Is Google Analytics going away? What marketers need to know

Universal Analytics will be retired on July 1, 2023. What does that mean for you? Here’s what you need to know about getting your website ready for the brave new world.

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Third-party cookies are going the way of the dodo. The looming cookieless world has many marketers more than a little nervous. With Universal Analytics sunsetting and the rise of what’s being called Google Analytics 4 in its place, digital marketing analytics can be a confusing place, so let’s make things clear… and know that I even got some input from Google digital marketing evangelist Avinash Kaushik too!

The changes with Google Analytics 4

Google announced that Universal Analytics will officially retire and stop processing new hits on July 1, 2023. Marketing teams have until that point to find analytics alternatives for website analytics. Google analytics alternatives exist, but Google is making things simple for you to stay. Universal Analytics will be replaced by Google Analytics 4. After the official retirement date, you’ll have access to your previously processed data through UA for at least six months.

What makes Google Analytics 4 different from UA, though? The measurement data model is now based on events and parameters. A page view, for example, is an event. A parameter would be tracking video views or page scrolling for example. Here is a long list of automatically collected events and parameters, with no effort required from you.

For those who’ve used it before, you might recognize App + Web since Google renamed it for use as the replacement for Universal Analytics. For those not familiar with App + Web, there are a few key differences between it and the outgoing UA, including a selection of different reports. 

The dawn of a world with no cookies

Cookies have been used for decades to track internet users and deliver a personalized experience. They’re also vital to digital marketing. Google threw a wrench in the works when the company announced that they would phase out third-party cookies from Chrome by 2022. It sent publishers and advertisers into tailspins as they worried about how they’d deal with a cookieless world.

Of course, there’s some news that might surprise the people who are most worried about their fate once Google makes good on its promise. They’ve been living in a quasi-cookieless world for some time now. Both Firefox and Safari block third-party cookies already. Google is, admittedly, late to the party. Of course, since Chrome commands over 60% of the browser market, the news had more impact than when the other two browsers stopped supporting third-party cookies.

Why are all the major browsers no longer supporting third-party cookies? It’s all about protecting privacy, ensuring transparency, and building trust with consumers. The challenge is going to be how to continue building your audience online without them. Meanwhile, rest assured that first-party cookies will still work.

The following formats and channels are not affected by cookie industry changes:

  • In-App inventory.
  • Audio/podcast inventory.
  • Connected TV.
  • Digital Out-of-Home. 

Targeting not affected

At our agency, when running media, we use the following targeting strategies based on either second party data or Device ID/IP Address, to not be affected by upcoming industry changes:

  • Device ID lookback targeting.
  • Point-of-Interest targeting purchase.
  • Purchase receipt.
  • Mail domain.
  • B2B offline data.
  • Weather-triggered targeting.
  • CRM integration (postal address, email address, IP address).
  • Geo-fencing/geo-targeting.
  • Blocklist/allowlist.
  • Contextual keyword .
  • Vertical.
  • Day-parting.
  • In-language.
  • App detection.
  • Social hashtags/account follows.
  • Automatic content recognition.
  • Voter-file targeting.
  • Social sharing.

The Crux of the Problem: Identity 

The entire point of cookies is to identify a particular consumer online. With third-party cookies being phased out, you’re faced with the quandary of how to continue to target and reach your digital audience. Most U.S. marketers face significant worries here, particularly when it comes to the following:

  • Buy-side adoption.
  • Maintenance.
  • Transparency.
  • Yield.

There’s also concern that whatever new identity solutions are ultimately rolled out; they may not dovetail well with the current tools and platforms that you’re using. The good news is that several identity solutions have already emerged, although there is no clear winner amongst them. For instance, universal IDs are being considered (and rolled out by some organizations, such as The Trade Desk). These work similarly to state-issued identification/driver’s licenses in the real world. All participating companies can then use this ID to identify and target their audiences across the internet.

Another option is to shift toward first-party data. Most publishers and advertisers have access to quite a few channels that offer rich first-party data and maximizing the use of these channels would more than offset the loss of third-party cookies, which, despite their ubiquity, were never 100% accurate.

Two of those channels are email marketing and push notification marketing. Email marketing has been around for a very long time and has remained very effective, particularly for publishers and marketers seeking to gather email addresses and then reach audience members with targeted offerings. 

This is an opt-in channel, which means that consumers automatically have higher trust. It also delivers better ROI and improves yields, while upholding modern privacy standards. Email marketing is also simple to personalize, which speaks to the need to deliver an improved customer experience at all touch points.

Push notifications are also a form of opt-in marketing, and they allow you to reach individuals via their devices. They offer the ability to send real-time alerts, and they can also help you gather additional first-party marketing data. 

Building your future

You already have access to a wide range of tools that can offset the loss of data from any third-party cookies. However, you still need to test to refine your campaigns and maximize your ROI. That can be challenging to do in-house but working with a trusted agency partner can help.

Don’t miss our June 7 Master Class: “Successfuly transitioning to Google Analytics 4”

Understanding the Importance of Google Analytics 4

With the demise of Universal Analytics on the horizon, it’s time to get up close and familiar with its replacement. Google Analytics 4 offers some pretty compelling benefits and advantages, and the learning curve is not particularly steep.

Be prepared

One thing to understand from the outset is that Google Analytics 4 doesn’t care about your historical data. It won’t import past data at all, nor can you access historical data through it. It will begin collecting data from the moment it is set up and you’ll have access to that information only. 

Simple to upgrade

While many platforms force you to jump through hoops to upgrade, that’s not the case with Google Analytics 4. Just go to google/com/analytics. Once there, you’ll need to access your account and then find the property column. You’ll see an option for upgrading right there. Or go here.

Better features for better performance

Another key benefit of Google Analytics 4 is that you’ll have access to better features than what’s currently on offer with UA. For instance, the new Analytics platform offers predictive analysis, as well as deep insights thanks to the presence of well-developed AI and machine learning. The new platform also generates custom reports, and you can track up to 300 events.

Google ads

Google Ads can be improved by pulling the performance data from GA4. It can help you have better ads created on your behalf, improve conversion rates, and more. Of course, assuming that your positioning and messaging of your ads are on point.  AI can’t help much with that.

Greater agility

Improved agility is critical in today’s world, and the new Google Analytics 4 offers what you need. You can tailor your reports to your unique needs, and you get faster access to more detailed data than what’s possible with UA. That means you can make decisions in real-time to deliver the best possible user experience. 

Exploring the differences between UA and Google Analytics 4

While both AU and GA4 share Google’s DNA, there are quite a few differences in how the two platforms operate. We’ll explore those below.

User tracking changes

With UA, you used session tracking to monitor users. That changes to event-based tracking with GA4.

What users are doing

That event-based focus extends throughout GA4. The goal here is simple – to give you the best idea of what your users are doing on the website. 

Digging through your data

One of the high points of GA4 is the access to customizable, flexible reports. With UA, you have set reports that can be customized to some degree, but GA4 is different. It only offers a few top-level, built-in reports. Getting access to specific data is as simple as clicking on the analysis tab. You can easily find key data and organize how your reports display.

Lastly, you can access raw GA data and SQL away!

Can you upgrade early?

Yes, GA4 is available right now. You can upgrade at any time from your Analytics account. The 2023 date is specific for sunsetting the Universal Analytics platform, which will no longer be accessible after that date (although your data will be available for at least six months, as mentioned previously).

Event-based monitoring in Google Analytics 4

As discussed previously, GA4 uses event-based monitoring, unlike Universal Analytics, which uses a session-based format. It’s important to understand these events and how they are categorized so that you’re able to plan and structure your events. 

You will need to ensure that the event that you want is one of those the platform automatically collects. If not, it may be found among the Enhanced Measurement events. You may also need to check Recommended Events and how they are named. Finally, you can create custom events to better suit your needs.

The four event types

Google Analytics 4 is pre-configured with four different types of events. These are as follows:

Custom events. These are events that you create on your own. These should be used if you are unable to locate your event in any of the other categories. Note that custom events may not show up in most standard reports, so you will need to customize your reporting to access this data.

Automatically collected events. Once you set up your data collection parameters, these events are automatically collected. They will show in most standard reports.

Enhanced Measurement Events. Once you set enhanced measurements, these events will be automatically collected. They will be displayed on most standard reports, as well.

Setting up Google Analytics 4

If you’ve decided to take the plunge, or you’re just getting prepared for the big day ahead of UA’s sunsetting date, you’ll want to know how to get Google Analytics 4 set up. Thankfully, it’s relatively simple.

  • Make sure you have a GA account. If you don’t, now’s the time to create one.
  • Go to Google Analytics.
  • Click on settings admin.
  • Find the property column.
  • Select the UA property.
  • Click GA4 setup assistant.
  • Click “get started” below the heading that says, “I want to create a new GA 4 property”.
  • Enable data collection using existing tags.
  • Click “create property”.

Follow those simple steps and the setup wizard will take care of the rest. 

Is GA4 missing any features?

While Google does a great job of regularly introducing new features, the company does sometimes take tools and capabilities away, often with little warning. So, what’s missing in Google Analytics 4?

  • You cannot set up views.
  • Some older reports are missing.
  • There’s a lack of ecommerce support.

According to analytics expert and author Avinash Kaushik,  this new platform is a work in progress. After a direct communication with him, Avinash assured me: “Life is about evolution, in that spirit GA 4 has a lot of new stuff that is good, it prepares for a future where privacy changes (like those at Apple) don’t completely kill analytics, and has a new paradigm that scales. Of course, some things are not yet there, but they will get there.”

He went on to detail: “With the integration into Big Query, GA 4 should allow you to take a lot more detail out of GA if you want. And (for enterprise-level brands), if you are using GA Premium ($150,000/year USD), I don’t know if you are losing a lot with the switch.  Adobe Analytics is a good alternative to GA as well.“ 

He also shared a good source of alternative platforms to consider.

What is interesting is how the highest hit-type metrics focus on the next step in a customer journey compared to universal analytics:

  1. Engaged Sessions.
  2. Engagement Rate.
  3. Engaged Sessions Per User. 
  4. Average Engagement Time.

This seems to point to showing us when a visitor actually becomes important to measure so we can focus our energies better.  Tire-kickers, be gone!  I am a big believer in qualitative metrics to dig deeper into meaningful answers on user behavior — so bring it on.

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Should you make the switch now?

Tracking on G4 only starts tracking the day you implement it. While you can switch over to GA4 right now, there’s nothing that says you cannot use both Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4, at least for the time being. That might be the best way to get your feet wet and it allows you to compare them side-by-side. With that being said, there will come a time when you must switch over to GA4 and say goodbye to UA. However, if you’re new to Google Analytics entirely, it’s probably best to start with GA4 since it will eventually replace Universal Analytics.

In summation

It’s highly recommended that brands take advantage of the ability to move to Google Analytics 4 soon. If you haven’t already done so, get your GA4 properties set up and configured. Doing so early will help you avoid any delays and ensure that your marketing efforts are ready to hit the ground running when UA finally retires. 

This will also allow you to find ways to deal with the data that UA currently stores, and experiment with email marketing, push notification marketing, and other solutions to the lack of third-party cookies. And remember – Universal Analytics will stop functioning (other than for access to historical data) on July 1, 2023. 

Personally, I will deeply miss the granularity of UA but we are also moving into an era where we’ve had all this data, yet we’ve hardly used it, let alone understood how it impacted our bottom line.  This new, streamlined version seems to be moving us towards a sharper view of what is happening in your business and getting a clearer answer, faster.

The Google Analytics platform is moving away from simply being a reporting tool. It’s beginning to use AI to do what corporations hire me to do, which is: To be a change agent and tell sharper stories with their data to help clarify where the opportunities are, as well as predicting where things are headed, all while taking action to get there as fast as possible.  

GA4 may be the future of measurement, but don’t forget…analytics in general are more like your car’s speedometer, while your brand is the car engine itself. Obviously a car can work fine without a speedometer but not the other way around!  Your brand is the actual engine that actually moves your organization, but if only you fully leverage it.  I wish some of you were more panicked about your brand and creativity, than your analytics — if I’m being really honest. 

Forrester analyst, Jay Pattisall, said that we have collectively overspent (an unbelievable) $19 billion on technology and have completely underfunded creativity.  At the end of the day,  accessing data is hardly the problem, since your analytics does not fix anything on its own. Once you are done with the work of analysis, you still need talent, experienced with storytelling, to engineer a solution to move your insights towards impacting predictability to your bottom line.  

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Allen Martinez
Allen Martinez has $25 billion dollars of media spend behind his career’s work. He works as a fractional CMO and Chief Strategist at Noble Digital agency, which he founded. Allen knows how data is done and can translate data into meaningful and compelling stories to supercharge brands in the digital age. He has launched and even exited all types of brands – from funded platform startups like: Fundrise and Telesign, to SharkTanks like: Plated and big brands like New Balance, Mutual of Omaha, Coca-Cola, Subway, Nestle, and AT&T to name only a few. Allen continues to leverage Noble Digital as a platform to launch, scale and exit products and brands.

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