Understanding the Differences Between Google Analytics UA and GA4

Google Analytics is a free website analytics tool that digital marketers and business owners use to measure how users interact with their websites. Google Analytics helps you monitor traffic to your site, keep track of user behavior on your site, and understand why people visit your site—and where they leave. The two primary versions of Google Analytics include Universal Analytics (UA) and the newer version of Google Analytics 4 (GA4). As an avid user of both variations, I get asked frequently about the differences between the two versions. This blog post will explain what these tools offer, how they’re different from one another, and whether you should implement either as part of your marketing strategy.

What is Google Analytics UA?

The original form of tracking in Google Analytics is called Universal Analytics (or UA) and is a free tool offered by Google to track website performance. You can view the UA report as part of your regular GA dashboard. If you have a specific marketing strategy, UA can help you track and measure user engagement at scale. The data you collect with UA can then be logged into your regular Google Analytics account. The primary benefit of using UA is that it’s free.

UA tracks website visitors in different ways than the newer GA4 will:

  • Users who visit a site are broken down into sessions
  • Sessions are a group of web interactions during a given timeframe (think of how you might read multiple pages on a website and ultimately purchase the product … that’s all considered one session in UA)
  • Other main metrics that UA reports are things like page views, purchases, form submissions, etc. So it’s very focused on how a specific person navigates your website and what they did while they were there.

What is Google Analytics GA4?

Google Analytics 4 is a free web analytics tool that digital marketers and business owners use to measure how users interact with their websites. GA4 lets you view insights into your site traffic, user engagement, and marketing ROI. GA also provides data on how people found and interact with your website—including information on browsers, operating systems, screen resolutions, and more. Beyond the core Google Analytics tools, GA4 is an additional variation of the Google Analytics tool. GA4 is an enhanced version of GA that includes additional features. You can log in to GA4 using your regular GA login information. The primary benefit of using GA4 is that it has more data and functionality than UA.

However, GA4 works very differently than UA:

  • Sessions are no longer a “thing” in GA4, instead it looks at the world as a series of “events”
  • Anything is an event – page view is an event, as is a form submission or a purchase.
  • GA4 is designed from the outset to not be web-based but instead is meant as a more general analytics platform across mobile apps, websites, really anything.
  • As such, some of the old “web” vocabulary like sessions get a translation into a new event-based world.
  • Common events come pre-defined in GA4 (like page location, title, etc.)

How are Google Analytics UA and GA4 Different?

The primary difference between UA and GA4 is the amount of data collected. UA will track data like the name of the device, the browser being used, and the operating system. You’ll also be able to see data on the location of users and their time spent on the site. GA4 collects even more data than UA, including the device pixel and time spent on page. While UA requires you to manually enter in the user agent of each device or browser, GA4 uses a crawler to automatically detect data like the device being used, the operating system, screen resolution, and more. The level of data collected is one of the main differences between the two versions. UA is more basic and simpler to deploy, while GA4 requires a little more effort. GA4 also has a larger learning curve than UA.

Many of the old reports that users are used to using in UA (like Medium & Source reports to who where your traffic came from) aren’t built into GA4.  You can use a custom reporting interface to build much more sophisticated reports than UA, however by default those basic reports that you are used to using in UA may not exist in GA4.  So there is a definite learning curve.

Another key difference is that GA4 limits you on custom events that you may want to create.  So rather than create an event for EACH of your form submissions on your site (for instance), you should just use one general Form event and instead look at performance also by page name + event.  Otherwise you can rapidly exceed your limits on events.  For larger websites, GA4 is going to require more strategic planning on what to track and how to track it.  Also, unlike UA, GA4 will not store unlimited history of data – you are limited to 18 months.  So you should also implement the free tier of Google BigQuery to store your analytics history longer term.

Should You Use UA or GA4?

The decision on what platform to use is somewhat meaningless now that Google has announced it is stopping UA in favor of GA4 in 2023.  This means that your web history in UA will no longer be accessible or usable, so at a minimum you should consider implementing both UA and GA4 to allow for you to transition data and reporting over to the new platform.

In the past, the main deciding factor between choosing UA or GA4 is the level of detail you want. If you want to track a large amount of user data, you’ll want to implement GA4. If you want to track a smaller amount of data, you’ll want to use UA. If you want to track data from a single website, you can use UA. In fact, you should choose to use both UA and GA4 on your website, but you need to be aware of the fact that tracking multiple sources of data will take up some additional computer resources.

Important: Google has announced an End-Of-Life for UA, so you should definitely implement GA4 tracking on your site regardless of UA.  UA and GA4 use different tracking pixels that are placed universally on all website pages, and there is no problem having both on your site at the same time.  However, eventually UA data will disappear so the earlier you start collecting data in GA4, the better.

The Bottom Line

Google Analytics is a free tool that can help you track your website traffic, user engagement, and marketing ROI. UA provides easier out-of-box reporting and is more accessible to website analytics, while GA4 collects more data than UA.  Most importantly, since UA is being decommissioned by Google, you should get started implementing GA4 sooner rather than later. You can choose to use both UA and GA4 on your website, but you need to be aware of the fact that tracking two sources of data will take up some additional computer

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