Google has announced the end of life for their Universal Analytics, which is being replaced by Google Analytics 4 (GA4). This means that from July 1, 2023, you will no longer get web metrics recorded using standard Universal Analytics properties.
If your library uses Google Analytics to track usage of any of your websites, it is important to start planning the transition to the new version and getting to grips with the changes. Or start looking for an alternative.
How do you know what version you are currently using? As a general rule, if you set up your analytics prior to October 14, 2020, you will likely be using the Universal Analytics version. You may also notice that your Google Analytics property ID starts with UA-. Properties which start with a G and then a series of numbers are the newer version.
We are now working with our clients that use Google Analytics to start taking steps to ensure a smoother transition and prevent a hard cutoff to accessing historical data. So we thought it might be useful to put this information into a short guide for others who may be using Google Analytics or looking to get more out of their web analytics setup.
What are the differences?
GA4 is quite a different beast to the Universal Analytics you may be familiar with. For starters, it is far more focused on ‘events’. In fact, everything is an event.
Previously you might look at pageviews, sessions, session duration, bounce rate. But let’s face it, these don’t always tell you a lot about how people are engaging with your site or why.
In the new version, there are no longer ‘sessions’ but instead, measurements are based on user interactions. And everything is now an ‘event’.
But GA4 also uses machine learning to provide ‘insights’ into how people are using your site or app. Insights are a way to detect changes or patterns of usage of your website. These can be either default or custom. For example, you can create an alert to notify you if the number of users interacting with your site on a daily basis has changed significantly.
Steps to take
If you decide to stick with Google Analytics, there are a few steps you can take to make the transition a bit smoother and to make sure you are getting the most out of your web analytics setup.
- Set up GA4
You can start using Google Analytics now, even alongside your existing Universal Analytics version.
There’s a setup assistant for connecting a GA4 property (such as a website, mobile app or blog) to your existing Google Analytics. This is available on the admin page for your existing Analytics property. It will walk you through creating a new analytics property in the latest version, while keeping your existing analytics available as well for now.
- Configure your analytics
Once you’ve implemented the new version of Google Analytics, it’s a good time to set things up in a way that works best for you, rather than accepting the default configuration or needing to reconfigure things further down the line.
It’s worth diving into this ‘events’ approach of GA4 to get a better understanding of what metrics are available to you. Out of the box, it’s very much geared towards e-commerce and other commercial sites so you will need to make changes to get the most value out of it for collections and other community-focused web content.
For example, there’s now a view_search_results event to capture each time a user performs a search on your site, which can be useful for sites where search is a key feature.
You can set up ‘conversions’ based on what interactions are most important to your organisation. Making the ‘view_search_results’ event a conversion in a search-based collection site can be a good first step in configuring your GA4 reporting.
To get the most out of GA4, you should also set up custom insights. Starting with the suggested insights might work in the short term, but you will get more actual insight if you modify these to better suit the goals of your site, particularly if it’s not a revenue-based website or app.
Once you’ve started collecting the information that matters to you, you can modify the reports to show these metrics.
- Ensuring you are GDPR compliant
GA4 is more privacy-aware than previous versions of Google Analytics and IP anonymisation is enabled by default which is definitely a step in the right direction.
But there are other requirements of GDPR and other similar legislation to be mindful of and you still have a responsibility to ensure you are only collecting and storing user data with permission. Storage limitation is another area to consider – you can change the default settings to align with your organisation’s data retention policies.
Migrating to an alternative
You may also want to take the opportunity to migrate away from Google Analytics, as many more alternatives have emerged offering different features and with an emphasis on privacy, data management and GDPR compliance.
Matomo (formerly known as Piwik) is a free and open source web analytics option. Using this software requires hosting the application yourself which not everyone has the resources or support to do.
It’s quite a lightweight option and many shared hosting providers come with a Matomo installer available, so self-hosting isn’t an insurmountable challenge. And there’s a Google Analytics Importer plugin to bring across your existing analytics data.
Plausible is another alternative to Google Analytics that offers either a self-hosted version (albeit one with steeper installation requirements) or a paid, hosted version available from £9/month. You can also import your Google analytics data into their platform.
No Cookie Analytics is another simple and affordable alternative, with pricing based on visitor levels.
The cost of using these newer analytics tools may be a barrier, but cost should be factored in alongside the time involved in configuring and managing the more complex GA4 product.
Web analytics can be confusing and overwhelming at the best of times and this new version of Google Analytics has not done the product any favours in terms of the learning curve. If you depend on your analytics to gather insights into your users, now is the time to start taking steps to mitigate the end of Universal Analytics, preserve your historical data, and rethink how you use web analytics for your library.