What is Google Analytics 4? Comparing GA4 to Universal Analytics

authorCaryn Oram dateJanuary 16, 2023


Google Analytics 4 is the new generation of the website tracking software Google Analytics, a free service used to track engagement and traffic on your website. GA4 is the most advanced tool available, featuring privacy-oriented tracking and predictive analysis backed by AI.

Launched in 2020, GA4 was introduced in part to align with new privacy laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as well as to be more suited to modern digital marketing requirements. Until now, GA4 has run concurrently alongside its predecessor, Universal Analytics. However, it is now necessary to learn and understand GA4, as Google has announced that Universal Analytics will no longer be available from 1 July 2023.

The announcement has left many marketers with cause for concern, and understandably so. Rather than building on the framework of Universal Analytics, Google has introduced an entirely new set of analytic tools and revised the interface completely. Those who have not yet migrated now have the next six months to do so.

Google's new offering doesn't have to be daunting, however. While users will need to overhaul what they currently know, there are numerous benefits to be gained with GA4 thanks to its various new features. In this article, we'll take a look at the differences between UA and GA4, and break down how this new iteration can benefit your business in ways not previously possible.

Differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics
Tracking on websites and mobile apps

Universal Analytics has been available since 2012. With the development of mobile apps and machine learning technology, however, UA is no longer equipped for today's requirements. To this end, one of the most distinguishing features of GA4 is its cross-device tracking capability; providing insights on both website and app use, whereas UA is only able to track websites. Given the prevalence of mobile apps in the smartphone-led digital arena of today, the ability to track both on one platform is a significant change.

Reports generated from GA4 are different to UA

UA users will know that the platform generates a large volume of readily available "standard" reports. GA4 offers far fewer general reports, and these aren't displayed by default as they are in UA. However, GA4 allows for customisation, making it possible to generate reports on more specific aspects. 

The introduction of new metrics of measurement

GA4 has introduced various new metrics to track user engagement. These include:

  • Engaged session metric: A count of all sessions that had an engagement time of ten seconds upwards, initiated one or more events, or had two or more page views. This means that UA's bounce rate metric is no longer relevant to GA4. However, you should note that GA4 did add its own version of the UA bounce rate, which you can read about here.
  • Average engagement time per session: This is a measure of the amount of time a user spends engaging with the page by scrolling, for example.
  • Engagement rate: The ratio of engaged sessions to total sessions.

With GA4's metrics, Google has taken a more "positive" approach to figures on engagement and provides more detailed insight into user engagement than what can be gleaned from UA's bounce rate. GA4 is far more focused on the user journey as a whole.

The introduction of AI and automation

Universal Analytics is limited when it comes to automation due to its rudimentary machine-learning capabilities. GA4 has been designed with machine learning at its core and can provide users with many auto-generated insights as a result.

Not only this, but because GA4 has been developed to align with the data privacy demands of today, machine learning assists the software in generating insights while observing regulations. This is because GA4's machine-learning model makes it possible to collect data from website traffic and user behaviour while keeping users anonymous.

These machine learning algorithms also make it possible for GA4 to:

  • Generate automated insights: It is not necessary for you to look over your data manually, as GA4 generates insight reports both generally, or in a customised framework if you choose to utilise that feature. These insights also allow GA4 to identify trends, detect anomalies, and generate predictions.
  • Detect and fill in data gaps: The machine learning capabilities of GA4 mean that the software is able to fill in data gaps created by user privacy restrictions. It does so by grouping users into cohorts based on behaviours and traits.
The shift from a session-based to an events-based data model

This is the most significant difference between UA and GA4. Universal Analytics has always collected data using a session-based model. "Session" is the term used for a group of user interactions on your website during a given time frame. During a session, UA collects all user interactions with your website as "hits." This refers to page views, e-commerce transactions, etc. 

In GA4, the events-based model collects every user interaction with your website or app as an "event." Events collect and store more information about the specifics of the interaction, particularly due to the fact that GA4 offers so much customisation. This means that businesses can generate extremely focused insights about their users. 

Here is Google's own explanation:

In GA4 properties, you can still see session data, but [Universal] Analytics collects and stores user interactions with your website or app as events. Events provide insight on what’s happening in your website or app, such as pageviews, button clicks, user actions, or system events.

Events can collect and send pieces of information that more fully specify the action the user took or add further context to the event or user. This information could include things like the value of purchase, the title of the page a user visited, or the geographic location of the user.

While it is a different approach, the events-based model ultimately provides more value in terms of the level of insight you can gain, particularly given the tightening up of data privacy laws.

How can GA4 benefit your business?

Google Analytics 4 can be extremely useful for monitoring the performance of your business's campaigns. Due to its more advanced metrics, reporting, and automation, GA4 can provide a better understanding of the progress of your campaigns. This article only scratches the surface of this new software's capabilities. Here are a few more helpful GA4 features:

  • Enhanced attribution models that provide more accurate user journey history, allowing you to better pinpoint the touchpoints that led a customer through your online offering.
  • Ability to create audiences from any combination of metrics, dimensions, and events, again pointing to GA4's excellent customisation features.
  • Ability to create predictive audiences based on predictive metrics such as purchase probability as well.
  • Remarketing functionality, which allows you to re-engage with users based on their previous behaviour on your website or app.

As we've mentioned, come 1 July 2023, Universal Analytics will be no longer. This means that it will cease to collect any more hits. There is some relief for those who still need to migrate to GA4, as UA data will still be accessible after the 1st for a period of six months, meaning there will be time to extract your data.

At NEXA, we are already using GA4 for our clients and ourselves. The benefits of this new generation of Google Analytics have already proven their worth, helping us to extract and optimise more, better-quality data and therefore provide our clients with better recommendations and strategies. Get in touch with us to find out how we can help you.