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TLDR; Summary

Universal Analytics is being retired. If you have a Google Analytics account that starts with “UA-“, Google will stop processing new hits on your website on July 1, 2023. Further, you must start over – your year to year history will not be retained.

In its place is a new product called GA4. Rather than using the session-based method of tracking the Universal Analytics does, GA4 uses an event-based system. This allows it to keep track of data from multiple sources such as an app as well well as your website with a single tool.

Read the article to understand what you need to do to prepare for GA4 or if you should be looking for a different solution to measure your website metrics.

Google Analytics 4

I reported recently how Google tracks your every move. This is often done because most websites willingly embed trackers into their websites in the form of Google Analytics (and/or Google Fonts). They do this so that the website owner can also keep track of things such as the number of visitors over a given time, how long people stay on a page, where they come from, and if they return to the site frequently. Such statistics provide critical information for website owners (as well as providing marketing information to Google).

At the same time, consumers have become increasingly skeptical of data tracking and have reacted, even legally, such as the laws pass in Europe (GDPR) and five states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Utah and Virginia—which have enacted comprehensive consumer data privacy laws. The laws have several provisions in common, such as the right to access and delete personal information and to opt-out of the sale of personal information, among others.

Google’s response has been to create a completely new way of tracking, called Google Analytics 4. Still, GA4 is not fully GDPR compliant. When using Google Analytics on your website, you must first obtain the explicit consent of end-users to activate the Google Analytics cookies, as well as describe all personal data processing in your website’s privacy policy. This applies to GA4 as well as the older Universal Analytics.

GA4 is Google’s next-generation measurement solution, and it’s replacing Universal Analytics. On July 1, 2023, standard Universal Analytics properties will stop processing new hits. Google has indicated that it will retain your historical data in your UA property for at least 6 months, after which your UA property’s historical data will be deleted permanently. If you still rely on Universal Analytics, Google recommends that you prepare to use Google Analytics 4 going forward.

In general, you should start using GA4 now. However, there are some caveats. For example, Shopify does not yet support GA4. Also, for sites that do currently support GA4, you need to be aware that the historical analytics do not carry forward. In other words, you are starting over and will not be able to compare data from previous time periods. If you want to have a year’s worth of historical data, your best bet is to switch to GA4 now.

So what should you do?

  1. Prepare. If you’re not already using a GA4 property and you’re more familiar with UA, then now is the time to start learning about, and getting used to GA4. Data is quantified very differently in GA4, and the interface, as well as the metrics available, are also quite different.
  2. Setup. If you don’t already have a GA4 property setup on your website or app, you will definitely want to get this done ASAP. It is possible to have both Universal Analytics and GA4. By dual tagging you can keep your Universal Analytics implementation in place while you build out your Google Analytics 4 implementation. This dual-tagging approach lets you build a historical record (and your skill base) in Google Analytics 4 while continuing to depend on Universal Analytics until you’re ready to switch over.

Google Analytics 4 is on track to be more powerful than Universal Analytics and provide more relevant data about why users are on your site and/or app. Universal Analytics hit types include page hits, event hits, ecommerce hits, and social interaction hits. Data is sent to UA using cookies. A website with UA sends a cookie into the user’s web browser, and that allows the platform to monitor and record web activity on the site in question during that user’s session on the site. The measurement approach is called a session-based data model.

In contrast, Google Analytics 4 data is event-based, with the principle that any interaction can be captured as an event. Events represent a fundamental data model difference between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 properties. Universal Analytics property hit types translate to events in a Google Analytics 4 property. According to Google, Google Analytics 4 allows “businesses to measure across platforms and devices using multiple forms of identity.” This includes first party data as well as “Google signals” from users who have opted into ads personalization. And yes, Google Analytics 4 will still use cookies where they are available for tracking. GA4 combines the data from multiple data streams into a single property.  GA4 uses an event-based data model, thus apps and websites are combined into a single data stream to more accurately attribute actions to users across devices.

GA4 and Privacy

Google rolled out Google Analytics 4 largely due to the increasing concerns around privacy and security. And in fact, GA4 has many built-in features and tools to allow more control over your data. Here are some:

  • No IP addresses. The most notable change in GA4 is that IP addresses are no longer collected or stored. In Universal Analytics, you were able to see IP addresses unless you physically went in and anonymized them.
  • Easier data deletion which allows admins to delete data at the request of any user(s).
  • Data retention options allow you to choose how long GA4 can store user-specific data. By default, the time period is two months, however, you can extend it to 14 months if desired.
  • Options to turn off location-specific data and ad personalization data by country.

Are there an alternatives?

Most website owners use Google Analytics to measure their website performance, often not reading the terms and conditions set forth by Google, simply because they want a way to keep track of their traffic. In fact, GA is installed on more than half of all websites on the internet. This is in large part due to the price – it is free! It is not the intent of most website owners to give Google the large amounts of cross-site data that they collects on their customers. But is is free and easy, so it has become the default.

There are of course a number of other options. In fact, even if you do not install any forms of tracking on your site, the server logs will give you plenty of information about your website traffic. You can also opt for a number of paid website analytic programs which do not track individual users and therefore do not need a GDPR compliance notice. (Some of these offer free versions for a limited amount of traffic or free trial versions for a period of time). If you are interested, I suggest looking at this article: https://onward.justia.com/10-alternatives-to-google-analytics/.

 

 




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