What is Google Analytics 4? Should you use it?

Last Updated: February 9, 2021

Google Analytics 4 is the hottest topic among professional marketers and amateur webmasters alike, and it's likely the biggest thing to hit the marketing side of the internet in the last decade.

But is it as huge as the iPhone when it first came out, or as minor an update as the umpteenth iOS update?

This was the topic we covered in one of our workshops, but if you don't want to watch the video below, read on!

The evolution of Google Analytics

Google Analytics first arrived on the scene after Google bought a company called Urchin Analytics, whose product ultimately became Google Analytics.

Fun fact: this is where we get UTM parameters from, UTM literally stands for Urchin Tracking Modules.

This was the age of what we call Classic Analytics. You had your code, you had your analytics platform, and you had little else.

(Note: Want to stay on the cutting edge of Google Analytics evolution? Join the FREE Toolbox Membership today! Get new weekly workshops, access to 40+ tools, templates, and more!)

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After Google first launched the Google Analytics brand, the first major update came in 2012, with the introduction of Universal Analytics.

This came with a big update to the platform, and introduced a lot of new features – automatic subdomain tracking, referral exclusions, almost all of the modern GA tools we're used to today.

Down in the nitty gritty, the code still worked on the new platform, and eventually it got upgraded to the new code, analytics.js. This new code wasn't revolutionary, everything was still similar to the way things were done before, but it was definitely better overall.

Over the course of the next several years, analyics.js too got gradually upgraded to gtag – which is what we're using today, and which laid the groundwork for the change to GA4.

Google Analytics 4 made its initial debut as App and Web Analytics, which threw a lot of people off – was it supposed to track only apps? Only websites? Both? When the brand got renamed to Google Analytics 4 its purpose got cleared up and everyone got on board.

The biggest takeaway from these two major updates to these systems is that, while Classic Analytics evolving into Universal Analytics was a big upgrade and a huge step forward, the change from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 is even bigger.

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There's a 100% disconnect between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4, so much so that you can practically see them as separate entities.

Okay, so it's totally different. But how? Why?

With Universal Analytics, you're tracking hits – but you can never track 100% of the information. Hits (pageviews) are included in a session, a session is assigned to users, and fifteen years ago that was a bulletproof system.

That's because back then mobile phones weren't a big thing, Internet of Things was a dream as audacious as flying cars, and nobody was using apps.

Nowadays you have a lot more factors which are able to mess up your data and its interpretation:

  • users who don't give consent
  • ad blockers
  • users using multiple devices

As a marketer, Universal Analytics gives you less and less actionable data, so you have to get comfortable with the fact that you don't have access to every bit of data you need.

Enter Google Analytics 4.

GA4 is designed to handle stuff like this, and keep up with advances in technology, and its uses. It's designed to be future-proof. Google took a step back and asked themselves: knowing what we know about the internet, users, devices, how would we rebuild this platform?

This upgrade will use machine learning to fill in the blanks – it gives you a more useful truth than Universal Analytics. And while UA is nowhere near being outdated, it's getting there fast.

GA4 is also more specialized, and plays better with other tools in your toolkit.

Which brings us to our next point: how do you collect, store, and interpret information with Google's current marketing ecosystem, and how will that evolve with GA4?

Google's Current Marketing Ecosystem, and its Future

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It used to be that Google Analytics, as a platform, was good for 3 things:

  1. Collecting information
  2. Storing information
  3. Reporting that information (the main purpose we generally use GA for)

This worked great so far! Much like smartphones, tools like Google Analytics have been Swiss Army Knives of sorts, capable of doing anything and everything with a high degree of accuracy.

But having Google Analytics do all of this now – and more importantly, in the future – assumes that the world stops evolving. Since the hay day of Universal Analytics we've seen user behavior change, we've seen a lot more users that we need to track, a lot more types of devices (not to mention apps), and novel behaviors that we need to track.

At a certain point the original foundation will be outdated with modern internet and its use.

original ga-new platform ga4

How is the future shaping up?

Google Tag Manager is an incredible platform that's slowly taking on the task of information collection. That's its entire scope! And it's great for it.

Google Analytics 4 is there to store information, just like Universal Analytics did. However – there's one important distinction: GA4 is also a powerful data analysis tool. Information doesn't mean anything on its own. What you want is a story, you want to collect and display information so it tells a story.

Even in its current early stage, Google Analytics 4 turns out to be a powerful data analysis tool:

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Google Data Studio is where you publish that story, and where everyone can read it. GA4 isn't very accessible in its current iteration – reports have a lot of information, but pulling meaningful insights is still difficult.

GA4 working together with Google Data Studio are incredibly powerful. Data Studio cannot analyze information as well as GA4, so heavy lifting calculations go through Google's new platform – which doesn't do as great a job at displaying the information, so we rely on Data Studio for that.

See how it all fits together?

Not just modern, but basically future-proof.

Should You Start Using Google Analytics 4?

This is the big question we've been leading to.

Before we got into it, I wanted to give you a bit of background into what exactly is this upgrade, and how it fits into future plans.

The answer is: definitely.

Google Analytics 4 is definitely a work in progress, and it has a steep learning curve. It's definitely going to be a while before we're as used to it as we were with Universal Analytics.

Sure, you'll say, didn't UA have a steep learning curve? It sure did! And it was totally worth it – by learning the ins and outs of this fantastic platform we were able to achieve our goals.

Life is about learning and growing, and like it or not, this is a new platform we'll have to learn – that's the difficult to digest truth. But it gets easier from here.

The benefit of getting into GA4 now is that you're gaining the freedom to experiment, to take time, effort, and energy and start learning how you can use this new tool to its full potential.

Doing this now, while GA4 is still growing, gives you a huge edge. You'll notice features get added overnight. And you won't have the pressure of learning everything at once, while your goals depend on it.

In the meantime, don't disconnect Universal Analytics! Stay with UA and use GA4 at the same time to learn.

I keep saying that GA4 is the future – and it is – but until the future comes around, we're in the present, where Universal Analytics works just fine!

I personally expect that within the next 4 to 6 months we'll actually start using Google Analytics 4 more from a marketing perspective. It absolutely is the future, and you definitely should start using it as much and as often as you can!

(Note: Want to stay on the cutting edge of Google Analytics evolution? Join the FREE Toolbox Membership today! Get new weekly workshops, access to 40+ tools, templates, and more!)

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