Google Analytics 4 (previously known as App + Web) launched in October 2020 as an upgrade to the Universal Analytics application, better known simply as Google Analytics or GA, which has become the industry-standard application for web traffic analysis.

As more and more businesses move online, a trend that has accelerated with the advent of the global COVID pandemic since, the ability to analyse web traffic and make decisions based on search, engagement and conversion data online is now more important than ever for business.

With the decline in traditional custom during the pandemic having pushed some businesses to the brink of collapse, marketing spend will have to be justified more than ever by return on investment (ROI), increasing the importance of a sophisticated analytics system.

Incorporating AI features into the heart of its operation, GA4 has been made for the future and built for a world where data security and privacy are increasingly important. In order to be able to offer customers a service that would still be able to deliver the quality and range of analysis they need despite the tightening of privacy restrictions on the internet, Google felt it was time for the next generation of Analytics. Leaning on machine learning to do the hard work for them, they aim for GA4 to be able to predict future patterns and trends that will help marketers make better decisions.

This added layer of analysis seems like a no-brainer, but are marketers ready to move away from a system that they have known and loved for so long? And with many of the new features now taking centre stage in the menus, what has become of older features of GA that so many digital marketing professionals have grown accustomed to using to guide their decisions?

We explore some of the pros and cons of version 4 in order to see what benefits it brings and the downside of moving away from the familiar old versions.

Pros

Predictive Insights with AI learning

A big part of the new system is prediction. Rather than simply reviewing and analysing your data after the fact, Google wants to offer the ability to predict future trends. By using highly complex machine learning models, Google is able to offer the chance to get ahead of your customers. Spotting trends as and before they happen can allow your business to be more immediately reactive to current demand.

The new version also allows for new levels of integration with other Google marketing products, such as Google Ads. This integration and the machine learning combined mean you can analyse audiences on a deeper level so that you can give them content with which they are more likely to engage.

Google Analytics 4 also allows for interactions from the web and any app you may have distributed to represent your business to be measured together, offering a full view of conversions from all your business’s marketing activities.

Customer understanding

You should be able to achieve a greater customer understanding with GA4, thanks to its simplified view on customer reporting. This is now organised in such a way as to allow you to find data on the particular part or moment of the customer journey that is of interest. This offers the chance to further your knowledge of your sales funnel and identify areas in which may need improvement.

Long-term use in mind

Google boasts that this new version is built with long-term use in mind. With the digital landscape having seen sweeping changes during COVID, companies want to do whatever it takes to remain competitive and to be able both to maintain their existing customers and to win new ones. With so much competition for services, customers have higher expectations of service levels that will need to be delivered to keep them happy. The new version of Analytics promises to help enable you to deliver that through its more detailed approach to data, offering up more data and more choice in terms of how and when you use it. Google hopes that the AI function of continuous learning will mean that regardless of what further rules and regulations may be instituted around privacy on the internet, holes in your data can be filled by their system.


Cons

New system to understand and loss of user-friendly functionality

A side-by-side comparison between the menu structures of GA and GA4 shows very significant differences in the user interface.


In Google Analytics, we see the following menu when fully expanded:

  • Home
  • Customisation
    • Dashboards
    • Custom Reports
    • Saved Reports
    • Custom Alerts
  • Real-time
    • Overview
    • Locations
    • Traffic Sources
    • Content
    • Events
    • Conversions
  • Audience
    • Overview
    • Active Users
    • Lifetime Value
    • Cohort Analysis
    • Audiences
    • User Explorer
    • Demographics
      • Overview
      • Age
      • Gender
    • Interests
      • Overview
      • Affinity Categories
      • In-Market Segments
      • Other Categories
    • Geo
      • Language
      • Location
    • Behaviour
      • New vs. Returning
      • Frequency & Recency
      • Engagement
    • Technology
      • Browser & OS
      • Network
    • Mobile
      • Overview
      • Devices
    • Cross Device
      • Device Overlap
      • Device Paths
      • Channels
      • Acquisition Device
    • Custom
      • Custom Variables
      • User-Defined
    • Benchmarking
      • Channels
      • Location Devices
    • Users Flow
  • Acquisition
    • Overview
    • All Traffic
      • Channels
      • Treemaps
      • Source / Medium
      • Referrals
    • Google Ads
      • Campaigns
      • Treemaps
      • Sitelinks
      • Bid Adjustments
      • Keywords
      • Search Queries
      • Hour of Day
      • Final URLs
      • Display Targeting
      • Video Campaigns
      • Shopping Campaigns
    • Search console
      • Landing Pages
      • Countries
      • Devices
      • Queries
    • Social
      • Overview
      • Network Referrals
      • Landing Pages
      • Conversions
      • Plug-ins
      • Users Flow
    • Campaigns
      • All Campaigns
      • Paid Keywords
      • Organic Keywords
      • Cost Analysis
  • Behaviour
    • Overview
    • Behaviour Flow
    • Site Content
      • All Pages
      • Content Drilldown
      • Landing Pages
      • Exit Pages
    • Site Speed
      • Overview
      • Page Timings
      • Speed Suggestions
      • User Timings
    • Site Search
      • Overview
      • Usage
      • Search Terms
      • Search Pages
    • Events
      • Overview
      • Top Events
      • Pages
      • Events Flow
    • Publisher
      • Overview
      • Publisher Pages
      • Publisher Referrers
    • Experiments
  • Conversions
    • Goals
      • Overview
      • Goal URLs
      • Reverse Goal Path
      • Funnel Visualisation
      • Goal Flow
    • E-commerce
      • Overview
      • Product Performance
      • Sales Performance
      • Transactions
      • Time to Purchase
    • Multi-Channel Funnels
      • Overview
      • Assisted Conversions
      • Top Conversion Paths
      • Time Lag
      • Path Length
      • Model Compensation Tool
  • Attribution
  • Discover
  • Admin

In Google Analytics 4, this has been replaced by the following layout:

  • Home
  • Real-time
  • Acquisition
    • Overview
    • User Acquisition
    • Traffic Acquisition
  • Engagement
    • Overview
    • Events
    • Pages and Screens
  • Monetisation
    • Overview
    • E-commerce purchases
    • In-app purchases
    • Publisher ads
  • Retention
    • Overview
  • Demographics
    • Overview
    • Demographic details
  • Tech
    • Overview
    • Tech details
  • Conversions
  • Events
  • Analysis
    • Analysis hub
    • Template gallery
  • Configure
    • Audiences
    • Custom definitions
    • Debug View
    • Admin

There has been a drastic reduction in the number of final-level menu items from 111 + Home in GA to just 24 + Home in GA4.

Of the top-level menu items, Audience, Customisation, Behaviour, Conversions, Attribution and Discover have all disappeared between versions, while Admin has been moved to a sub-item of Configure.

In fact, only Real-Time and Acquisition have been retained as top-level items between versions. Even there, Real-Time has lost all its sub-items, while Acquisition has had its sub-items reduced from 29 to just 3.

All of these cuts to the menu mean that anyone familiar with drilling down to specific functions of GA using its extensive menu structure is likely to find GA4 difficult to use at first. While some of GA’s functions formerly accessed from its menu areas may still be reproducible within GA4, it would appear that the onus is on the user to work out how to do this.
 
To give an example, we find one of the most useful integral functions of GA for SEO professionals is the All Pages Report shown in the GA menu structure above under Behaviour > Site Content > All Pages.

For every individual page in the currently selected website, the All Pages Report gives details of unique page views, average time on page, direct entrances to the site through the page, bounce rate from the page, and exit rate from the page. You can specify the time period over which these statistics are measured and carry out comparisons between two such time periods to monitor changes in performance. The selection of pages comprising the report is also highly customisable with filters to exclude unimportant pages or to only include pages with a selected subdirectory path or ones meeting a custom RegEx (regular expression) rule. Further, you can choose whether you want to display results from all users or only those from organic traffic, direct traffic or referral traffic. The All Pages Report has been a mainstay of web traffic analysis and organic search engine performance analysis.

In GA4, the nearest equivalent to the All Pages Report is found at Events > Pages and Screens. While the customisation of date range remains active here, many of the other features of the All Pages Report appear to have been lost or made more difficult to access. For instance, you can now only select All Users or Purchasers by default. The separate views for Organic Traffic, Referral Traffic and Direct Traffic are gone, which reduces the value of the view to SEO professionals, as the Organic Traffic view in GA gives more precisely defined information on search performance than the All Users view.

Even more seriously, the unique page views, entrances, bounce rate and exit rate columns seem to be gone. The loss of the entrances column is likely to prove damaging to SEO professionals, who are accustomed to using it to monitor the proven usefulness of each page in driving traffic into their clients’ websites.

Finally, the Advanced Filter functionality by which it is possible in the All Pages Report in GA to define the elements of page URLs that should be included or excluded is nowhere to be found.

It is our hope that the Events > Pages and Screens area will be enhanced, and that it is still effectively in a beta-test state. We think that many SEO analysts will continue to prefer GA to GA4 for the foreseeable future unless the earlier functionality is restored.

Time

With the many changes that we have highlighted between the existing menu of the legacy version of GA and the new menu of GA4, making the switch and getting up to speed on where to find your usual data could be time-consuming.

Analysing this type of data needs to be done regularly, and analysts may not feel completely comfortable in the new information environment of GA4 directing important business decisions without spending more time exploring the new platform so they can navigate it confidently for the information they require.

Whether you are an independent analyst preparing traffic reports for clients or part of an agency working on broader SEO strategies for businesses, investing the time needed in this new software may feel like a luxury that you cannot afford, giving weight to the argument that making the switch should not be a priority. Setting up a legacy GA account for a new client or website is still permitted at the time of writing, and Google has not yet given any indication that the old GA is going to be taken offline and disabled for existing client accounts, so our advice would be to maintain GA where you have it, but learn how to use GA4 as well when time allows.

Historical data

The moment you set up a GA4 account relating to a site, Google’s collection of GA4 data for that site will start. Historical data from previous years and months are not shown in the GA4 view, so the ability to compare year-on-year data in this single platform will not be available until you have had your GA4 account established for more than a year. Past information will however still be held in your reports in your Universal Analytics (legacy GA) account for as long as Google supports this. Google offers advice and step-by-step instructions on setting up GA4 in tandem with your existing Analytics, so that access to meaningful historical data comparison facilities is not temporarily lost.

It would seem that running these two properties (GA and GA4) side-by-side may be the best way to maintain access to valuable historical data whilst at the same time building data within the new platform and future-proofing for when Google may decide to discontinue allowing access to Universal Analytics. If you would like more advice on running these properties together, get in touch today.