Skip to main content

Cage Match: Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics | Fusion Alliance

Marketers at mid-market companies are going through the stages of grief over Google Analytics 4. Some are still in denial (“Whatever, we have Universal Analytics until July 2023, and they will probably extend the deadline.”) and others have moved on to anger (“Google Analytics sucks!”) If you’re actively wrestling with the transition, you’re probably squarely in that cage match stage. 

We get it. Our team has been helping businesses with GA4 implementations since it first rolled out, and making the switch isn’t easy. Along the way, we’ve found four key matchups that might help you avoid getting KO’d by your Google Analytics 4 transition. 

Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics 

  Google Analytics 4 Universal Analytics
Round 1: Tracking

Users

Events

Sessions

Goals

Round 2: Data

Engagement Bounce rate
Round 3: Interface

Low clickability

Drill down analysis through setting up secondary dimensions

High clickability

Drill down analysis through ad hoc clicking in results

Round 4: Reports

Explorations

Embedded reports

Round 1: Tracking 

In Universal Analytics, we track metrics by sessions tied to behavioral goals. Here’s one common scenario:  

  • Patricia visits your website home page on her phone one day and bounces.  
  • A few days later, she scrolls an article from your site on her desktop and bounces. 
  • The following week, she reads a case study on her iPad while waiting in the carpool pickup line and fills out a contact form.   

At this point, UA documents three sessions, and one goal achieved. But is that the best way to document what actually happened here? Google thought not, and pivoted. 

Google Analytics 4 tracks metrics according to users and events. Using the same scenario, GA4 documents that one user took four actions on your website: home page, article, case study, form fill. You see the progression, and the impact your site has, at a more granular and yet more holistic level.  

With GA4’s user-based data model, you see what users do when they interface with your brand — regardless of the device they use, location they come from, or platform they visit. Instead of goals per session, you’re now able to see events per user. 

Round 1 winner: GA4 

Round 2: Data 

When July 2023 rolls around, a lot of people are going to be caught by surprise when they can’t just upload their Universal Analytics data directly into Google Analytics 4. Next, they will try to export their data from UA to GA4 and that will…also not be possible. Sorry, folks, it simply will not work. The data models are different, and Google has not laid down a path to make a simple data port happen. 

How can you counter that punch? Your best move is to get started in GA4 as soon as possible, so you can begin to collect new data and understand how those metrics will influence your overall reporting.  

And the sooner you start collecting GA4 data, the sooner you’ll be able to use it in your year-over-year metrics. Because the data points aren’t the same, your old UA data won’t be of much use in year-over-year comparisons.  

Learn more about how switching to GA4 impacts YOY reporting >>

The shift that impacts almost everyone changing over from UA to GA4 is the shift in bounce rate. Long used as a benchmark for user engagement, UA’s bounce rate metric didn’t make it to GA4 in quite the same format. Instead, GA4 measures engagement in more absolute terms.  

GA4’s new “engagement” metric takes the guesswork out of bounce rate. Instead of saying “people are leaving immediately, probably because the content wasn’t relevant or the load speed lagged,” GA4 tells you how many people stay on the site long enough to take another action. Before, a low bounce rate could mean someone read your entire blog archive going back to 2007 OR that they had 39 tabs open for a week. Now, you’ll know if a site visitor was idle or active — giving a clearer picture of whether or not they were truly engaged. 

The bottom line is that GA4 offers a little more accurate view of engagement, but your UA to GA4 bounce rate numbers won’t match up. Your stakeholders are still going to ask about it for a while, and that’s going to be annoying to handle in reporting meetings.  

Round 2 winner: draw 

Round 3: Interface 

If you’re a long-time user of Universal Analytics, you’re probably used to being able to dig into your data as the mood seizes you. Wondering which URLs drove the most traffic last month? Click, click, answer. Want to find out how you got so many hits from Denmark yesterday? Click, click, answer. Puzzled as to why your website suddenly ranks for terms like “can horses drink beer” (or maybe that’s just us)? You get it. The UA interface’s high degree of clickability that enables ad hoc analysis. 

Not so with Google Analytics 4. When you log into your dashboard, you’ll see a similar view, but all of your clickability is gone. No digging into traffic cohorts. No in-the-moment drill-downs.  

But all is not lost. If you click the plus sign on a measurement in GA4, you can set up secondary dimensions. So if you want to check which referral URLs are driving traffic, you can build that query in. Maybe you want to set up secondary dimensions to narrow down data here and dig in deeper there. With some time and patience, you can eventually get to a view similar to something you might have seen in UA.  

But your “click, click, answer” days are over. Sorry about that. 

Round 3 winner: UA 

Round 4: Reports 

We know people who have used Universal Analytics their entire working lives and never built a custom report. If you open your UA account, you’ll find dozens of out-of-the-box reports to meet your needs. While most mid-market to enterprise businesses do have some custom UA reports, they certainly aren’t required to use the tool. 

Now open your Google Analytics 4 account. Where UA shows you report after report to help you review your website health, traffic, campaigns, networks, landing pages, and so forth, GA4 shows you an overview screen and…two reports. 

Two. 

If that prospect leaves you feeling like you got the wind knocked out of you, you’re not alone. Once you get over the inability to migrate your data from UA to GA4, you’ll need to plan to migrate your reports. And that’s going to be a bigger problem for a lot of medium- to large-sized businesses. 

Take a deep breath and start by cataloging every report you use in your UA account. Map out exactly what you measure, and how the results are displayed. Note how you use the results, and which business units rely on the outputs for operational and strategic decisions. Then, start building custom reports in GA4 to answer those needs.  

Learn more about building reports in GA4 >>

No, it’s not going to be a one-for-one replication. Yes, it’s going to be time-consuming and frustrating. Depending on your timeframe, budget, and bandwidth, you might need to look into partnering with a third party to get this work done right and in time for the switch. 

On the bright side, though, this process may alert you to reporting you’ve used out of habit that wasn’t exactly right. Building new reports offers you a fresh start, and a chance to really understand what your analytics needs are, and how data can help drive better decisions across the business. 

Round 4 winner: draw 

Spoiler alert: GA4 wins 

Ultimately, the Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics match isn’t a fair fight. Come July 2023, Universal Analytics is out for the count. But what you choose to do in the meantime could mean the difference between emerging victorious or limping out of the ring with broken ribs (proverbially speaking, we hope). 

Your approach to the GA4 transition could make all the difference. Increase your odds of GA4 success by checking out our (cage-free) resource: 6 steps to a successful Google Analytics 4 migration.

About the author

Fusion Alliance

Fusion Alliance creates powerful digital, data, and technology solutions that keep companies moving forward in a rapidly changing world. Our 500+ consultants use data insights, experience design, and tech innovation to help you reimagine your business for whatever comes next.

Ready to talk?

Let us know how we can help you out, and one of our experts will be in touch right away.