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Google Universal Analytics vs GA4

Google Universal Analytics vs GA4 700 460 Nicola Lapenta

What to do with the new Google Analytics Properties now?

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Google Analytics is a free web analytics service provided by Google that allows you to analyze detailed statistics on visitors to a website. It is the most used statistics service on the web, with a world market share of 84.1% (data of 22/01/2021 source

In mid-October 2020 the 4th generation of Analytics was officially announced; this announcement involves many changes for site and app owners and managers. I shall share my conclusions after having analyzed the new platform. The new generation of Google Analytics (in beta called App + Web property) introduces important new features that will make the analysis activity more complete and allow you to make better marketing decisions. Certainly some time will pass (no one can say exactly how much) before the old Universal Analytics property is discontinued but what is certain is that now Google will invest only in the new 4th generation Analytics platform (also called GA4).

 If you want to deepen the JavaScript technology used, read the article Google Analytics Technology.

New paradigm

The big change introduced by GA4 is the transition from a session-based model to an event-based model. A session is a group of interactions with your website over a specified period of time.

Instead of using a Universal Analytics session-based model, which groups user interactions over a given time frame, the new GA4 experience uses an event-based model, where each user interaction is processed as a standalone event across devices and platforms.

differences between GA4 and universal analytics
Figure 1 Google Analytics 4 events vs Universal Analytics

Therefore, the controversial concept of Bounce Rate disappears, to make way for that of Engaged Session, triggered by a user’s stay on the site or app for more than 10 seconds or by 2 or more screen views or by the activation of an event; ex. button clicks or document downloads.

Numerous basic interactions with your website or app are already automatically collected by the new property as events, without having to intervene on the website code. For example, the first time a user visits your website, the property will record the action as a “first visit” event. Many valuable events are collected automatically, but development is required in order to measure others that are significant for our business (ex. retail and e-commerce). In Figure 2 there are some example events taken from the Google Merchandise site.

table with GA4 events

Figure 2 Google Analytics 4 events

The hits are replaced by events of over 500 different types, each of which has the possibility of containing 25 parameters. Also, as in the old Universal Analytics experience, if we use Google Ads we can link our Google Ads account to the new property so they can access each other’s data.

The extent and number of new features introduced with the new version is truly impressive, the main ones recently activated are listed below:

  • improved user interface;
  • integrated data collection from both mobile and web apps;
  • advanced segmentation;
  • the bounce rate is no longer available;
  • replaced the lenses by a simpler conversion system;
  • entirely cross-device and multi-platform relationships;
  • the views disappear and the user properties are born;
  • greater integration with Google Ads;
  • customer-centric data measurement;
  • integration with the BigQuery platform;
  • more granular data controls (RAW mode data);
  • advanced features available to everyone.

An important novelty is also the predisposition not to use cookies.

Migration strategy

The latest version of the JavaScript code is 4 (renamed gtag.js), officially published on October 14, 2020 allows customization of events in a really simplified way compared to the previous Universal Analytics version.

Google has never imposed an expiration date to update the tracking configurations, it prefers that the user or the webmaster decides if and when it will be time to change the old code. Furthermore, most users who have no technical knowledge rarely realize the new features offered by GA4, so they tend to use the original configuration for as long as possible. For these reasons, the new monitoring codes are migrated voluntarily and effectively making forced migrations useless.

I believe this is a winning strategy and it is one of the many reasons why this tracking method is widespread today and makes Google Analytics the preferred web analytics platform.

What to do now?

All the new features announced will provide a more complete understanding of how customers interact with your online activities. With these innovations there are really many topics to be explored and configurations that require specific technical skills.

My suggestion is to start configuring the new GA4 property and start using it in parallel with the current Universal Analytics version .

In this way, the transition will be gradual and will allow you to become familiar with the new user interface and above all start collecting data in the new property, thus increasing the level of significance of future analyses and future reports.

As soon as there is information to evaluate how to behave with the historical data of the old version, you will have the information to decide how to behave to transfer the data to the new property and completely dispose of the old version.

If you want to learn more about the history of this platform from its first version read this article Google Analytics Generations.

Useful information

Information to create the new GA4 property from official Google support: Upgrade to a Google Analytics 4 property. Official article of the announcement published: Introducing the new Google Analytics 

Autor: Nicola Lapenta

Credits:  Official Blog Google Analytics productsOfficial Blog Google Marketing Platform, Google Marketing Platform , Google SupportWikipedia, Blog Avinash Kaushik, W3techs.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.

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