Business | Strategy

Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics: What’s the difference?

It has been a few months since Google announced the release of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and there’s still a lot of confusion around the key differences between GA4 and the older Universal Analytics.

In this blog, we will take a deeper look at four of the fundamental differences between the two Google Analytics platforms and why you must be aware of them.

 💡 How to Set Up Google Analytics 4: A Step-by-Step Guide

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) vs. Universal Analytics – What’s the Difference?

Different Measuring Models

The biggest difference between Universal Analytics and GA4 is the measurement model. Universal Analytics uses a measurement model based on sessions and pageviews.

A session is a group of user interactions (hits) with a website over a given timeframe. A session can contain multiple pageviews, events, and eCommerce transactions.

Contrasting that, Google Analytics 4 uses a measurement model based on events and parameters. The principle here is that any interaction can be captured as an event. As a result, all Universal Analytics hit types translate to events in GA4.

Hit Type in Universal AnalyticsMeasurement in Google Analytics 4
User TimingEvent
App/Screen ViewEvent

What can be confusing is that in Universal Analytics (and all previous version of GA), an event has a category, action, and label and is its own hit type. In GA4, there is no category, action, or label. Every hit is an event, and events can (but do not have to) contain parameters.

For example, in GA4, there is an event called page_view, and this event contains the parameters page_location (page URL), page_referrer (previous page URL), and page_title.

Events in GA4 are grouped into four categories:

  • Automatically collected events – These are the events automatically tracked when you install the GA4 base code. They include events such as page_view, first_visit, and session_start
  • Enhanced Measurement events – These are also automatically collected alongside the base code, but you can be enabled or disabled depending on your website functionality. These events include scrolls, outbound clicks, site search, and video engagement.
  • Recommended Events – These are events that Google recommends you set up and have been split into industry types. Other than the eCommerce recommended events, the recommended events from Google seem to be broad recommendations, and the naming conventions are not essential.
  • Custom Events – These are events and parameters that you can create and implement yourself based on website requirements. Current limits (and this could change in the future) are 500 distinctly named events.

Removal of Monthly Hit Limits

Another significant difference between Universal Analytics and GA4 is the removal of monthly hit limits. The free version of Universal Analytics had a monthly limit of 10m hits. That’s gone.

Many are finding it an issue collecting all the data that they need while staying within this limit.

Instead, GA4 limits the number of different events that can be captured (500). At the time of writing, there is no limit to the volume of hits that can be collected. This has resulted in people opting for a GA4-first approach to their analytics.

Cookies & Data Analysis

GA4 is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers. Google predicts that data sparsity will become the norm as third-party cookies are phased out. GA4 includes modeling to help fill the gaps where data is incomplete, which goes beyond cookies. Google’s Machine Learning will help users understand the impact of multi-device and offline conversions.

As mentioned previously, Google appears to be moving away from a one size fits all mentality with GA4. This is further reinforced with the new Analysis Hub. This tool was previously only available for GA360 users and allows you to explore data, analyze individual users, create custom conversion funnels (like the funnels visualization in Enhanced eCommerce), compare segments, and conduct path analysis.

Rather than relying on a standard set of reports, GA4 is more like the custom reports in old GA, where you build the reports that you need to see the data that is important to your business.

Free Connection to BigQuery

The final difference we will cover is GA4’s free connection to BigQuery. Previously this feature was only available to GA360 customers (and was one of the big differentiators between the free and paid versions of GA).

For those not familiar with BigQuery, it enables very large and complex data sets to be queried very quickly. If you have ever tried to create complex segments in GA, you will be aware of the issue that sampling can have on your ability to analyze data.

Big Query takes the data out of GA and gives you the ability to interrogate it without the issue of sampling.

Clearly, there are some important differences between Google Analytics 4 (GA4) and Universal Analytics. And you must understand these fully before you go about switching over. Cross-device measurement, offline conversions, and attribution were inefficient and hindered progress. GA4 is being built for the future, and while it will take a while to get used to it, it’s very exciting!

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