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Nordic Morning Talks: Deciding to switch to GA4

On June 16th, we hosted the fourth session in our 'Nordic Morning Talks' LinkedIn Live series. These sessions are dedicated to discussing emerging business challenges in the field of digital.

In this session, our panel of analytics experts discussed essential considerations around switching to Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

Get all the insights shared by Mira Mäkiranta, Director of Competence and Insight at Nordic Morning in our Helsinki office, and Mikael Åstrand, Digital Marketing Strategist at Nordic Morning in our Stockholm office, as they answer key questions around GA4.

If you prefer to watch the session, you can view it here!

Let's get started.

The Context - What is Google Analytics used for? And why is it important right now?

Tomas Wihlborg (TW): Welcome to our fourth Nordic Morning Talks session. My name is Thomas Wihlborg and I’ll be your host today. Before we start, I want to mention that we will have an extension of these talks focused on GA4 with a 60-minute in-person breakfast seminar on September 1st in Stockholm which you can sign up for here.

We will start with some really important basic questions. What is Google Analytics for? And why is it important right now?

Mikael Åstrand (MÅ): The main trigger is, of course, that the sunset date has been set for the old Google Analytics meaning Universal Analytics. Universal Analytics will stop processing data on July 1st, 2023. And for all GA360 users that are using the enterprise version, the date is October 1st, 2023. After those days, you will still be able to access all data, but no new data will be processed.

Six months after those dates, Universal Analytics will be closed completely. This means that after January 1st, 2024 for standard users, and April 1st for GA360 clients, you will no longer be able to access Universal Analytics and all data will be lost unless you have done some preparations.

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Mira Mäkiranta (MM): And I could highlight the fact that GA4 is a completely new tool. So it's not just another GA update, it's a new tool. GA4 measurement starts from scratch and the old data is truly left behind.

Before that happens, GA4 needs to be running simultaneously with Universal Analytics for a while, because it does not talk the same language with the old measurements anymore. That's in order to have some historical data in place when the source of data will be switched over from Universal Analytics to GA4.

So rather than a migration, I would consider it more like starting with a completely new tool. The name GA4 therefore might be a bit misleading. Rather than being a fourth generation of Google Analytics, I would consider it the first generation of something completely new.

Question 1 - Speaking of historical data, is there any way to save my old Universal Analytics data?

MÅ: Of course, you can do that. And that is very important if you are going to want to use all your historical data, reporting, and so on.

And for 360 clients, it is quite easy. With BigQuery export, all historical data process engine version analytics will be available in Google Cloud and can be used after the closing dates.

But you can also export data via Google Universal Analytics via the standard interface. For example, to Google Sheets, Excel, or any other kind of tools. And you can also use Google Sheets with its Google Analytics addon to export data from that API. But that will include lots of manual work, and you also need to be very certain about storing that data in a place where it will not be lost after a while.

But it's also important to understand that you can't combine GA4 data with Universal Analytics data. They are structured in different ways. But you can visualise it side by side, using, for example, Data Studio or any other visualisation tools. So you have lots of opportunities to save your own data

Question 2 - What does starting with GA4 mean in practice? Is it just a press of a button?

MÅ: Well, yes and no. In general, you have quite a lot of tools to make this migration as smooth as possible. For example, event migration, custom dimension migration, and user migration. You really need to monitor the different steps so that you don't migrate configurations that are obsolete.

You also have the enhanced measurement events feature that you automatically can add during the migration process.

But my general recommendation is to avoid all automatic migration features, and instead decide what events, what dimensions, and the purpose of actually migrating, and do that manually. That way you have full control over your measurement as well because you're actually moving into a totally new place.

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MM: Yes, exactly. And building on top of what Mikael just said, now that you're starting with GA4, it's a good place to define new KPIs, create another measurement plan, and explore what makes sense to measure. Measurement plans and KPI plans need to be renewed anyway every few years. Starting with a new tool is a brilliant time to do that.

So it’s important to not only build GA4 based on what you previously had in Universal Analytics, but maybe based on a completely new plan that’s updated for your current needs.

Another question that people have been asking me a lot is related to server-side tracking. Many people are thinking about, now that they are starting with GA4, if they should setup server-side tracking for the same goals.

My advice is that if you don't have server-side tracking running yet, it's actually better to set up GA4 first on the client site and then have it run for a while there. Then you can add it as a double measurement on the server side as well. Because now that we have it running in two places, it makes it easier to troubleshoot both GA4 measurements when that's created to make sure it works and troubleshoot the server-side set up when that’s set up as well.

MÅ: I can add one important thing to also take into consideration. There are other areas that you must have control of. For example, all users need to be trained in the new tool, you need to modify all dashboards with GA4 as the new source, and you need to restructure your BigQuery setup.

So there are quite a few activities that you need to complete before you have the tool fully launched and available to all your users.

Question 3 - What are the biggest differences between Universal Analytics and GA4?

MM: So as an overview, up until now, Google Analytics has been mostly about storing data and reporting data. And now with GA4, there's another layer with Google also trying to provide tools which help with using the data to see what's relevant, what data makes the biggest difference, and what to focus on.

So you could say that there's analytics added to Google Analytics on top of the data storing and reporting. And for that, Google has included some machine learning based insights and new ways to explore the data as well.

One part of this insight-focused approach is that GA4 is integrated so well with BigQuery. And BigQuery is Google's data storage platform. In BigQuery, you can do deeper analysis, apply data modelling, and integrate your Google Analytics data with other data sources as well.

MÅ: Also, if you look at the reporting interfaces, it differs quite a lot. In some cases, you have around 70 different standard reports in Universal Analytics and in GA4 you have approximately 20 different reports.

One very positive thing with GA4 is that you can customise the interface. This means you can tailor make your interface so it suits your business needs. You can remove all the data and widgets that are not applicable for your organisation. That is one crucial feature that I think is really good.

GA4 also has privacy setting controls, because this is something that is related to all of the changes in privacy, GDPR, and other kinds of legislation. Now, GA4 will bring new and improved privacy settings. For example, IP addresses stay within European data centres. But you can also, for example, set different privacy set frameworks for different countries.

That makes it very flexible for you to actually decide what kind of privacy setting you want to have for your website or app.

TW: Sounds like we are becoming a lot more compliant. Is that correct?

MÅ: Yeah, definitely some steps forward. I'm not a legal professional so I can't give any kind of advice, but it's absolutely much better compared to Universal Analytics.

Question 4 - If we focus on those who use GA360 today, the more enterprise platform, what does GA360 bring in addition to GA4? Isn't the data unsampled anyway?

MÅ: One major change is that you actually have many more features as a standard user than you had in Universal Analytics. But if you're looking at performance features, there are some differences between the GA4 standard version and GA4 360 version.

For example, you can add many more events, parameter conversions, audiences, customer measures, and so on. You also might stumble into some sampling errors with the standard setup. For example, if you exceed 10 million events per query in Explorer, but you also have limitations in BigQuery export.

But one thing that is crucial and very different compared to the standard version, is that a GA4 360 comes with sub properties and roll-up properties. That means you can create a view-like environment, as you have in Universal Analytics in GA4, so that you can create sub properties and filter the different properties based on your specific business needs. You also have the roll-up property that is also available in Universal Analytics for 360 clients.

MM: Exactly. And I would like to add on top of that, also something that has existed before with Universal Analytics 360, the SLA. This means that there's a guarantee that the tool works and data ownership. Those are the admin side of things that are very important to many GA 360 clients as well.

But I can also point out another difference between GA4 360, and Universal Analytics 360. Those of you who have been using GA 360 with Universal Analytics up until now, know what we are talking about when we talk about tiers. So in terms of pricing, with the Universal Analytics 360 version you select a tier or like a maximum amount of hits or the volume. And then as long as the amount of traffic on your site stays below that tier, then the pricing per month will be the same. That's different with GA4.

With GA4 the pricing is dynamic which means that if you have less traffic on your site, the monthly pricing for the tool is less, but if you have a peak in traffic, then the monthly pricing for the tool will increase. This could make GA4 more affordable for smaller sites, actually, depending on how far away you've been from the tier that you’ve been paying for previously.

On the other hand, GA4 pricing for 360 is based on events, not on hits, as Universal Analytics was, and the amount of events is a bit bigger than the amount of hits for the same kind of setup. To convert Universal Analytics hits to GA4 events, we can estimate it's about 1.5 times more usually. This means that the amount of events will be 50% higher than the amount of hits in Universal Analytics. Of course, you can affect that with your measurement plan.

MÅ: It’s also worth mentioning that the sub properties and the roll-up properties that I mentioned before come with additional costs. So that is also something to take into consideration when you're calculating the event volumes for your new GA4 setup.

Question 5 - What would be your main recommendation for any Google Analytics users right now?

MM: If you're a Google Analytics user using the Universal Analytics version of the tool and want to continue using Google Analytics, there's one key thing. Start working on it now because you need to have the historical data in place before you switch to GA4 as the main source of truth in your business. So start working on it now if you haven't already.

MÅ: Yes, I also have one main recommendation and that is to prepare for your migration. Think of it as moving into a new house. Prepare your move based on where you're moving to, not the place you're moving from. That strategy will help you get the most out of your new home.

And of course, never forget the additional things you must do like training and onboarding users so that everyone can use the tools when you actually migrate.

Bonus content - live session questions

Question 1 - Do the customization possibilities mean that GTA4 is more complicated for a new user than Google Analytics today? Do we have any impressions about the interface and ease of use differences?

MM: I wouldn't say that it's more difficult to get into if you're a new user and you haven't been using Universal Analytics. I actually think it’s the other way around. So if you're completely new to Google Analytics, you might find the GA4 interface easier to use compared to if you had been using the Universal Analytics interface for 15 years.

So I wouldn't consider it to be, for completely new users, any more difficult than Universal Analytics would’ve been.

MÅ: I fully agree. Of course, if you have been working for many years in Universal Analytics, you might feel that GA4 is a bit simpler than Universal Analytics. But at the same time, it really focuses on the basic measurements that you need.

You have actually lots of possibilities to download the data and use the Explorer feature which is the reporting feature that is available within GA4. This is where you can actually do very advanced reporting based on the data you have.

Question 2 - Is everything in GA4 in place? Or are there any new features on the way? How finished is it?

MÅ: Well, GA4 is not finished and it will probably launch new features all the time. For example, I think sub properties was launched approximately a month ago. And there are still some important features that are on the roadmap for the rest of the year.

So as I mentioned, you will see new launches almost on a weekly basis based on the interface. I really hope that they will stick to the roadmap so that all the features that are needed will be in place as soon as possible.

This doesn’t mean you can’t work with GA4, but rather that there are some additional features that will expand the possibility to use GA4. The setup right now is very good and has lots of features and capabilities.

Question 3 - Does GA4 have more measurements and data points?

MÅ: At the moment, I would say no because if you compare Universal Analytics and GA4 side by side there are more dimensions and metrics in Universal Analytics. On the other hand, they are continuing to launch new metrics and dimensions. A couple of weeks ago, they launched the landing page as a dimension and they are now also starting to launch different session based metrics. For example, two pages per session and average session duration. So they are continuing to deliver new features, dimensions, and metrics all the time. But for now, you still have a bit more dimensions and metrics within Universal Analytics.

MM: Yes, and I could add that a built-in feature within GA4 is the ability to use data in BigQuery as well. That brings another layer of functionality. Of course, this is not a user interface question. BigQuery is a completely different tool.

But if you want to do deeper analysis with your data in BigQuery, that means that you need to need to be somewhat aware of how to operate with SQL so that if you want to go with that path, then that brings more more things on the table and makes it more difficult to get started with.

MÅ: It's also worth mentioning that you can actually access your BigQuery views in Data Studio. So you have like a full capacity also as a, as a standard user to actually use all the raw data that you're available that you have available.

Question 4 - If the data migration during the GA4 implementation is done successfully, will other marketing functions notice any difference or need to restructure their tracking for paid media? How do teams need to communicate and work together to make the transition as smooth as possible?

MM: That’s a good, wide question. For instance, if paid media conversions are coming from Google Analytics directly, then the source of the conversions will be switched over to GA4 and that's something that needs to be done. Will that have a tremendous effect on how the paid media side is working? Probably not.

There is one feature that is affecting these things called consent mode. This has an effect on the paid media side as well. So especially with GA4, Google is bringing this special feature that's using machine learning algorithms to guess what those users who do not consent to tracking cookies are doing on the site. That information is also sent to the paid media site so with GA4 there will actually be a bit more model data to work on when doing paid media tracking.

MÅ: Also remember to take care of the measurements related to campaigns and so on since there are still some limitations in, for example, UTM tagging. There are not as many UTM variables available right now compared to Universal Analytics, but on the roadmap there are better capabilities to actually do your custom channel definitions and so on.

Hopefully, you will have a bigger possibility to actually design your own channel distribution the way you want but it's not really 100% there yet. But by default, GA4 actually has a larger amount of default channel groupings, for example, paid socal.

TW: Thanks to our panel today, Mira and Mikael! I hope you enjoyed this session.

Next Session: In Conversation With Enterprise Brands: Our Essential Learnings From Implementing GA4 So Far

With the arrival of GA4 comes a lot of questions and concerns. So whether you've completed your migration, are currently planning it, or are considering it, our upcoming breakfast seminar will make sure you're set up for success in GA4.

We are bringing together analytics experts Kamalesh Suryawanshi, Senior Manager QA & Analytics at Nobia, Felix Rosenbusch, Web Analytics Lead at Ericsson, and another special guest to share advice based on their experience so far with GA4.

Join us on Septemeber 1st at 8:00 AM CEST in Stockholm - seats are limited so sign up here to save your spot!