Digital Marketing

GA4 vs. Universal Analytics: Which One Reigns Supreme?

December 27, 2023

In the world of web analytics, Google Analytics has been a dominant force, empowering businesses to understand and optimize their online presence. With the evolution of technology and changing user behaviors, Google has introduced a new iteration called Google Analytics 4 (GA4) as a successor to Universal Analytics. GA4 brings forth a host of new features, improvements, and a shift in its underlying approach to tracking, reporting, and analysis. Understanding the difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics is crucial for businesses aiming to harness the power of data-driven insights to drive growth and success. 

In this GA4 vs. Universal Analytics article, we will put them against each other and see which one reigns supreme. 

GA4 vs. Universal Analytics

Data Model

In Universal Analytics, the data model is session-based, which means it primarily focuses on tracking user interactions within a specific session or visits to a website. It categorizes data into hits, sessions, and users.

A hit represents an interaction that is tracked, such as a pageview, event, or transaction. A session in Universal Analytics represents a period during which a user engages with a website. A user represents a unique individual who visits a website.

On the other hand, GA4 introduces an event-based data model, which is designed to track user interactions and events across multiple platforms and devices. It shifts the focus from sessions to individual events and emphasizes the importance of tracking specific actions taken by users.

In GA4, an event is a fundamental unit of measurement. It represents a specific user action, such as a button click, video view, or form submission. Events are categorized based on predefined parameters, including event name, event category, and event action. This allows for more granular tracking of user interactions.

GA4 also takes a user-centric approach, meaning it places greater emphasis on tracking individual users and their actions across different devices and platforms. It uses enhanced measurement capabilities to associate events with specific users, enabling a more holistic understanding of user behavior.

Reporting and Analysis

Next in GA4 vs. Universal Analytics is reporting and analysis. In Universal Analytics, the reporting and analysis capabilities are focused on providing a wide range of standard reports and customization options. Here's a further elaboration on the features available:

  • Standard Reports: Universal Analytics offers a comprehensive set of prebuilt reports that cover different aspects of website performance and user behavior. These reports include Audience, Acquisition, Behavior, and Conversion reports. They provide insights into metrics like pageviews, sessions, users, traffic sources, conversion rates, and more.
  • Customization Options: Universal Analytics provides flexibility for customization. You can create custom reports by selecting dimensions (attributes) and metrics (quantitative data) based on your specific needs. This customization allows you to analyze data in a way that is relevant to your business objectives and goals.
  • Goals and Funnels: Universal Analytics allows you to set up goals and track conversions on your website. Goals can be defined based on specific user actions, such as completing a purchase, submitting a form, or spending a certain amount of time on a page. Funnels can be created to track the steps users take to complete a specific goal, helping you identify areas of drop-off or optimization opportunities in the conversion process.
  • Segmentation: Universal Analytics offers segmentation capabilities to analyze specific subsets of users or sessions. Segments can be based on demographics, behavior, traffic source, or custom dimensions/metrics. By segmenting your data, you can gain deeper insights into different user groups, compare performance across segments, and uncover patterns or trends.
  • Custom Dimensions/Metrics: Universal Analytics allows the creation of custom dimensions and metrics. Custom dimensions enable the capture of additional data about users or sessions beyond the default set of dimensions. Custom metrics, on the other hand, allow you to define and track custom numerical values related to your business goals.

On the other hand, GA4 introduces a new reporting interface and updated features that focus on a different approach to reporting and analysis:

  • Analysis Hub: GA4 emphasizes the use of the Analysis Hub, which provides a more exploratory and ad-hoc analysis experience. It allows you to perform advanced analysis by asking questions about your data and getting instant insights. The Analysis Hub includes features like Exploration, Funnel Analysis, Path Analysis, and Segment Overlap, enabling you to delve deeper into your data.
  • Event-Centric Reporting: GA4's reporting is centered around events, which are specific user actions tracked on your website or app. The reporting provides insights into event parameters, such as event name, event category, and event action. This focus on events enables you to understand user interactions and behaviors in a more detailed manner.
  • User Properties and Audiences: GA4 emphasizes user properties, which are attributes associated with individual users. These properties can include demographic information, device characteristics, or custom user attributes. GA4 allows you to create audiences based on these user properties, enabling you to target specific user segments for analysis or marketing campaigns.

It is evident from this GA4 vs. Universal Analytics comparison that GA4 is better at reporting and analysis. 

Data Retention

Data retention refers to the duration for which the data collected in an analytics platform is stored and available for analysis. Here's a further elaboration on data retention in our Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics guide. 

In Universal Analytics, the data retention period is based on the user's chosen settings. Universal Analytics allows users to configure the data retention period, which can range from a minimum of 14 months to unlimited. This means that you can choose how long you want to retain the data collected in Universal Analytics before it is automatically deleted.

On the other hand, GA4 has a default data retention period of 14 months. This means that data collected in GA4 is stored for 14 months by default. However, GA4 also provides an option to extend the data retention period up to 26 months. This extended retention period allows you to retain your data longer if needed.

Data retention settings in both Universal Analytics and GA4 apply to the raw data collected by the analytics platform. Aggregated and processed data, such as reports and analysis, may still be available even after the data retention period has passed. The data retention period primarily affects the availability of raw data for deeper analysis or reprocessing. This means that in our Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics comparison, both are equally good on the data retention front.

Tracking Methods

Up next in the Universal Analytics vs. GA4, comparison is the tracking methods used by them. 

In Universal Analytics, tracking is primarily achieved through JavaScript snippets that are inserted into webpages. These JavaScript snippets, commonly known as the Google Analytics tracking code, are responsible for collecting and sending data to the Universal Analytics servers. When a user visits a webpage with the tracking code, it executes in the browser and records various interactions and events.

Key points about tracking in Universal Analytics:

  • JavaScript Tracking: Universal Analytics relies on JavaScript to track user interactions. The tracking code initializes and sends data to the Universal Analytics servers, capturing information like pageviews, events, and other user actions. JavaScript is executed on the client side (in the user's browser) to collect and transmit the data.
  • User Identification with Cookies: Universal Analytics uses cookies to identify and track individual users across different sessions and visits. Cookies are small text files stored on the user's device and are used to assign a unique identifier to each user. This enables Universal Analytics to associate multiple sessions and interactions with the same user.

On the other hand, GA4 introduces more flexible tracking options and enhanced capabilities:

  • Measurement Protocol: GA4 supports the Measurement Protocol, which is an HTTP-based API. This protocol allows data to be sent directly to the GA4 servers from various sources, including servers, mobile apps, and other devices, without relying solely on JavaScript. The Measurement Protocol provides a programmatic way to send data to GA4, offering more flexibility in tracking data from different platforms.
  • Enhanced Tracking for Mobile Apps: GA4 offers improved tracking capabilities specifically designed for mobile apps. It provides SDKs (Software Development Kits) for different mobile platforms (iOS and Android), which allow developers to integrate GA4 tracking directly into their mobile apps. This enables comprehensive tracking of user interactions and events within mobile applications.

From this Universal Analytics vs. GA4 comparison, we can easily say that GA4 is better at tracking. 

Cross-Device Tracking

Cross-device tracking refers to the ability to connect user interactions and activities across multiple devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and computers, to gain a comprehensive understanding of the user journey. Here's a further elaboration on cross-device tracking in UA vs. GA4:

In Universal Analytics, cross-device tracking requires the implementation of additional techniques to connect user interactions across multiple devices:

  • User ID: Universal Analytics provides the User ID feature, which allows you to assign a unique identifier to users. By implementing User ID tracking, you can associate user interactions and activities across different devices and sessions. However, User ID tracking requires users to be logged in or provide identifiable information consistently across devices for accurate tracking.
  • Cross-Domain Tracking: Universal Analytics offers cross-domain tracking capabilities, which enable the tracking of user interactions across multiple websites or domains. This allows you to connect user sessions and behavior as users navigate different websites under the same tracking property.

On the flip side, GA4 introduces built-in cross-device tracking capabilities to provide a more holistic view of the user journey without requiring additional techniques:

  • Enhanced Measurement Model: GA4 utilizes an enhanced measurement model that automatically stitches together user interactions and events across different devices and platforms. This means that when a user interacts with your website or app on multiple devices, GA4 can associate those interactions and provide a unified view of the user's journey.
  • Persistent User IDs: GA4 assigns persistent user IDs to individual users, allowing them to be recognized and tracked across multiple devices and sessions. This tracking is done using a combination of unique identifiers, such as device IDs and login information, to connect the user's interactions and activities.

GA4 again takes the lead in the UA vs. GA4 comparison. 

Machine Learning and Insights 

In terms of machine learning and insights, there are notable differences between Universal Analytics vs. Google Analytics 4:

Universal Analytics offers limited machine learning capabilities and automated insights:

  • Limited Machine Learning: Universal Analytics does not have extensive built-in machine learning capabilities. It primarily relies on manual analysis and configuration by the user to extract insights from the data collected. Machine learning algorithms are not a core part of the Universal Analytics platform.
  • Automated Insights: Universal Analytics provides some basic automated insights through its Intelligence feature. These insights are generated based on predefined rules and statistical analysis. They can include reports on significant changes in website traffic, alerts for unusual activity, or recommendations for improving performance. However, the insights generated in Universal Analytics are relatively basic compared to the capabilities offered by GA4.

However, GA4 leverages Google's advanced machine-learning capabilities to provide more sophisticated insights:

  • Advanced Machine Learning: GA4 integrates Google's machine learning algorithms and capabilities to offer more advanced insights. These machine learning models analyze the data collected and uncover patterns, trends, and correlations that may not be easily identifiable through traditional analysis methods.
  • Automated Alerts: GA4 includes automated alerts that notify you of significant changes or anomalies in your data. These alerts are generated using machine learning algorithms that identify patterns and deviations from normal behavior. For example, GA4 can automatically alert you if there is a sudden spike or drop in conversion rates or if there is unusual user behavior on your website.
  • Predictive Metrics: GA4 provides predictive metrics that forecast future outcomes based on historical data. By applying machine learning algorithms, GA4 can estimate future metrics such as revenue, conversion rates, or user engagement. These predictions can help you make informed decisions and plan future strategies.
  • AI-Driven Anomaly Detection: GA4 uses AI-driven anomaly detection to identify unusual or abnormal data patterns that may indicate issues or opportunities. It can detect outliers or unexpected changes in user behavior, conversion rates, or other key metrics. This helps you identify areas that require attention or further investigation.

As you can see from this Universal Analytics vs. Google Analytics 4 comparison, GA4's integration with Google's machine learning capabilities enables more advanced insights.

Conclusion - GA4 vs. Universal Analytics

In conclusion, the introduction of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) has marked a significant shift in the world of web analytics. While Universal Analytics has long been a reliable tool for businesses, GA4 brings advanced features and a modernized approach to tracking, reporting and analysis, tracking, cross-device tracking, and machine learning and insights. As GA4 continues to evolve, businesses should consider transitioning from Universal Analytics to take advantage of its enhanced features and future-proof their analytics strategies.

GA4 vs. Universal Analytics FAQ's:

1. What is the advantage of GA4 over universal Analytics?

The advantages of GA4 over Universal Analytics include an event-based data model, enhanced cross-device tracking, advanced reporting and analysis features, integration with Google's machine learning capabilities, and future-proofing of analytics strategy.

2. What is the difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics?

GA4 (Google Analytics 4) and Universal Analytics are two versions of the Google Analytics platform. The main differences include the data model (event-based vs. session-based), reporting and analysis features, cross-device tracking capabilities, machine learning and insights, data retention periods, and tracking methods. GA4 offers a more advanced and flexible approach, focusing on user interactions and providing enhanced reporting and cross-device tracking.

REIN Digital is a leading global marketing and advertising firm focused on providing the best services and partnership. Our journey began in 2015 in Gurgaon, and since then we have been believing in putting in every ounce of effort in order to bridge the gap between our client's present and hopeful future. 

Throughout these years, we have collaborated with businesses from India as well as other nationals including Australia & the USA.

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