Understanding GA4: The What, How, and Why Marketers Need to Know
Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the talk of the town. This is because the impending, radical transition from Google Universal Analytics will require digital marketers to reevaluate their own perspectives, shifting from tracking specific performance metrics to understanding the user’s whole online journey. That’s what WooRank’s Nils De Moor and Trust Insight’s Chris Penn cover in WooRank’s latest webinar. Together, they highlighted how GA4 represents the modern future of analytics and what digital marketers need to know to stay on top of their own data moving forward.
The Future of Google Analytics
As Nils and Chris point out, Google’s transition to GA4 from Universal Analytics can feel both like a step into the future and like we are playing catch-up. For new website owners building their online properties now, the only option available to them is GA4. Alternatively, those whose websites have been established are still able to collect data through the soon-to-be sunset Universal Analytics.
Both Nils and Chris strongly suggest that websites that still run with Universal Analytics also install GA4 simultaneously, so as not to lose out on any data once the transition becomes permanent. As of July 2023, GA4 will be the only analytic tool supported by Google. If website owners are caught off guard by the change, they run the risk of losing a year’s worth of data, especially since there is no current migration path from the old tool to the new one. This is mission-critical for digital marketers, who need consistent data to better insight into how to build growth.
With so much to expect and potentially relearn from this transition, here are some aspects of Google Analytics 4 that marketers need to know.
GA4 and Third-Party Cookies
One of the big questions many website owners and digital marketers have is how will GA4 impact existing cookies. Cookies are important because they help collect important information about how a user engages with a site, and if GA4 were to be incompatible with third-party cookies, then marketers would need to know.
As it stands, cookies have an evolving relationship with online privacy laws. A recommended best practice for Google Analytics is to utilize server-side tagging. Server-side tagging is when you commission a server under your domain to run Google Tag Manager or some other tag management system. That tag management system takes the data from your website and disperses it to the same analytic services you used to create the cookie. For example, if you were using TrustInsight.ai, your tracking cookie would read as “analytics.trustinsights.ai” as opposed to looking like a cookie from Google. This process makes privacy software see third-party cookies as subdomains or first-party cookies under the same domain.
This isn’t a free pass, however, as under guidelines like the GDPR, you still must disclose any data you send to Google, even if it is a first-party cookie. Switching to server-side tagging and first-person cookies with help marketers keep their cookies in GA4.
Another tool, in addition to cookies, that can help track user information is server logs. Server logs are traditionally more technical and are something that a developer will be more familiar with; however, marketers can also get use out of them. Users will need to interact with your server to interact with your webpage. Merging server log data with Google Search Console can show you what site crawlers are doing on your site, but the same can be said of users.
The Need for Cookies
Marketers love their cookies. As Chris points out, it may be the relationship digital marketers have with their cookies may be a bit unhealthy. To get more specific, marketers may have an unhealthy relationship with personal identifying information. GA4 is prioritizing the whole online journey a user takes, from when they enter a query to when they leave your site. That kind of experience is forcing marketers to reevaluate the type of data they need to collect. As Nils put it, “If you’re selling T-shirts, do you need to know your customers’ weight and height, or rather, how many medium shirts you sold, as opposed to large.” The questions marketers need to answer, for example, where to run ads, can be addressed largely by aggregate data. Tracking information like page views will be considerably more valuable to a marketer than the personal information gathered by a cookie. That’s not to say cookies don’t have their place or serve a purpose. There are still good uses for having cookies implemented on your website. For example, cookies help carry information from page to page. Website users with a login also benefit from cookies. However, tracking cookies might not be as necessary anymore as they were in the past.
Marketing Mix Modeling
As the future of analytics marches on, it can be a good idea for digital marketers to shift toward marketing mix modeling (MMM). MMM focuses less on the smaller, personal data and more on the aggregate data. It answers the important questions revolving around the success of marketing campaigns, using regression analysis to see where leads came from and how much revenue was generated. Marketers can focus on the real outcomes they care about, which are centered on growth. When they do that, the need for personal identifying information and even cookies become minimized. Additionally, digital marketers can have an easier time complying with all privacy guidelines.
Digital marketers need to fully understand what metrics they need to track and what information they need to collect to be successful in their efforts. From there, they need to decide if a cookie is the right tool to help them.
The Analytic Tools Marketers Need
An important thing to remember, for all site owners, is that there are more analytic tools available than just Google Analytics. GA4 is set to be such a disruption that it is strongly recommended by both Nils and Chris that site owners have another analytics or business intelligence tool running simultaneously if they choose to continue with Google Analytics in the first place. As Nils says in the webinar when it comes to analytic tools, “two is one, and one is none.”
This shift has marketers asking if GA4 is the best tool for their organization. The Google suite has expanded in the last few years, making it more difficult to keep track of your data simply and efficiently. There’s Google Tag Manager, Google Tag, Google Data Studio, Google BigQuery, and Google Analytics. Having all these tools to juggle may not be the right fit for you and your campaigns.
A helpful practice for marketers is to prioritize the tools at are associated with the platforms they use to run their campaigns. For example, if a campaign is running Facebook Ads, then the data you’ll export will be from Facebook, not Google Analytics. Google Analytics alternatives like Matomo, HotJar, and Plausible.io are excellent tools to track and measure campaign performance.
Tools like Full Story can create heat maps and session recordings of how people are interacting with your website.
Additionally, tools for marketing automation, like MailChimp or HubSpot, and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) are essential for any organization tracking the outcomes of a campaign. CRM tools are better suited for collecting personal identifying information.
Chris makes the point that marketers tend to focus too much on the campaign and the campaign’s perspective. That it’s also important to look at the customer outcomes from a campaign as well. Customers that feel noticed by a campaign and then continue to feel noticed and respected by an organization, even after their marketing efforts have shifted, will continue to be loyal to that brand.
Prioritize tools that can build a unified customer experience, storing data in a format that can be as unified as possible across any system. Use that data to better enrich marketing efforts and to also ensure a beneficial customer experience overall.
Measuring Metrics for Campaigns in GA4
When deciding on which metrics to measure, always know your objective first. As Chris puts it, know exactly “what will you get fired for?” After knowing what your objective is, determine if that objective is something that GA4 can accurately measure. For instance, if the campaign revolves around measuring B2B revenue growth, GA4 is incapable of accurately measuring that metric.
Find tools that act as a proxy, filling in for those specific needs that Google might not be able to meet, and use them alongside GA4 if possible.
AJAX Form Tracking in GA4
Form tracking is an imperative part of analytics. The concern for many is that GA4 will have trouble tracking form submissions, making life difficult for website owners and digital marketers alike. AJAX form submission is a form submission that doesn’t require a new page load. This means that there is no new page view after someone has submitted a form, making for more accurate analytics. This was something that needed to be set as an event in Universal Analytics and is something that is much more fluid in GA4.
Within Google Tag Manager, there is a data layer, which is an object of data fields. The data layer gets carried over as the user traverses a website and is what analytic tools would use to track events. Marketers can use the data layer to trigger events in Google Tag Manager and send data to where they need it to be. Additionally, if the form submissions have proper HTTP Get or HTTP Post configuration, then Google Tag will be able to track it no problem.
One of the most valuable features that Google Analytics, or analytics in general, is goal setting. Goals help us as website owners and digital marketers grow, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. GA4 allows us to build goals around links, triggering events that send an email or a telephone call.
There are basic protocols to trigger these events and set goals. A telephone link basically makes your phone number clickable, helping website users get in contact with whoever they need to talk to easily and efficiently. Firstly, to build a goal around a telephone link, the link must be built correctly. It works just like an HTTP link and looks like “TEL: (the correct phone number).”
To track that goal, the number of clicks for that link, set up a tag in Google Tag Manager that triggers an event whenever the link is clicked. The appropriate event will send data to GA4 making it easier to track. Any phone number you have publicly listed on your site should be linked, so that the right tag fires and the proper goal metrics are tracked correctly.
The Explorer Function
It’s natural to compare GA4 to Universal Analytics. One question Nils and Chris cover deals on the Explorer function in GA4 and if it is like the Behavior functionality in Universal Analytics. The Explorer feature in GA4 allows analytic users to visualize the different segments of website visitors and collect specific data on every visitor’s activity while on the site.
There is a sub-feature within the Explorer called Path Exploration which creates similar Sankey Diagrams that follow a visitor’s pages, sessions, and the relationship between different types of events. The Explorer hub, as Chris points out, is not the most intuitive thing in the world, especially for non-technical marketers.
Marketers need to know exactly what information they need to find, and then they can try and see if they can collect that data from GA4. This is important, because of GA4’s shift in perspective. Page views are becoming less and less important from Google’s point of view, instead looking to focus on the Google user’s whole journey end-to-end. In this regard, GA4 could not be more different from the Universal Analytics that digital marketers may be accustomed to.
Managing Subdomains within GA4
When asked questions on how to manage several subdomains within GA4 at a time, Chris and Nils offered the age-old answer... it depends. It would depend on your specific organization and how they run different subdomains, if they have them. It is possible to bring multiple subdomains together under one roof and filter between them. Alternatively, you can set up different profiles on each subdomain to have them organized but separate at the same time.
Since GA4 has a more holistic outlook to the user’s journey, it might make sense for a marketing team to bring all subdomains together. It is important to note that different subdomains might have logical restrictions, set by data admins for security reasons. If that’s the case, then separate properties might be the best option.
Setting up a GA4 property for a site, subdomains would be considered part of the same site. This would allow for multiple data streams and maybe multiple tags as well. From a reporting perspective, understand which data stream you need to visualize to collect the data you’re after. If you can avoid creating multiple properties, then do so.
Data Regulations and Privacy Compliance
As we enter this new tech era, the internet in general is prioritizing privacy more than ever. Marketers need to be able to collect their data without infringing on anyone’s right to data privacy. Once again, when asked about data regulation and privacy compliance, the answer remains, “it depends.” In this instance, it depends on where you are in the world.
For example, Austria, Denmark, Italy, and France had ruled that the Universal Analytics is illegally noncompliant with their privacy regulations. This is because Universal Analytics had no means of controlling where data was sent to be processed. The data would usually be sent back to the US, which went against the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Similarly, the state of California is implementing the California Consumer Privacy Act (CPPA) which has guidelines in place that protect consumer data from needless collection. These regulations have the potential to hinder cookie usage and analytic data collection. Website owners need to reevaluate how they are processing their visitor data. It is now mission-critical that they know where they are sending data to be processed exactly.
Additionally, it needs to be made known to site visitors that data is being shared, and only shared if explicit consent is given. Website owners need to provide consent banners that allow people to decide whether they are okay with their data being shared and tracked. The MarTech industry is shifting to permission-based tracking and both analytic tools and marketers need to incorporate that into their mindsets.
Website owners can start by learning which laws apply to them. No matter the website, the size of the organization, or location, you need to adhere to the appropriate laws that dictate your data handling habits. Then it’s imperative to configure the data tools you’re using to follow those rules too, only collecting the appropriate data and sending it places it’s allowed to. With the right consent and the right processing methods, marketers can still collect valuable data without overstepping.
The main takeaway from Nils and Chris conversation is to be as prepared as possible for GA4. Universal Analytics is being fully sunset by July 2023, with no migration path to the new property. If you don’t move your data over, or implement GA4 now, then you’ll miss out on preserving the data you have collected and will be scrambling to catch up.
Let the data roll in, using whatever Business Intelligence tool you prefer, in addition to or instead of GA4. As long as you’re collecting insightful data that you need to grow, while respecting privacy and ignoring pointless or distracting data, then you’ll continue to thrive as an organization and as digital marketers.
Stay alert, stay proactive, and keep analyzing that data.