Transitioning from UA to GA4: What You Need to Know

a computer screen with google analytics 4 data

The transition from Universal Analytics (UA) to Google Analytics 4 (GA4) hasn’t come without considerable complaints from businesses, digital marketers, and SEO agencies alike. After all, UA was the principal analytics platform for over ten years, and GA4’s fresh landscape has left people feeling like they’ve lost their bearings. 

To say the least, it’s been a learning curve. 

So why the change?

In recent years, privacy regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) have been passed to protect user data and privacy, and cookies are being phased out due to privacy concerns.

Since Universal Analytics relied heavily on cookies for data, Google needed to make a change. So along came GA4, which uses machine learning to analyze patterns and trends in the data it collects while still providing accurate and detailed insights about user behavior.

With this change in how Google collects data, GA4 looks a bit different than UA. Let’s explore these differences a little further and get you feeling better about the transition to GA4.

GA4's Event Data Model vs. UA's Model

Arguably, the most significant difference between UA and GA4 is GA4’s Event data model.

UA’s model was built around sessions and page views. Within a session, every interaction was tracked as a “hit,” and with some additional code, you could set up events in UA to track certain interactions that didn’t lead to a new page (like video views or external link clicks). Each of these events was structured with a Category, Action, and Label.

GA4’s model, on the other hand, is purely event-based. Every interaction, whether it’s the start of a session, a page scroll, a button click, a video view, or anything else, is tracked as an individual event, as you can see in the screenshot below:

individual events in google analytics 4

Each event can be further defined by parameters, offering additional context.

Unified Tracking Across App and Web with GA4

Another notable feature of GA4 is its ability to track app and web visits within the same property. 

In UA, you had to set up different properties for your website and app, which made it challenging to obtain a holistic view of user behaviors across platforms.

GA4 allows you to track a user’s journey across your app and website simultaneously, providing a unified view of how users interact with your brand, whether they’re on your website, Android app, or iPhone app.

New GA4 Metrics: Engaged Sessions, Active Users and More

When you logged into GA4 for the first time, you might have noticed that some well-known metrics weren’t there anymore. Yes, the absence of “bounce rate” has been a hot topic.

And while GA4 may have modified some metrics you relied on, it also welcomed new ones. Here’s a quick breakdown of some prominent changes in metrics:

Engaged Sessions: These are sessions where the user:

  • has spent at least 10 seconds on the site,
  • had a conversion event, or
  • had two or more screen or page views.

It’s like counting the number of meaningful conversations at a party, not just the number of guests.

Active Users: Unlike UA, which focused on total users (a metric that included everyone who visited your site), GA4 focuses on active users. What are active users? Google defines them as either:

  • users that have an engaged session (discussed above), or
  • new users 

Engagement Rate: If you relied on the bounce rate metric, engagement rate will be one of your favorite new metrics in GA4 (and honestly, we think it’s a better metric all around). The engagement rate is the percentage of all sessions that are engaged sessions. 

So if you have 1,000 total sessions and 900 of them last longer than 10 seconds (or meet one of the other criteria for an engaged session, listed above), your engagement rate is 90%.

It’s a fantastic way to measure the quality of your traffic, not just the quantity.

Customizing and Creating Reports in GA4

Reports are where a lot of the magic happens. They take the available metrics and turn them into understandable insights. 

If you were an avid user of UA, you’ll remember that a ton of standard reports were available on the left navigation. And if you’re like many marketers and business owners, you were probably sorely disappointed to learn that GA4 has far fewer standard reports.

reports on universal analytics vs ga4

Instead, reports in GA4 are intended to be more flexible and customizable, allowing users to create reports tailored to their specific needs.

How to Customize Standard GA4 Reports

Editing standard report templates in GA4 can help you spend your time more efficiently and keep your reports consistent. Here’s how you can do it:

  • Open any standard report in the Reports section.
  • Click the Customize Report icon in the top right corner (the one that looks like a pencil).
customized reports on google analytics 4
  • Here, you can manage what dimensions and metrics are included in your report.
sidebar for customizing reports on google analytics 4

You can also edit the report columns in GA4’s standard reports. Just click the boxes to add a comparison or add a filter at the top of the report or click the + (plus) symbol in the left column.

comparisons and filters on google analytics 4

If there isn’t a standard report that works for you though, you can create reports from scratch in the Explore section of GA4.

Some marketers are choosing to export their reports and/or create Looker Studio (formerly Data Studio) reports to dive deeper into the data.

AI and Machine Learning in GA4 for Enhanced Data Collection

As we mentioned previously in this article, the way we collect and handle data is undergoing significant changes. In particular, major browsers are phasing out third-party cookies due to privacy concerns.

Google Analytics 4 is designed with these changes in mind. It’s built to adapt to a future where cookies may no longer be reliable for tracking user behavior. Instead of relying solely on cookies, GA4 uses various methods to gather data, ensuring less dependence on any single source.

One of these advanced methods is AI and machine learning, which GA4 uses to predict trends and fill in data gaps where cookie data may be missing or incomplete. This allows GA4 to provide valuable insights even when direct data collection is limited.

Transitioning to GA4 for a Data-Driven Future

Now, more than ever, transitioning from Universal Analytics to GA4 is crucial for businesses that want to stay ahead.

On July 1, 2023, Google replaced Universal Analytics with GA4, and Universal Analytics stopped processing new data. If you haven’t already migrated to GA4, we highly recommend doing so now.

Google provides resources such as a GA4 Setup Assistant and a step-by-step transition guide to aid in this process. These tools can help ensure a smooth transition while preserving your historical data.

It’s important to note that while Universal Analytics has stopped processing new data, historical data is still available but will only be available through July 2024. You may want to export your old website data if you think you’ll want to look back at it in the future.

Contact Richardson Media Group if you need assistance with your GA4 reports or support with migration from UA to GA4. We’re here to help your business make the most of its analytics.

Anne Richardson

Anne Richardson is the owner and media director of Richardson Media Group, an agency specializing in media planning and buying, advertising campaign management, and SEO.


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In addition to her role as owner and media director here at RMG, Anne authors the majority of our blog posts and hosts our BSuite podcast. Favorite topics for both platforms include the entrepreneurial journey, sustainability + social responsibility, media planning, media buying, and forming productive agency partnerships.