Google Analytics 4 is the latest version of Google Analytics. Data collection on Universal Analytics (GA3) will end by July 2023, which means that all users have to make a switch. Newsrooms in particular should be paying attention. Read on to find out what will change and what you should do.

Over 28 million sites globally were using the tool as of April last year, so its importance is indisputable. Google Analytics 4 was introduced in October 2020, so in theory we’ve all had some time to get used to the new property*, but if this has all passed you by, there’s still time to wrap your head around the changes.

While there are positive changes, GA4 hasn’t been without its critics. The interface is worse than it was with Universal Analytics, says specialist Remko van der Zwaag. “The technical fundamentals of Analytics 4 are better, but the usability is hard to find - especially for journalists. That said, Google always wants to improve beta versions after the introduction, so it might get better in 2023.”

There are a few big differences and need-to-knows. For example, your historical data from Universal Analytics is not copied to Google Analytics 4. You start with a clean sheet. GA4, as it is known, makes your data analysis more compliant with privacy laws in Europe, which is great - but online publishers won’t be able to follow the behaviour of their visitors like they did. For newsrooms specifically one of the most noticeable changes is that there’s no longer a clear image on pageviews and bounce rates as they’re not part of the analytics overview anymore.

*a property describes the characteristics of your data.

Immediate action to switch to Google Analytics 4 necessary

The most important thing is to immediately take action. It’s also wise to use the old and the new version of Google Analytics simultaneously for a period of time, to make sure that, when you make the switch to Google Analytics 4, you have correctly set up your data collection. You’ll have a historical data set that you can use for reporting and comparison to make sure that nothing’s missing. It also makes sense because you want to have historical data, for example over the whole year of 2023. If you want to see the trends, you don’t want to wait for Universal Analytics to stop.”

Martijn de Bie senior success specialist @ smartocto

Google Support is the best source to help you with instructions for setting yours up.

We dove into all the changes and selected the five most important changes for publishers - including why you need to act on them.

1. There’s no bounce rate in Google Analytics 4

Big changes are afoot. And much of them centre on the switch from session-based data collection to event-based data collection.

Back up: what’s session-based data collection, then?
As the name suggests, it’s when the system collects data based on a user’s activity during a single session or visit to a website or an app. This was useful because it gave insights into metrics such as sessions, users, bounce rates, pages per session and session duration. Up until now, this was Google Analytics’ default way of collecting data (and it’s still an option, by the way - users can choose).

Why the change to event-based analytics?
In using event-based data collection in GA4, the focus has shifted to tracking specific actions or interactions, such as button clicks, form submissions and video plays. The reason for this is simple, and it’s something we’re familiar with at smartocto: it’s to make the data more useful and more actionable.

And what does this have to do with bounce rate?
In GA4, the bounce rate has gone. But not entirely. You see, it’s all about how the data is interpreted, and as the focus is on actionability, the bounce rate has been reframed as a percentage of ‘non engaged sessions’. In other words, it presents the equivalent as the inverse of engagement rate. In the eyes of Google, engagement is when a visitor is active on a page.

Why does it matter for newsrooms?
With Google Analytics 4, it’s possible to create your own parameters as Remko explains: “You can see events as actions. Scrolling is an event, but a newsroom understandably wants to know how many visitors scrolled through the first 50% of an article, for example. They can add that parameter in their analytics reports. Creating a good setup with data engineers is a wise thing to do.”

2. Controls without cookies and other privacy tools in Google Analytics 4

With Google Analytics 4, users are more compliant overall with privacy legislation (GDPR) in Europe. Since 29 April 2022 the tool has had the Data Controls feature, which means that it’s stopped sending anonymous IP addresses outside of the European Union.

What’s the problem with blocking cookies?
Some browsers and devices block cookies by default, which makes it difficult for businesses to track behaviour. Google Chrome will stop tracking third-party cookies at the end of 2024 and even first-party cookies are under scrutiny.

Can you measure stuff without cookies?
There are good alternative methods to track behaviour, such as device or browser fingerprinting, or IP tracking. For example, device fingerprinting uses information about a user's device such as screen resolution, browser version, and installed fonts, to create a unique ‘fingerprint’ that can be used to track the user's behaviour across multiple sessions.

So what’s the upside here?
Well, primarily it makes things more controllable - and it’s safer from a GDPR point of view. If you want to be sure that legal fines won’t hit your company, server side tracking is one way to go. With server side tracking your client data goes through you first, before it goes to the data processing layer (Google Analytics, Facebook, smartocto). This gives you - the client - an added layer of security, essential under the GDPR regulations.

3. Google Analytics 4 provides cross-device and cross-platform measurement

One of the main differences between Google Analytics 4 and its predecessor, Universal Analytics, is that GA4 is built on the Google Analytics App + Web platform, which has cross-device and cross-platform measurement capabilities.

Why’s that important?
It is a big improvement. It means businesses can track and measure engagement across different parts of their business, including websites, apps and other platforms. “Before, every new device or even new browser, was earmarked as a new user”, Remko says. “So for example, if someone read the beginning of an article and then switched from their tablet to their phones, Analytics signalled two users. But in fact, it was the same user.”

What can newsrooms do with that knowledge?
It is a good thing to know when advertisers ask questions about a dip in the number of visitors, for example. “It also makes the data more trustworthy and therefore valuable. With this, we can do a better analysis of the visitors' behaviour.”

4. Historical data, up to 14 months maximum

For Google Analytics 4 properties retention of user-level data, including conversions, can be set to a maximum of 14 months. Before, there were no strict rules on data storage.

What you need to do about this
The implications are that publishers who want to analyse year over year performance (and who wouldn’t?), need to think about ways to store historical digital performance data. This can be stored in a variety of ways, including databases, spreadsheets and text files.

That sounds complex…
There is a nuance to this topic. It’s about data that is not entirely anonymous. It doesn’t influence event based data such as pageviews or the amount of visitors.

5. Google Analytics 4 shows some predictive metrics

Google Analytics automatically enriches data throughf machine-learning. With predictive metrics, you can learn more about your customers just by collecting structured event data. Using machine learning, Google promises that it can forecast future trends and patterns in data such as identifying website visitors who are most likely to convert into customers, predict which products or pages are likely to be popular in the future, and which marketing campaigns are most likely to be successful.

What does that do for your content strategy?
These predictions can help in making more informed decisions about marketing and business strategies, but the accuracy depends on data availability. “I question whether these predictions can actually help journalists,” Remko says. “Google (and also Facebook) tries to make an educated guess about what events will take place. Most of the time though, it is more valuable to have the factual data. I think these kinds of predictions help ecommerce businesses more than those of news media.”

Why newsrooms could be disadvantaged with Google Analytics 4

  • Editorial data analytics tools like smartocto can’t make use of GA4. Here’s Martijn again to explain: “GA4 doesn’t have a useful real time API. The one they have gives information, but it is not focused on newsrooms that want to know which content is read and how much. Google focuses on active users on the platform - with not enough useful details. Smartocto and different parties that have their own dashboard, can’t get useful real time data out of Google Analytics anymore.
  • Switching can be a problem if you rely on historical data. Google Analytics 4 is a new property and starts collecting data all over again. Although Google provides ways to import and link some data, it’s not possible to fully migrate all historical data. For an explainer on how to import some data, try this.
  • Google Analytics 4 has limited integration options. As it is new, it doesn’t have as many third-party integration options as Universal Analytics yet. This can be an issue for businesses that rely on other tools and platforms to support marketing efforts.
  • There’s limited support for older browsers: GA4 requires browser versions that support ECMAScript 6. Older browsers may not be compatible.
  • Predictive analytics are as good as the data available and how it is analysed. If the data is not of high quality or if the model is not well built, the predictive model probably won’t be that accurate.

There are of course workarounds for almost every problem, but it can make analysing data more complex. For newsrooms in particular, it is important that they know what will change in reading data as Martijn de Bie explains:

“If a headline changes, and that happens a lot, the URL might change too. In Google Analytics 4 the ability to read the statistics about the consumed content in realtime, on your own (custom developed), is almost impossible. By all means you'll lose sight of what channels deliver the traffic. Our customers can use their own data lake like Snowplow or a different provider. We also have smartocto Connect in which customers actively send their data to smartocto. These things are all worth considering.”

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