Benefits and Limitations of Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the next generation of Google's web and app analytics platform, replacing the previous version of Google Analytics, known as Universal Analytics (UA). This update to the Google Analytics platform aims to provide a deeper understanding of your customer's usage of your websites and apps by tracking their journeys with improved metrics. It also provides a more user-friendly platform, making more useful data readily available to inform your important business decisions.

This article outlines the benefits and limitations of the new Google Analytics 4 platform in comparison to its predecessor, covering the best new features you should be adopting in your analytics and decision-making processes, and some of the downsides of upgrading to the new version.

What is Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?

Google Analytics tracks your users across your websites and apps, allowing you to see how they’re interacting with your websites and online products. The information collected includes the pages your users visit, their interactions (from taps and scrolls to purchases and other customer actions), and details about the users themselves if they’ve opted to make them available.

Google Analytics 4 is the latest release of this analytics platform, with a large number of major changes to the functionality of the software and the data it collects. Google Analytics 4 is replacing its predecessor Universal Analytics, which is due to stop collecting data in July 2023 (July 2024 for Google Analytics 360 customers).

The switch to GA4 is mandatory, so it's important to get started now. While there are numerous benefits to Google Analytics 4 over Universal Analytics, there are some downsides and changes that you will need to account for in your analytics practices.

Benefits of Google Analytics 4

GA4 has already been available for some time — Google made it available early so that businesses could set up properties and start working with the new features before their existing Universal Analytics properties are retired. As the date when Universal Analytics will cease collecting data is rapidly approaching, more and more businesses are upgrading to GA4.

So far, the businesses that have upgraded have been impressed with GA4's new features, which provide a more comprehensive overview of their customers' experiences using their websites and apps. Below are the most prominent benefits provided by GA4 as identified by those who have already upgraded.

Combined web and app tracking

Previously, Google Analytics tracked web and app usage as separate properties. With GA4, these can be combined into a single property, so that websites and their associated mobile apps both store and report their data in the same place. This allows you to track users across platforms, rather than having to later blend and attribute the data from separate properties.

This cross-platform tracking is done by combining app-specific tracking data from Firebase Analytics with Google Analytics data. It means that marketing teams can more easily manage analytics data from multiple platforms, readily access it, and ensure that the correct access is granted for the data in each property.

Google BigQuery integration

Google BigQuery is a data warehousing solution that includes tools for storing large amounts of data, as well as tools for analyzing it. Google Analytics 4 includes BigQuery integration out of the box for no extra cost, unlike Universal Analytics, which only included it as part of a paid enterprise upgrade to Google Analytics 360.

Data from GA4 can be exported to BigQuery, where you can modify, enrich, blend, and warehouse it. From BigQuery, Google Analytics data can be further exported to other platforms.

Advanced user engagement metrics as standard

GA4 greatly simplifies the process of tracking interaction events like user scrolls, searches, clicks and link-follows, and video engagements. Tracking these events no longer requires additional code or setting up Google Tag Manager (GTM) as it did in Universal Analytics, making this data much more accessible.

Enhanced event measurement in Google Analytics 4

Google Analytics 4 places a greater focus on customer engagement. Gone is the “bounce rate,” which is now replaced with the ”engagement rate” — by focusing on the measurable activity and positive experiences of users who engage with your product rather than those who do not interact with it (measurable only by inaccurate metrics like timeouts and the user “not” doing something), you can cater to the users who provide the most value to your business.

One major improvement in GA4 is its revised event tracking functionality, in which all user interactions are recorded as events — in contrast to UA, which tended to focus on tracking page visits. Events are highly customizable and can contain custom parameters that go beyond the simple Category, Action, Value, and Label parameters available to events in Universal Analytics. Bespoke events allow you to tailor them to your product and your use cases. This allows you to better measure the impact of content and feature updates, and to anticipate user behavior so that product decisions are better targeted.

Analytics metrics tailored to your product and its value proposition will allow you to drive growth by understanding what your audience wants and giving it to them.

Complete customer experience tracking

As opposed to page views being tied to sessions in Universal Analytics, GA4’s focus on attributing events to a user allows you to follow them through the full customer journey as a cohort. From acquisition via marketing channels, first engagement with your product, through to monetization and retention, you can see when and how your users discover you, and where they may be dropping out of the process if they’re failing to make purchases or fully engage with your service.

Google Analytics 4 can now track users across marketing campaign sources. Analytics events are grouped as sessions in GA4, but unlike in previous versions of Google Analytics, a new session is not created for each campaign source or change in referrer — so while the session count may appear lower, it is a more accurate representation of how many users are interacting with your product.

GA4 lifecycle reports will help you understand these customer journeys in full so that you can pinpoint the vital stages where customers decided to engage, or not engage, and hence improve your product or marketing campaigns. Predictive metrics use machine learning to try and calculate the probability that users will churn or make a purchase, and can even make predictions about the lifetime revenue users may provide to your business.

Improved audience segmentation and Google Ads integration

Google Analytics 4 allows for much more targeted audience segmentation. You can now create segments based on event and time parameters, so that you can focus on your users and their behaviors and build segments based on those interactions.

GA4 automatically integrates with Google Ads, so any audiences you define from your analytics event data will be available for use in your ad campaigns.

Modern tracking and privacy practices

The industry-wide shift towards data collection without third-party cookies has been largely driven by user privacy concerns, and by the legislation that has been implemented to address them — primarily GDPR and CCPA. These laws cover how information should be collected from users and how it can be used — with third-party cookies being directly targeted as a mechanism that can only be implemented with explicit user consent.

Google Analytics 4 recognizes this shift in both legal requirements and user expectations and implements a modern means of tracking users across devices and sessions using machine learning, completely removing Google Analytics' reliance on third-party cookies for cross-device and cross-site user tracking. This helps you stay compliant with the law, by keeping your visitor data from being shared across other domains, allowing you to respect your users’ privacy while still collecting valuable information about how they’re discovering and using your websites and apps.

More funnel and reporting options

Previously, users of Universal Analytics had to pay extra to gain access to additional funnel and reporting options, including custom funnels, by subscribing to Analytics 360. In Google Analytics 4, you have access to many of these funnels and reports for free, offering a more robust base option to help you start getting the most value out of your data.

Limitations of Google Analytics 4

Despite the benefits listed above, GA4's early adopters have identified some downsides compared to previous incarnations of Google Analytics. These limitations should be kept in mind when migrating your analytics processes to the new system, as users may struggle with some of the changes. Some methodologies may need to be tweaked, to prevent loss of productivity and to ensure that you continue to collect all the data your business requires.

Lack of migration support from Universal Analytics

The biggest limitation of Google Analytics 4 is the inability to migrate existing data from Universal Analytics. UA will stop collecting new data from user interactions in July 2023, and any data collected in UA will not be available to GA4 properties.

While this limitation only affects existing users of Universal Analytics, it does mean that data for those users is broken into two separate analytics systems, making it impossible to identify patterns across both data sets without first exporting them into a separate system for analysis. Additionally, data in UA cannot be used with the improved analysis tools available in GA4.

This makes it vital that you set up GA4 on all of your websites and apps now so that you have as much data available as possible when UA is retired. Our Google Analytics 4 Migration Guide details how this should be done.

You should also take the time to get familiar with the new GA4 interface and functionality before you migrate. GA4 retains a number of terms from UA, such as sessions (explained above) and eCommerce related activity, but has changed how they function.

User interface changes

As with any major update to software that your business relies on day-to-day, major changes to the user interface can slow you down — buttons get moved, and terminology is tweaked, interrupting your workflows.

The GA4 user interface differs dramatically from previous versions of Google Analytics. The new simplified layout is designed to be responsive and to work across devices of varying screen sizes. This comes at the cost of resizable columns, and the new simplified menus can make it difficult to see which functions are available or whether new features have been added.

You should start getting familiar with this new interface as soon as possible so that you know where everything is and don't lose any productive time making the migration later when you come to fully rely on GA4.

Lack of views

The views functionality in Universal Analytics is not present in Google Analytics 4, much to the chagrin of some existing users. This means that you must create additional rules to isolate internal traffic (for example,  isolating internal or developer traffic), or use the BigQuery integration to achieve the same functionality that was previously available within Google Analytics.

GA4 includes a unified reporting interface with data filters (note that this is not the same as the old view filters present in UA), so you will need to adjust your workflows to account for this change. Like view filters, data filters cannot be applied retroactively to your collected data. Unlike view filters, data filters apply to the whole property, not a subset of data shown in a UA view.

This change is a major one for digital marketers who rely on their existing workflows to perform their jobs effectively, so it is important that you understand how this will impact you, be prepared to learn how to use BigQuery, or export your data to other tools with less limited reporting options.

Limits on custom dimensions and custom metrics

Dimensions are used to track the individual parameters of events in your collected data. If you are working with custom events, you will need to add custom dimensions. For example, if you have an event parameter for tracking custom interactions with your app, a matching dimension will be required to isolate audiences based on it for reporting.

GA4 allows for custom dimensions and custom metrics, but there is a limit of 25 user-scoped custom dimensions, 50 event-scoped custom dimensions, and 50 custom metrics for each property.

Changes to attribution models

Like many of Google Analytics’s other proprietary features, including ID resolution and predictive analytics, attribution has changed in GA4. By default, UA showed attribution based on a “last-click” model and provided tools to look at this data from different perspectives (called assisted attributions).

GA4 replaces this “last-click” attribution method with “data-driven attribution” that distributes credit for each conversion event based on machine learning algorithms. There is no longer the option to just look at conversions instantly via different models (first-click, last-click, mixed, etc.) — Instead, you have to change the attribution model at the property level which will recalculate all conversions.

No regular email reports

Automated reports are a vital tool — saving the time of manual data and report preparation, and acting as a reminder to stakeholders to take action on the latest analytics insights. Automated alerts are also important so that you can be made aware immediately of any pertinent changes to user behavior without having to periodically consult your data dashboards.

Google Analytics 4 does not allow you to schedule recurring email reports. You must instead rely on the tools present in BigQuery and other Google Cloud products — additional systems that you’ll need to set up and reconfigure whenever there are product changes.

The future of Google Analytics

GA4 represents the user-oriented, privacy-aware future of Google Analytics. This comes with a lot of advantages, but the nature of some of the changes does result in some downsides if your analytics process is not geared to make the most of the scope of customer data now available.

By being aware of these benefits and limitations, your migration from Universal Analytics will be as hassle-free as possible, and you’ll be able to fully leverage the features of the new platform. This will let you get the most insight out of your analytics data, using it to make more informed business decisions and optimize your marketing campaign for the best ROI.

Realizing the full benefits of Google Analytics 4 using a customer data platform

The forced switch to Google Analytics 4, especially with the inability to migrate historical Universal Analytics data, has been a rude awakening for some organizations. Those that rely solely on Google Analytics for collecting, storing, and reporting on data now have that data split across two incompatible systems.

The best way to avoid being taken by surprise by future changes to your data tools is to take full ownership of your data. This is not the first time a major product change has disrupted business-critical workflows, nor will it be the last. A customer data platform (CDP) will allow you to consume data from a variety of sources (including e-commerce, CRM platforms, and Google Analytics 4), format it, and store it on your own infrastructure for future use, putting you in full control of all your stored data.

A CDP will let you go beyond the limitations of Google Analytics 4 and BigQuery, which are restricted in the amount of data, and the level of detail Google thinks is appropriate for you to have. A customized data implementation using a CDP will allow you to ingest, permanently store, and make full use of your data — without limitations.

When you’re in full control of your data, access cannot be revoked by a third party — and you are free to blend, enhance, and report on it in any way you want. By integrating GA4 with a customer data platform, many of the shortcomings of GA4 can be resolved: you can configure emailed reports, you can send alerts when certain conditions are met, you can create unlimited dimensions and audience segments, and you can build custom reports and dashboards using the tools of your choice.

Further reading

This article explained the benefits and limitations of the new Google Analytics 4 platform. To find out more about Google Analytics and the importance of collecting high-quality customer data for your business, take a look at our learning center articles:

You don’t have to rely on Google for data collection and analytics

Taking full advantage of GA4 requires going deeper into the Google ecosystem. Download our guide to replacing GA with analytics on your warehouse to learn how to take control of your data for deeper, more reliable insights.

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