Updated: Jan. 5, 2021
Originally Published: Oct. 22, 2020
GA4 is a powerful upgrade to Universal Analytics (UA – the “old” GA). But it’s not complete – yet. Features and extensions keep being introduced – in fact, so much good stuff that it’s hard to keep track at times.
My recommendation is to run both GA4 and UA - in other words, to “double-tag” your website. That's what we’re doing at Northwoods, both for ourselves and for many of our clients.
Double-tagging means you’ll get the best of both worlds:
- You can start working with the new GA4 interface, get used to it, and still have the older UA interface to fall back on.
- Note: don’t expect the metrics to match completely between the two; there are differences in how some of the metrics are calculated. Some metrics are even totally missing – like bounce rate. No more bounce rate – YAY!
- You can start taking advantage of the machine-learning insights, which Google expects to drive real value. I have high hopes for these insights. They're one area where GA4 may really shine and will probably get better over time.
- GA4’s default tracking of outbound links, video plays, website search terms, etc. might give you better information than your current UA set up. A base GA4 installation will track things that had to be specially set up in UA, so you’ll have much richer information than most standard UA set-ups.
- When it fits with your situation, you can take advantage of the main GA4 benefits:
- better user identification - either an ID provided by you (e.g. if the visitor logs in), the anonymous ID assigned by Google, or the identification from Google Signals (provided when a visitor allows ads tracking)
- Improved e-commerce. The new e-commerce model is cleaner and richer than the model in Universal Analytics. The ML (machine learning) behind identifying user churn and users who are about to make a purchase – two of the most prominent new features in GA4 – could be awesome.
- Built-in BigQuery integration (more on this below).
- Integrated support for combined recording from an app or a website.
- Not all situations will benefit from each of these GA4 benefits, but all will likely benefit from at least one or two of these.
The good news is that double-tagging is fairly simple to set up, regardless of whether you're starting from scratch or adding GA4 to an existing UA site. You can use either the global site tag (gtag) or Google Tag Manager (GTM). There’ll be very little time required to set it up and a base GA4 installation will add almost no overhead to your site.
In short, there's no reason to *not* be running GA4 next to your UA, and many reasons to be running GA4.
Setting up double-tagging
New GA Properties
If you’re creating a GA property from scratch, it may look like you can only create a GA4 property.
But if you go a bit further and open the "advanced options", you’ll see where you can also create a UA property. This is the option we recommend.
Existing GA Properties
If you have an existing Universal Analytics property, open the GA admin screen and you’ll see the the "GA4 Setup Assistant" in the Property column. Choose this to start an upgrade to GA4.
In the next step, you can create a new GA4 property while keeping your older UA property.
Even better, if you happen to be using gtag (the global site tag) already, it may start reporting to GA4 without you having to do anything at all.
If you’re running Google Tag Manager, which Northwoods almost always recommend, you’ll have to set up a GA4 configuration tag.
There's a bit more to setting up GA4, but not much - it's a pretty simple process overall.
Getting used to GA4
There’s nothing like playing with the interface, and starting to explore, to learn a new product.
If you’re familiar with Universal Analytics, you may be surprised at what seems to be missing from the user interface. That’s on purpose. In GA4, Google is going for a “less is more” approach.
Google says the old version of GA had too many reports and was too overwhelming for the casual user. That’s absolutely true.
Can you get enough insight into user behavior just from the GA4 user interface (UI) and Insight Cards? For most users: yes, absolutely. There’s less clutter and more prominent graphs. For the casual user, the combination of near-real-time events (last 30 minutes), last seven days, and last 30 or 60 days (1, 2, and 3 in the screenshot example below) offers enough meaningful information without being overwhelming.
If you're an analyst who wants to dive down into more details, you have four choices:
- Build your own report(s) in the Analysis Hub. The hub is essentially a freeform report builder with WAY more capability than the custom reports in UA. If you’ve worked in Google Data Studio (GDS) or feel comfortable building a Pivot Table, you’ll get the feel of it fairly quickly
- Choose one of the pre-built reports in the Template Gallery (part of the Analysis Hub section). There aren’t a ton of templates yet but it’s safe to say there will be more coming.
- Build your reports in Google Data Studio (GDS), which now has GA4 connectors.
- Export the data to BigQuery and do your analysis there. This – *this* – is huge! Built-in connectivity to BigQuery was never easily available in UA before, unless you had GA360. Once your data is in BigQuery, you can pretty much do any analysis you want. You can even build your GDS reports with a connector to BigQuery!
In short: The “less is more” approach works surprisingly well – a simpler interface for the casual user, with a variety of tools for in-depth analysis for the power user.
Playing with the interface is a great way to learn, but it’s good to know there are other options available as well.
While GA4 doesn’t have the depth of training resources available that UA has, that’s changing rapidly. Here are some of the resources I recommend to get up to speed with GA4:
- Official Google GA4 documentation
- Charles Farina's CXL GA4 course
- Julius Fedorovicius' blogs at analyticsmania.com. Best known as a wonderful explainer of all things GTM, Julius has published a number of well-written, in-depth, understandable, and authoritative GA4 blogs as well.
- This blog – I will continue to write about GA4 techniques. Once you get GA4 set up, be sure to check out my GA4 tips blog.
- GA4 Ecommerce Guides:
Now is the time to install GA4 on your website. Get used to the new interface and the new power. Also, don't expect it to be like the Google Analytics you may have known and used for years. GA4 is a different and ultimately more powerful beast.