Getting Your Institution Ready for Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

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Updated August 17, 2022.

Because the internet is the gift that keeps on giving, Google recently threw marketers a new curveball with the announcement that Google Analytics 4 (GA4) will replace Universal Analytics (UA) on July 1, 2023. Many institutions are still using UA, and if you’re among them, you don’t need to panic. However, there are some steps you’ll want to take to prepare to switch over to GA4—this isn’t an upgrade or a migration, it’s a true replacement. GA4 is a completely separate platform with its own unique features and functionality, and if you plan to continue to use Google Analytics to measure your website traffic and/or marketing campaigns, switching to GA4 is a must. Google announced that UA will stop collecting data on July 1, 2023, and users will lose access to their historical data at the end of 2023.

Keep reading to learn how GA4 is different from Universal Analytics, how you can prepare for the transition, and how to install GA4 when you’re ready. If you don’t want to read through it all, use the links below to jump to the sections that you need. And if you’d like to take a deeper dive, Google has announced a certification for GA4, which you can access here.

Contents

Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics
Transitioning to Google Analytics 4
Key Features for Google Analytics 4
[VIDEO] How To: Setting up Your Google Analytics 4 Account

Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics

As we mentioned above, GA4 is a completely different platform with its own set of features and tools. We’ll take a deeper dive into GA4 features later in this post, but at a high level, here are the most notable differences between GA4 and UA. 

One quick note here is that in its July 11, 2022 release, Google shared that bounce rate would be available in Explorations and Reporting Customization so we have updated the graphic above and our cheat sheet accordingly. However, bounce rate is calculated differently in GA4 from the way it’s calculated in UA. You can read more about those differences here.

Transitioning to Google Analytics 4

While July 2023 may seem far away, we recommend starting the transition ASAP. If you’re in the habit of reviewing year-over-year data, for example, you don’t want to wait too long to get started so you can perform that analysis within GA4. You’ll also want to give yourself some time to get used to GA4’s interface and the commonly-referenced UA metrics that don’t exist in GA4. We recommend giving yourself at least 90 days to get familiar with the platform and then beginning your regular pattern of data analysis from there, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting GA4 up and running so you can capture that full year of data. 

How you make the switch will be determined by your current UA setup. If you configured UA several years ago and have been using that old code ever since (an analytics.js code) then you’ll need to set up GA4 as its own separate platform. You or your website manager can use the new gtag.js script provided for GA4 and skip the step of connecting the two platforms. If you’ve been using one of the more current gtags for UA, you can connect your existing UA instance with GA4 and request that your current UA setup be sent to GA4. 

If you’re using Google Tag Manager, that makes this whole process much easier. Tag Manager can help you get GA4 configured correctly and much faster thanks to its Google Analytics: GA4 Configuration. If you aren’t currently using Tag Manager, now is a great time to start.

What should you measure in GA4?

A key step in this transition will be to think about what you’re currently tracking in UA and how that will translate to GA4, but that’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds. UA has a top-down hierarchy for its actions and events, but that isn’t the case for GA4. Instead of events, event actions, event labels, etc., GA4 only has main events and doesn’t make distinctions in the same manner that UA does. Then it uses machine learning to put together a visitor’s journey across different platforms to provide insights from the data it collects. Other details like previous pages visited by a user or a content download are the kinds of things you’ll want to take stock of as you’re planning your transition to GA4 so you can continue to track the different actions taken by visitors to your institution’s website. 

You’ll also want to plan for inevitable adjustments that will need to be made based on GA4’s event-driven metrics. UA greatest hits like bounce rate and pages per visit are nowhere to be found in GA4. 

Major metrics to look for include:

  • Engaged sessions – the number of sessions where visitors are on your website for more than 10 seconds and visit two or more pages or have a conversion event
  • Average engagement time per session – engagement time for “engaged sessions”—not to be confused with UA’s session duration
  • Engagement rate – the number of engaged sessions divided by the number of total sessions

UA items like traffic source and device can still be found in GA4.

If you’re a Tag Manager user, your existing tags will need to be rebuilt for GA4 because it tags data differently. For every event you have in Tag Manager, you’ll need to build an additional tag tied to the same trigger to send data to GA4. 

Getting Your Reports in Order

GA4 data is optimized to collect data from both mobile devices and applications, which also means the fields it captures in reporting are more customizable (hooray!) But they don’t line up with the fields that are captured by UA, so any reports you have that are driven by UA connectors or data flows will need to be rebuilt with GA4 data. Google thought about this and fortunately, has provided a handy list of equivalencies for UA and GA4 data.

Key Features for Google Analytics 4 

While GA4 is very different from UA and will require some adjustments, it does have a lot of great features for education marketers. Here are a few highlights.

Better Student/Parent Journey Tracking

At this point, we’ve mentioned the differences between the metrics captured in UA and GA4 a few times, but now we’ll talk about what that means. When you access GA4, instead of seeing Audience, Acquisition, Behavior, and Conversion, you’ll see a “Life Cycle” section that includes Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization, and Retention. How does this look in action? If a prospective student visits your institution’s website on their iPhone, then visits again on their laptop and completes a form, GA4 can do a better job of bringing those actions together for you. 

Improved Ad Campaign Analysis

In addition to providing better information about user interactions with your website, it does the same for ad campaigns. No matter where a user starts—a mobile device, desktop computer, a different browser, etc.— Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) will connect all of those dots for you. And because of integrations with other Google platforms (e.g., YouTube), you’ll be able to see those conversions together, giving you a clearer picture of which channels are working hardest for you so you can make decisions about how to move forward. 

A Simpler Process for Goals and Events

If you’re familiar with goals in UA (and the headaches involved in setting them up), you’ll be happy to hear that that process is more straightforward in GA4. Actions that require a manual setup in UA like clicks and file downloads are now pre-defined in GA4. The number of goals that can be created per View has increased from 20 in UA to 30 conversions in GA4. Creating and naming events is also simpler in GA4 with very little need for coding. Finally, this is yet another area that Google Tag Manager can help with. 

Visualizations and Reporting Get an Upgrade

GA4 has a snazzy portal called the “Analysis Hub” which provides a template gallery for charts and graphs and advanced analysis options. The Analysis Hub also allows for reporting by industry and use case, so you can generate templates based on metrics that users would typically want to see for these areas. 

How To: Setting up Your Google Analytics 4 Account

Now that you have some context, it’s time to get GA4 up and running for your institution. If you’re already using UA, follow the steps below. Otherwise, you can find instructions for setting up GA4 from scratch here

1. Log in to your existing UA account. Note: you’ll need an Editor role in UA to complete the steps below.
2. Click Admin. Gear icon, bottom left navigation.
3. Confirm that the correct account is selected.
4. Confirm the correct property is selected.
5. Click the GA4 Setup Assistant, which should be the first option in the Property column.

Once you’re in the Setup Wizard, click “Get Started.”

The last step is to click “Create Property.”  Then voila! You’re ready to go and you can still access your existing UA property using the Property Selector or Admin screen. Pro tip: The GA4 Setup Assistant works with gtag.js, but if your site is using analytics.js (the older code we mentioned earlier) or you’re on a platform like WordPress or Wix, you’ll need to add the Analytics tag yourself.

Things to Look Out For

Now you have GA4 installed, and your data streams have been set up, there are a few things to be aware of as you get started.

Conversions Aren’t 1:1

Unfortunately, you can’t compare conversions between UA and GA4 because each platform counts conversions differently. In UA, a user either converts or doesn’t in a session—it’s very black and white. But GA4 looks at conversions like an event occurring, and since that can happen multiple times, that can lead to multiple conversions. For example, if one person submitted a form three times in a single session on your website, UA would count that as a single conversion. On the other hand, GA4 would count those form submissions as three distinct conversions. So if you see an increase in conversions once you convert to GA4, don’t get too excited—it’s because conversions are measured differently on that platform. 

Data Retention

By default, GA4 only keeps personal data for 2 months and that can only be extended to 14 months. In the past, U.S. users could set this to indefinite, but that is no longer possible with GA4. This means that individual users cannot be tracked for longer than 14 months. For schools, you’ll definitely want to go into your Data Settings and change that from the 2-month default to the 14-month maximum.

Domain Configuration

This is key if you want GA4 to recognize the difference between inbound and outbound link click events. When you get started, you’ll need to configure your domains under your Data Streams, which serve as connectors between your properties and the website itself. Make sure every domain is represented under at least one data stream so GA4 can correctly recognize inbound versus outbound clicks.

We know it can be overwhelming to stay on top of technology changes like this in addition to the day-to-day tasks associated with your role, but hopefully, this overview can provide you and your teams with the support and knowledge you need to take on this new challenge. If you have questions or get stuck, reach out using the form below. 

Angela Brown

Angela Brown

Angela Brown joined Niche in 2021. Before joining Niche, she was director of marketing and communications at Flint Hill School in Virginia. In her role at Niche, Angela creates content, research, and insights to help PK-12 marketing, communications, and admissions professionals refine their strategies, hone their craft, and elevate their roles in schools. In addition to creating content for Enrollment Insights, Angela is a regular presenter, writer, and podcast guest. She is a member of the National School Public Relations Association, American Marketing Association, and The Association of Independent School Admission Professionals (AISAP), and serves on the Advisory Board for the Marcom Society, an exclusive online community for independent school marketing and communication professionals. Since November 2020, she has served as a judge for the Brilliance Awards, which honors marketing and communications work from PK-12 private schools around the world.

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