Google Analytics is by far the most popular web analytics tool. Some statistics show that GA has around 56% of the web analytics market which makes it the absolute market leader.

So it’s no surprise that the latest version of Google Analytics, aka GA4, created a real buzz in the digital industry. The reason of the GA4 vs UA battle is that the update is MAJOR. Almost everything is changed from the tracking logic to some essential metrics and the app interface.

With this article, I’ll help you explore the new opportunities GA4 suggests and how to make use of them. More specifically, you’ll learn about:

  1. The event-based tracking and what opportunities it creates for you,
  2. The differences between GA4 and UA (Universal Analytics is the old version of GA),
  3. What are the new metrics in GA4 you should consider and how to interpret them?

And without further ado, let’s start exploring the GA4.

Why Google Analytics?

There are lots of web analytics tools out there and Google Analytics might not be the most advanced one, but there are several things that make it the best choice for most websites, here are some of them:

  1. The Google network
    If you’re using other Google tools like Google Ads, AdSense, Google Search Console, Google Docs, Google Data Studio, and some others, you’ll be able to integrate all of them directly to Google Analytics for maximum efficiency. 
  2. It’s free
    There is a paid package for more advanced analytics but the free version includes everything you need to operate for a long period of time (maybe even always).
  3. It’s widely spread
    Some services will only let you implement GA for tracking, such as Kickstarter. Also, it has a huge community so you won’t probably have unanswered questions later on.
  4. Easy-to-learn and easy-to-use interface
    Even if you have never used any other analytics tools, entering GA for the first time won’t be a dark forest for you. Everything is organized and presented in a way that users find a way to learn whatever they want. Moreover, you can just search for whatever you want and it will bring you the information in 1 step.

What is GA4?

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the latest version of Google Analytics which is based on the event-driven data model and is significantly different from Universal Analytics. GA4 is currently the default view when you’re creating a property, which means, even though for now Universal Analytics is still available it might soon be eliminated completely.

Long story short, you don’t have time to lose the opportunity to get familiar with the new standards.

Wait! You said event-driven data. What’s that?

Okay. Let’s quickly understand what an event-driven data model is and how it is different from a session-based model before we move on.

So, session-based analytics, which is the legacy model, is based on the concept of page view. With every page load, a session is triggered with a 30-minute window, which lets us see how many pages are viewed, how long an average user stays on a specific page, and what percentage bounces on these pages. 

We can also see aggregated data on users’ behavior grouped by traffic sources, such as number of users, bounce rate, number of pages viewed per session, average session duration, and conversion goals.

The latest is the event hits which are collected differently from the page view data thus can’t be effectively analyzed together. So it’s not very convenient to track everything that’s happening on a page, especially unless you’ve created events for everything happening there.

On the other hand, the event-driven data model collects everything, including page views, as events making it easier to combine and analyze the data in different dimensions. 

hit types in GA4 vs UA

As a result, you can track what pages had the most external clicks, video watch time, deep scrolls, or dozens of other events that are already defined by default or at least can be easily defined in the GA4 interface without using Tag Manager.

GA4 vs UA (Report Comparison)

Now that you know the fundamental difference, let’s learn how to navigate in the new Google Analytics interface by comparing it to the older version.

Let’s start right from the navigation menu:

GA4 vs UA reports

The first thing you’ll notice is the triple-layered navigation. Meaning, you have the 4 icons ordered vertically, and then the regular sections. 

The 4 sections serve completely different purposes: 

  1. Reports are where you can find all the data about what’s happening on your website,
  2. Explore provides lots of ready-made templates to find and analyze the data easier and faster,
  3. Advertising gives data about your Google ads campaigns. Here you’ve got an advanced view of your conversion funnels,
  4. The Configure section lets you define new events, build audiences, and more.

In this article we’re going to explore the Reports section only, mainly concentrating on new and updated metrics.

So let’s take a look at the Reports section:

GA4-vs-UA

You can see that the previous 5 groups of reports are now summarized in 2: Life Cycle and Users. Let’s take a look at them separately.

Life Cycle

In the Acquisition section, you can find the User Acquisition and Traffic Acquisition reports. These two reports look almost the same but they’re essentially different. The User Acquisition is about how your users first landed on your website (first click attribution model) while the Traffic Acquisition shows the last interaction of the users (last-click attribution). 

In other words, when you see the source “Google” shows 100 conversions in the User Acquisition report it means these 100 users first visited your website from Google no matter how they ended up in your website the last time. In this case, “Google” is called the First Source.

On the other hand, when the Traffic Acquisition report shows 80 conversions from the source “Google” it means that the users converted during a session that started from Google Search. The rest of the 20 users might have converted from Facebook ads at the end, but they’ve first visited the website from Google. In this case, “Google” is called the Session Source.

What about the Engagement section? 

In short, this is substituting the Behavior section of Universal Analytics which means here you can find all the information about specific pages and events. This section is almost entirely changed and the metrics are completely different. But don’t worry, we’ll still get back to this later in this article and learn everything you need to know.

Next, we have the Monetization section which is here to substitute the Ecommerce subsection in Conversions in the older version. And, as the name implies, here you can find everything about the performance of your products including the Item views, Add-to-carts, cart-to-view rates, purchases, purchase-to-view rates, and much more.

And lastly, we have the Retention section which is completely new in Google Analytics 4 so we’ll still get back to this with more in-detail explanations.

Users

The Users section consists of Demographics and Tech subsections which are almost the same as in the Audience section of the older version, only much more beautiful and organized.

audience demographics in GA4

Library

In the library section, you’re basically given the opportunity to customize the entire interface of GA4 reports making it tailored to your specific needs. For example, you can include or exclude a section in Engagement or maybe the entire Engagement itself.

But I wouldn’t recommend removing things from the dashboard in the beginning as you might miss important information which seemed useless at the first sight.

Also read: Product positioning strategy using Google Search data

Understanding the new metrics in GA4

Engagement metrics

One of the most buzz-making changes is the disappearance of the bounce rate which marketers and analysts use to assess how engaged are the users with pages. Although, I’m inclined to believe that the metric is widely used just because it was the only metric provided for analyzing the engagement on specific pages if manual events are not defined.

And the reason I think it’s not the most useful engagement metric is the very essence of it. A bounce, by definition, happens when a user opens only one page and leaves without viewing another one during the same session. Consequently, bounce rate is the number of single-page sessions divided by all sessions.

This means that, for example, if a user lands on your blog post, reads all of it, and then leaves is considered to be bounced. Not very fair, right? Especially for blogs where opening another page is not usually the primary goal.

Unfortunately, there were not many choices in Google Analytics by default, until Google introduced the new concept of Engagement in GA4.

Let’s first understand what Engaged sessions are. A session is considered as engaged when a user did at least one of the following:

  • Stayed 10 seconds on the website
    Someone who’s on your page for more than 10 seconds shouldn’t have been considered as bounced in the first place. It’s enough to grasp lots of important information that you can have above the fold.
  • Opened 2 or more pages per session
    This is pretty much what the Bounce rate would catch.
  • Triggered conversion event
    By default, the conversion event is only the purchase, but you can create and announce every event as a conversion. It means you have more control over defining who should be considered engaged on your website.

GA4 Engagement rate vs UA Bounce rate

The engagement rate is the percentage of the engaged sessions in all sessions. The number should be a little more than the opposite of your bounce rate as it counts more engagement signals. So, if you used to have a 70% bounce rate, somewhere between 50-60% engagement rate should be okay.

* Note that the number is strongly based on your conversion events too and can vary significantly.

Let’s take a blog post for example as it was the problem mentioned above. Now in GA4, you can announce the 90% scroll event as conversion. And if you do this, the scrolls will have an impact on the engagement rate, giving you a clearer picture of how engaged your audience is.

Engaged sessions per user

While engagement rate shows what percent of your sessions are engaged among all the sessions, “Engaged sessions per user” shows how many sessions a user engages with. 

Although the metrics are essentially the same, the latter concentrates on the users’ performance rather than a single visit’s. This also means that Engaged sessions per user will be a bigger number compared to the absolute value of the engagement rate. So with a 50% engagement rate, 0.8 engaged sessions per user should be okay, again depending on the type of the website and the business goals.

This is one of the metrics to measure the efficiency of your acquisition channels so it’s recommended to consider it along with other metrics such as engagement rate, engagement time, number of conversions, etc.

Average engagement time

This is the average time that the browser tab that your website is on is open. It’s essentially the same as the average session duration so it’s easier to understand.

Let’s say you’re tracking your blog’s performance and one specific post takes 5 minutes to read. And then you see that the average engagement time for this page is 1 minute which will give you a hint that people are either getting bored and you need to make the content more interactive or maybe you put a very interesting link in the intro which takes the user to another page on the same tab.

User stickiness

User stickiness, as the name implies, shows how loyal are your loyal customers. 

  1. DAU/MAU – the proportion of monthly active users that engage with your website daily,
  2. DAU/WAU – the proportion of weekly active users that engage with your website daily, 
  3. WAU/MAU – the proportion of monthly active users that engage with your website weekly.

So, in my example, having 6% DAU/MAU shows that 6% of the users who visit the website monthly come back every day. So they’re considered sticky users. 

For this kind of retention metric, it’s hard to set a benchmark. Therefore I encourage you to set your goals in comparison to what you already have and improve. 

In other words, User stickiness measures how engaged are your active users on a daily basis.

Ecommerce metrics

The new eCommerce metrics are more self-descriptive, that’s why I won’t explain them one by one. I would rather help you pay attention to how valuable the information can actually be both for making changes on your website and creating retargeting audiences for your Google Ads.

So here they are: 

  1. Item views
  2. Add-to-cart
  3. Cart-to-view rate
  4. Purchase
  5. Purchase-to-view rate

BUT I’m afraid here the old version is still the winner in our GA4 vs UA battle. The problem is this section’s not yet fully supported by Shopify, Kickstarter and some other Ecommerce platforms.

Just yet, I’d recommend implementing both if you’re a Shopify user.

Here’s a guide that will help you set up GA4 with several easy steps. 

Retention

Seems like we have something we’ve been really waiting for  — retention metrics. Actually, GA4 has an entire section dedicated to retention now. 

retention in GA4

Do you need to consider all of them together? 

Probably not if you’re just starting it. 

You can start with the classic 42 day User retention graph which is showing what percent of your users return to your website in a given period. 

Note that it’s starting from Day 0 as a start point representing all the users of that specific day. Then starting from Day 1 it shows the percentage of the users returning to your website every next day.

retention metrics in GA4

This specific graph shows that we’re managing to gain the loyalty of 0.4 of our first-time visitors who keep visiting the website till the end of the calculation period.

I’d also recommend paying attention to the User Engagement graph of the same report just from the beginning as it talks about the quality of your returning users. In other words it shows the average engagement time of the retained users in the same period of time as the User Retention metric does.

user engagement vs bounce rate

To interpret what we have above, I can tell that we’re kind of successfully engaging our returning users at least once in three days. The assumption is also supported by the frequent spikes that go above 1m (which is the total average engagement time in this project) frequently and consistently over the 42 days.

Once you’re on board with these metrics you can expand to the user retention and user engagement by cohort cards. 

They’re based on the same concept but show the data in a different perspective. Meaning, here you can easily compare what part of a new users’ group returned to your website the next day after the visit and the eight day.

user retention by cohort

For example, in this picture we can see that out of the group of the users who first visited the website on 25th of October, 9% came back the next day and 1% came back on the eight day.

Unfortunately, I can’t give any benchmarks for you to compare and understand if you’re doing good, but I can recommend comparing your results with your historical data, making changes and tracking the results. By doing so, you’ll have your benchmarks set soon and will improve over time.

GA4 vs UA: Conclusion

Well, you should have guessed who’s the winner by now. As you’ve seen the opportunities that GA4 suggests is incomparable to that of GA3’s.

Although, it’s not yet recommended to completely switch to GA4 as there are some features that you can still access only on UA. Such features include Ecommerce tracking in some well known ecommerce platforms, Views in Properties that you won’t have in GA4, etc.

So, the purpose of the GA4 vs UA article was showing you the legacy GA users the new opportunities you can get with GA4, leaving you a lot of room to explore things yourself, experiment and improve. I hope I achieved my goal at least partially. 

If you liked the article, make sure to bookmark it and come back some months later. I promise you’ll find a much more comprehensive article here on the same page, including more in depth interpretations and ideas on experimentations in your digital marketing campaigns.