Google is always looking for ways to improve the user experience, and in October 2020 announced a new platform: Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Google Analytics 4 provides small businesses with better information on how users find sites, what they do when they're there and, critically, what they're buying
GA4 is not an optional extra – all analytics users were moved to GA4 by 1 July 2023. So, what is GA4, what's changed, and what do you need to know?
What is Google Analytics 4?
Google Analytics 4 is the latest iteration of Google's Analytics platform. It's an update on the previous Universal Analytics platform (GA3).
At the heart of the shift is a greater degree of machine learning (also known as artificial intelligence or AI). In its promotional material, Google says the update gives all businesses "a complete understanding of your customers across devices and platforms".
Google claims the new system is more intelligent and intuitive. "Analytics can automatically alert you to significant trends in your data - like products seeing rising demand because of new customer needs."
The system doesn't just report on trends; it predicts them, according to Google. GA4 has processes that can anticipate your customers' actions, enabling you to prepare. This could ensure you have enough stock or operators on hand for a busy period to deal with increased customer queries, for example.
The purpose of all this is to increase ROI for businesses, says Google. And who stands to benefit most from this? Google, of course – with companies spending an incredible $257bn on digital advertising in 2021, a rise of 41% over the previous period.
The new GA4 platform provides the search engine giant with better customer information, which it can use to create more personalised ads. Better targeted ads mean greater ad revenue for Google, and higher sales for you.
What changed for small businesses with GA4?
Small businesses have to make changes to their websites to take advantage of the advanced features of GA4.
Setting up GA4 is a specialist task and most of us will have to work with a specialist to install and configure it. Before starting, you'll need to:
- Create a Google Analytics 4 account and property (to store data)
- Create a web data stream for your website
- Place the Google tag on your website
If you didn't opt out or hadn't manually migrated your Universal Analytics property to a new Google Analytics 4 property, Google will have created a GA4 property automatically for you based on your existing properties.
A core part of the shift is a change in focus from measuring page views to events. In the past, Google Analytics provided details on specific hit types, including page views, socials, ecommerce and more. Google Analytics 4 provides marketers with a much more comprehensive view of where people are directed to your site and what they do when they get there.
At first, it may be confusing, says SEO expert Ian Spencer. "If you have spent the last three or four years using Google Analytics to understand your traffic and produce reports, GA4 is a huge change."
Login for the first time, and you'll see that the GA4 screen looks completely different. Don't worry; you'll still be able to get the data you need; it is there – as well as much more!
"GA4 can work with both websites and Apps, which is useful for many, and you can also track many more user engagements, but many SEO experts find it much harder to use and much harder to find the basic information we're used to," says Spencer.
The shift to GA4 is challenging, even for experienced marketers like Spencer.
Our favourite new features
Google Analytics isn't a static piece of software, but an ever changing and ever improving tool that can help your business.
Google has put together a helpful (although highly technical) guide comparing the features of UA3 and UA4 to see at a glance what's changing and why.
Google provides details of every new feature added to GA4, on its support pages. It's worth checking to see what's new. Here are some of the features you may find useful:
- Use the transfer feature to recreate universal analytics audiences in GA4.
- Analyse landing pages – and identify opportunities to improve them.
- The Ecommerce migration helper can ensure your move is stress free.
- Advanced metrics to optimise your Ecommerce site performance.
These are just a few of the new features, and Google is always looking to add more. If you manage your Google Analytics accounts, it's important to regularly check-in to see what's changed – and how it can benefit your business!
When did the change happen?
Google transitioned to GA4 on 1 July – whether you wanted to or not!
Since that date, Universal Analytics stopped tracking visitors and providing data.
If you want to continue to use Google Analytics, you must switch to GA4.
Create a transition plan
"The sooner you start to work with GA4, the quicker you will learn and understand what it can and can't do," says Spencer. And he should know, he has done it for clients and his own small business which sells luxury wax melts.
For the technically minded, Google has created a step-by-step guide to transitioning to GA4 that can help you through the process. Others will want to work with a digital marketing agency with a proven expertise in GA4.
All analytics users will need to get used to a new analytics screen and, more importantly, understand the difference between page views and events, which can take some time. "The difference in data display is huge and will take lots of getting used to – something I've learned running my own SME," says Spencer.
GA4 can grow your business
We've focused on the challenges of transitioning from UA3 to GA4, but there are tremendous opportunities inherent in the platform. Small business owners get access to much greater detail on where users are coming from, how they're using sites and conversion behaviours, all for free.
This can be used to accelerate business growth and target investments, says Spencer. "Getting the highest return on ad spend is critical for SMEs, and GA4 can help this. We'll see Google PPC ads become more targeted, more selective where they're shown and more successful in creating conversions."
Google isn't transitioning to GA4 to win friends but to increase profits – and your SME can benefit too. By introducing GA4 as soon as possible, you can unlock the benefits in the system, potentially gaining a competitive advantage over those who are slower to make a move.