UA vs. GA4: What They Are and Why You Should Care

UA vs. GA4; History, Differences, and Uses

Understanding your audience is critical for selling and marketing your product or service. Google Analytics 4, or GA4, is the new guy on the block, and he is shaking up your old understanding of Google Analytics. To compare Universal Analytics (UA) to GA4 directly is a complicated but fruitful errand. 

To do so, many use Google Analytics (GA), a free service that tracks people’s interactions with your website. Recently, a new and improved version of GA has been released, with all kinds of new features. Understanding the old (Universal Analytics), the new (Google Analytics 4), and their differences have never been necessary. Thus, we will be diving into the significant differences between them and how to use them together to create a deeper understanding of our target audience.

History of Google Analytics

To best understand Google analytics, we have to start from the beginning. Web statistics came out shortly after the worldwide web began its take-off. It started as a program called Urchin, which after a 9-year stint, was purchased by Google. Google then took it and sold it as “Urchin by Google,” or as some may know it, Google Analytics Classic.

Then, in 2012, Google came out with their version of Google Analytics, which they called Universal Analytics. It has since been the go-to web statistics program for thousands of companies. Finally, in more recent times, Google has announced their new web statistics platform simply called Google Analytics 4, or GA4.

    • 1996-2005: Urchin: First extensive web statistics and analysis program
    • 2005-2012: Urchin by Google/Google Analytics (Classic): Explanation of bullet title
    • 2012-Current: Google Analytics 3 (Universal Analytics): Current and most widely used web statistics program.
    • 2019-Current: Google Analytics 4 (GA4): Newest program developed for this purpose from Google.

Urchin

Urchin was the first big-time web statistics program that was available. Google bought them in 2005, and there are still 10+ people that work in the Google Analytics section at Google. The cost of Urchin before Google’s purchase was $495/year. There are still some remnants of Urchin in a thing called a UTM, or Urchin tracking module.

UTMs can track someone after they click on an ad of yours and visit your website. It still has many technical uses today; however, its use becomes more outdated as new tracking methods emerge.

Urchin's logo
Urchin’s first logo.

Google’s Purchase

Google purchased Urchin for about $30 million at the time, which was big-time money. Urchin was then marketed as “Urchin by Google,” and the price dropped to $199/year. It wasn’t long until Google released Google analytics, now “sold” for free.

Universal Analytics (UA)

Now to more modern days. Google’s Universal Analytics has been the longest sitting web statistics program ever, just barely nudging out Urchin. However, it has been far more successful than Urchin could have ever dreamed. UA is widely used across the globe, with rough estimates being around 30-50 million users. UA also has a paid version called GA360, which has significantly more data storage, uses, and many other upgrades.

However, it comes at a price tag of $150,000 per year, which dissuades most. However, if you are ever running out of space in GA, one would imagine that you are making enough money to afford GA360, so it hasn’t been much of an issue for most.

UA's Home Page
UA’s home page.

Channel / Group Focus

UA’s structure focuses on the channel (how people got to the site). In UA, there is a tab called channels in UA that specifically looks at how those users came to your site, whether through ads, organic search, social media, or any other avenue. These channels can also be changed and modified to make them more applicable to the account that owns the data. However, for many, the out-of-the-box channels don’t cover everything you may want, and so modification can be essential at times.

Default Channel Grouping
Default channel grouping fount in UA.

Different “Hit” Types

UA tracks multiple different data points, called “hits.” These hit types are:

  • pageview
  • event
  • social
  • transaction/ecommerce
  • user timing
  • exception
  • app/screen time

These hits allow UA to track the interactions people have with the site. Of course, custom hits can be created, but they tend to be all the “event” hit types. These custom events can be anything from button clicks to form submissions to interactions with chatbots.

High degree of structure

Due to how the data is recorded (the different hit types), the structure of UA is incredibly rigid, and thus, customizability is very low. It is similar to buckets in that as you put data into one bucket, the data cannot leave and go to another. This doesn’t allow any interaction between the hits, which makes cross-analysis difficult. However, this can be good, especially for someone new to Google Analytics.

In addition, these buckets make it a little easier to understand for someone who is not familiar with GA to use it effectively. However, for those who know GA well, these buckets limit what is possible.

Google Analytics (GA4)

GA4 is, fundamentally, a different platform than UA. Not only does it collect data differently, but the data collected in UA cannot be transferred to GA4. GA4 was first released in 2019 and is still going through updates almost monthly. At the time of writing, GA4 is still a long way from being a stand-alone product. Despite this, GA4 looks visually better than UA, with its significantly more graphic-focused user experience. These graphics are called cards and can be modified to the user’s liking.

GA4's Home Page
GA4’s home page

Individual/Session Focus

All of the cards you can create are based more on the individual and session than UA’s grouping. The data being focused more on the user means that understanding those users is more precise. Thus, giving us a better understanding of how the website owner can best serve their users. However, don’t let this fool you into thinking that we can see every detail about a person.

The only demographics that can be collected are age, gender, and “Interests” based on search history that Google keeps to itself. Though this may seem like a lot, it isn’t all that useful. So then, what is valuable? That question is answered by one word; Events.

All interactions are “Events”

Events are GA4’s way of understanding what a user does during their experience on a website. Remember hit types from UA? In GA4, all hits are events, getting rid of the buckets and making the data an ocean. Due to this, GA4 can compare apples to oranges meaningfully. This is often seen in flow graphics, which describe an event, and how people completed that event.

All hit types becoming events also allows for an easier way to track conversions or goals in UA. Further, because of all hits becoming events, we can compare the rates of events much quicker than we could in UA. The adaptability and flexibility of GA4 yet again accomplish this.

High degree of flexibility

The levels of flexibility make creating reports more straightforward and precise. As more reports (called “Cards” by Google) are made, eventually, a story can appear out of the data. Google then allows us to adjust our current report pages with the new reports so that we can more easily understand what is happening on our site. More flexibility allows a better understanding of what happens on-site to those who aren’t as well-versed in the Analytics world.

Differences between UA and GA4

As shown, UA and GA4 have many differences, from how they collect data to what kind of people will use each. Their differences are pretty pronounced and should not be understated. But, fundamentally, they are not the same. Further differences are views (a UA staple), structure, and data security and ownership. These further push the point that they are different from the group up.

Views

A view is a way to see data in UA. These views, however, only see data from the time that they start. Thus, if a view is created for any significant amount of time after the property (where the data is stored) is created, the view won’t see the data. This problem can cause issues if data is wanted visible as soon as possible. However, GA4 simplifies the problem by reducing the account setup and only having a property.

Within a GA4 property, you can view the data however you like. Not to mention, this also reduces the amount of time it takes to navigate through the platform to find specific data that one might be interested in. That is, assuming that you have the data built out, which comes standard with the structure of UA.

Universal Analytics Structure - Account, Property, and View
UA’s structure. An account can contain multiple properties, and a property can have multiple views.

Structure vs. Flexibility

As has been stated, due to the nature of how UA collects data, it has much more structure than GA4. The ease of use that came with that was necessary when UA first launched, as the digital marketing world began to take off. It needed to be easy so that practitioners and owners alike could use its use. However, people have become quite accustomed to UA’s ideas, so GA4 is much more applicable now than it might have been previously.

That means that GA4 can be more complicated than UA, and the user base will still make heads and tails of what the tool offers. However, that comes at the expense of the learning curve for new users to be steeper than previously. However, this is combated by UA and GA4 being used together instead of by themselves. However, their data handling is different as well, making some experienced users confused about how to work in GA4.

Data Security (From oneself)

Data security in today’s climate is becoming more comprehensive every single day. Thus, when we get data, we must protect it in every possible way, especially from ourselves. With UA, data security was an issue in that if someone created a filter, it would delete any historical data with that filter in mind. If this was done by accident or done wrong, you just lost significant portions of data all of a sudden. In GA4, however, filters do not delete data but rather just exclude it from the data processing for whatever report is being run. GA4 is thus much safer to use in the way of data security. This alone is a massive step for analytics.

Why you should care

As has been noted, UA and GA4 are unique in their own ways. However, what really matters is what those differences and changes mean for the analytics community and the internet as a whole. With Google moving towards a world of only GA4, that alone means it is time to begin learning. When adding a more profound analysis that can only be done with both, new changes constantly coming in GA4, and with new analysts coming every day, the pile of reasons to care grows and grows.

Google’s move towards GA4

The fact alone that GA4 is new and constantly supported means that as time goes on, GA4 will be able to do more and more insightful analysis. Thus, knowing how and why those analyses were created gives us a better understanding of what is possible and why it’s crucial. Further, GA4 has added and is adding different kinds of modeling.

With data becoming harder and harder to come by, it appears that Google’s hope for GA4 is that it would be able to model the users of a website to “use their information” without it being a real person to tie the data to. The modeling would revolutionize how data is gathered and kept private. Thus, giving the user the privacy they desire while still giving marketers the data they want to advertise accurately.

Stronger Together

Even as Google marches on to a world of only GA4, we still have UA. In fact, UA is still solely used by most practitioners. This is fine, but using them in conjunction is a far better idea. First of all, in the off chance that one platform doesn’t pick up a conversion, if both are being used on a site, then the other will most likely pick it up. Next, when using both, you get the diversification of data, attribution, and more, which can help solidify insights.

Not to mention, no matter the experience level– whether it’s day-1 or you’ve got years under your belt– analysts all have a way to dig into the data, making them all effective to the most that one can learn. On top of that, it allows new analysts to learn. They can start in UA, and as they pick up more experience, they can use and modify GA4 with confidence. Of course, this then begs the question, “How do I use UA and GA4 together?”.

How to use UA and GA4 together

Using UA and GA4 together is challenging but also quite rewarding. UA’s polished product serves as an excellent foundation for analysis, while GA4 creates more opportunities for more profound research and understanding that UA can’t get. Installing GA4 and creating new events is done through another Google platform, called Google Tag Manager (GTM).

This platform allows us to put tags on a site, collecting data. This mainly includes GA4 but can be used for UA as well. Although, typically, UA is installed directly onto the site, as it came out before GTM. Nonetheless, once they are installed onto the site, data collection begins. Once data is collected, it’s time for analysis.

UA

As one could expect, each platform is better at some things than the other. In the case of UA, that will be the collection and analysis of cost data, exit intent (why a user left the site), and user data imports (bringing CRM data into the analytics tool). In particular, user data imports are helpful in that bringing in CRM data into the tool helps by giving types of information that neither UA nor GA4 can find.

Examples are:

  • loyalty members
  • lifetime value of a customer
  • much more

They allow UA to continue to the story after first contact, which is particularly useful for companies that sell a service, not necessarily a product. There are ways to automate this, such as Closed Loop Analytics, a service we at Augurian provide!

GA4

In the same way, Closed Loop Analytics can bring data into UA; it can also carry data into GA4. GA4 can then use the data provided by the CRM and its own collected data to provide visualizations of user behavior, such as funnel analysis, path analysis, and overlap analysis. This helps give an idea of what pages and events are the most valuable and thus helps to optimize the “main path” towards a conversion point. UA and GA4 are good on their own in what they do, but allowing them to “play together,” provides for a richer understanding of site behavior.

Dual Tracking

Based on keywords and competitors, these are suggestions for topics to address, information or details to provide, questions to answer, objectives for section, etc. Let the writer know how in-depth to go / scope for this section. Provide ideas for internal links that could fit in this section as appropriate. Using UA and GA4 together can help stitch together the story of the user experience on one’s site and troubleshoot problems.

When used together, understanding out-of-stock clicks, adding to wish lists/carts, checkout steps, and the actual purchase becomes quite clear. The use of can generally explain where they came from, and GA4 explains what they did on the site. Knowing how people got to a website and what they did on that website can significantly impact how companies design their websites.

View of Google Analytics tracking with graph.

Let us help you learn more

UA and GA4 are both incredible platforms to use in web analysis, but learning how to use them can mean hours and hours of research, understanding, and implementing changes. Despite all of the complexity of GA4, the Analytics team here at Augurian has been diving into GA4, looking for new opportunities to help clients not just survive, but thrive on the web.

As we go along, we also teach our other teams, and even clients, how to better use and optimize their data in GA4. Do yourself a favor and reach out to us today to learn everything there is to know about UA and GA4 from the analytics experts at Augurian.

Analyst, Analytics at Augurian
Kevin Malecha
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