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October 13, 2021

The Next Big Iteration For Business Web Analytics

On October 14, 2020, Google’s VP of Buying, Analytics and Measurement, Vidhya Srinivasan, announced a major change coming for Google Analytics – Google Analytics 4 (GA4). And while beta users and Google Premier Partners had early glimpses of this new tool set, many of us (including me) weren’t sure what these changes would mean for our clients at Forum.

Well, after spending the past few months tinkering with GA4, over the next year it will impact all of our clients – and our own workload – for the foreseeable future.

What is Google Analytics 4?

Google Analytics 4, also known as GA4, is the replacement for Google’s current website analytical tool. All of us at Forum refer to it as “Google Analytics” but Google’s official name for their current system is “Universal Analytics.”

Brought about in 2012, the Universal Analytics platform was built for user to be able to track web analytical data across the web. As time went on, and the web became more mobile and device-driven, Google extended features for “Cross-Device Tracking” and a variety of other features and standard reports to help customers better understand how users interacted with their website and other related web tools (apps, platform applications across devices, even retail, etc.).

Google Analytics 4 presents the largest change to the existing Analytics platform since the introduction of Universal Analytics in 2012. Universal Analytics was a replacement for what is known as “Classic Analytics” and thus, Google Analytics 4 is a replacement for Universal Analytics. This platform builds upon new tools Google introduced in 2019 and extends them in a big way.

Why do I care about GA4?

Well, for a lot of reasons. To get us started for this discussion, we’ll keep it simple:

#1: Privacy

As you may or may not know, over the past few years there has been major backlash on the use of third-party tracking cookies across the web as well as cookies in general for tracking. A cookie is simply a small piece of data about a user and their behavior on a given website. They’ve traditionally allowed for remarketing campaigns (those creepy campaigns where marketers like us at Forum track your behavior across the web and show you ads) as well as data collection on users.

Google Analytics 4 does rely on first-party cookies but new privacy laws like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act impact how these cookies can be used. In addition, the iOS14 platform of Apple mobile devices will be cookieless. So, Google needed to modify it’s platform to function with first-party cookies or to avoid cookies altogether. This new platform can use machine learning and modeling to fill in data gaps where cookies cannot be used.

#2: FLoC Data

This is a little bit of an aside, but also impacts why GA4 matters to you. FLoC – or the Federated Learning of Cohorts – is the next iteration of digital marketing tracking tools. Instead of tracking individual behaviors, the FLoC model is a replacement of third-party cookies.

As you likely know, we work to define our client’s target markets – geographically, demographically and psychographically – and using cookies, we have been able to target user groups in such a way that may feel intrusive. While powerful for marketers – again privacy has been a concern.

With the FLoC model, data is collected in a way that protects the user’s privacy while still being able to target users based on interest groups. With these new tools, Google Chrome in particular, can use the FLoC algorithm rather than cookies to assign users to ‘interest-based cohorts.”

While Google claims that targets will be close to our existing capabilities for targeting; however, the tools that we’ve had for remarketing and other groups will basically be gone – forever. These new interest-based groupings will mean that we as marketers will have to take a best guess on which pre-made grouping by Google your customers fit into – losing specificity, clarity and attribution. We will no longer be able to track users across websites or apps unless owned by that client or organization. It also makes Google more powerful as other smaller platforms won’t have these FL0C tools.

So this is a losing proposition for businesses and a win for consumer privacy. Moving into 2022 and 2023 in particular, be prepared for more generic digital campaigns, lower click through rates and conversions, and a higher ad spend.

#3: Users versus Sessions

Many of our clients have always relied on “Sessions” for their tracking. While over the past few years, we’ve worked to transition that mindset from website hits and sessions to users – Google Analytics 4 is all about users. A session is a group of interactions by the user with a given website which takes place over a given timeframe. So, a user can have multiple sessions and during that session multiple pageviews, events and even eCommerce transactions. Seeing that users can be tracked across apps and websites owned by the client’s organization – this all changes. Google Analytics 4 is a completely different measurement model – focused on events and parameters. So any interaction can be tracked as an event. This will be the new model for tracking moving forward. Sessions as they exist now will become obsolete and could dramatically change.

#4: Event-Driven

Now, here’s the biggest change and related to #3 – events. The things that you now work with in Google Analytics (AKA Universal Analytics) like page views, events, eCommerce transactions, etc. moving forward are separate events. In Universal Analytics, users can have sessions and sessions have pageviews and pageviews have events. Now, everything is an event and events will have parameters. Some events are automatically collected once GA4 is installed and others can be enabled. However, Google also recommends events by industry type that have to be set up custom.

So, outside of your reports in GA 4 being completely different or having to built custom, in addition, your analytics strategy will no longer be something that is plug and play with Google Analytics. Each Analytics Strategy will need to be customized to your individual needs and custom reporting established for every web property you own.

Is there any benefit to all these changes?

Yes and no.

If your website ever receives more than 10 million hits – Universal Analytics would only track the first 10 million hits unless you upgrade to the paid version of Google Analytics. So, if your website was heavily trafficked, you now have no limit on website traffic that can be tracked. However, there is a limit to the number of event types that you can capture (500) without the paid version of GA4.

The other major benefit is availability to BigQuery. Before GA4, access to BigQuery was a paid feature and only available to Google Analytics 360 customers. It actually, beyond the traffic limit, was the big differentiator between the free and paid analytics platforms. BigQuery allows you to build custom and complex segments in Google Analytics. It also allows for large data sets to be queried and reviewed at a rapid rate. This is a huge benefit – but likely needed given that Analytics tracking will require more customization moving forward.

However, if none of these apply to you, know that tracking – especially for small businesses – is going to take extra work for setup as compared to Universal Analytics which was a bit more plug and play and easy to pull standardized reports. Now, GA4 will continue to add standardized reports as the platform grows, but as of now, it seems a bit rushed and “bare bones” from a reporting standpoint (without customization).

So, what happens next?

For Forum clients, over the next 6-12 months, we’ll be working with you to build a new custom Analytics strategy and setting up Google Analytics 4 to run in conjunction with your current Universal Analytics setup. Our hope is to collect 1 full year of data before fully transitioning you fully to the new Google Analytics 4 setup. This way, we have comparison data for tracking moving forward and we can work to polish your strategy along the way. However, given the complexity of this new methodology, we will likely take one client at a time and will only transition over clients who have ongoing contracts with Forum. This does NOT include website maintenance contracts as the transition could be complicated in nature.

For those who do not have ongoing contracts with Forum for their digital needs, but are clients at Forum, don’t stress. Your existing Universal Analytics setup will continue to work as it does today. At some point in the near future, Google will stop supporting this platform but that simply means no further updates. We don’t foresee a day in the next few years where this platform will go away entirely. However, if it’s time for you to consider an update to your website and/or marketing efforts, please contact us. We’d be more than glad to help.

For non-Forum clients, here’s your chance to make an upgrade. If you decide to tackle this on your own, make sure to read up on what events are automatically tracked, which are recommended and how to build custom events in GA4. Otherwise, we’d be glad to work with you on a future marketing and analytics strategy to grow your business.