Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics: 9 Biggest Changes

September 13, 2023

Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics: 9 Differences You Need to Know

The digital landscape is ever-changing, and with the introduction of Google Analytics 4 (GA4), it’s clear that the winds of change are blowing stronger than ever. 

By July 1, 2023, GA4 is set to become the default, leaving Universal Analytics (UA) in its wake. According to Wordstream, this transition is more than just an upgrade; it’s a complete overhaul. “In the realm of analytics, adaptation isn’t just beneficial; it’s imperative,” says Curtis Priest, CEO of Pixelcarve.

Here’s What’s Not Changing in GA4 vs. Universal Analytics

Before we delve into Universal Analytics vs. Google Analytics4, let’s acknowledge the familiar. 

While GA4 brings a plethora of changes to Google Analytics properties, the core essence remains. The platform’s primary goal is still to provide insights into website traffic, user behavior, and conversion events. So, while the tools and presentation might evolve, the mission remains consistent.

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Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics: 9 Things That are Changing

Here are the 9 most significant changes we’ve found between GA4 and UA (so far). These impact the raw data you are able to collect and how you are able to utilize it. For the most part, GA4 aligns audience metrics much better to browsing habits today. 

As a very simple example, though a user may open a website separately on a desktop and their smartphone, GA4 is smart enough to recognize the continuity, giving you a three-dimensional view of user activity.

A word of warning. Many of the feature changes we talk about below are pretty technical, and may not be suitable for someone unfamiliar with Google Analytics. If that’s you, this table explains universal analytics vs. GA4 much more concisely. 

FeatureUniversal Analytics (UA)Google Analytics 4 (GA4)
User IDFocuses on total usersFocuses on active users
IP CollectionCan see IP addressesDoesn’t show IP addresses
Data HandlingHarder data deletionEasy data deletion and retention
Viewing DataMobile / web views separateMerges mobile and web views
E-commerceBasic trackingEnhanced tracking
Session DataCounts visitsFocuses on quality of interactions
Setting GoalsFixed goal-settingFlexible, event-based goals
Linking ProductsLimited linkingLinks to more Google products
Predictive AnalyticsNeeds an external toolIntegrated feature
  1. ‘More Omnichannel’ Experience

In an interconnected digital landscape, users interact with businesses across multiple platforms  and devices. GA4 recognizes this shift and offers an integrated view of user interactions (in data streams), whether they’re on a desktop, using a smartphone or even a smart TV. 

This holistic approach allows you to view and understand audience journeys much more contextually rather than just as unconnected visits.

  1. Privacy First

Both Universal Analytics (UA) and Google Analytics 4 (GA4) have mechanisms in place to protect user data, but GA4 takes it a step further with enhanced features and controls for data collection. 

No More IP Addresses: Unlike UA, where IP addresses were visible unless manually anonymized, GA4 does not collect or store IP addresses.

Simplified Data Deletion: Admins can now easily delete data in response to user requests, ensuring compliance with data protection regulations.

Customizable Data Retention: While user-specific GA4 data is stored by default for two months, admins have the option to extend this period up to 14 months. This setting only affects user-specific data; aggregated data remains accessible beyond this time.

  1. Users Over Sessions

Source: OnlineMetrics

Both UA and GA4 offer valuable insights, but their approach to user data and data sources differs. UA primarily focuses on ’Total Users’, while GA4 emphasizes ’Active Users’. Gone are bounce rates, in come behavior metrics.

Furthermore, the way each platform identifies users, with GA4 using ’User-ID’ and UA relying on ’Client ID’, can further influence these discrepancies. Some level of data discrepancy between GA4 and UA is to be expected and normal. 

  1. Rethinking Pageviews

With Universal Analytics, screen views for mobile get their own spotlight in separate Universal Analytics properties. 

With GA4, it’s a grand mixer, blending both web and app data in one place. While UA has excellent filters, letting you sift and sort data like a pro, GA4 takes a filter-lite approach. 

Regardless, you’ll still be able to filter internal IP traffic and unwanted referrals. That said, GA4 properties don’t require the effort of custom tagging; you can turn on enhanced measurement to measure page views automatically.

  1. Purchases and E-Commerce

E-commerce businesses can rejoice with GA4’s enhanced tracking capabilities. GA4 provides a 360-degree view of the e-commerce journey, helping you optimize for conversions. You can track everything from product impressions to understanding cart abandonment.

  1. Sessions Updated

Comparing UA vs. GA4 sessions is like comparing apples to oranges. While sessions still play a role in GA4, their definition and significance have evolved. GA4 introduces the concept of ’Engaged Sessions’, focusing on quality interactions rather than just counting visits.

GA4’s estimated sessions are expected to be more accurate and have fewer errors than what you would expect in UA.

Learn more:
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  1. Conversions and Goals

Conversions in GA4 vs. UA are more dynamic and event-based. Instead of the rigid goal-setting in UA, GA4 allows businesses to mark any event as a conversion, offering flexibility and deeper insights into what drives value for a business.

  1. Product Links and Interactions

Product Linking in GA4 is much the same as it is in other Google products, such as Google Ads or Search Console. It works about the same way in GA4 though you do have more platforms available to link. 

GA4 allows you to link Google Optimize, Google Merchant Center and BigQuery natively, without third-party workarounds, and for free.

  1. Predictive Analytics

If you wanted to leverage predictive analytics with UA, you would have had to pay for a third-party tool or build your own. Now, with GA4, Google has introduced Predictive Analytics for churn probability, LTV, likely top spenders, likely purchases, probability of purchase and more.

Leverage GA4 to Make Informed Decisions for Your Website

With over 23 years of experience, Pixelcarve has been at the forefront of creating attractive, audience-focused websites. Work with a team that helps you identify audience patterns from data, optimize campaigns, and enhance user experiences. 

Talk to us today to learn how we combine data-driven methodologies and world-class designs for stunning websites.