a great way to get overwhelmed and spin your wheels.

Ok Fine, But What Should I Do Instead?

The fact that GA4 is such a big change presents an exciting opportunity to revisit your analytics and measurement goals. It’s possible that a lot of things your organization was tracking in UA weren’t all that usable. And it doesn’t make much sense to track something if there’s not a plan to use the data. Here is a short list of what you should be doing.

  • Clearly articulate your organizational goals and how your website makes you money. This should be pretty easy, right? If you’re an EComm company you sell things. If you’re a B2B SaaS company you might use your website to book appointments and consultations for your sales team. If you're a publisher that monetizes your site through ads and subscriptions, you are interested in reading time, user engagement, and new subscriptions.

  • Identify the top 1 - 3 most important “conversions” for your site. These are the things that are most directly related to how your business makes money. For the examples above, a primary conversion would be a completed sale or a booked consultation or a new paying subscriber to your content.

  • If necessary, identify several “micro conversions” that are directly related to your big important conversions. Micro conversions don’t make you money directly, but they are directly related to the conversions that make you money and are often a required part of the conversion process. A micro conversion for an Ecomm store might be add-to-carts. A micro conversion for a B2B SaaS company might be downloads of some key white papers or case studies that prospects tend to review before they talk with your sales team.

  • Now, map out (Excel or Google Sheets works fine) how you plan to track those conversions and micro conversions. This is where some research might come in handy. There are some things you may be able to track with GA4’s built in “enhanced measurement” events. Some things might require custom events. But take the time to clearly lay out your measurement plan before you worry about how you implement it. For example, not all sites need to track scroll depth activity. If it’s critical for your site and your customers, then yes. Otherwise, it can be a pass.

Once you’re done with this, you can get rolling on implementing your new tracking.

Most of us are still using UA right now, and that platform will still process data through the end of June 2022. My recommendation is to continue using UA as long as it’s available AND to “dual tag” with GA4. So if you haven’t yet installed the GA4 configuration tag, I’d do that immediately. And then I’d recommend plugging away at any custom events between now and the official sunset of UA.

We’ll publish another blog with some practical tips on how to install GA4 and how to get started with some of the different types of custom events that are out there.

Have fun and good luck out there!

Meet Our Guest Blogger

My name is Zack Duncan . I’m the Founder and President of Root and Branch. I enjoy good hiking, fresh beer, great coffee, and real conversations. I haven’t (yet!) found a way to make money by drinking beer, so it’s a good thing I also really like Local SEO, SEO Content Strategy, Paid Search (Google Ads), Google Analytics, and general marketing st rategy and planning.

Since you’re here, let me tell you a little about myself and about Root and Branch.

We all have things that make up our story in life. Here are some details from mine.

  • I spent the first 10 or so years of my working life at large retail corporations. Most of my time was spent in Marketing and I worked in functions like Brand, Planning, CRM, and Strategy.
  • I first became interested in the digital side of marketing when I was at those corporations. I remember our outside digital agencies coming in to speak with us and talking about things like “attribution models” and “conversion tracking” and “funnel progression.” It all seemed like a mysterious black box that I couldn’t wrap my head around, but the positive results were undeniable. I didn’t know much about digital marketing myself, but I knew I was interested in knowing about it.
  • I eventually left the corporate world due to a combination of factors including immaturity, professional burnout, a brush with death (I’m only here today thanks to an implanted cardiac defibrillator that saved my life nearly 8 years ago), and a nagging suspicion that the personal validation I was seeking in my career was masking some far deeper issues. That’s a whole different story, but you can read it here if you’re interested.
  • I recently moved to North Carolina after spending most of my adult life in Pittsburgh, PA. Pittsburgh is a great place. If you’re ever visiting, here are some recommendations to consider checking out. Have fun!

Root and Branch was born in 2016, and it became my full time job a year later. The idea with the name can basically be summed up like this: the things we do (branches) are the results of who we are and what we believe (roots). This applies in business, where the best results (branches) come from thoughtful plans that are consistent with values, mission and what customers want (roots). I think the same paradigm is also relevant in our individual lives.