Update: Google Analytics 4 Implementation

Google has announced their next-generation analytics platform: Google Analytics 4 (GA4). GA4 is significantly different than the previous version of Google Analytics—known as Universal Analytics (UA). Google is beginning to sunset UA in 2023. All standard (free) UA properties will stop processing new data on July 1, 2023.

Upgrade Process and Updates

University Marketing and Communications (UMC) has been working on upgrading from UA to GA4 for the past several months. We have learned several things since our previous blog post:

  1. Google retired the popular method—known as views—for filtering whole-company websites into individual ones. Views had several advantages, most importantly:
    1. granular access control
    2. single-site reporting without the need for a separate data visualization product
    3. no effect on page performance
  2. The closest replacement to a view is a property. In our testing, each additional property added to our website doubled the blocking time (the time it takes the page to load).
    1. Scaling out to the 100+ views that we have been supporting was shown to be impossible as this significant negative effect on our page performance affects user experience, conversion rates, and search engine optimization.
  3. The reporting interface that Google has developed for GA4 is vastly underdeveloped at this time.
    1. It is clear that Google is up against a deadline and is focusing resources on data collection much more so than easy-to-use, pre-built data reporting.
    2. The larger industry is recommending using a supplement program (Looker Studio, formerly known as Data Studio) to make up for GA4 shortcomings and produce customized web analytics dashboards and reports.
  4. Data is stored for free by Google for up to 14 months. Longer storage periods require a paid data warehouse and data transport solution. Fees are incurred for the transport, storage, and querying of the data for reporting purposes.
    1. In our research, the costs are non-starters for expanding our data storage beyond the free tier that Google offers.
    2. Admittedly, the website industry changes so quickly that year-over-year comparisons are most beneficial, which is likely why Google chose a 14-month cap.

Reporting Solution

UMC has moved forward with a single GA4 property implementation and has developed a comprehensive set of website analytics reports available through an online dashboard—built through Google’s visualization product Looker Studio. Advantages of this approach, over logging directly into GA4, include:

  1. No need to learn the GA4 or Explorations interface
  2. Ability to filter data by site, navigation section, and/or webpage
  3. Greater visibility to event data that is customized to Michigan Tech’s websites and interfaces
  4. Similar-to-UA ease in access to key metrics from day one

We estimate that our in-house solution will save the average web content manager eight hours of training initially and up to two additional hours of training per year.

Our online dashboard system will be free for campus to use to review website data. Users will login in through their ISO login credentials and filter data by the sites, navigation sections, and webpages that they care about. Roll-up reports—for example, across an entire college or department with multiple websites—will now be possible.

There currently is no cost for data storage or processing using a standard GA4 properly tied into Looker Studio and UMC is committed to supporting this system moving forward as long as things remain stable.

We have been using Looker Studio as our digital advertising dashboard solution for the past three years. With our expanded expertise, we are in the process of developing a search engine optimization dashboard solution for campus to use as well.

GA4 and Looker Studio Training

There is no longer a need for web content managers to invest in learning the GA4 or Explorations interfaces. Most of the UA terminology transfers over to GA4, with some differences. We will be updating our previous Google Analytics blog post on the Webmaster’s Blog as needed.

There will be no need for web content managers to learn how to create or manage reports in Looker Studio. Because our dashboard solution is intuitive, we anticipate that little training will be required to start accessing your data and making decisions.

UMC is providing a one-hour sneak peek of our dashboard solution to power users in December. Once feedback has been collected and any improvements implemented, we will be offering access, documentation, and an overview session for all interested users in the Spring. Everyone will be able to integrate using GA4 data into their typical work duties prior to the July 1, 2023, cutover deadline.

Common Questions

  1. Why is Google switching from UA to GA4?
    The short answer: user privacy and litigation. Between GDPR in Europe and privacy laws in the US, Google was required to create a new privacy-centric product (GA4) and set an end date for its old system (UA).
  2. Will I lose all my historical website data during this switch?
    As of now, Google has said that they will stop collecting new data in UA. After that, they say that you’ll be able to access your previously processed data in UA for at least six months. Given the uproar that this change has caused, it would not be surprising if they extend access. As of now, you will still be able to log into UA and access your historical data for at least six months after July 1, 2023.
  3. Can I transfer my UA data to GA4?
    There is no free way to migrate data from UA to GA4; it has to be collected by the Google Analytics 4 tracking code. Companies with large data analyst staffs and budgets are exporting their UA data into Google Big Query and then parsing with Looker Studio. Michigan Tech does not currently have the budget or staffing to take this approach. Some historical data will be available in GA4: we have been collecting basic website data within GA4 for more than a year now, commonly used custom events since July, and all custom events since September.
  4. Can I use the GA4 interface directly?
    We don’t think the GA4 interface will be helpful to you because you won’t be able to filter the data to your individual website without setting up and maintaining your own custom set of Explorations. With that said, if you determine that our online dashboard solution doesn’t meet your needs and we are unable to update the reports to meet those needs, you are welcome to request access to the GA4 interface by emailing cmshelp@mtu.edu. You will be responsible for your own training and ensuring that user privacy laws are followed.

If you no longer need access to Google Analytics or if you have any questions or concerns, you can email cmshelp@mtu.edu. Thank you.

Joel Vertin
Executive Director of Digital Marketing