Written by Michel Fortin. Originally published on seoplus.com.
In March 2022, Google announced that it will sunset its near-ubiquitous Universal Analytics, or what we know as Google Analytics 3rd generation. The reaction from the Internet marketing community has been quite fierce, but the chance that Google will retract from its position is highly unlikely.
Why such as drastic move?
While surprising, this announcement wasn’t unexpected. In the last five years, we’ve seen three major changes to the web that have necessitated seismic shifts from tech companies — such shifts include Google’s pivot from UA to its new Google Analytics 4 or GA4.
Here’s a quick recap of these new developments:
Mobile devices have surpassed desktop in terms of global Internet usage. It now makes up two-thirds of all web traffic. Because of this rise, Google has rolled out a mobile-first approach across its platforms, such as using the mobile version of the website for indexing and ranking.
Another change is the convergence of its tracking capabilities. Firebase Analytics is Google’s app-based analytics platform, which Google has integrated into the latest Google Analytics standard platform. Firebase and GA4 track user behaviour based on events and interactions rather than cookies.
People want more control over their personal data. The increase in privacy concerns have led to the introduction of stricter laws like GDPR. Personal data include third-party cookies that come from various platforms, particularly tracking applications such as Google Analytics.
In fact, Google and many other large companies are in legal hot water over tracking users’ private data through the use of third-party cookies. Apple has recently instituted a new cookieless operating system, turning tracking into an opt-in model rather than an opt-out one.
By tracking event-based data streams instead of cookies, GA4 is more privacy-centric than its predecessor. “By leveraging machine learning and statistical modelling, GA4 can fill in data gaps as the world becomes less and less dependent on cookies,” wrote Coleen Burton in How Does Cookie-Less Tracking Work In GA4.
Speaking of machine learning, our increasingly cookieless world is making it more difficult to track users. For this reason, many businesses are turning to AI (or artificial intelligence) to make intelligent predictions about their users, users’ behaviour, and user intent.
The term AI is not only becoming pervasive but also being applied in a growing number of situations and applications — for example, driverless cars, smart appliances, data automation, supply chain management, and retail forecasting. Also, let’s not forget the shifts precipitated by COVID such as the remote-first workforce.
Google itself has made huge strides in AI, such as its increasing use of Natural Language Processing or NLP, allowing it to read and understand language as humans do. Its algorithms like BERT and MUM provide the user with a much better user experience and far more accurate results.
“Digital transformation” is a growing, billion-dollar industry. However, it comes at a great cost. Some machine-learning tools require petabytes upon petabytes of data to make their results worthwhile. GA4 is no different. To help machine learning make better predictions, it tracks and compiles data at a more granular level.
Google’s current UA was, until recently, a free tracking tool that stored the world’s data indefinitely. In June 2018, a move precipitated by privacy laws and lawsuits, they changed it to 26 months and announced they would be deleting older data unless users specifically opted for indefinite storage.
Retaining data is becoming a major resource-heavy burden for Google. For this reason, the switch to GA4 makes sense. The free version is limited to 14 months of historical data, where paid plans such as Google Analytics 360 will retain data for up to 50 months.
Not only will this mean that UA will stop gathering data on July 1st, 2023, but also Google will keep UA’s historical data for period of six months only. After December 31, 2023, they will delete it.
Needless to say, for most businesses and organizations with an Internet presence, it is critical to make the move now. We already have taken steps over the course of the last year — and continuing into the coming weeks — to transition our clients at seoplus+ to the new platform.
Activating GA4 and running it in parallel with UA is a relatively simple process. The key is to allow GA4 to run in parallel with UA for one full year to allow time for applying customizations, making comparisons with UA, and accounting for seasonal fluctuations.
Why is this important?
GA4 offers significant flexibility over UA. But its major benefit is also its biggest challenge, too. Since GA4 is event-based, it doesn’t come with out-of-the-box metrics like UA does (e.g., behaviour, dimensions, goals, and so on). All events are recorded but they are unassociated.
It is important to apply configurations and customizations to draw any usable metrics, which may be time-consuming in some cases. Moreover, GA4 is limited to 14 months. Therefore, the time to activate GA4 is ASAP in order to give it 14 months until they sunset UA in July, 2023.
For some businesses, historical analytics data is essential and a major contributor to their business intelligence. The simple way to retain any data is to export them via spreadsheets. But for some organizations, this may be cumbersome and prohibitive.
For some organizations, it may comprise just a few megabytes worth of data. For others such as enterprise-sized companies who have decades’ worth of historical data, it may consist of several terabytes or even more.
Enterprise-level platforms such as Google 360 and Google BigQuery allow a greater deal of flexibility and support, which we recommend for our enterprise clients, as they have the capacity to handle large quantities of data migrations and storage.
Finally, it’s important to note that Google Analytics tracking is also present on and connected to a variety of other platforms, including third-party platforms and services. These require updating and migrating as well.
For example, UA also tracks users across automation tools, call management services, support helpdesks, CRMs, and other Google assets (e.g., Google Ads, Google Business Profiles, Google Data Studio, etc). There’s also mission-critical platforms and applications, such as ecommerce and cybersecurity.
What about you and your business?
If you haven’t already, now is the time to not only connect GA4 but also audit, plan, deploy, and test GA4 to ensure tracking is functioning optimally across all platforms. This will allow the 14-month time window to give you the ammunition you need to apply all the necessary configurations and customizations that are important, even mission-critical, to your business.
Ultimately, these shifts are inevitable, and the move is no longer optional. The time to transition is now. If you need assistance or want to know more about how GA4 can propel your business in today’s mobile-first, cookieless, AI-driven world, seoplus+ can help.
If you need assistance, my agency’s team of certified Google Analytics consultants and digital marketing experts can help you with your move to GA4, customize your key metrics, migrate your old UA data, and perhaps transition to platforms such as Google 360. Contact us today and chat with one of our professional account managers.