3 Key Differentiators: Universal Analytics vs. Google Analytics 4

Nicholas Hooker - March 25, 2022

Understanding a new robust analytics platform like Google Analytics 4 can be quite challenging for a marketer who has worked with Universal Analytics for most of their career, but should not discourage you. This new generation of Google Analytics has fundamental and complex changes which will require a learning curve. This is not to say you should abandon Universal Analytics, but rather start tracking Google Analytics 4 in parallel.

At a high-level, there are various noticeable changes with the GA4 platform’s UI and the reporting structure – collecting different metrics than Universal Analytics. With time you will understand how to navigate this new platform like a pro.

While there are many differences between the two,  I will cover 3 key differentiators in this post that I believe marketers should understand when approaching the new data collection model used by Google Analytics 4,  known in the industry as “the future of analytics”.

New Data Collection Model: Event-Based

A paramount change between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 is how data is collected. The Universal Analytics measurement model is hit-based, meaning analytics will gather and report data on hit types such as page views, events, social interactions, and e-commerce transactions.

On the other hand, the Google Analytics 4 measurement model is event-based, meaning that things measured by hits in Universal Analytics are now measured with events in GA4. Essentially, any interaction can be captured as an event and is classified into 1 of 4 event types, which will be in more detail within the “Enhanced Event Structure” section below. In Google Analytics 4, session metrics are part of the “automatically collected event” event type. Below you will find a visual representing this fundamental difference.

Enhanced Event Structure

One of the major differences in Google Analytics 4 is how events are tracked, viewed and interpreted.

In Universal Analytics, we consider events as a way to track user interactions that occur on your website, which are measured independently from pageviews. Typically, these would represent user interactions such as button clicks, downloads, link clicks, form submissions, video plays, and/or any other valued interaction a user takes on the site.

When interpreting events in Universal Analytics, marketers have relied on a fixed and somewhat limited event schema to interpret detailed information about the specific actions that were taken. This schema is also known as event category , event action, event label (optional) , and event value (optional). These event fields are currently used to interpret a user’s interaction by passing static or dynamic values which help us further understand an event. This can be seen as somewhat limiting for a marketer since the event schema only provides four event fields to pass information through for analysis and reporting purposes.

In Google Analytics 4, this event schema has been completely changed. Google took a new approach by classifying events into four categories:

  • Automatically Collected Events
  • Enhanced Measurement Events
  • Recommended Events
  • Custom Events

The event types “Automatically Collected Events” and “Enhanced Measurement Events” do not require any additional change to your code as they are set up to collect automatically. The only caveat for “Enhanced Measurement Events” is that you must have the “Enhanced Measurement” feature enabled.

By contrast, “Recommended Events” and “Custom Events” are more advanced forms of data collection that require adding events to your code, such as through a tag management system like Google Tag Manager.

Many marketers believe the Google Analytics 4 event-based model is more flexible and not as limiting. Unlike the Universal Analytics event schema, Google Analytics 4 uses parameters (up to 25 custom parameters with each event) to add context to event data. These parameters are represented by name-value pairs and allow for a deeper understanding of an event compared to Universal Analytics. Below,  you  will find a visual representing an event setup to track video interaction via Google Tag Manger.

New Account Hierarchy: No More Views

It might come as a shock to a Universal Analytics advocate, but Google Analytics 4 got rid of views! Moving to a new data collection model comes with many changes. Google Analytics 4 has now implemented “Data Streams” as part of its new structure. Data Streams are sources of data that feed into your property. The unique feature about data streams is that you may adjust filters to view and analyze your data similar to a view in Universal Analytics.

There are three types of data stream platforms available:

  • iOS app
  • Android App
  • Web

Caveat* You may only have one type of data stream (iOS app, Android app, Web) per property.

Wrap Up

While there are many noticeable differences between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 that will take time to fully comprehend, this post covered 3 fundamental areas I believe a marketer should understand when approaching Google Analytics 4:

  • Insights into the new data collection model
  • Updated Event Structure
  • Changes in Account Hierarchy

If you would like to learn more about these platforms, schedule a Google Analytics Consultation with our team!

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