August 6, 2021
Upgrade to Google Analytics 4 – Now or Later?
Updated: August 6th, 2021. In late 2020, Google renamed its App+Web properties to Google Analytics 4 and officially graduated from beta (at least, that’s what Google is saying). This means that from now on, the default property (when you create it) is GA4. Naturally, many people online are confused: should they switch to the new version now? What about the old version?
At the same time, various clickbaity videos appeared in the online space urging you to switch to the new Google Analytics 4, otherwise, you’ll lose data. This poured even more gasoline into the fire and caused more confusion and anxiety.
Well, first of all. Those click baits are false. Instead of following the chaos, stop for a moment, and let’s think this through together. There is no single correct answer and I’ll try several options you can choose from.
In today’s blog post, I wanted to address what should you do regarding Google Analytics 4 and cover questions like:
- Should you immediately upgrade to Google Analytics 4 and ditch the Universal Analytics (a.k.a. the older version)?
- Should you have them both?
- Should you stay with Universal Analytics?
Table of Contents
+ Show table of contents +
- TL;DR version
- You are not going to lose UA data any time soon
- A quick comparison of GA4 vs Universal Analytics
- It’s still worth to start using GA4 sooner than later
- Tracking in parallel
- Upgrade to Google Analytics 4
- What about events?
- What about new projects?
- You can still create Universal Analytics properties
- Should you use Google Analytics 4 as your only web tracking platform?
- Frequently asked questions
- What are the next steps?
- Final words
If you prefer watching video content, here’s my Youtube video on how to upgrade to Google Analytics 4 (although the blog post is more in-depth).
Note: some parts of the Google Analytics 4 interface have changed since this video was recorded but the main idea still remains the same.
Here’s the short version (but if you want to learn more about the explanation or additional tips, read the entire blog post).
While Google Analytics 4 offers some cool features (such as funnels or pathing), there are still many features that users are missing (compared to the older Universal Analytics). Will all of those missing features be added later? I don’t know. But Google is working hard to regularly release new features.
But in the meantime, it feels like GA4 is still in beta (even though the beta badge is gone).
And while those features are missing (and GA4 does not offer some alternatives), Universal Analytics looks more mature. And this will apply for the rest of 2021, and probably, some port of 2022. But this is just my guess.
So this means you should not ditch Universal Analytics just yet. I’ll personally use it as my main platform at least till the 1st half of 2022. Unless, of course, Google will introduce all the missing pieces sooner.
Should you do anything about Google Analytics 4 now? Sure. You can implement it as an additional analytics tool in your stack and start measuring website/app activity from this very moment. By the way, my GTM course for beginners explains how to configure a lot of things in GA4.
In fact, this approach of parallel tracking is also what Google recommends on its own website.
To sum up, I’d go either with just Universal Analytics or Universal Analytics + GA4 on the same website. Most likely, at some point in 2021, this recommendation will change to “fully switch to GA4”.
You are not going to lose UA data any time soon
When Google Analytics 4 was introduced, I noticed several videos on Youtube feeding off of scarcity and clickbait with phrases like “upgrade now or lose data”.
That is simply not true.
I haven’t confirmed this with the Google Analytics team, but I think that your data in Universal Analytics will remain available for quite some time. And I mean “years”.
Take a look at Classic Analytics (a.k.a. GA2). It was introduced in 2005 and was discontinued in 2012 (when Universal Analytics was launched). Guess what… There are still many websites using it and they are still getting data in their reports.
Of course, they don’t have the latest features and I am not even sure how accurate that data is. But the fact is that the data is still coming in. I’m pretty sure that the same will be happening to Universal Analytics.
GA3 is THE MOST popular analytics platform in the world at the moment (see the screenshot below from BuiltWith).
It would be incredibly irresponsible from Google’s side to sunset it in a year or so. Yes, I know Google likes killing products very much but in the case of GA, that will take quite some time.
So if you don’t have any time resources to start using GA4 now, that’s fine. You’ll be able to do that in a year or even later. You don’t have to follow the hype right now.
By the way, you can still create Universal Analytics properties. That option is just hidden.
A quick comparison of GA4 vs Universal Analytics
Before we jump straight into the upgrading process, here are the most essential differences between the two versions. Keep in mind that there are many more differences. Also, since GA4 is constantly updated, some of the list items below might change over time.
- Google Analytics 4 is event-based. All hits are events. Things like Pageviews, Timing hits, Transaction, and other types (from Universal Analytics) are no longer available. Even a pageview is now an event.
- Data models are different. Google Analytics 4 is using a more flexible data model where things like “event category”, “event action”, etc. are no longer required. You can send any custom parameters you wish. But this is an incredibly oversimplified example.
- Data from Apps and Websites in a single property. If your business owns websites and mobile apps, you can now conveniently stream data to the same property.
- Direct (and free) integration with BigQuery. In Universal Analytics, only premium users had the opportunity to stream data to BigQuery. In GA4, that option is possible even for free accounts.
- Enhanced Measurement. Google Analytics 4 is capable of tracking more than pageviews (without editing the website’s code). Things like outbound link clicks, scrolling, Youtube video, and other interactions can be tracked automatically. Learn more.
- Analysis Hub. Google Analytics 4 introduced several additional reports/tools for analysis, such as ad-hoc funnels and pathing. Previously, these features were available only for users of GA360. Learn more.
- Scope. In Google Analytics 4, all events are hit-scoped. And if you want to apply something to a user, you can use User Properties (that are user-scoped). Session scope is no longer present.
- Historical data limit. In Universal Analytics, you could set your data to never expire. In Google Analytics 4, the data expires after 14 months (if you configure it manually).
- Views. In Google Analytics 4, views are no longer present. Maybe in the future, they will be added? Who knows! But the probability does not look very high right now.
- The number of predefined reports. Google Analytics 4 is way behind Universal Analytics if we talk about reporting capabilities. We hope that in the future, this area will be improved. In the meantime, people who know BigQuery can benefit greatly by analyzing and visualizing data outside of GA4.
- Integrations. I have already mentioned BigQuery integration. However, some integrations are still missing in Google Analytics 4, such as Search Console. But that is expected to change at any time.
- And this list is far from over…
If you want to learn more about the differences, read this.
It’s still worth starting using GA4 sooner than later
Even though Universal Analytics is still a more mature analytics platform (compared to Google Analytics 4), you should get more familiar with Google Analytics 4.
Eventually, it will become the main analytics platform that marketers and analysts use (most likely). The sooner you start, the sooner you will become experienced with it and you’ll be able to help more clients. Eventually, everyone will need to relearn GA and you might be among those who did that earlier.
So it’s up to you:
- Do you want to learn it sooner (but potentially spend more time while doing so, sometimes even by trial and error)?
- Or do you want others to figure that out first and then you’ll get some digested info (like a course or something)?
Both options are valid. If you want to become a GA4 professional as soon as possible, go for it now and implement GA4 in parallel with Universal Analytics. If your time resources are super limited and you are already overwhelmed by tasks you have to complete, then wait for 6 (or so) months until someone figures that stuff out, Google releases more features and you can just get the best out of it.
Tracking in parallel
You probably noticed that I have mentioned “Parallel tracking” or “Tracking in parallel” multiple times in this blog post. What does it mean?
In a nutshell, this means that you can have both tools on your website at the same time (I mean Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4). They should not interfere with each other (but keep in mind that the _ga cookie is used by both versions).
Here are several possible scenarios:
- If you have Universal Analytics hardcoded on your website (most likely, with gtag.js) and you don’t use Google Tag Manager yet, it would be a good time to install GTM and then add GA4 through it. It is possible to automatically migrate some of your data coming in from gtag.js (and automatically see it in GA4 as well), but NOT everything will work magically. Depending on the complexity of your setup, you (or your devs) will probably also need to do some manual work. Because of that manual work, I would personally just start using GTM + GA4. But I am biased here 🙂
- If you have Universal Analytics tags implemented via Google Tag Manager, it’s perfectly fine to create additional GA4 tags in that very same container. In fact, this is the scenario, that I’ll display in the upcoming chapters of this blog post.
Upgrade to Google Analytics 4
There are several ways how you can get started with Google Analytics 4. One option is to create a new property (it will automatically be GA4). The other option is to use the GA4 Setup Assistant. This time, I’ll focus on the assistant because creating a standalone GA4 property is quite similar.
GA4 Setup Assistant
If you already have Universal Analytics running on your website, you will notice a GA4 Setup Assistant in the admin section of that property.
This will initiate an assistant that will help you create a new Google Analytics 4 property. In fact, this is not the only way how you can create it.
Note: this GA4 Setup Assistant option will not affect your existing Universal Analytics property. It will just initiate the creation of the new property and will allow you to reuse some of the Universal Analytics property’s settings (but not all of them + some additional terms may apply).
Once you click GA4 Setup Assistant, you will be asked to either create a new GA4 property or connect to the existing one. I presume that this is your first time upgrading, therefore, we’ll go with the Create new property option.
After that, you will see a popup describing what is going to happen:
- A new property will be created
- Some of the basics settings from Universal Analytics will be reused (for example, property name)
- Enhanced Measurement will be automatically enabled
If your Universal Analytics is implemented via gtag.js, then you’ll have an option to Enable data collection using that tag.
In other words, if this code…
…is added to your site’s code (or if it is implemented via Custom HTML tag in GTM, which is very unlikely), then you will be able to automatically start collecting data to your new property from that tag.
Note: if you have implemented Universal Analytics via Google Tag Manager, this option will not be available because gtag.js is not used here. Since I am focusing on Google Tag Manager, I cannot click that checkbox, therefore, let’s skip it.
Click Create Property.
Once you do that, you will see a Setup Assistant. This is like a checklist that you will need to complete. Since GA4 is currently missing some features, I believe that this checklist will grow and you might see some new options (compared to what you see in my screenshots).
I will not go in-depth with each option. I’ll leave this discovery to you. But just to name a few options:
Install Google Analytics 4 with Google Tag Manager
If you had Universal Analytics installed via gtag.js, you will be already getting some data to your GA4 property. But if you’re like me (who’s using Google Tag Manager), you will need to do some additional steps.
In the Setup Assistant, click Tag Installation.
Then choose the Data Stream (it was automatically created when you Upgraded from Universal Analytics property).
Then you will see a window like this:
At the top-right corner, you will see the tracking ID of your new property. Copy it. We’ll need to use it in Google Tag Manager.
Then go to your Google Tag Manager container (if you haven’t worked with it, here’s a tutorial on how to get started) > Tags > New and choose GA4 configuration.
In the Measurement ID field, enter the ID that you copied in the GA4 interface. Keep the Send a page view event when this configuration loads if you want to automatically track pageviews. Usually, that’s ok to keep it enabled but in some situations, e.g. on single-page applications, it is more recommended to disable the pageview checkbox and create just a standalone configuration tag. You can read more about that here.
In the Triggering section, select All Pages and then name the tag, e.g. GA4 – Pageview.
Checking data in your new Google Analytics 4
Enable the preview mode to test your changes.
Once you enable the preview mode, you should see the new GA4 tag among tags that fired.
Once you do that, go back to the GA4 interface and click Realtime on the left sidebar.
This is where you should see yourself in real-time reports.
NOTE: at the moment, real-time reports look a bit buggy and it takes time for them to start displaying you as a user. For example, after my GA4 configuration tag fired and a pageview was sent, that pageview was already visible in the real-time reports but the count of users was still 0.
Alternatively, you can try to use the GA4 DebugView.
However, after a while (maybe a minute or two), the real-time reports started to display me in the reports correctly, and the count in the Users in the last 30 minutes widget increased by one.
Also, in other cases, I had to way maybe 15 minutes before I started to see some data coming in. It looks like these hiccups happened on newly created properties. If I tried to use a property that was at least 1 day old, none of the aforementioned issues occurred.
All good? Publish
After you created that GA4 tag and tested it in real-time reports, it’s time to publish. In the top right corner of the GTM interface, click SUBMIT.
Then enter the name of your version (e.g. Installed GA4) and publish.
That’s it! Now you are running a GA4 property and the data will start coming in. Remember, the Enhanced Measurement is enabled by default. This means that you will also be tracking things like scrolling, outbound links, search, etc. But make sure you check the configuration of the Enhanced Measurement because some of the features can be customized.
The first things you should do after you upgrade to Google Analytics 4
I will not go very much into details here but here are several tips:
- Define your internal traffic
- Increase data retention to 14 months (because the default for most of the data is 2 months)
- Configure cross-domain tracking
What about events?
That’s quite an extensive topic that requires a separate blog post. But in a nutshell, I would not just blindly migrate your UA’s event naming convention (I’m talking about Event Category, Event Action, and Event Label). Instead, I would sit down, list all of my Universal Analytics events, and then rethink what kind of naming convention should I choose.
When you think of how to name your events, Google recommends the following:
- Use the names of recommended events
- If your event is too unique, then use your own names and parameters for events.
To help you more with that, I have published a blog post on how to track events with Google Analytics 4.
What about new projects?
If you are already working with Universal Analytics, the choice is pretty straightforward:
- Either to add GA4 in parallel with Universal Analytics on the same website
- Or wait and implement Google Analytics 4 sometime later
But what if you are starting to work on a new project? Should you create just GA4? What about Universal Analytics?
Before we continue: this is just my opinion and if you think other way, feel free to follow your own decision.
With the current feature set of Google Analytics 4, I would use it just as an additional tool. The main tool should be Universal Analytics (but this approach will probably change at some point in 2021). But if you work with BigQuery, then having GA4 alone can make a lot of sense.
But if BigQuery is a rocket science to you now, Universal Analytics can be your No.1 choice (alongside GA4). That’s because UA is more mature compared to GA4 and GA4 is still lacking some features.
This leads us to the next chapter…
You can still create Universal Analytics properties
Even though Google is heavily pushing the new Google Analytics 4 (and when you try to create a new property, it’s GA4 by default), it’s still possible to create Universal Analytics properties. That option is a bit more hidden but it’s still there.
Here’s a quick video walkthrough:
When you go to the Admin section of any Google Analytics property, click Create Property button.
Enter your property name, choose the time zone, currency, and then click Show advanced options.
After a new section appears, you need to click a toggle button next to a Create a Universal Analytics property.
Then you will need to enter the Website URL and choose how you want your new property to be created:
- Create both properties (GA4 and Universal Analytics)
- Or create just Universal Analytics
If you plan to use both, then choose the first option. If you want to work only with Universal Analytics, then choose the 2nd option.
Then finally, click Next, answer several questions, and click Create.
Should you use Google Analytics 4 as your only web tracking platform?
The answer is once again it depends.
While the reporting features in GA4 are still lacking (compared to Universal Analytics at the end of 2021), you can do analysis in BigQuery and also use tools like Google Data Studio. If you are comfortable with these tools, then you are free to use just Google Analytics 4 and then do the analysis in GDS & BQ.
If you don’t know how to work with Google Data Studio and BigQuery but you’re not serious about your web tracking at all (you just want to see basic stuff like a number of page views or outbound link clicks), then Google Analytics 4 is totally sufficient as well and you don’t need to do double tagging (having both GA4 and UA implemented on a site).
But if you are an experienced Universal Analytics user and you often use things like Enhanced Ecommerce reports, then do the parallel tracking or stick with Universal Analytics for a while.
But keep in mind that these suggestions are not set in stone. As I have said before, Google is releasing new major improvements to GA4 almost every week. Eventually, Google Analytics 4 should surpass Universal Analytics feature-wise and it will become the main choice when choosing between GA4 and UA. My guess is that this will happen in the 2nd half of 2021. This is not based on any evidence. Just a pure gut feeling.
Frequently asked questions about upgrading to Google Analytics 4
If you just skimmed this article, here are the most common questions answered briefly.
Do I have to upgrade to Google Analytics 4? You don’t have to upgrade now but it is unknown what will happen in the future. You can still create Universal Analytics properties but that might change in the future. It would not be a surprise if Google, say, in 5 years decides to shut down older versions.
Is Universal Analytics going away? This should not happen any time soon. Too many websites depends on older versions of Google Analytics.
Should I use Google Analytics 4 or Universal Analytics? That depends on your needs and current skillset. If you are, say, comfortable with Google BigQuery, using GA4 might be a no-brainer for you. But if you are depending heavily on the native GA reporting interface, the Universal Analytics interface is friendlier to use (at least now).
How do I change Google Analytics from 4 properties to Universal Analytics? You will have to create a new property that is using Universal Analytics. You can do that by expanding Advanced Options while creating a new property.
Can I migrate historic data from my Google Analytics 4 property to Universal Analytics? No, that is impossible to do. The tools are too different and data is stored in different places. Your best bet here is to implement the other version as soon as possible to start collecting data. Even though you might see things like “connect GA4 to Universal Analytics”, those options are misleading and I don’t recommend them.
Can I use the same triggers for Google Analytics 4 as I do for Universal Analytics? Absolutely, this is the way to go. It’s a good practice to reuse the same trigger for multiple tags in Google Tag Manager.
What are the next steps?
There are many options to choose from. To name a few:
- Google Analytics 4 tutorial (1 hour mini-course)
- How to track events with Google Analytics 4
- How to track conversions (goals) with Google Analytics 4
Upgrade to Google Analytics 4? Final words
The intentions and promises of Google Analytics 4 are good but pushing users towards it feels a bit rushed (when some essential features are still missing). So if you want to get started with Google Analytics 4, go ahead. But keep your Universal Analytics running on a site as well.
If you know how to work with BigQuery and Data Studio, you can push the data from GA4 to those tools and do some analysis work there.
Alternatively, I would recommend continuing using Universal Analytics and (if you want) have installed Google Analytics 4 (for learning purposes and things like funnels or pathing).
But keep in mind that this recommendation is published at the end of 2021. And I believe that at some point in 2022, I’ll change my position and will be recommending just GA4 (but that requires a bunch of updates and improvements from Google’s side).