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Google Analytics is dead, long live Google Analytics 4!

Exploring the impact and benefits of GA4 for data-driven marketing
(Image source: Pexels)
(Image source: Pexels)

After eight years at the forefront of first-party data processing, the Google Analytics Universal platform has given way to its successor: Google Analytics 4. The arrival of GA4 - initially called App + Web - marks a turning point in data-driven marketing.

More and more companies have started using Google Analytics, with great success, as a tool for their online marketing assets, especially those brands operating in the e-commerce sector. It’s free and relatively easy to use once you get the hang of it and it offers you the opportunity to gain valuable insights about your users, some of which relate to:
  • How people find your website
  • Tracking what users do when they’re on your website
  • Gaining data about your users
  • Discovering your most popular (and unpopular) pages on your site
  • Quantifying and tracking conversions

The GA4 is an improvement on the current platform and is set to radically change data processing, from collection to activation. The switch also signals a much-needed adjustment to tectonic shifts in user behaviour, market player policies and legislative frameworks. Google’s pivot also fits the larger business context since many brands have recently accelerated their digital transformations to data-based structures, decision-making and processes - also known to some as data-driven steering. 

“GA4 offers many huge improvements to the digital analytics ecosystem,” explains senior analytics and optimisation manager at Jellyfish, Hayden Goldberg. He goes on to explain that “it’s all neatly packaged into one neat tool with minimum implementation requirements.”

“In a time of massive global changes to regulation, as well as end-user sentiment towards privacy and first-party data, GA4 comes with an abundance of growing features that aim to assist organisations in starting off with future-fit analytics solutions.” 

Why Google Analytics Universal is riding off into the sunset

The Google Analytics Universal era has been highly beneficial but the platform’s limitations have rendered it increasingly inadequate at keeping up with major evolutions in the digital marketing ecosystem. 

For instance, when it comes to conversion tracking in a privacy-first environment, legacy conversion tags, which many brands are still using, have a reliance on 3P cookies. In order to future-proof measurement, it is highly recommended to adopt the latest tagging and privacy-centric solutions based on 1P cookie measurement. 

What makes this all the more pertinent is that, due to changes in media consumption habits, modern customers have come to expect a homogenous experience, marked by relevant brand interactions in a broader context of runaway over-solicitation. These same customers demand to see their online privacy respected and flock to digital experiences that can better deliver on that promise. 

This ongoing development strained Google Analytics Universal’s ability to adequately collect data and, with the disappearance of the cookie and the rise of closed ecosystems, user data collection now relies on consent and suffers from differing technological limitations depending on point of origin. 

Google Analytics Universal has moved through the following successive eras:
  1. The era of measurement: basic and pragmatic, this was marked by the initial goal of measuring audiences and was superseded by
  2. The era of analysis: marked by custom data collection, static and dynamic reporting, and the dawn of Firebase, driven by the goal of evaluating performance, which has now given way to
  3. The era of activation: the current state of analysis that is marked by the interconnectivity of tools such as Google Ads, Optimize and Firebase AB - with the goal of making data into a lever for ROI

GA4 was built to serve the analytical needs of this third era, where the conditions and priorities for data collection, analysis and activation must change in accordance with evolving goals. This newest era emphasizes interconnections that enable machine learning, audience-based vision, and more direct data activation. The limitations of Google Analytics Universal helped reveal a new truth about first-party data - it can only create value for brands under certain key conditions: 
  • When collected and structured with the aim of building a single, short-axis linking media, onsite, and offsite navigation
  • When it can be transformed and sublimated to compensate for the loss of information caused by privacy
  • When its collection aids user-based vision in a world that will soon be cookieless.

The new normal requires data collection methodology that’s flexible, untethered and actionable in real-time. This allows marketers to properly value data assets in an ecosystem where privacy and data quality are core issues. GA4 is well-positioned to facilitate this as it provides access to increasingly hybrid data.

New Features of Google Analytics 4

GA4’s widespread adoption involves testing out new features available right out of the box. The following practices will be better enabled by the new software: 

1. Data collection for a wider scope of interests

To build a more unified view of collection and performance, GA4 natively integrates multi-platform metrics. It also automatically standardises naming conventions, which enables pre-built reports based on machine learning to gather more integrated insights more easily. 

For example, the data engineering necessary for analysis such as churn probability is now greatly reduced and, as these insight types penetrate the digital marketing ecosystem, we can expect further layering of increasingly vertical reporting to reveal ever more powerful learnings. 

2. A more agile exploration of data

While GA4 has to integrate pre-built reports, it stands out from its predecessors in that it does so in order to build new ones on the fly. This new data exploration functionality will make data analysis and discovery more readily comprehensible, and reporting more responsive to the inquiry. New features include customisable, audience building tunnels and an exploration module, both of which are accessible in Data Studio.

GA4 helps to fragment and multiply data access across an analytics ecosystem with refined roles for each tool. Thus, GA4 serves as more than just a ‘basic’ exploration and analysis interface, while Data Studio organises outputs as a dashboard and sharing tool and Big Query layers over the top as an advanced analysis engine. 

3. Increasingly robust integration capabilities

While GA4 allows on-the-fly exploration and analysis, it will also serve as a hub between data and activation tools. It logically integrates a link with Google Ads and Big Query, which is now possible for the GA free version. However, more direct linkages within the Google suite are expected in the future, culminating in YouTube integration that will provide an integrated view of conversions.

4. ‘Privacy by design’ data filtration

In order to meet present and future user privacy requirements, GA4 has streamlined the elimination of problematic user data capture. Data deletion is native, which allows marketers to delete unwanted parameters such as name, email, etc. from the collection process. Additional tools such as consent mode are likely to be integrated to the interface in the near future. GA4 was also built to address the needs of a cookieless future, centring the role of User ID. 

5. A centralised role for audiences

In rethinking the audience system, Google has restructured part of the integration with its other tools to be even more activation-centric. The audience creation system is now much more flexible. GA4 was designed for more flexible and media-centric use, offering an attribution window, view of overlap between audiences, cross-platform attribution and trigger signals when entering an audience. 

6. A redesigned collection framework

GA4’s new collection framework is largely based on the Firebase. In a huge change from the former iteration, it is event-centric. The GA Universal collection framework was built around the analytics platform, not usage - in essence, it collects data upon page loads and waits for further user action to enrich it. This proved inadequate to modern analytical requirements, especially given the recent increase of single-page apps. Contemporary user experiences involve a logical sequence of events with different timing; from page loading events to responses from content recommendation tools, to CRM callbacks, to calculations of the user score, enrichment of the navigation contexts and more. 

GA4's event-centric collection meets the need for multi-contextual feedback on user behaviour within a complete and heterogeneous ecosystem. Moving to an event-centric dataset will have far-reaching consequences. The transition represents a change of mindset at all stages of data processing (collection, analysis, activation), allowing marketers to move from a logic of ‘storage and analysis’ of data to one of ‘reaction and creation’ when faced with it.

How to get ready for Google Analytics 4

Currently, GAU remains the reference analytical tool due to its maturity and while GA4 is still under development, and is still limited in terms of active integrations, the current state of the new platform does give marketers a glimpse into the analytics tool of the future. Taking the time to understand GA4 now will give early movers a head start once implementation becomes fully feasible. We recommend setting-up dual tracking to simultaneously collect data within Google Analytics Universal and Google Analytics 4 to ensure continuity of data access and explore the new possibilities offered by GA4.

Getting started with Google Analytics 4

Join Jellyfish to learn more about GA4 with a free webinar dedicated to exploring the key upgrades, redesigned interface and supercharged tracking functionalities across your website and app properties. We invite analysts and those working in digital marketing to register online as Nick Comber, director or training: analytics and GMP provides expert advice on how to make the switch to GA4 as well as points about setting up the new system, creating reports and using the analysis hub. 

Date: Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Time: 4pm GMT and 11am ET

15 Feb 2021 07:34