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What You Need to Know About GA4 – The Next Google Analytics – Chris Mercer
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What You Need to Know About GA4 – The Next Google Analytics – Chris Mercer

Like an aging car, as it gets older, you start adding things to it to keep it fresh. The same can be said for Google Analytics. Google has rolled out Google Analytics 4 as the future gold standard when it comes to measuring your brand, including clicks, views, etc.

On today’s episode, our friend Chris Mercer returns to the show to tell us what every marketer needs to know about the new GA4, how it differs from Google Universal, and how it will change the way you’re measuring your marketing efforts.

Rich: My guest today is back for his second go round on The Agents of Change podcast, and it couldn’t come at a better time. You see, here at flyte we’ve been playing around with the new Google Analytics aka GA4, as opposed to the traditional Google Analytics aka Universal. A few of our clients, especially in the e-commerce space, have asked to have it installed and we’re running into GA4 installations more and more as we take on more clients.

So again, why is this good timing? Well, my guest is co-founder of MeasurementMarketing.io, and he’s a sought after measurement marketing expert. If you’re going to start asking questions about the newest analytic program from Google, he’s the guy you should be asking.

During a normal year when he’s not helping companies and agencies set up optimize and analyze their numbers, you might see him speaking around the world at events, such as traffic & Conversion, Social Media Marketing World, Content Jam, and more. But today we’ll be diving into GA4 with Chris Mercer. Mercer, welcome to the show.

Mercer: Pleasure to be here. Thanks again for having me, Rich.

Rich: It’s always good to see your smiling face.

Mercer: Number two!

Rich: Number two. That just makes me think of Austin Powers. I don’t know why.

Mercer: Do I need to do one of those, right. With my little, hairless cat.

Rich: So let’s start with the question, why is Google rolling out new analytics? What’s wrong with the old or current one?

Mercer: That’s a great question. So they built what we now know is ‘universal analytics’, kind of the original Google Analytics, on something called urchin years and years ago. They bought a third-party company, that became Google Analytics. And back in that day, there wasn’t a thing like Internet of Things (IoT), that didn’t exist yet. There were no Nests. There was barely mobile devices. They were all flip phones and they barely connected to the internet. And it was just an analytics platform that was sort of derived from hit counters. It’s kind of by everything’s called ‘hits’ in Google analytics. Remember back then, it was just like you refresh your page and you see like, oh, one more person saw my page that’s counting the little counters, right? Yeah. Well, this was like the platform that solved all these other questions that you would have. Which worked perfectly fine for the internet as it was. And then they tried to upgrade it as best they can, right? Just like when you buy a car and then you don’t want to really buy a new car, so you try to upgrade stuff and maybe you replace out the radio or maybe you put in leather or pop a sunroof in, or something like that. But at a certain point, it’s just time for a new car.

And that’s where Google found themselves very recently. Which is why they created Google Analytics 4. Because they just realized Google Analytics is great. And it went from the regular analytics to becoming Universal Analytics, and they put a ton of effort into really improving things. And they did, they made leaps and bounds improvements, but it’s just not really a platform that can go into what the internet. Not only maybe is today, but also where it will be tomorrow. And of course, Google’s got a really good view on what that’s going to look like. So that’s why they essentially said, you know what, instead of just taking this analytics platform and trying to make it better, we’re going to rebuild it – in what we now know is Google Analytics 4. And they literally built this platform from the ground up for the internet, as it will become. Which is super exciting. And that’s why they’ve actually created Google Analytics 4.

Rich: So of course, right before we got on the call today, I was complaining about my house and how it’s been maxed out in every sort of way. I wonder if I have the Universal Analytics of a house and it’s just time to tear it down and built a GA4 house of my dreams.

Mercer: It’s an important learning step. When you take something new, and you associate it to something that’s in your life. That’s exactly right.

Rich: I love doing that. My team always makes fun of me because I have a metaphor for everything.

Mercer: That’s perfect.

Rich: All right. So let’s talk a little bit more about this GA4, what makes it different? You mentioned things like Internet of Things, but that still seems like something that is far off in the future. How are you describing it to your clients on why they should be paying attention to it? Besides the fact Google is going to force it down our throats.

Mercer: Definitely. So, yeah, it really is the platform of tomorrow when it comes to measuring sort of what’s happening with your brand. How users are interacting with your brand. And the reason that I say ‘brand’ is because for a lot, that’s beyond just a website. A lot of companies have apps, and this is a platform that can do both. So it can measure both what’s happening on your app and on your website. And most importantly, it is built to connect the dots from the start. So all of a sudden, cross-device measurement, which again, wasn’t even something that anyone considered back in the original days of Google analytics is just normal. Now, of course, you’re going to have six or seven different devices that are visiting your site, and they’re all from the same user. And you want a platform that can sort of help tell that story of how users are using different devices. That’s just one example of why Google Analytics 4 was created to actually handle that.

Another big one, and this is especially true with not only what’s going on right now with the recording here, Apple is making some big, giant changes to privacy, it’s kind of flipping out Facebook a little bit. But that’s going to continue. You see laws like GDPR with data privacy, you see things like Apple with what they’re doing with the tech, Google with what they’re doing with tech when it comes to ad blocking and things like that. And you have all of this move toward consumer led, and company led at this point, and government led – that’s the trifecta – everybody’s moving toward less and less data being able to be individually measured. So you have to work with a platform that understands that there will be less data actually available in the world of tomorrow.

It just sounds weird, because we’re so used to big data being everywhere, but there actually will be less available to some of these platforms. And they will work better because they’re made to model those different behaviors. That’s another reason that GA4 exists, because it understands things are going to be the way they were. And so we’re going to do conversion modeling and things like that. So it’s really developed as a platform to give you a much more useful truth, a very fast, easy, hopefully answer as to how individuals using your site, no matter the device and no matter if you can’t track each individual person, because it’s going to have conversion modeling. Just a couple of examples.

Rich: All right. So I want to talk about that. Because you almost got ahead of me there in terms of like, as you were starting to answer that question, I’m thinking to myself, well, I know that the new upgrade to iOS is going to be very much about protecting your own privacy. And then I’ve heard Google is doing something, although it’s a little bit controversial in terms of what they will and won’t be tracking. And I can’t say that I’m an expert in this, but if people are coming in on different devices, like that’s something that Facebook’s been pretty good at tracking because of the Facebook pixel. But if people are coming in on their different devices, like we all do these days, and so many apps are on Apple, which has the stricter privacy ratings. How is GA4 going to possibly figure out that I downloaded the app and used it, and then later on I was on my iPad and I checked out the website, and then past that somebody texted me? Like all of these things that are going on, is Google claiming that they’re going to be able to track me as an individual user across four or five different devices, or is it slightly different than that?

Mercer: Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s kind of an either/or. I think what’s going to end up happening, and some of this is in flux, like to your point, Google is doing this whole thing with flock and fledgling and turtle and everything else that they’re playing around with when it comes to their privacy sandbox and what the world of tomorrow is going to look like when it comes to that. But the trend is to basically not track individuals as much as we once were. Which I think is okay, to be honest.

Rich: As a human being, I love it.

Mercer: That’s exactly right. It’s just super simple. So with Google Analytics 4, what they have is this integration with something called Google Signals. Now some people with University Analytics might already be familiar with that. But Google Signals was a big upgrade where Google said, Hey, you can connect all of your, it used to be like demographic data only, kind of like age and gender and what they’re interested in that sort of stuff, and that’s what Google Signals had. But Google Signals is basically Google saying, listen, we know everything that Facebook does, and they do because we all have Google on our phones as much as we have Facebook on our phones and Google’s everywhere. We’re all signed into different calendars or apps or maps or something. Google can stitch together and have an understanding of who that user is and that they really are the same person. Like they know that Google Signals is integrated with Google Analytics, and that’s how cross-device starts happening, because Google understands that now it is going to be able to tell me Rich Brooks was the person who came to your site, came from an app, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, out of the box of people’s signals.

No, it’s not designed to do that. It’s designed to say, generally speaking, most people are doing this and it’s giving me the trends and patterns. And as an analyst, when you’re actually using data, that’s all you need. You don’t need to know where every individual fish in the lake is if you’re trying to catch fish. You just need to know where most of the fish are most of the time, so you know where to throw the hook in the water, what action to take. It’s the same thing when it comes to using your data. You don’t need to know each individual person, you see what most of the people are doing most of the time, so that you can just do marketing message accordingly.

And so Google Analytics 4, out of the box, does a very good job because of this Google Signals integration with very little setup, other than just accepting those terms and allowing Google to float to that data.

Now, the reason I say it’s kind of an either/or, is that’s kind of the one side that that’s where I think most people will actually stay. Because I think they’ll find a lot of usefulness there. But you can also do what they see is kind of to the next level. It requires a little bit more of a setup but think about it in terms of potential. Not that everybody has to do this today, but you’re able to do something called ‘user ID tracking’. And so this is where you, as a brand, might assign a contact ID to somebody. So like we use Infusionsoft, as an example, for our CRM. So when somebody signs up for something, Infusionsoft says, “Oh, this is contact number 1234.”  Well, we could pass that contact number and say, okay, that’s the user ID. And then we could stitch together, if we did have an app, we could associate it to User 1234. On the app, User 1234 comes to the website, it knows it’s 1234, and we can tell Google Analytics 4, “Hey, this is User 1234.”

Remember, it’s not identifying Rich Brooks, it’s just identifying User 1234, and is a much finer level of detail when it comes to stitching together users. And so Google Analytics 4 has both options. You have that nice general sort of out of the box, hey, just accept Google Signals, and I’ll allow Google to tell you. Obviously, it’s just Google traffic, because if they’re not signed into anything on Google, they don’t use Google, then they wouldn’t be measured in that program. But again, all you really need is trends and patterns, and you can find something pretty useful in what they’re able to give you.

And then even if you’re like, well, I still need more, it’s got that added to potential to be able to set up user ID. And that’s truly how you can stitch together all of the different devices that are interacting with your brand.

Rich: All right. And there’s definitely some cool stuff there. I don’t want to get too nerdy just yet. So besides some of the things you just mentioned, what does GA4 offer us as site owners, marketers, owners, that universal analytics doesn’t.

Mercer: The biggest thing out of the box was the cross-device that was built to measure across different devices, kind of from scratch, that it was built for data privacy in mind. So you had a little bit more control over the data that was there and can show you trends and patterns. And the biggest plus I think for Google analytics, I think that people will really be excited about, will be the analysis reports. So it’s designed to, and this is kind of an interesting scenario because Google analytics actually took a step back from, being reports. It used to be that you come in analytics and you check out the source medium report, maybe you look at your landing page report, and then you get your alt pages report, and you just live in reports all day long and you get answers to questions. Which is great, kind of what’s happening. But Google Analytics 4 kind of took a different direction. What they did is they said, listen, we’re not here just to kind of give you generic information, just reports for reports sake. You should use something like Google Data Studio for that. So they’re starting to tie in some of their other Google products. But what we’re going to do as Google Analytics 4 is not just kind of go over the what’s going on, we’re going to help you answer the questions, ‘why is that happening?’ And that’s where this whole analysis section comes from, which is new, it didn’t exist in universal analytics

So now you have things in the analysis section. One of the favorite things that we will talk about that most people will use and be able to use right away, is these funnel reports. So it used to be in Universal Analytics, you would create a goal funnel or something like that, and you had to wait for it to collect data if you’re using the funnel visualization report, and you can only do page views. it was kind of limited, right? When somebody sees a certain page and then they see another page, and that was kind of it. Well now with the way that these funnel reports, and the way that Google Analytics 4 is structured, is you can kind of measure for any behavior that you’re recording in Google Analytics.

Because Google Analytics 4 doesn’t look at things like, this is a page view, or this is a click, or anything like that. It looks at everything the same. And what I mean by that is, to Google Analytics 4, everything is just an event. It’s just something that happened. Some of the events will be views of a page, some of the events will be button clicks, some of the events became a lead. But an event is an event is an event. And because they organize it like that, their funnel reports can actually be a lot more useful because now instead of saying, “Oh, they had to see page one, then page two, then page three”. You could create a funnel on the fly that says, I want to see how many people saw page one, then they clicked on the button. It was the second button and then they waited 30 seconds and then they became a lead. And you can see this. Or interacted with the video, or watched 50% of my video, or then scrolled halfway down, whatever the events are. As long as you’re measuring those events, you can put them into a funnel path. And so you can measure, essentially, what is a customer journey through various steps. So you not only know what the results that you’re, that you’re getting, but you’re seeing how you’re getting those results. Based on very specific behaviors.

Now with Universal Analytics, that’s unbelievably hard, next to impossible to get done. It just wasn’t really theoretically possible at all without sort of using something like Data Studio to build those. But Google Analytics 4, it comes out of the box able to do stuff like that. So the better quality information you put into it, the better those reports will work for you. But that funnel report is good. Absolutely amazing for most.

Rich: Okay. So those are a few things that GA4 does really well, but that are not in Universal. I know it’s a fairly new program, so what do we lose when we’re looking at GA4? What does the current version of analytics have that we’re not getting yet, or might not get, in GA4?

Mercer: That’s a really great question. Because the way that most individuals that are talking about using Google Analytics 4 right now, is that Google Analytics 4 very much is the platform of tomorrow, but it is not quite the platform of today. Today, you still use Universal Analytics, you still want to use that.

Now, some of the reasons why is because one, Universal Analytics is just easier. There’s more stuff out there for it, all the integrations are going for it. All of the cart platforms and everything else that people are using to integrate into Universal Analytics. They’re starting, just starting to roll out integrations with GA4, but right now they’re not really the rule. So it integrates with more things.

It also has some more useful features like views, that are in Universe Analytics. There’s kind of a 50/50 shot if that’s going to come in Google Analytics 4, they don’t have that in Google Analytics 4. So there’s some features that just aren’t there.

Until recently, for those that are familiar with Universal Analytics, you could set up something called ‘cross domain measurements’ to kind of measure a user as they crisscross through different domains. Google Analytics 4 couldn’t do that until just within the last few months, they started rolling those features out. Now remember, this platform isn’t ready for prime time yet, but it is quickly getting there. All of Google’s focus is 100% focused on developing this platform. So across domain measurement is the thing before exclusions where something they just recently added over a few weeks before you and I are recording this.

So there’s lots of updates that are constantly flowing into this platform. And it will very quickly, I would imagine by the end of 2021 early 2022, be the platform that most brands are really starting to use as their primary analytics platform. But right now, as of this very moment, as of this recording in April of 2021, Universal Analytics has still got a pretty good shelf life. It’s still going to be the one you’re connecting in the most things, is still going to be the one you’re using for most of the answers that you’re trying to get. Because you’re already familiar with it, because you’ve already got the goals and everything else set up, and GA4 doesn’t necessarily answer a question yet that you couldn’t get with Universal Analytics for in some way, but it will be able to.

And that’s the idea is that as people start using this platform, they start getting a little more fancy because they understand they can, they can track different behaviors. Now they can measure for different behaviors that they wouldn’t be able to before. At least not easily with Universal Analytics.

One of the things GA4 does, a little pro-tip, is what they call ‘enhanced measurement’. So it automatically tracks scroll when they hit 90% of the scroll. It automatically tracks outbound button clicks, it automatically tracks YouTube interaction on the page. So it’s got some of these cool little things on there that used to be you had to have something like tag manager for or work with a developer. But with Google Analytics 4, just turn them on. And so it’s a really good platform to kind of get used to that. It is completely different, the structure of data is different. It’s got a learning curve to it. It’s a little Google-y right now. But that’s why they came up with it now, that’s why it’s being put out there. So everyone’s got a chance to practice and play around with it so they can start to use it. And really by the end of 2021 or early 2022, I’d imagine most businesses are then using it kind of as their primary platform.

Rich: Right. Plus Google gets this opportunity of millions of beta testers for free at the same time, too. Now in the past, Google has been incredibly strict about running more than one version of Google Analytics on your website. For some reasons, companies may have wanted to, and Google just like would not allow that it, would sometimes screw up the measurements. Are we allowed to run both Universal and GA4 at the same time?

Mercer: It’s a fantastic question because it is the biggest misconception. It’s the thing I’ve seen the biggest mistake when this platform came out. And it was a little bit of how Google sort of released it, too. They called this big update, which it was to something called app and web analytics, which has been around for a while. So it was an update to that. And they sort of switched the back end. So if you go to create an account, you’re sort of forced into this Google Analytics 4 experience. You don’t have to do it that way, but it is harder to create a Universal account now. And so it was sort of perceived by the marketplace that, we’ve got to switch just like we did back when they upgraded from classic to universal, no big deal. We’ll just change out the code and we just flip it over and everything will be there.

But remember, they are two completely different platforms. So Google Analytics 4 is completely different from Universal Analytics. Built from the ground up, it’s completely separate, they don’t have anything in common, not really.

And so the answer to, “should we”, it’s not even, “can we” it’s “should we do both?” The answer is, yes. You run them in parallel. So you have Universal Analytics. You do not disconnect Universal Analytics. That’s the biggest mistake. We talked to some agencies that had done that with some clients spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and  in the end they didn’t realize. Because they just thought, “Oh, I just switch it over.” It was a big misconception out there. You don’t do that. You keep Universal Analytics running and you keep using Universal Analytics to get the majority of the answers that you’re going to use to guide your business and make business decisions. And that’s going to stick around for at least the next six to nine months for most brands.

But it is time to start using Google Analytics 4 precisely because it is so different, and you will be having to use Google Analytics 4. It’s not like you’re going to have an option. Eventually Universal Analytics will go away. That probably won’t happen till 2022, 2023, 2024, but it’s going to happen. So you have to get used to Google Analytics 4. Do it now when you don’t have to worry about it.

So that’s why it’s like Universal Analytics use and you keep operating your business off of that and that particular setup. Start using Google Analytics 4. You do them both at the same time so that you can start getting used to Google Analytics 4 and what it has. And then you’ll eventually migrate and kind of stop using Universal Analytics because you’ll have a good setup, a good implementation on your Google Analytics 4 side

Rich: Mercer, for those people who are comfortable in the code of their own websites, or they’re going to go to the transcription of this episode after the fact and copy and paste something for their developer, any tips or best practices on installing both Universal and GA4 together to make sure that we don’t make any mistakes in terms of data gathering?

Mercer: Yeah. So I’ll give you two. If you’re using tag manager, it’s actually a lot easier. There’s a whole separate tag called ‘Google Analytics 4 configuration tag’ that’s back in Tag Manager. It also has a ‘Google Analytics 4 event tag’, and they are identified as Google Analytics 4, so you just have to set those up and then that will light up your Google Analytics 4.

The biggest tip I can give for developers, and this was again, it’s not entirely Google’s fault, but I can see how people are running into this problem in the backend. When you create a Google Analytics 4 account, there is a section back there that says, Hey, do you want to just use your Universal Analytics? Do you want to link in your Universal Analytics, and we’ll use all that data? And that is true. So your existing Universal Analytics can be used. Whatever the code is. Again, this is not using Tag Manager, assuming you’re using the script. You can use those scripts and all that data will just flood into Google Analytics 4, in addition to your Universal Analytics.

The challenges, and they do have this in there, it’s kind of like disclaimer text and a lot of people miss this, is it cannot be the analytics that JS script. And so developers will know what I’m talking about. This is an older version of Google Analytics script. So quietly about a year or so ago, they flipped out the script and Google Analytics and now it’s this G tag stuff. So if you go into your analytics script and it says, ‘G tag’, then you’ve got the right one and that’s compatible, just automatically light up GA4. Unless you’re using that G tag script, you have to actually set that up separately. So that’s the one thing to watch out for. Again, a big misconception as to how these two can link together.

Rich: You’ve mentioned Tag Manager, and you’ve mentioned Google Data Studio earlier in the conversation. And so it kind of brings up this question for me. We’ve got Universal, we’ve got GA4, we’ve got Tag Manager, we’ve got Data Studio. Is that everything? Should we be using all of these tools together? Is there an optimal way of gathering data, either for ourselves or for our bosses or for our clients, that you recommend when it comes to the Google reporting universe?

Mercer: That’s a great question. So when you’re thinking about data in general, there’s really three things that have to happen primarily. First, did you have to collect the information that you need? There’s certain behaviors, how many pages were viewed, and buttons were clicked, or whatever else you have to collect all of that. You then need to store that somewhere into some database somewhere, and then you have to build reports based upon all that data. Right? So you have collect, you have to store, and you have to report.

Now Google Analytics 4 as a platform, just like Universal Analytics, can do all three. It can collect, it can store, and it has this sort of reporting feature to it. However, with Google Analytics 4 specifically, they understood we’re in a world where tag manager already exists. It didn’t exist when Google Analytics was first created, but tag manager is now a thing.

Google Data Studio is now a thing. So what they’ve done is they’ve created these platforms to really specialize in things. So Google tag manager is now what you use to collect information, because it’s really good at collecting the different behaviors that are happening on the site. And it’s things like telling Google Tag Manager, Hey, when they’ve reached 50% through the video and it’s been a minute and a half, and they scroll to the 50% mark. Go ahead and tell Google Analytics, and tell Facebook, and tell Google ads, or whatever else, tag manager does that. It’s very, very easy to set that sort of stuff up. So tag manager collects the information, sends it in to a platform for storage.

That platform is Google Analytics 4. So Google Analytics 4 stores the information, it’s kind of a behavioral database. That’s what it’s there for. And then even per Google, they want you to use Google Data Studio to start building your reports. And the idea is that you’re not flooded with a thousand different data tables that tell you a bunch of different information. It’s that you can use Data Studio to build a report that gives you very specific answers that are designed to help you to take action as fast as possible. It’s not there to overload you with a ton of stuff, which is what happens with Universal Analytics. I’ve been back there. You look at one report then you look at another report, they seem to contradict each other and that’s been seven hours and you’re like, I’m done with this. And that’s what happens. But with Data Studio, that doesn’t happen. Because you’re building dashboards that are designed to give you answers that lead to action. And so you use the three platforms together. Tag manager collects, Google Analytics 4 will store the information, Google Data Studio will then display that information in a way that leads to action. And that’s where you actually start interacting with the data at the reporting stage.

Rich: Absolutely. And I do agree that the amount of information can be overwhelming. And so if you’ve got clients or if you’ve got bosses, I don’t love the term to ‘dumb down’, but to simplify that and to really ask your clients or your boss, what are the KPIs that drive the business? What are the KPIs that you need to know to be able to do your job? And then pull those into a simple, easy to read sheet, and give them a link, and your job is done at that point. At least in terms of at least collecting all this stuff. You should still be doing your own analysis. But it is true that using those tools together can be very helpful and explain complex ideas to people very quickly.

Mercer: Yeah, agreed. And to your point, it’s focus, right? When you tell the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, you don’t start with a backstory of how Mama bear and Papa bear met. Right? It’s just too much information. You don’t need to know all of that. You just need to know the story of Goldilocks and three bears, and that’s what you focus on.

And that’s what the beauty of Data Studio is. When you’re building reports for somebody else, keep that in mind. Sometimes I’m telling too much of a backstory and it’s a prequel, and then you end up giving a report that’s the equivalent of watching all the Hobbit movies together. It’s just way too much and kind of boring to get through. I apologize to all the Hobbit fans out there.

Rich: Mercer, I always appreciate how you take something that seems very dry and complex, and get super excited about it and explain it in a way that even I can understand it and wrap my head around it. So thank you very much for that. I appreciate it.

For people who want to learn more about you and all the trainings and stuff that you guys do to get marketers and business owners and agencies up to speed, where can we send them?

Mercer: So measurementmarketing.io is our website. If anybody here is interested in kind of learning more on what’s good, some free tools, we’ve got lots of Measurement Marketing tools that you can take advantage of and something we call our ‘toolbox’. It’s a free membership and you can get that at measurementmarketing.io/AOC, for Agents of Change.

Rich: Awesome. Mercer, thanks as always for swinging by and telling  us a little bit more about what’s going on in the world of metrics.

Mercer: Been a pleasure. Thanks, Rich.

Show Notes:

Chris Mercer is a leading authority on Google Analytics, as well as founder of MeasurementMarketing.io. Grab your FREE access to the “toolbox” he mentioned in this episode.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.