There's no way around it. If you—or your company—have a website, you need a web analytics service. It's the only way to discover how visitors interact with your website and track essential metrics so you can grow your business.
And the most well-known and widely used web analytics tool is Google Analytics. It's been around for nearly two decades, and Google constantly updates GA to provide the most streamlined data collection possible.
The most recent version, Google Analytics 4, is taking the world by storm—and for good reason. Here's a look at what exactly Google Analytics 4 is and how it differs from the now-outdated Universal Analytics.
What Is GA4?
Google Analytics 4 is the most recent generation of Google's web analytics service, preceded by Urchin (1997), Classic Analytics (2005), and Universal Analytics (2012). It's already active and has been for a few years. However, not everyone is using Google Analytics 4 yet.
People who signed up for Google Analytics after October 14, 2020, are probably already using Google Analytics 4. Any properties created before that, though, are likely still using Universal Analytics. The issue is that Universal Analytics will officially stop processing data on July 1, 2023, meaning all accounts must switch to Google Analytics 4 by then. Universal Analytics properties under Analytics 360 (those with a paid account) will have a year-long extension to help with data processing.
While the cutoff date is still a few months away, that doesn't mean you should wait until the deadline to switch accounts. The sooner you switch to Google Analytics 4, the more time you have to build historical usage and data in the new platform.
What Is Google Analytics 4 Used For?
Like previous versions, Google Analytics 4 provides essential data about your website's performance. It tracks critical metrics like user engagement, retention, and traffic to help you monitor and improve the customer journey.
One thing that sets Google Analytics 4 apart from its predecessors is that you can also use it to track app data. All previous versions of Google Analytics focused exclusively on website data, meaning you had to use a different service for your app's performance. Now, Google Analytics 4 has everything in one place to help streamline tracking between your website and app.
Is Google Analytics 4 Free?
Yes and no. The standard version of Google Analytics 4 is free, while the premium version—Google Analytics 360—requires a monthly subscription. The previous version of Google Analytics 360 started at $150,000 annually, but for Google Analytics 4 website, apps, and properties, the price has dropped to $50,000 a year.
With that price tag comes higher limits for improved data collection. For example, the 100 audiences in the free version become 400 audiences with Analytics 360. And the daily export limit increases from one million to one billion “events,” or data points about users and their activity on your website.
Fewer limitations can be invaluable for larger companies and enterprises—and definitely worth the price. However, many smaller companies find that the free version offers more than enough reporting features for their websites.
To help make your decision easier, Google provides a guide explaining the feature limits for companies deciding between the free and paid versions.
Key Differences Between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics
We already discussed a core difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics: the app data integration. And this is a foundational part of Google Analytics 4, considering it was built upon Google's 2019 App+Web property.
However, that barely scratches the surface of all that Google Analytics 4 has to offer. There are numerous upgrades from Universal Analytics—so many that we can't cover them all. Here are just a few of the most noteworthy improvements that come with Google Analytics 4.
1. A New Measurement Focus: Events
Both Universal Analytics and Google Analytics are designed to track website performance metrics. But the main difference is how they do that.
Universal Analytics operates on a session-based model. That means it separates data about user interactions into different groups—or sessions. Within each session, it tracks info about particular interactions, like a purchase or a page view.
Google Analytics 4 takes a completely different approach with its more flexible event-based model. It considers all interactions "events" so you can create customized parameters and track what's important to you and your website. For example, you can track events like page loads, button clicks, transaction details, and user information.
2. Enhanced Flow Reports
The whole purpose of collecting website data is to improve the customer journey and increase your conversion rate. But that can be challenging if you can't accurately visualize their journey.
Universal Analytics provides some insights with its flow reports, but they have limited visualization, especially at the end of the funnel. Google Analytics 4 brings some much-needed improvements with detailed end-point analysis so you can backtrack and see what visitors did before they converted.
3. Streamlined Funnels
Like flow reports, funnels provide visibility into how your visitors interact with your website. But instead of showing the path to conversion, they visualize how visitors complete specific tasks like moving from viewing an item to purchasing it.
Funnels can be an incredible tool when done right—but Universal Analytics didn't do them right. With Universal Analytics, you have to create funnels before collecting data, and then you can't change any of the settings.
Google Analytics 4 removes most of these limitations, so you can now create funnels when needed and apply them to your existing data. You can also adjust what steps you want to include and alter the settings as needed.
4. Free Data Exports
Data is knowledge. And the more knowledge you have about your website's performance, the more improvements you can make. Google Analytics creates billions of data points for you, but you often need an external data warehouse like BigQuery to help you understand that data.
Universal Analytics only offered BigQuery exports with the paid Analytics 360 account, but Google Analytics 4 lets all properties export data for free.
Keep in mind that there is a one-million daily event limit for the standard accounts—but smaller companies on the free plan may not need to worry about reaching that maximum. The only thing businesses might have to pay for is additional Google Cloud storage space if they surpass the 1 TB monthly limit.
5. Machine-Learning Expertise with Predictive Metrics
One of the biggest draws of Google Analytics 4 is its machine-learning expertise.
GA4 is promoted as privacy-centric and has been designed to work with or without cookies. By leveraging machine learning and statistical modeling, GA4 can fill in data gaps as the world becomes less dependent on cookies.
Make the Switch to Google Analytics 4
Google Analytics is the premier web analytics tool, and it just keeps getting better. The recent release of Google Analytics 4 brought much-needed changes, like better flow reports and a new way to track website performance metrics.
If you haven't yet made the switch to Google Analytics 4, do so now before Universal Analytics stops processing data in July 2023. And remember, the sooner the better, so you can start collecting data and building a usage history.