What Business Leaders Need to Know About Embracing Google Analytics 4 and Sunsetting Universal Analytics
Editor's Notes: Google has announced that all Universal Analytics properties must migrate to Google Analytics 4 by July 2023.
Google Analytics is one of the most widely adopted digital business tools in the world, so any change is going to shake up the industry and affect thousands of organizations (and this is a giant change). It plays a critical role in strategic decision-making for large and small businesses alike.
Google recently announced that the legacy version of Google Analytics that has been used and widely adopted since 2012 will be deprecated in 2023. This represents the full replacement of Universal Analytics (UA) with Google Analytics 4 (GA4) properties. Here are the critical takeaways.
What's Going On?
The most important Google Analytics announcement in 2020 was to welcome Google Analytics 4 as the next generation of tracking. GA4 will no longer be the next, it will be the now. Our industry will say goodbye to the previous standard, Universal Analytics, which has been in use for 10 years.
Since 2020, there have been many changes, additions, and features released as GA4 continues to evolve to meet the needs of the next generation of digital data collection. The previous recommendation was to rely on UA as the source of truth while developing a new measurement strategy with GA4 properties in parallel. Now, those parallel properties must be refined and prepared to be transitioned into the new standard for organizations as soon as possible.
This deprecation announcement was a surprising moment for some practitioners, marketers, and analysts. If your company is not on Google Analytics 4 yet, the new banner in your reports may seem ominous since there were some expectations that Universal Analytics would never be officially turned off.
The good news is that there's time, but this is a strong signal to go full-speed into measurement strategies, migrations, and feature adoption. It poses a unique challenge to leaders who aren't in the tool every day and who may not have a full analytics team.
Most agencies, organizations, and analysts might not be familiar with platform version names like "Universal Analytics" and likely just refer to it as "Google Analytics," especially because there's typically no need to memorize naming conventions, property types, or tracking libraries when analyzing and acting on collected company data. Those involved in implementations and technical configurations will be more versed in the version naming.
What Stakeholders Should Know About Google Analytics 4
The most important action is to share the cutoff dates and implications with all team members who rely on Google Analytics, whether they are stakeholders who receive reports or insights from the data, or they're tasked with adding tracking, using the interface, and generating reports. Keep in mind, this will likely include any advertising teams or agencies who rely on linked Google accounts.
For leaders who manage digital teams and who aren't 100 percent focused on technical work, wading through the tons of recent blog posts, social media opinions, and release notes will be stressful. There's no way around that, but keep in mind that migration is both a strategic and product initiative. This will push your organization toward elevating data collection for both web and mobile to fit in the new technology landscape.
Migration involves three facets: tooling, strategy, and team enablement. For information on instrumenting product migration, check this post on timelines and to-dos regarding implementation needs. To feel more comfortable with Google Analytics 4 as the future source of truth for your web and app data, I recommend starting with high-level KPI plans that are required to tie to GA4 solutions as effectively as possible.
The word strategy is mentioned in posts like this over and over, but it's essentially a measure twice, cut once situation, or "prepare twice, implement once." First is parallel. Second is the scaled build.
Creating your Google Analytics 4 Strategy
The move to GA4 is mandatory, but so is adapting to the new privacy-focused and significant shift in tracking capabilities (with more drastic changes to come). Expectations from users, legislation, and shifting trends seem to change every month, and a new platform is needed to give organizations more control over privacy choices and consent compliance.
Some of the most important features of GA4 are about controlling data collection, complying with user consent, easier data deletion, and having the ability to opt-out of certain features before your company is comfortable enabling them. Learning about those features and how you're going to leverage them should be a priority.
Now that there's a concrete deadline, timelines will need to be concrete as well, and it may be difficult to decide what to do and in what order. Use a reporting-first, top-down mindset instead (or in addition to) racing to copy every legacy event and label from Universal Analytics. This mentality can guide your team through migration.
GA4 is a big enough shift to re-evaluate collection and analysis strategies at a high level. There will also be a time when GA4 metrics change the prior vocabulary and meaning of analysis, for example, analysts will now use Engaged Sessions instead of Bounce Rate to measure content engagement.
Whatever method or timeline is being refined, all Google Analytics 360 customers will have their Universal Analytics properties sunset in October of 2023 with non-360 customer accounts sunsetting three months earlier in July 2023.
Google Analytics 4 Team Enablement
Implementation is one thing, and clarity on the output is another. Parallel tracking prepares the data, but preparing people is just as important. Using resources, training, articles, and forums are necessary to explore as soon as possible.
A benefit to this sunsetting is that all Google Analytics users are going through it together, so there's no shortage of support and educational content. Team members should explore the interface and experiment with reporting. The troubleshooting posts are often the most helpful, and everyone should have a list of "Why did [x] happen when I did [x]," or "Metric [x] looks suspicious - does it mean what I think it means?"
Starting to parallel the reports for GA4 is best to do now so that the lights-off moment in Universal Analytics doesn't cause an abrupt reporting switch.
Understand Personal Impact to Analysts from Google Analytics Sunset
It's an interesting time for those who are just entering the Google Analytics industry and those who are casual users.
Durability is the keyword of analytics goals and GA4, and it can be thought of as a durability mindset for analysts as well. The cookieless future is going to continue to evolve significantly in 2023, so analytics practitioners and digital marketers won't be able to rely on observed data as much, and continuing to do the same methods of tracking and analysis won't be as effective. Instead of focusing on a holistic user journey, developing your personal plans and methods for solutions may be better suited to increase the focus on user moments.
Get Familiar with Google Analytics 4's Features
If you work at a small- or medium-sized business, it's likely that you wear many hats and Google Analytics is just one of your responsibilities. There's no need to cram and spend full days ramping up since there's time before tracking is turned off.
In fact, I recommend not going full-steam ahead. As you ramp up your expertise in GA4, keep in mind that there's more to migration beyond replicating what's already collecting. The new features and capabilities can spark ideas for advancing analytics maturity.
Google Analytics 4 Summary and Frequently Asked Questions
Some business leaders have explored data in Google Analytics 4 but may not have had time to do a deep dive yet. Now is the time. Below are a few commonly asked questions that you'll need to address as you embark on implementation.
When is the confirmed Universal Analytics cutoff date?
Universal Analytics (UA) tracking will stop in July 2023 for those using the free version, and October 2023 for GA360 customers.
Can I migrate to GA4 and still access historic Universal Analytics data?
Historic data will remain, but not forever. There is no official date for this, but legacy data must be exported out of UA properties.
Can I automate the data exporting process from Universal Analytics?
As the team looks into ways to streamline exports, it's worth pointing out that features such as BigQuery or Unsampled Report solutions are necessary. I'd note not to use a resource called the Core Reporting API since it will sample your historic data.
Will GA4 data match legacy Universal Analytics data?
Not all metrics will match between the old reports and the new ones. While looking into the new reports, sessions may be the most impacted.
How Should Companies Migrate and Implement GA4?
We recommend Google Tag Manager for implementation. There will likely be many situations where the triggers that fire tags from Universal Analytics can be reused.
If you're not using the data layer, this is also a chance to design one with your web team. With this best-practice addition, more opportunities expanded and customized data can be part of the migration process as well.
Leading a Team Through Google Analytics 4 Migration
This workflow can help your technical and analyst team members ensure some guidance to discuss now that the sunset dates of legacy Google Analytics have been confirmed.
- Update your migration timeline
- Review or implement parallel tracking.
- Review or design parallel reporting.
- Create a timeline for team education and expertise ramp-up.
- Transition to Google Analytics 4 report use.
- Even though historic data will not go away with the initial Universal Analytics deprecation date, exporting data is highly recommended.
- Keep to timelines as much as possible before Universal Analytics stops collecting data on July 2024 (standard) or October 2024 (GA360)
Leverage These Google Analytics 4 Implementation & Feature Resources:
- Look (and Strategize) Before You Leap: What to Consider When Migrating to Google Analytics 4
- The Benefits of Using BigQuery with Google Analytics Data
- Google Analytics 4 Properties: Frequently Asked Questions
- Google Analytics 4: Custom Insights & Data Governance
- Properties vs. Data Streams in Google Analytics 4 Properties
- Privacy Features in Google Analytics 4 Properties
- Google Analytics 4 (GA4) Data Import Feature
- Event Naming Considerations for Google Analytics 4 Properties
- BigQuery Starter Guide for Google Analytics 4