5 Google Analytics 4 ‘flaws’ that you can use to your advantage

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Marketers have criticized Google Analytics 4 since it was released in late 2020.

The list of complaints is long – from the move from user tracking to event tracking, to the missing standard reports, and the replacement of bounce rate with engagement rate, to name just a few.

GA4 is the predominant platform for measuring website performance and user behavior. (This is partly because it is free, and many competitors disappeared over the years as they couldn’t give away their software at no cost.)

Although some will argue that GA4 falls short in many areas, I believe that many of these perceived flaws are, in fact, true improvements to the product.

This article explores five main criticisms of GA4 and sheds light on how they actually contribute to its improvement.

1. Data discrepancies and disruptions

One primary concern about GA4 is the potential for data discrepancies and disruptions. This also happened in 2012, when users were forced to change from the original Google Analytics (GA2) to Universal Analytics (GA3, AKA UA).

With each iteration, the method used by any analytics tool for calculating unique users and sessions changes. This is to measure more accurately these critical data points used in virtually all key performance indicators (KPIs).

Critics argue that the new data model and measurement protocol lead to inconsistencies, making relying on GA4 for accurate reporting difficult. This is a flaw in their logic.

By not understanding the differences, they assume it is inaccurate, while the reality is that it is more accurate than UA.

This is why analytics professionals (like myself) have been advocating for businesses to enable GA4 for well over a year now. This ensures you have a full year of data for meaningful comparisons (comparing GA4 vs. UA with over a year of data).

For various reasons, many organizations waited or didn’t bother to review the configuration until the last minute to ensure correct data collection. They are now faced with a great challenge when conducting period comparative analysis.

Users must embrace this opportunity, revisit their measurement plans and adopt a more comprehensive and holistic approach to data analysis. With GA4, organizations can leverage multiple data sources (through third-party data imports) and integrate them to gain a deeper understanding of their users and their journey, which was nearly impossible with UA.

2. Learning curve and interface complexity

GA4 introduces a revamped user interface and a different approach to reporting, leading to a steep learning curve for many users.

Any change in a UI is difficult. GA4’s UI has been completely overhauled with no similarities to its predecessor. Critics argue that the complexity of the new interface hinders its adoption and usability.

This should not be a surprise to any user. Most software upgrades to new versions come with a new UI. With any new UI, there is always a learning curve.

The redesigned interface reflects a shift toward a more user-centric approach. It empowers all users (marketers and analysts) to explore data in a more intuitive and customizable manner, enabling deeper analysis and uncovering hidden patterns.

The new customizable interface lets you make the GA4 interface truly your own. Remove reports that do not apply to your business. Add custom reports that are tailored to your organization. Organize and group reports into meaningful categories. (No need to learn how Google thinks reports should be named or grouped!)

While the initial learning curve may be daunting, the long-term benefits of improved data interpretation and actionable insights and a fully customizable interface far outweigh this temporary inconvenience.

3. Limited historical data

Another critique of GA4 is its limited compatibility with historical data from UA. Users argue that this limitation hampers the ability to conduct meaningful trend analysis and track long-term performance accurately.

This is not new.

The same attitude was taken when GA migrated to UA. Back in 2012, there wasn’t an option either to port old data into the new measurement logic of UA. This left businesses with comparing apples to oranges (before and after the change) in their data.

Many analytics professionals have long advocated and argued that there was little analytics insight to gain from revisiting data more than a year old and most certainly over two years old. The pandemic’s impact on many businesses makes comparing year-over-year data meaningless, and so does comparing the past months to the same period from three or four years prior.

Websites and apps have been updated, marketing strategies modernized and the global economy and user preferences have changed. Unless your reporting considers this, simply reporting users, sessions and even sales numbers out of context was and still is meaningless.

Event data retention

The new maximum GA data storage limit of 14 months is disconcerting compared to the previous “unlimited” option. To address this issue, Google has given all accounts a free BigQuery (data warehouse) account. By storing your data here, you still get virtually an unlimited time frame of storage.

Granted, configuring and using BigQuery is not simple. It entails a steep learning curve and time commitment that is beyond many Google Analytics users, especially those without their own data team.

With limited historical data, you must reevaluate your approach to measurement. How are you going to evaluate success? Adopting GA4 enables us to revisit our data collection strategies and redefine KPIs.

This shift prompts a fresh perspective on data analysis, focusing on real-time and forward-looking insights rather than relying solely on historical trends. Consequently, we can better align strategies with current market dynamics and adapt swiftly to changing consumer behavior.

While digital analytics helps evaluate marketing performance, it is far more effective at generating questions than answering them. Reviewing your analytics for user behavior changes — and then investigating why — yields greater value than simply using it to validate campaign effectiveness.

4. Reduced customization options

GA4 offers a more streamlined approach to event tracking and customization compared to its predecessor.

Critics claim that this reduction in customization options (custom reports only) limits the ability to track specific user actions and tailor analytics to individual business needs. However, this apparent flaw ushers in a new era of efficiency.

GA4 enables marketers and analysts to focus on the most critical metrics and outcomes by simplifying event tracking. It forces us to reevaluate our tracking requirements and prioritize the metrics that truly matter, leading to more concise and actionable insights.

The reduced customization options promote a more standardized approach to analytics, facilitating benchmarking and industry-wide comparisons.

US vs. GA4

Despite critics’ claims of a reduction in customization, GA4 does offer greater levels of customization to the UI.

You can (using the library feature) completely customize the user interface and add any number of custom reports and report sections.

With a little effort, the entire UI can be customized to your business needs.

GA4 library

By doing so, commonly required reports become easily accessible.

Reports that were never used can be removed from the UI.

The result is faster access to data yielding greater productivity.

With the growing emphasis on user privacy, GA4’s stricter data collection and consent management mechanisms have drawn criticism. Critics argue that the enhanced privacy measures limit the availability of data for analysis and hinder marketers’ ability to understand their audience fully.

However, this perceived flaw is crucial to building trust and transparency. By embracing privacy-centric practices, businesses can strengthen their relationships with users and establish themselves as ethical data stewards.

As part of the migration to GA4, website and app privacy policies must be reviewed. For sites that have enabled Google signals as part of the “Reporting Identity” and operate under the legal aspects of GDRP, this review is critical.

Reporting identity - Google signals

Embrace changes in your measurement approach

Once you get past the initial surprise of the new interface and understand why the top five complaints about it are actually positive improvements, you will likely begin to appreciate GA4.

While items are missing from the standard features, there is hope that Google will add these back in a future release. (The annotation tool and ability to save predefined segments from standard reports are missed by users.)

Although many marketers widely consider the rollout of the GA4 upgrade as “one of the worst ever,” it brings improvements that will likely be embraced by most users within a few months.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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