GA4 vs Universal Analytics: 10 Differences You Need To Know

In this in-depth comparison of GA4 vs Universal Analytics, we’ll break down the key similarities and differences.

ua vs ga4

Still trying to wrap your brain around the switch from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4? 

Understandable. Admittedly, GA4 isn’t the most user-friendly or intuitive platform. But once you learn to navigate the changes, you’ll be glad Google made the upgrade. 

In this in-depth comparison of GA4 vs Universal Analytics, we’ll break down the key similarities and differences between the two so you can get the most out of the switch to GA4. 

Key Insights

  • GA4 offers a more robust set of analytics features, event tracking, omnichannel tracking capabilities across multiple devices, and integration with other Google products like BigQuery.
  • There are several key differences between GA4 and UA such as event tracking and setup process, exploration reports, new metrics like engagement rate, data collection, and a customizable reporting interface.
  • All analytics will upgrade to GA4 by July 1, 2023 so businesses should begin the transition process as soon as possible in order to protect their data.

What is Google Analytics [GA4]? 

Google Analytics 4 is Google’s third and latest iteration of its robust analytics reporting platform—and it packs a punch as far as metrics and reporting go. You can track virtually any part of the user journey, giving you the ultimate birds-eye view of the user experience. GA4 includes new features like: 

  • cross-platform tracking
  • improved data collection
  • specialized reporting
  • machine learning 

Ultimately, GA4 is designed to provide more detailed insights into consumer behavior than ever before. 

Why is GA4 replacing Universal Analytics [UA]? 

Privacy is a primary factor driving Google’s decision to upgrade to GA4. The problem? Cookies—or bite-sized pieces of data used to identify users as they browsed the web. 

By this point, you’ve probably seen the annoying little cookie banners that pop up asking you to opt in or out.

The concern over cookies reached a breaking point in 2018 when the European Union (EU) passed the harshest privacy and security law in the world: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

Essentially, the law requires websites to receive a users’ consent before using any cookies under penalty of “harsh fines against those who violate its privacy and security standards, with penalties reaching into the tens of millions of euros.” 

The move inspired companies worldwide—including Google—to change the way they collect data. 

Until GA4, cookie-based tracking was the primary means through which Google Analytics gathered its data. Without updating its approach to gathering analytics, Google ran the risk of being obscured by increased efforts to protect user privacy. 

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What’s the privacy difference between UA and GA4?

UA requires that administrators mask IP addresses to anonymize them. But in GA4, IP addresses are not logged nor stored by default. 

Instead, GA4 allows you to track individual users across multiple devices and sessions using a unique User ID. This change is intended to eliminate the need for cookies (and, by extension, those super annoying cookie banners). 

In addition to the enhanced data tracking and User-ID capabilities, Google added more data privacy options in GA4. As a result, GA4 makes it easier for admins to: 

  • delete data 
  • choose how long to store user-specific data 
  • turn off location-specific data

There’s one major similarity between GA4 and UA

Although there are a lot of differences between GA4 and UA, they do share some similarities. Both platforms are alike in that they’re a means to an end—analytics exist to offer valuable insights about user journeys so you can optimize them for success. 

But things have changed a lot in the world of technology since Google first rolled out Universal Analytics. So you really have to understand the differences between the two to get the most out of your analytics. 

Top 10 differences between GA4 vs Universal Analytics

The truth is that there are tons of differences between GA4 and UA, so we put together a handy list of the most important ones.

  1. GA4 event tracking

Arguably the biggest difference between UA and GA4 is that GA4 offers administrators a robust new set of measurement tools based on events rather than sessions. The shift from session-based to event-based data models provides a much more comprehensive view of users and their behavior. 

GA4 allows admins to track virtually everything as events, including user interactions, e-commerce transactions, and device-specific events. 

So what exactly is an event? In GA4, everything is an event

You’ll see four categories of events in GA4:

  • Automatically collected events: session start, first visit, user engagement. These are collected by default and require no setup:
    • language
    • page_location
    • page_referrer
    • page_title
    • Screen_resolution
  • Enhanced measurement events: These events can be toggled on or off and include:
    • Page views
    • Scrolls
    • Outbound links
    • Site search
    • Form interactions
    • Video engagement
    • File downloads
  • Recommended events: events for which Google has a recommended name, but you need to set it up manually in tag manager. Some of these include:
    • add_to_cart
    • generate_lead
    • begin_checkout
    • sign_up
    • join_group
    • tutorial_begin
  • Custom events: These require custom code change and implementation via Google Tag manager. Custom events can track things like internal link clicks and clicks that don’t necessarily cause the URL to reload (previously, this was the only way to register with Google Analytics as a “hit”).

GA4 allows for tons of flexibility with regard to which events are measured. Plus, you can now define one event across multiple properties (e.g., no need to distinguish between an item added to a cart on desktop vs. in-app).

  1. GA4 vs Universal Analytics user metrics 

In UA, we had two primary user metrics—Total Users and New Users. GA4 introduces a new primary metric to the mix: Active Users (also just called “users”). While UA tended to highlight Total Users, GA4 uses Active Users as the primary metric to measure traffic flow.

If you’re hoping to compare Total Users from UA to Active Users in GA4, things might get complicated, as their definitions vary slightly.

Google defines the Total Users metric from UA as the “total number of users who logged an event.” 

On the other hand, Active Users are defined as the “number of distinct users who interacted with your site or launched your app for the first time.”

For many businesses, there may be little difference between Active Users and Total Users, depending on how often people return to your site. If you want a more accurate comparison of Total Users from UA to GA4, you can head to the Explorations section, where you’ll find reporting options for Total Users.

Another difference to note on the topic of users—in UA, you may be using filters to exclude some user data (such as internal traffic). GA4 does not currently support these filters, so take that information into consideration during your user analysis.

  1. GA4 acquisition metrics 

UA offered several standard reports in the Acquisition category, including a favorite called the Source/Medium report. Digital marketers loved this report because it allowed them to pinpoint the highest-performing channels and allocate marketing budgets accordingly.

In GA4, you can still find traffic acquisition metrics in the Traffic Acquisition report. But keep in mind that there are differences due to the slight change in how Google now defines Users.  You can still analyze SEO using GA4 (and other channels like paid social or PPC).

  1. Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics conversion metrics

In UA, you need to define “goals” or specific behaviors that qualify as conversions. So, for example, if someone submits a form or signs up for a newsletter, UA could register these as conversions (also worth noting: UA only counts one conversion per session). 

In GA4, there are no more “goal types” (destination, duration, pages/session, smart goals, event goals) but only defined conversion events. Instead, GA4 requires you to specify conversion events similar to goals, except that every conversion event is counted—even if they occur during the same session. 

That means if someone submits two forms or signs up for two newsletter subscriptions within the same session, each conversion will count in the total. 

  1. GA4 bounce rates

Bounce rates have a whole new meaning in GA4. 

In UA, the bounce rate represented page sessions without any interactions with the page. This was problematic, especially for bloggers or single-page applications that provide plenty of helpful content without requiring users to click around.

Apps and websites have changed so much since Google first rolled out UA that Google decided to redefine what bounce rates mean in GA4. GA4 now defines bounce rate as the percentage of sessions that last 10 seconds or less without triggering additional events.

  1. GA4 data collection 

One of the most significant shifts in data collection for GA4 is the omnichannel tracking ability to unify data points across devices (e.g., ios, android, javascript). Marketers are excited about this shift because it allows businesses to track user journeys rather than individual sessions. 

Tracking ‘full journeys’ from start to finish across devices is a huge advantage when it comes to refining and optimizing sales funnels. 

  1. Standard reports in GA4

Although GA4 has fewer standard reports than UA, there are more possibilities for custom reporting. You can even change report names and add or remove additional reports to your dashboard by customizing your reports

By default, your reports will include: 

  • Reports snapshot 
  • Realtime report
  • Life cycles reports (acquisition, engagement, monetization, retention)
  • User reports (demographics, tech)
  1. GA4 explorations 

For advanced insights that go beyond standard reports, users now have Explorations. According to Google, Explorations are “a collection of advanced techniques that go beyond standard reports to help you uncover deeper insights about your customers’ behavior.” 

In other words, you can answer more complex questions about specific audience segments.

There are three sections to Explorations:

  • Canvas: The big area where charts and graphs appear, located to the right of your screen. Techniques include free-form exploration, cohort exploration, funnel exploration, segment overlap, user exploration, path exploration, and user lifetime.
  • Variables: these are the dimensions, metrics, and segments available for creating the report.
  • Tab settings: You can use this option to configure the selected tab. Choose a technique, add variables, and configure technique-specific options.
  1. Integration with other Google products

GA4 is built to fully integrate with other Google products making it easy to compare data from multiple channels and better understand how customers interact with your business across different platforms. 

One of the most popular of these companion tools is BigQuery. 

BigQuery is a cloud-based, serverless data warehouse system developed by Google that helps organizations analyze large amounts of data quickly and efficiently. Its scalability and performance capabilities make it ideal for agencies dealing with massive volumes of data. It uses columnar storage technology which allows users to compress their data by up to 90%. The best part? GA4 makes working with BigQuery feel seamless. 

  1. GA4 is taking over—whether you’re ready or not. 

So what is the deadline to switch to GA4? 

Google has announced the sunset date for Universal Analytics as July 1, 2023. Therefore, we recommend businesses begin making the switch as soon as possible. Waiting means possibly losing your year to year data, so it is best to start the transition process now so you have plenty of time to navigate the transition. 

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Frequently asked questions

When is GA4 replacing Universal Analytics? 

On July 1, 2023, all analytics will upgrade to Google Analytics 4. We recommend beginning the transition process now to ensure that all of your data is kept safe. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck taking shots in the dark with no valid data to guide your decision-making. 

How do I know if I’m using GA4 vs Universal Analytics?

According to Google, there are two easy ways to tell which platform you’re using: 

  1. Universal Analytics will get this blue notification on their screen: “Universal Analytics will no longer process new data in standard properties beginning July 1, 2023.” (Note that if you previously exed out of this by accident, it won’t reappear). 
  2. If you’re worried you dismissed the notification, you can also check your property ID. 
  • Universal Analytics property IDs start with UA and end with a number (UA-XXXXXXXXX-1).
  • Google Analytics 4 property IDs have only numbers (XXXXXXXXX).

How is GA4 better than UA?

Here are the top 5 ways GA4 is better than UA: 

  • Provides a more robust set of reporting and analytics features compared to Universal Analytics. 
  • Offers more flexibility for events measured so you can better understand user engagement with your website or app. 
  • GAIntegrated with other Google products like Google Ads and BigQuery so that you can compare data from multiple channels in one place. 
  • More reliable and secure than UA, as it uses newer technologies and has stricter security protocols in place. 
  • Allows for audience segmentation so you can better understand which customer groups are most likely to convert. 

Why is GA4 more privacy friendly?

Google Analytics 4 is more privacy-friendly because it does not rely on cookies for user identification or tracking. This comes in part thanks to the GDPR laws requiring businesses to gain user consent before deploying cookies. Users must comply with these data regulations under threat of heft penalties and fines. 

Can I use GA4 and Universal Analytics? 

Yes, it is possible to use both GA4 and UA in tandem—but only up until July 2023. It’s useful to have both analytics on hand as you learn the new metrics and reporting features of GA4. We recommend starting your transition as soon as possible so you have plenty of time to learn the ropes and migrate your data. 

Is GA4 still in beta? 

No, GA4 is no longer in beta. 

Google announced the release of ga4 as a stable version on July 27, 2020. With GA4 officially released, businesses must now make the switch from UA to GA4. 

What should your company do about GA4? 

Sometimes, the best way to learn is by just throwing yourself into the fire. Spend as much time as you can getting acquainted with GA4 before July 2023. It’s best to start the transition now, as there’s likely to be a steep learning curve for admins who are used to using UA.

Once you get the hang of the reports and metrics, put lots of thought into creating a strategy for your custom reports. While customized and automated reports are a massive advantage of GA4, they will likely be time-consuming and require some trial and error to setup. So the next few months are the perfect time to explore what’s possible with GA4. 

Take Our Free Google Analytics Assessment

We know there’s a lot to think about when it comes to switching over to Google Analytics 4. And with the July 2023 deadline looming, now is the time to start planning your transition. 

So if you’re still wondering whether you need pro guidance navigating the switch to GA4 for your website, then be sure to take advantage of our free Google Analytics assessment

In just three minutes, you’ll discover whether your GA4 account is set up correctly, or if you’re missing out on the most accurate data and key features. You’ll get an instant score after you complete the questions, so you’ll know exactly where your website stands. Take the 3 minute Google Analytics assessment here or explore our services to learn more.

john reinesch

About The Author

John has spent close to a decade working with marketing agencies in various roles and capacities. Over that time he developed a passion for building systems and processes that allow agencies to improve their service offerings and deliver their service more efficiently.