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Introduction to Google Analytics 4

If you want to understand how users interact with your website, you can use a web analytics tool to capture data and explore reports. A popular free tool, used on an estimated 86% of websites, is Google Analytics.

In 2021, Google released a brand new version, completely rewritten from the ground up, called Google Analytics 4. In this article, we will explore the new version, its pros and cons, and what arts and culture organisations could do with it right now.

Why have Google made a brand new version?

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) was launched to address the changing technology and online privacy landscape. The previous version, Google Universal Analytics (UA), is based on technology that is fast becoming outdated. They have also announced they will be switching off Universal Analytics on 1 July 2023.

The biggest difference between Universal Analytics and GA4 is the way data is collected and recorded (the measurement model). Universal Analytics measurement is based on sessions and pageviews, whereas GA4 uses a model based on events and parameters. This shift opens up the possibilities of what and how data can be collected, and how it’s customised to each unique website or application.

A steep learning curve

New users logging into GA4 are sometimes intimidated by the new layout. The familiar Universal Analytics interface is gone, along with its standard reports and metrics.

Google Analytics 4 interface

Another stumbling block for new users is you need to explicitly tell GA4 what you want to track and report on. The flexibility of the new event and parameter model means there are limited standard reports and metrics, it is up to you to define what you want to know.

Additionally, many of the reports and metrics are only generated once you start tracking events and sending data to GA4, they do not appear at all and cannot be found until you do.

What are Events in GA4?

In Universal Analytics, events are used to supplement pageviews. For example, if you wanted to track an action that takes place on a webpage, such as a form submission, this could be passed to analytics as an event.

In GA4, events are no longer tied to pageviews, everything can be an event and include much more data as additional parameters.

Google Analytics 4 Events

There is a new naming convention for events and Google will automatically collect some with any GA4 installation. There are also Enhanced measurement events that you can turn on, these include Page view, Scroll, Outbound clicks, Site search, Video engagement, and File downloads.

For anything else you would like to track you can try matching them to Google’s Recommended events to unlock additional reporting capabilities. This is the most difficult part when getting to grips with GA4. It requires an advanced level of custom configuration and you may need the help of a developer for some of the complex tracking elements.

What else is good about GA4?

GA4 introduces new functionality and features which aim to give you further insight into your users and prepare for a cookie-less future. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Data Streams – you can pass data from multiple websites and apps into the same analytics property to build a wider view of your users across multiple digital channels, devices, and platforms.
  • Privacy – as more platforms block third-party cookies, it makes it harder for traditional analytics software to work. GA4 uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to analyse the quality data it can see to fill in the blanks caused by user preferences or platform restrictions.
  • Predictive analytics – GA4 uses machine-learning algorithms to predict the future behaviour of your users. This can help discover more users who will do the thing you want them to do in the coming weeks and months ahead.
  • Customisable interface – alongside the standard Life cycle and User report groups, you can add your own custom report collections to make it easier to navigate your data and insights.
  • BigQuery – for advanced data users, GA4 comes with a free connection to BigQuery so you can run high-speed queries on the raw data.

Any bad bits?

GA4 is a very new platform with functionality being added all the time. With that in mind there are a couple of things to consider:

  • Guides and Resources – Universal Analytics developed over many years and there are hundreds of how-to guides and resources to help users. GA4 is so new that even high-level users are struggling with implementations and navigating the interface. Don’t let that put you off, more and more resources are coming out every day and we will be developing a series of training and guides to help.
  • Integrations – not all platforms are compatible with GA4 just yet but Google is promoting it as the default option for any new accounts. Many have already updated their interfaces and back-end code to facilitate GA4 but there are a few exceptions. Additionally, if you link eCommerce data to your analytics, GA4 needs it to be sent in a specific format that your platform may not yet have available. There are workarounds for most cases so please get in touch if you need any help in this area.

What should Arts and Culture organisations do right now?

1. Install Google Analytics 4

Even if you don’t intend to use GA4 just yet, I recommend you install it alongside your current analytics platform and turn on Enhanced measurement. Your account will then begin collecting data about your users and its machine-learning capabilities will help build audiences and predict actions for the future.

Google have announced they will be switching off Google Universal Analytics on 1 July 2023. Accounts will no longer collect any new data and only historical data will be available for at least six months. After July 2023 you will need to switch to GA4 or an alternative analytics provider.

2. Configure Google Universal Analytics to capture enhanced measurement

You may wish to skip this completely and begin the transition to GA4, but Universal Analytics is still (until July 2023) a valid analytics tool with lots of useful insight. The biggest immediate impact of the limitations on cookies will be on identifying specific users, so mostly reports looking at New and Returning visitors will be affected.

The rest of the data is still relevant and can be extended to capture more user actions, such as Page view, Scroll, Outbound clicks, Video engagement, and File downloads with Google Tag Manager.

For a step-by-step guide to set this up, watch my webinar recording and access the additional resources.

Further support

In this introductory Google Analytics 4 article, we’ve covered key functionality and recommended next steps. If you’re keen to learn more or need help with any of the steps, check out the links below.

The Digital Culture Network is here to support you and your organisation. Our Tech Champions can provide free 1-2-1 support to all arts and cultural organisations who are in receipt of, or eligible for, Arts Council England funding. If you need help or would like to chat with us about any of the advice we have covered above, please get in touch. Sign up for our newsletter below and follow us on Twitter @ace_dcn for the latest updates.

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