Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics for E-commerce: What's New and Why It Matters

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GA4 vs Universal Analytics — the debate between these two web analytics platforms has picked up steam again now that Google has officially ended support for UA. If you’re an e-commerce marketer wondering what the switch to GA4 is all about (and if it’s really as good as UA), we’ve got answers for you.

GA4 vs. UA: An Overview

Universal Analytics (UA) is a web analytics service previously offered by Google that helped business owners gain insights into the performance of their websites. For years, UA was the preferred web analytics platform for countless e-commerce marketing leaders. 

However, as of July 1, 2023, Google has officially retired Universal Analytics and is now encouraging users to migrate to the next iteration of the platform: Google Analytics 4 (GA4). If you have historical UA data that you need to migrate to GA4, you can still access it in UA until July 1, 2024. Also, if you need assistance with setting up the new features, check out this blog on GA4 in e-commerce.

Introducing Google Analytics 4

Google Analytics 4 represents the next generation of web analytics tools. While GA4 has been out since late 2020, many users are only now making the transition since Google officially retired GA4’s predecessor, Universal Analytics, on July 1, 2023.

GA4 is designed to provide a more comprehensive and informative view of the way users interact with websites. In particular, it shifts the focus away from tracking time-based sessions and toward tracking individual users’ actions. It’s also far better equipped than UA for cross-device tracking and comes with all-new predictive analytics capabilities.

Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics: Key Differences

There are too many changes introduced by Google Analytics 4 for us to comprehensively list every difference between GA4 and UA. However, we can boil the changes down to a few key distinctions. Let’s explore what each of these differences means for e-commerce businesses:

1. Scope of Sessions

Universal Analytics uses sessions as its primary unit of measurement. It defines a session as the period of time a user spends on your website — or more specifically, the length of time between their first pageview and their last pageview.

However, in the time since Universal Analytics was introduced back in 2012, mobile devices have completely reshaped the way people interact with content online. Now, it’s commonplace for users to switch frequently between different types of devices and engage with websites or apps in varied ways over multiple sessions. This makes it much more difficult for digital marketers to accurately track and understand their users’ online behavior from single-device pageviews alone.

Google Analytics addresses this issue by redefining a session as a cross-device series of interactions taken by a user instead of the window of time they spend on the site or app. This allows for a much more accurate view of how users are interacting with business’s online offerings.

UA vs. GA4 in Action

Let's say, a user finds an item they like on your ecommerce platform and puts it in their cart using your business’s mobile app. Later, they add some related items and check out from their laptop. Whereas UA would have tracked the time spent in the mobile app and the time spent on the website as two separate sessions, GA4 recognizes that the website session is actually a continuation of the mobile app session. This makes it easier to follow an individual customer's journey from start to finish in a way that’s fully relevant to the sales and marketing funnel.

2. Event-based Tracking

Google Analytics 4 also lets you track user interactions on your webpages in much more detail than Universal Analytics did. UA mainly focused on tracking users’ pageviews — meaning which pages they chose to navigate to and how long they spent on them.

GA4 tracks events rather than pageviews — actions like clicking on a CTA button or filling out a form (while you can configure Universal Analytics to track events, it’s not integrated nearly as seamlessly as it is in GA4). Customizable event tracking provides more value to e-commerce marketers than hit-based pageview tracking alone because it allows you to break down exactly what steps a user took throughout their journey from prospect to customer.

3. Predictive Analytics

Universal Analytics provided insights about historical data only. GA4 introduces predictive analytics to make it possible to anticipate future customer behavior based on trends. For example, GA4 can use machine learning algorithms to predict which products a particular user is more likely to purchase based on their past purchases and site interactions.

You can also use GA4’s predictive analytics to anticipate fluctuations in demand for certain products. Accurate inventory forecasting not only helps you optimize your budget but also helps you keep your customers happy by ensuring their favorite items are always in stock. Similarly, you can use GA4 to predict which marketing channels have the highest conversion potential, making it easier to allocate your marketing budget efficiently.

Benefits of GA4 for E-commerce Businesses

Though there are some challenges to adopting GA4, this new version of Google Analytics comes with a variety of new benefits and features including:

  • Deeper User Insights Track user interactions across multiple devices and channels to understand the entire customer journey and identify opportunities for optimization.
  • Enhanced Cross-Platform Tracking – Accurately track user behavior across multiple devices and platforms. This data can be used to optimize marketing strategies and improve the overall CX.
  • Advanced Event Tracking Track specific user actions such as product views, add to cart, and checkout. This data can be used to optimize the sales funnel and improve the overall conversion.
  • Enhanced Audience Segmentation Create more targeted marketing campaigns based on specific user behaviors, location, and demographics.
  • Predictive Analytics – Forecast future customer behavior and anticipate which products or services are most likely to resonate with their target audience. 
  • Detailed e-commerce Reporting Keep track of the revenue, product performance, and customer behavior. Use this data to make informed decisions and adjust marketing strategies.
  • Automated Insights – Receive automated insights, such as which products are selling the most and which marketing channels are driving the most revenue. Analyze these insights to optimize your e-commerce strategy for maximum success.
  • Privacy-Centric Data Collection Collect only the necessary data to gain customer insights while keeping the user's privacy intact.
  • Seamless Integration – Perform seamless integration with Google Ads and other platforms provides for a comprehensive view of their customer journey across multiple touchpoints.

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Downsides of GA4 for E-commerce Businesses

It’s always a bit cumbersome to transition from a familiar marketing tool to a new one. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of implementing GA4 so you know what to expect:

1. Initial Learning Curve

The learning curve that comes with switching from UA to GA4 can seem daunting to marketers who have grown accustomed to UA’s interface and features. This initial learning period is one of the biggest reasons that many business owners are hesitant about the switch from UA to GA4, since it often comes with a temporary dip in productivity.

To address this challenge, make sure you invest in ample training and educational resources for your team. Google provides extensive documentation for GA4 that will likely be useful as your team learns the ropes. You can also try offering classroom-style training sessions or hiring GA4 experts to help you conduct more comprehensive training.

2. Data Migration

Another frequent frustration when moving from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 is migrating old data from UA into the new GA4 environment. Unfortunately, migrating historical data from UA to GA4 can be complex. GA4 doesn't automatically import historical data, and executing a smooth transfer that maintains the accuracy of your data can be a time-consuming process.

Data migration is a highly specialized job, and most e-commerce businesses have vast amounts of data they need to move. Unless you already have someone on your team with the required expertise, it’s best to hire a developer or data professional to make sure your data is transferred successfully.

3. Data Privacy

Naturally, user privacy is a major concern anytime businesses are collecting information from customers. While Google Analytics 4 is heavily focused on improving users’ data privacy, it has faced some criticism over its previous noncompliance with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy laws. This lack of compliance stemmed mainly from the way GA4 was handling EU citizens’ personal information during the course of international data transfers.

Thankfully, this is no longer an issue. Google Analytics 4 has been deemed fully compliant with GDPR regulations as of the adoption of the EU-U.S. Data Privacy Framework on July 10, 2023.

Scenarios Where GA4 Strengthens E-commerce Businesses

⦿ High-end gym apparel e-commerce business on the Magento platform

By using GA4, the company can track which products are most popular, which pages customers are spending the most time on, and which pages are causing customers to leave your website. With this information, they can make data-driven decisions to improve the website and increase sales. They have already optimized 15 product pages to make them more engaging and plan to run targeted advertising campaigns to attract new customers.

⦿ E-commerce business that sells Matcha tea from their Magento-powered storefront 

With GA4's predictive analytics and seamless integration with Google Ads, they can track user behavior on the website and predict which customers are most likely to make a purchase. This helps them target their advertising efforts more effectively and reach customers who are most likely to buy their tea products.

These are just two examples that demonstrate just how effective GA4 can be for e-commerce businesses. Maybe your business can become the next one?

Google Analytics 4: E-commerce Made Easier

The gradual industry-wide transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 marks a major shift in the way digital marketing operates. Now, thanks to the rise of mobile devices, user behavior is more interaction-based and less pageview-based. Users are also switching back and forth between multiple devices more than ever before.

Google Analytics 4 is a response to these evolutions in user behavior. It defaults to event-based tracking instead of pageview tracking and seamlessly tracks interactions across multiple devices, giving marketers a more realistic picture of the customer journey. It also incorporates the latest advancements in artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to enable greater proactivity in marketing than ever before.

While not every difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics is ideal. its advantages make it well worth the growing pains. As 2024’s deadline to transfer historical data out of UA and into GA4 draws nearer, it’s never been a better time for e-commerce businesses to make the move from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4.

October 24, 2023
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