Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics: The Ultimate Guide

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Want to know what’s new in the rollout of Google Analytics 4? Our guide analyses the launch, what’s changed, and how to set up this tool for your business.

Google analytics 4 universal analytics

Recently, Google launched the latest incarnation of its popular analytics platform, describing it as the new default version of its data collection and web traffic analysis software.

Analytics tools are becoming increasingly sought after by businesses looking to transition their respective operations online following the global disruption caused by Covid, and Google’s release of Google Analytics 4 has been timely for some companies aiming to become more visible across the World Wide Web. But what exactly is Google Analytics 4? And how will it change the marketing landscape?

Global web analytics market

(Image: Maximize Market Research)

The global web analytics market is expected to grow exponentially over the course of the decade, and as an industry leader, Google’s Analytics reporting tools will be central to the efforts of millions of businesses as they track user interaction across web domains, apps and offline APIs. Many businesses already recognise Google Analytics as the tool that helps them to track the amount of traffic they receive online, monitor traffic channels, measure their KPIs and analyse user behaviour. But, the release of Google Analytics 4 appears to feature a significant move towards more advanced insights, with the prime focus of enabling you to understand how your customers are interacting with your website as opposed to raw traffic data.

The new Google Analytics 4 comes packed with some significant new features that represent a significant step up from the old version. Most notably, the new data modelling feature that latches on to artificial intelligence to fill gaps in data whilst older Analytics versions may have been run into cookie-consent issues or blocked JavaScripts.

Universal Analytics (Old Version)

Universal analytics

Google Analytics 4 (New Version)

Google analytics 4

The changes that business owners and marketers alike can enjoy in Google Analytics 4 range from user-interface enhancements (pictured above) to significant upgrades to the levels of AI and machine learning encapsulated within the platform. So, with this in mind, let’s take a deeper look into what Google Analytics 4 really is:

What is Google Analytics 4

Google describes the purpose of its new incarnation of Analytics as a next-generation approach to privacy-first tracking, cross-channel measurement, and artificial intelligence-driven predictive data all in one. This empowers Google Analytics 4 to fill out data for website traffic and various user behavior metrics without relying on tracking website hits across pages.

Google Analytics 4 was produced on the same platform for the web and app system released in 2019. The Web + App version of Analytics was constructed in order to focus on cross-channel data, which meant that it offered marketers a fresh way of tracking users across various apps, software and on-site.

The fundamental goal of Google Analytics 4 is to transform the way data is shown to focus on users and the path that users take from the moment they arrive on a landing page to completing a conversion.

The new platform has ramped up its focus on events, too. These ‘events’ represent the main way in which data is presented within Google Analytics 4.

Notably, the machine learning processing in Analytics 4 allows the platform to effectively fill in gaps where businesses weren’t previously capable of forming a whole picture of how their customer base behaves due to the option of opting out of cookie usage and data collection. This represents a significant addition to the platform in the age of GDPR and the ease in which internet users can opt-out of sharing their information.

Google Analytics 4 arrives at a time when the need for more intuitive analytical platforms has never been greater. Privacy protection laws such as GDPR and CCPA have caused significant disruption among traditional analytics engines, with more platforms becoming prone to telling gaps in their data from uncooperative visitors.

Although Analytics 4 has arrived packed with advanced new features, it’s clear that the update’s primary aim is to plug the hole in which valuable insights are spilling out with AI-driven data. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the key features of Google Analytics 4 in more detail:

Setting Up Google Analytics 4

How you set up Google Analytics 4 largely depends on whether you already have a universal Google Analytics property set up.

In any case, Google Analytics 4 could come across quite overwhelming at first glance, but once you wrap your head around it, it’ll start making sense.

Important Note: If you’ve been using Universal Analytics (old version) for some time, we do not recommend replacing your Universal Google Analytics with the new GA4. Instead, we’d suggest running it in parallel with your Google Analytics 4 property - we’ll show you how to do that below. Google Analytics 4 is not quite there yet to be able to fully replace the GA we are all used to.

Setting up a new Google Analytics 4 property

If you’ve used Google Analytics before, you’ll find setting up a new Google Analytics 4 property fairly straightforward.

Step 1: Register or log in to your Google Analytics account

Step 2: Go to Admin > Create Account

Create google analytics account

Step 3: Fill out the required details

Details ga account creation

Step 4: Here’s when things become different. On the next step, you’ll be asked to set up a data stream. In this case, we’ll be collecting user information from our website, so we’ll go ahead and set up a Web data stream. The beauty of Google Analytics 4 is the fact that you can collect property data from multiple data streams (e.g. your website and iOS app).

Web data stream

Step 5: Finish creating a stream by inputting your website URL along with the name of the stream. Another advantage of Google Analytics 4 is that they automatically add certain tracking events (e.g. page views, scrolls and file downloads) without you having to set up additional tagging.

Website url

Step 6: Now, it’s time to set up a tracking code. There are two ways to set up GA4 analytics.

  1. Adding a Global Site Tag to the <head> tag of your website

  2. Adding through Google Tag Manager, for which you’ll need the Measurement ID
Tracking code

In this case, we’ll be adding a Global Site Tag.

Copy the Global Site Tag and paste it right after the opening <head> tag on your website. The way you’ll do that will largely depend on the CMS you’re using.

For WordPress, go to Appearance > Theme Editor and allocate a header.php file.

Tracking code wordpress

Once the code is placed, give it a few minutes, and you should be able to start seeing data come through via Real-time report in Google Analytics.

Real time report google analytics

The real-time tab in Google Analytics is somewhat not particularly “real-time” like it used to be. Currently, there could be a 10-15 minute delay in data reporting.

Is it Possible to Use Both New and Old Versions of Google Analytics?

It’s entirely possible for marketers to retain the setups that they’ve become accustomed to in Universal Analytics while tapping into the power of Google Analytics 4 all at the same time. While it’s unclear whether Google intends to phase out the use of legacy Analytics platforms over time, it’s entirely possible for businesses and marketers to keep using legacy versions of the platform for the time being.

There’s no initiative in place to force Universal Analytics users into adopting the newer technology, but it’s worth noting that new properties and new accounts will automatically default to Google Analytics 4. It may be worth some businesses setting up a new version of the GA4 property using the App + Web property setup in order to let data start to populate while steadily becoming accustomed to the new user interface and gradually learn the new metrics and data available to them.

Because both platforms are fundamentally different in how their respective data is recorded and illustrated, Google warns users that their metrics may show differently across both versions of Analytics. Due to hits now acting as a unit of measurement for events and parameters in a different way to that of Universal Analytics, there is no chance of data aligning perfectly between the new and legacy versions of Analytics.

Upgrading to Google Analytics 4

Making the transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 is a straightforward process, and regardless of whether you’re a business owner or marketer, you’ll simply be required to have access to your existing Google Analytics account.

Here is how to get started with Google Analytics 4 in four straightforward steps:

Important Note: Upgrading the following way will NOT delete your Universal Google Analytics Account (old version), which you’ll still be able to use.

Step 1: On your Analytics dashboard, at the bottom left corner of your screen, you’ll see an ‘Admin’ button displayed. This gives you access to various administrative options regarding your account where you have the ability to edit your account settings, add account users and modify both your property and views.

Analytics account settings

Step 2: At the very top of your ‘Property’ menu in the middle column displayed on your screen, you’ll see the option to ‘Upgrade to GA4.’ Click this button to resume setting up your account for Google Analytics 4.

Upgrade ga4

Step 3: Here, we can see that Google offers you the option to either create a brand new Google Analytics 4 property, or to connect an existing GA4 property to the account that you’re using. If you’re looking to create a Google Analytics property for your existing business or client, click on the ‘Get Started’ button to get your account set up. This will ensure that you still have access to the previous GA version.

New ga4 property

Step 4: Tick the checkbox so that Google can use your existing tag to source data to GA4. Note that this option could be disabled depending on how your current Google Analytics is set up. If the checkbox is disabled, you’ll need to copy and paste the Global Site Tag.

Use existing tag

Step 5: All set! You should start seeing data sourced to your Google Analytics 4 within minutes.

Go to ga4 property

The Key Features of Google Analytics 4

In a marketing landscape that’s being challenged by privacy protection laws, Google Analytics 4 offers a new avenue for marketers to improve the quality of decisions they make and attain a better ROI through actionable insights.

Analytics 4 comes, fittingly, with four key new features:

  • Intelligent insights through the use of machine learning to identify trends

  • Deeper integration with the Google Ads platform

  • More customer-centric data monitoring

  • More granular levels of data control

When announcing Google Analytics 4, Vidhya Srinivasan, vice-president of measurement, analytics, and buying platforms at Google wrote that the update is designed to help users gain a better ROI by utilizing “machine learning at its core to automatically surface helpful insights and give you a complete understanding of your customers across devices and platforms.”

Let’s take a deeper fundamental look into the four key features that Google Analytics 4 boasts and analyse their respective potential for bringing significant change in the field of marketing analytics:

Intelligent Insights With Machine Learning

Google Analytics 4 has the ability to efficiently alert marketers to important emerging data trends. This has been made possible by optimizing Google’s existing machine learning models.

For instance, Google Analytics is capable of utilizing website data to identify specific products that are rising in demand due to new customer needs. These intelligent insights can aid marketers in taking more proactive steps in anticipating the future demands of customers.

If a product in a specific range is beginning to gain more interest, Google Analytics 4 intends to act fast to avoid instances where marketers are caught flat-footed by failing to track the data in time. The relevant account owners can be swiftly alerted so that they can adapt their ranges and advertising efforts accordingly.

Google marketing platform

(Image: Google Marketing Platform)

Notably, Google Analytics 4 has the ability to calculate churn probability, allowing users to invest more efficiently in retaining customers. With the quality of data pointing to more effective means of investing budgets, businesses can save money with a greater level of comfort.

The arrival of more intelligent, machine learning-driven insights in Google Analytics 4 appears to be one of many advanced predictive metrics that Google plans to add to its platform over time, with other features such as data-driven estimations over the potential revenue that marketers could expect to earn from a pre-determined section of customers. These high-quality insights allow marketers to create custom audiences in order to access higher value customer groups.

In-Depth Google Ads Integration

Machine learning in Google Analytics 4 allows marketers to define their audiences with unprecedented levels of accuracy. This, in turn, helps to generate more targeted and enticing advertisements that can be dispatched through a customer’s journey.

Analytics 4 offers a significantly deeper level of integration with Google Ads alongside this unprecedented level of insight, meaning that you can get to grips with more high-value audiences through more meticulously set touchpoints.

Through its release, Google Analytics can measure interactions from websites and apps, meaning that it’s now possible to view conversions from somewhere like YouTube against views that take place on both the internet and within its app within the same report.

Interactions websites apps

(Image: DeviceDaily)

Above is an image of how conversion reports are capable of differentiating from various forms of consumer impressions from the likes of Google, external paid channels, organic channels like Google Search, social media and email to help create a fuller picture regarding what makes your visitors really tick. This heavier level of integration can really help marketers to optimize both their paid and organic campaigns to ensure that the right kind of traffic is actively flowing on to their pages.

To connect your Google Analytics 4 account with your Google Ads account, got to Admin > Google Ads

Google analytics ads

Customer-Centric Data Monitoring

Google Analytics 4 represents an evolution of the platform from recording measurements fragmented by device or platform to more customer-centric approaches to measuring behaviour.

Like the other features in GA4, this is primarily intended to enable marketers to attain a fully formed view of how various customers interact with their business. To facilitate this, Analytics utilizes multiple identity spaces, including marketer-provided User IDs and Google-specific signals from users who have opted into ads personalization.

Through Google Analytics 4, marketers now have the ability to see how customers initially discovered their business - whether it was from an online advert or elsewhere - and how many of them transitioned from seeing an ad to making a purchase on the business’s app or online.

User acquisition report

Customer-centric monitoring paves the way for marketers to gain a solid understanding of the entire customer life cycle associated with their business, with metrics available on how they initially discovered the website to how they’re responding to retention efforts.

Retention report

The fundamental shift in how data is presented to marketers could prompt a fundamental shift in how we approach the task of measuring our customer data. Google states that these significant customer-centric changes were actioned upon hearing user feedback: “Based on your feedback, we simplified and re-organized reporting so you can intuitively find marketing insights based on the part of the customer journey you’re interested in,” explained Vidhya Srinivasan.

“For example, you can see what channels are driving new customers in the user acquisition report, then use the engagement and retention reports to understand the actions these customers take, and whether they stick around, after converting.”

Granular Data Control

With the arrival of Google Analytics 4, it’s now possible to gain a more granular level of control on the data that you can collect and retain through the platform.

These meticulously laid out controls can also be utilized to specify exactly how data can be used for advertising purposes. For instance, marketers can now choose when to use customer data to modify their advertising campaigns and when to limit data use to just measurements only.

Acquisition overview

This feature provides us with a clear insight into how Google is safeguarding itself and its insights from a future with more privacy controls for users and fewer cookies or identifiers. Significantly, Google confirmed that the feature will include “modelling to fill in the gaps where the data may be incomplete.”

“This means that you can rely on Google Analytics to help you measure your marketing results and meet customer needs now as you navigate the recovery and as you face uncertainty in the future.“

The Arrival of Advanced Reports

Google Analytics 4 comes with a new set of highly-customizable reports where users can create advanced reports that showcase user behaviour, segment overlaps, funnel analysis and a lot more.

Analysis hub

BigQuery Integration

There’s now a seamless integration with BigQuery, which was only available for GA360 customers previously.

Bigquery integration


DebugView is also a new feature that allows users to validate analytics configuration, keep an eye on events and errors.

No More Bounce Rate

There is no more bounce rate in Google Analytics. It’s now replaced with something similar called “Engagement Rate” (engaged sessions divided by sessions).

Engagement rate

Weighing Up The Differences Between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4

On the surface, the most striking change between the classic Universal Analytics platform and Google Analytics 4 can be found in their respective user interfaces.

Universal Analytics (Old Version) Universal analytics

Google Analytics 4 (New Version)

Google analytics 4

As we can see from the before and after shots, the Google Analytics 4 interface is significantly more geared towards optimizing the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and providing valuable insights to business owners and marketers alike.

Some of the classic reports and features from older versions of Google Analytics have been withdrawn from GA4. For example, traditional Analytics features three tiers of data organisation in the form of Account > Property > View, but in GA4 this has been streamlined to only Account and Property.

Ga4 account property

Of course, there are also plenty of differences in the way data is collected between the new and legacy forms of Analytics. This is especially prevalent in how data is defined and the names given to various data elements.

Some of the newer concepts that can be found in Google Analytics 4 are listed below:

Events: This is the term used to describe user interactions with a website or app. Events can come in the form of page views, click-throughs or various other forms of interaction. These events don’t need to be added through customized code into the on-site Analytics tracking code, and various events are measured by default in GA4.

In Google Analytics 4, page views and sessions translate to page_view events and session_start events.

Page view event is collected when the Global Site Tag is triggered whereas a session event is collected when the user engages with the website.


Parameters: Here, parameters refers to additional swathes of information that can give added context to every event that occurs. For instance, the value of a purchasing event, where a purchase occurred, or how the event was logged.

User Property: Based on various attributes or demographic information regarding the user, user property metrics can help marketers to craft more specific and targeted marketing campaigns towards their chosen audience.

User ID: Simply, a user ID used to help Google to track users across multiple platforms.

Alongside these fresh-faced new terms, there are a few new variations between Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 that marketers may need to demonstrate some agility in adapting to.

Google has confirmed that the jump to Analytics 4 may require you to “rethink your data collection in terms of the Google Analytics 4 model rather than port your existing event structure to Google Analytics 4.”

Another notable difference that some marketers may need to brush up on involves how sessions are recorded. If you’re wondering why your sessions are lower in Google Analytics 4, this is down to a fundamental change in how hits are processed in terms of time. This means that marketers will need to become accustomed to seeing the data and insights that they’re used to change somewhat in how it’s delivered to them when changing platforms. For example, in Universal Analytics, a new campaign automatically creates a new session regardless of activity. However, this isn’t the case with GA4, and a new session won’t begin just because you’ve chosen to start a new campaign. This is a contributing factor in why your session counts may appear lower in the new model.

It’s also worth noting that variations in the way that your delayed data is processed may also create fundamental differences in the metrics that you see on the platform. In Universal Analytics, hits are processed provided they arrive within four hours of the end of the day, but in Google Analytics 4, these events could take up to 72 hours to process.

Data processing time

(Image: Google Developers)

Above, we can see a screenshot that shows how events are now recorded in Google Analytics 4, and some of the key metrics that allow marketers to dig deeper into the details behind each event.

Regarding parameters, one significant difference is that page URLs or URIs are not as prominently displayed as they were in former incarnations of Analytics as dimensions. In GA4, these are treated as parameters like “page_location.” This indicates that Google isn’t interested in leading marketers to look at these events in terms of URL or specific web page parameters and are rather focused on identifying screens and page titles that create a much easier-to-follow cross between both desktop sites, mobile pages and dedicated apps.

Why Google Analytics 4?

This is a question that some marketers will undoubtedly ask, and it’s reasonable to do so. Universal Analytics is still functional, and it still provides metrics that you’re used to and have been working with for months and years.

However, the arrival of Google Analytics 4 represents the search engine giant’s biggest move in attempting to safeguard against the rise of online privacy settings and how they could impact the world of data collection in marketing.

The arrival of GA4 encompasses some of the most powerfully intuitive tools in terms of artificial intelligence and machine learning that have the ability to fill in the various gaps left by more stringent GDPR and CCPA factors.

As a marketer, there’s never a good time to acquaint yourself with a brand new approach to collecting data and the monitoring of customer events, but in an age of tightening controls on online privacy, embracing the power of Google Analytics 4 may represent your best chance of continuing to optimize your marketing campaigns without encountering any guesswork over the years to come.

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