Google Analytics: Universal Analytics vs GA4 – What Changed?

GA4 has been around for almost two years, but since 1st July 2023, it is the only option available for Google Analytics.

If you’re yet to familiarise yourself with GA4, here’s some of the key differences to take note of.

Events replace sessions in GA4

Universal Analytics collected and reported on data using a session-based model, whereas GA4 uses an event-based model. UA worked on the principle that page views are the most important thing to track. If you need to consider other metrics, the tracking becomes much more complicated. In UA, events are managed with Google Tag Manager or by including code on the site. With GA4, events can now be edited directly in the Google Analytics user interface.

GA4 is based on Machine-Learning

GA4 is truly set up for the future by using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to analyse and model behaviours, creating a wide-range visual of visitors. The GA4 predictive metrics feature uses machine learning to model future transactions and revenue. For those using Google Ads, with Google Analytics “Predictive Metrics”, advertisers can target ads more efficiently to customers more likely to purchase within the next seven days.

Cross-Device and Cross-Platform Tracking in GA4

Whilst cross-device reporting was limited within Universal Analytics, GA4 provides a much more robust and reliable approach. GA4 uses an anonymous identifier, called the Cross-Device ID, to track user activity across devices. Cross-Device reports help to collect data from different devices used by the same user, giving a better idea of the customer journey and the conversion process. 

GA4 adapts to Privacy Changes

UA relied on cookie-based tracking in which a UA website sends cookies to a user’s web browser, allowing that website to monitor and record web activity during that user’s session. Google Analytics users can breathe a slight sigh of relief as GA4 can track with or without cookies. When possible, cookies are less prevalent as a whole due to increased concerns about online privacy. GA4 has user-friendly privacy controls built-in so that you can remain compliant with existing and future privacy regulations.

Overall, GA4 and Universal Analytics differ in terms of their working model, with GA4 tracking events and UA tracking sessions. Evidently, with its focus around engagement, it is clear to see that GA4 is a much more customer-centric platform. As quoted by Richard Ketchum, Director of Product Management for Google Analytics, “Universal Analytics was built for a generation of online measurement that was anchored in the desktop web, independent sessions and more easily observable data from cookies. This measurement methodology is quickly becoming obsolete. Meanwhile, Google Analytics 4 operates across platforms, does not rely exclusively on cookies and uses an event-based data model to deliver user-centric measurement.”

As account based marketing and personalisation are major trends in the modern digital marketing world, having more specific insights is invaluable. If you’re yet to implement GA4 or make use of the full features within Google Analytics, get in touch to see how we can help.