It’s been on the cards for a while - and time is finally running out to migrate to Google Analytics 4 (GA4). In just under a month’s time, on July 1st, 2023, Universal Analytics is sunsetting for good - and GA4 will become Google’s new default analytics tool for measuring web performance.
For businesses worldwide, it’s a simple choice. Failing to migrate (or switch to another analytics tool) will result in the immediate loss of your online tracking capabilities overnight - so it’s critical not to let the deadline catch you off guard. But with just over three weeks to go, there’s still time to prepare for the transition.
In this article, we recap the reasons behind Google’s long-awaited switch to Google Analytics 4 (GA4), and the main changes to expect. We then explore the data privacy implications of the new platform, before taking you through the core elements of the changeover process - so that you can ensure that your ducks are in a row well before the final migration date.
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What is Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?
For many years, Google Analytics has been the most commonly used digital marketing resource for businesses across the globe when it comes to tracking online activity and engagement. Providing detailed metrics and insights into how customers interact with your business online, it’s an incredibly useful tool for making informed commercial decisions based on your web presence.
A significant change
Representing a major shift in the way that businesses and customers interact online, GA4 is Google’s next-generation measurement tool - one quite unlike any previous iterations of the platform. Its predecessor, Universal Analytics, will be retired for good on its official end date of July 1st this year, when it will cease collecting and processing data overnight.
This isn’t the first time that Google has introduced changes to its analytics service - GA4 is the fourth evolution of the platform, and users have transitioned through updates periodically throughout its lifecycle. The last migration from Classic Analytics (GA2) to Universal Analytics (GA3) was relatively painless and more or less automatic, with little onus on users to get involved in the process.
However, this time, things are different. GA4 isn’t a simple update - it’s a fundamentally different system from anything that has come before it, and the migration process requires some action on the user end. By taking the time to complete the migration process now, you will ensure that you are set up with the settings and metrics that you need before Universal Analytics sunsets for good.
What about historical data?
If you have been using Universal Analytics for any significant period of time, it is likely that you will have accumulated a sizable body of historical data. This is valuable information which provides year-on-year insights into your website conversions and long-term performance - in short, it’s not data that most businesses will want to lose.
The bad news when it comes to historical data is that, along with Universal Analytics, its days are effectively numbered. No data will be automatically inherited in the transition to GA4, and eventually, anything which isn't manually salvaged will be permanently lost.
The good news is that last year, Google announced a grace period of 6 months before all Universal Analytics data is deleted for good - which means that you have until 1 January 2024 to back up what you need.
Why is Google Analytics changing?
The way that we use the internet has changed dramatically since the current version of Analytics was introduced. The result is that over the past few years, the platform has become outdated and is, according to Google, no longer fit for purpose. This is primarily for two reasons:
When Google Analytics was first introduced, the ecosystem of the internet - and the behavior of its users - were both radically different. With desktop browsers the only real vehicle of internet exploration, navigating the online space was a far simpler process, and involved far less consumer choice.
Fast forward to 2023, and how we engage with online services has changed almost beyond recognition. With the vast majority of consumers now browsing via a combination of mobile apps, tablets, and traditional browsers, data that once originated from a singular platform now comes from multiple sources. Put simply, much more is happening - and at a much faster pace.
Despite a series of updates over recent years, the reality is that Universal Analytics is simply not equipped to deliver a cohesive solution to the complex demands of modern data tracking. Rather than continue to rehash an old system, Google is choosing to start over.
The second major reason behind the switch to GA4 is that the landscape of global privacy regulation has undergone a major transformation over recent years - bringing a massive increase in consumer expectations around how personal data is collected, processed, and stored.
Because Universal Analytics was developed in a far “looser” environment in terms of data collection rights and obligations, privacy considerations were more of an afterthought. Whilst Google has added various controls aimed at mitigating data risks over the years, these have been consistently and swiftly outpaced by regulatory compliance demands, and have been unable to compete with the widespread use of ad and cookie blockers.
The final nail in the coffin for Universal Analytics came last year, with multiple EU regulators in France and Austria ruling that the practice of transferring data for processing outside of Europe to the United States was in direct violation of the GDPR. The writing has been on the wall ever since - the time of Universal Analytics is over, and GA4 is poised to take its place.
What is different about Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?
Let's take a closer look at some of the new features, bells, and whistles from Google's latest analytics iteration.
The biggest change that users will notice when switching to GA4 is that the new platform is now “event-based”, rather than “session-based”. This reflects the fact that users no longer interact with websites in the same way that they used to - consumers are using multiple platforms across multiple sessions, and tracking their behavior, therefore, demands a far more granular approach.
What is an “event”? Quite simply, it can be any interaction that a user has with your website - including page views, transactions, time spent on each page, and time hits. This opens up a whole new world of detail when it comes to data monitoring and analysis - with the only limitation that a maximum of 500 events can be created per website or mobile app.
In recognition of the fact that users now engage with websites across multiple platforms, the second major change introduced under GA4 is its fully integrated tracking service, which provides cross-device reporting across mobile apps and web browsers.
This is intended to solve one of the biggest inherent shortcomings of Universal Analytics, aggregating all activity of a single user across platforms to obtain an accurate, top-down picture of their visitor experience.
A new approach to privacy
The third major difference between Universal Analytics and GA4 is that whilst its predecessor took a relatively piecemeal, reactive approach to data protection, GA4 places privacy front and center.
Continue reading to learn more about the new privacy features of GA4 - and the impact that these are likely to have on your tracking operations once you migrate.
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) new privacy controls
Taking a “privacy by design” approach to its core functionality, GA4 aims to control how data is collected, used, stored, and deleted back into the hands of consumers. With a raft of granular options available to organizations, the goal is to lay the foundations to help businesses meet the individual privacy outcomes which apply to their jurisdiction, sector, and ethos.
It is important to understand from the outset that simply enabling the privacy features included within GA4 is not likely to be enough to ensure compliance with the GDPR (or indeed, any other global data regime). However, they do provide a starting point for businesses to begin thinking about their privacy choices - and an opportunity to put in place building blocks to meet regulatory obligations.
For businesses navigating the choices presented by GA4’s new privacy mechanisms, it is also worth noting that there is usually a trade-off to be made when it comes to balancing consumer data protection standards and obtaining effective marketing insights.
Implementing the highest level of privacy controls will inevitably have a limiting effect on the insights that GA4 can provide - for example, deactivating Google Signals will ensure a robust level of protection for your customers, but doing so means sacrificing the depth of your analytics yields.
How GA4’s privacy features are used and configured is ultimately a question for each individual organization in light of their regulatory environment. However, continue reading for an overview of what to expect regarding the privacy options available through GA4 following the migration process.
Google Consent Mode
It’s no secret that being able to provide personalized services online often results in a better user experience (and therefore more conversions). However, the evolution of privacy legislation has made striking the right balance between tracking and consent a major challenge for businesses.
Google Consent Mode is designed to act as a win-win solution to this conundrum by giving companies a new way to measure conversion success without violating consumer privacy rights. Whilst it already pre-dates the platform in its development stages, Google Consent Mode will now become a central privacy feature of GA4.
In short, Consent Mode allows a user to adjust how their Google tags behave based on the permissions that their website visitors allow. Through an opt-in consent mechanism, Consent Mode dynamically adapts its operating mode to reflect and respect consumer choice. If a user chooses not to consent to analytics storage of their data, GA4 will not read or write first-party analytics cookies - broad view data will still be gathered, but it will be completely anonymized. Learn more about consent analytics here.
It is important to note that Consent Mode itself is not a management platform - it is simply a tool within GA4. Didomi’s Consent Management Platform integrates with Google Consent Mode to offer a one-stop-shop platform to manage customer consent at the heart of your analytics strategy.
EU data processing
One of the major regulatory concerns with Universal Analytics was that data collected from users in the EU was being routinely transferred to servers in the US for processing in breach of the GDPR. In a major move to address this issue, GA4 will now only collect data from EU devices through domains and servers based within the EU.
No more IP storage
Another significant concern for regulators arising out of Universal Analytics was that the platform’s default logging of IP addresses, in combination with its collection of other forms of data, put users at risk of personal identification in breach of the GDPR. Whilst an anonymization option was possible, it had to be manually activated, and many users were simply not aware of its existence.
In arguably the most significant privacy development of the new platform, GA4 does not log or store IP addresses - full stop. Location data is still inferred from a visitor’s IP address - but the IP address itself is immediately discarded afterward. For maximum consumer protection, IP collection can now also be toggled off entirely so that no location data is collected in the first place.
Regional Google Signals controls
Google Signals is an optional analytics feature under GA4 which can be used to facilitate cross-platform reporting, remarketing, and Google ads personalization. When enabled, it allows users to gather a far more in-depth set of data about any given website visitor and their broader online behavior - from page views, location, and demographic to their search and YouTube history.
The deeper insights obtained from this level of individual reporting can be highly valuable from a commercial point of view. However, for many organizations operating within EU countries, the local regulatory standard is for Signals to be disabled. GA4 therefore now allows for regional toggling of Signals so that it can be disabled for all users of a website or app within a particular region.
Regional location and device data controls
Google’s collection of user device and location data has become a major compliance concern under Universal Analytics. This often incredibly detailed information (which can include cities, devices used, screen resolutions, and geographical latitude and longitude of any user) forms a crucial part of the data puzzle which, whilst commercially valuable, can result in the risk of individual identification.
As a general rule, the more granular the data collected, the higher the regulatory risk. Under Universal Analytics, location and device information was gathered automatically, which has caused major compliance headaches in the past for both companies and their customers, particularly in certain geographical and regulatory locations where this was effectively unlawful.
In an attempt to remedy the situation, GA4 will now allow users to disable collection of this data at a detailed regional level. When disabled, visitor data will be redacted prior to collection by Google Analytics servers, and will not be included in any subsequent reporting.
Under the GDPR, data should not be kept any longer than strictly necessary for the purpose that it was collected. Historically, Google Analytics has placed no limitations on how long a user can retain data. Things have changed under GA4 - retention settings now allow users to set the amount of time that personal data is stored before it is deleted from Google’s servers.
Data retention settings are now made by reference to events, and are capped at a maximum of 14 months. For any data relating to age, gender, or personal interest, the retention period is automatically set to two months. Whilst this may place organizations in a tougher position when it comes to monitoring long-term engagement, it is likely to assist from a compliance point of view by making it more or less impossible for users to violate the GDPR storage limitation principle.
With the right to be forgotten now well enshrined under the GDPR, Google has now implemented specific data deletion request mechanisms under GA4. These allow for the deletion of all data relating to an individual user from analytics within 72 hours of a request being made.
How to migrate to Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
Migrating to GA4 can range from a relatively simple operation to a far more involved process, depending on the level of customization that your Google properties require. However, the following four-step migration strategy provides a reliable starting point which will put you in a secure position to continue tracking data after 1 July.
1. Audit: What are you tracking?
Because migration to GA4 is unlike any previous Google Analytics data transitions, it’s worth starting by returning to basics. For many users, Universal Analytics was an “easy” option which ran more or less automatically in the background. While this was convenient, it was easy to result in time wasted on the wrong datasets, or valuable missed tracking opportunities.
Because the GA4 migration process forces us to actively participate in shaping our analytics, this is an opportunity to reflect on what you want to get out of the platform. What information are you actively using from Universal Analytics? What purpose does it serve for your business? Basic visitor information and conversion rates are just the starting point - take the time to identify any gaps in your reporting, and to remove any items which are not serving your needs.
Google’s GA4 setup assistant is there to guide you through the process of migration - but it will not automatically inherit all of your previous metrics due to the new event-based reporting. It is therefore important to have a backup list to refer back to later.
2. Setup: Create your new GA4 properties
Because no historical settings or existing Universal Analytics properties will be automatically imported during the setup, you will need to create new properties under GA4 (i.e., your websites and mobile apps) as soon as possible to start accumulating traffic data.
Create your GA4 account by going to the GA4 setup assistant under your Universal Analytics dashboard in the admin section and clicking “get started.” The setup wizard will guide you through the process of creating your new properties, and copying your basic settings from UA before you make additional manual configurations.
To launch a new property, you will need to create it and add the new GA4 tracking tag to your website or app using Google Tag Manager before setting up your data streams.
3. Manual migration: Configure custom dimensions
Because GA4 functions on event-based data, it is unlikely that the setup assistant will catch everything that you need - and you will need to spend some time setting up and configuring your new events so that they are operating correctly. If you had any custom metrics beyond the default settings under Universal Analytics, you will also need to recreate them under GA4.
Start filling the gaps by creating events for all customer actions and behaviors that aren’t currently included in your metrics (but which you wish to track going forward). Remember that you are limited to 500 events per property, and that these cannot be changed in the future - so it is worth being intentional about how you choose and name each one. This is where your original audit will come in extremely handy.
Setting up events is a far more granular process than it was under Universal Analytics. GA4 allows you to really zoom in on the behavior of your website and app users to understand your conversions better. For example, rather than simply tracking when a customer finalizes a purchase, you can break down their entire visitor journey, from their first page hit to when they favorite an item, add it to their cart, and enter delivery and payment information.
Once you have your GA4 properties and events configured, they will automatically start collecting data, and parallel tracking with your Universal Analytics properties before eventually replacing them on 1 July.
4. Archiving: Preserve historical data from GA3
If you have been running analytics for a while, you will have accumulated data which will not be inherited over to GA4. Google has implemented a six-month grace period for storage of this information - on 1 Jan 2024, all historical data will be deleted. It’s therefore essential to have a backup plan to preserve the data you need for year-on-year reporting.
Unfortunately, this means manually archiving the data yourself. It is worth taking the time to identify what information you actually need (your audit should again be useful for this) and the most useful time periods to measure by. For example, you might choose to archive yearly reports with data set out in monthly intervals to keep things manageable. However you choose to go about it, Google recommends that whatever you decide you need is salvaged well before the end of the year.
Moving forward with Google Analytics
Whether we like it or not, the days of Universal Analytics are officially numbered, and GA4 is now almost upon us. Thankfully, there is still time to complete the migration process.
For many, navigating the shift to event-based, multiple-source tracking will likely feel overwhelming at first. There are a lot of layers to GA4, some of which are less intuitive than others - but by starting with the basics and completing your core migration before the deadline, you will ensure that you preserve the critical metrics and settings you have previously relied on under Universal Analytics.
Whilst the introduction of sweeping new privacy measures may not be appealing to organizations who rely on analytics data for their marketing and conversion strategies, the hope is that GA4 will result in a reduction in regulatory headaches for data processors.
Although these privacy tools alone will not ensure compliance with the GDPR and other regimes, GA4 puts the groundwork in place to ensure that data rights are protected down the line - and happier customers should, in theory, mean happier businesses.
It is inevitable that we will see further updates to GA4 as time goes on, but for now, the message for businesses is simple - take urgent steps now to complete a smooth migration before the deadline to continue taking advantage of Google Analytics services into the future.
Any questions about the data privacy challenges you’re facing within your organization? The Didomi Consent Management Platform (CMP) is Google-certified, and our team of experts will be delighted to help with any questions you might have:
Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
What is GA4?
GA4 (or Google Analytics 4) is the newest version of Google Analytics, the most commonly used global resource for measuring and tracking web and app performance. Its insights into customer engagement form an integral part of commercial decision-making for many online businesses.
What is Universal Analytics?
Universal Analytics, or GA3, is the current version of Google Analytics. It will cease to operate permanently as of 1 July 2023.
Why is Google Analytics changing?
The current version of Google Analytics, Universal Analytics, is no longer equipped for the global privacy landscape or the advent of cross-platform website and app browsing. Google is therefore replacing the old platform with an entirely new “events-based” analytics system in the form of GA4.
Why should I migrate to GA4?
The current version of Google Analytics will cease to operate as of 1 July 2023. The only choices available to users are therefore to migrate to GA4, or to switch to an alternative analytics service. Failure to act before the deadline will result in the immediate loss of your tracking abilities.
What are the main differences between Universal Analytics and GA4?
At its core, GA4 is a fundamentally different platform to Universal Analytics. It replaces the old session-based data model with event-based reporting, and introduces an integrated cross-device tracking service to accommodate the use of mobile apps alongside traditional browsers.
GA4 has also been developed to reflect modern privacy compliance standards, and introduces a raft of privacy-friendly measures to protect user data in line with the GDPR and other data protection regimes.
Can I still access historical data from Universal Analytics?
For now, all historical data from Universal Analytics will remain available. However, it will be deleted for good on 1 January 2024. Users will have until then to archive any information that they wish to preserve in order to continue running year-on-year reporting.
What are the new privacy features in GA4?
GA4 introduces a raft of measures aimed at handing control back to users over the processing of their data. The most significant changes from a regulatory point of view are the removal of IP storage and the introduction of regional Signals, device and data controls to allow compliance with local data standards.
What is a GA4 property?
A GA4 property is an online resource - typically a website or a mobile app. You can have more than one property registered to any given GA4 account.
What is a GA4 event?
A GA4 event is any user behavior that occurs in relation to your website or mobile app. You can define an event - and its parameters - yourself. Typical events could include website hits, products being added to a cart, or a customer entering payment information to complete a transaction.
When is the final migration date for GA4?
The current version of Google Analytics (Universal Analytics) is sunsetting for good on 1 July 2023.