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Incubeta’s James Santangeli: Life after UA – Google rewrites data collection

It is fair to say that there has been some unrest in the digital analytics community since we said our initial farewells to Google’s Universal Analytics (UA) in July. Its successor, Google Analytics 4 (GA4), has been met with mixed reactions. While some users have embraced the new platform with enthusiasm, many others have expressed their frustration at both the migration process and the sizeable differences in the new tool.

This comes down, in part, to the expectation that GA4 would be an improved version of UA. However, that isn’t what we’ve been given. Instead, Google has provided a completely different tool with its own set of features and functionalities, built from the ground up to serve a rapidly changing marketing industry. It is future-ready and privacy forward, designed to cater for marketers in the post-cookie, GDPR focused world of tomorrow.

Yes, the initial migration could probably have been better managed. And yes, we all could have done without that irritating countdown clock loading every time we logged in. But it is also important to recognise the new possibilities that GA4 unlocks.

There will undoubtedly be a learning curve, and patience will be required when getting to grips with the new system. But at the same time, GA4 is receiving consistent updates to rectify any early issues and, ultimately, provides marketers with a powerful tool that offers a huge amount of potential as the future of their industry unfolds.

What’s new with GA4?

Despite the initial (and some would argue, ongoing) challenges, GA4 is already bringing several new features to the table, many of which are considerable improvements over UA.

Firstly, integration with BigQuery – a serverless, highly scalable data warehouse – is now free and, in practice, easier to manage. This is a huge win, not only because it doesn’t cost anything, but also because it opens the door to a simpler analytical process with new possibilities regarding advanced analysis and data processing.

Cross-platform reporting is another exciting feature introduced by GA4. It enables users to easily consolidate data from multiple different sources and view it in a single platform, enabling better informed decision-making processes without the hassle of amalgamating data manually. These reports also only include aggregated data, ticking that ever-important privacy box.

Privacy itself is a key focus of the tool. Adjustable privacy features and consent mode to offer better control over personal identifiers, helping marketers adhere to GDPR regulations and to prepare data strategies for an increasingly privacy-centric future.

On top of this, the revamped data structure has paved the way for simplified tagging and measurement strategies, and increased flexibility over the reporting interface grants users the ability to customize standard reports and build new ones to fit their needs.

There has, of course, been some trade-off – cardinality and the much maligned (other) row to name but two – but as Google continues to update GA4 a lot of these initial concerns will be fixed, leaving a polished tool that achieves and exceeds parity with its well-loved predecessor.

Getting the most out of GA4

While GA4 offers substantial benefits to marketers, it also requires a change of approach in order to unlock its full potential. Again, it is not an upgrade from UA. It is an entirely different product that will take some time to get used to and, for those used to UA, the barrier to entry can be high.

It has the potential to provide incredible new flexibility and integration capabilities to its users and greatly enhanced customisation abilities. However, to unlock these benefits, marketers will already need to have a clear picture of what questions they are looking to answer through their analytics activities. This is likely to involve a fair amount of trial and error, refining the inputs to deliver the desired outputs, but the end result will undoubtedly be worth the effort.

Additionally, the updates and constant changes from Google can (and will) cause further frustration, but keep in mind this is a new product replacing something that has been built upon for years – and each new update is raising the level at which GA4 will operate.

The future with GA4

GA4 marks a substantial turning point in the field of analytics, bringing a wealth of exciting new features. The transition has been bumpy, reactions have been mixed, and although the constant updates signal Google’s commitment to improving the platform, they have also led to frustration due to the platform’s perceived instability.

As simple as it sounds though, we just need to persevere. It might not be the polished article we were hoping for (yet), but Google is actively and rapidly working to improve GA4 and provide the powerful, stable, future facing analytics solutions we need. It is also important to keep in mind that this is a completely new product, and getting used to the way it works will take time – in the same way that it takes time to adapt to the change from Apple to Android, or from a manual car to an automatic.

However, by embracing this change and understanding the unique attributes, customization and adaptability of GA4, marketers can begin to unlock its full potential and start building future-ready analytics strategies offering unparalleled levels of flexibility and power.

It is time we bid our fond farewells to UA, forgive GA4 its current foibles, and embrace the full potential of what it currently has to offer, as well as what it will soon be able to do.

James Santangeli is analytics manager at Incubeta.

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