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Google Analytics 4: Benefits and challenges for multi-location businesses


There has been much anticipation about the upcoming transition from Universal Analytics (UA) to Google Analytics 4. (GA4) All standard UA properties will cease data processing on July 1, 2023, with few exceptions. In turn, multi-location brands using Google Analytics solutions need a plan today to manage the upcoming changes in reporting.

In this guide, we’ll explore the benefits and challenges the transition to GA4 presents for multi-location brands, important considerations to keep in mind while planning, and steps you can take now to protect your company’s data. First, let’s look at what’s changing and why Google switched from UA to GA4.

Key differences between Google UA and GA4

Google has high hopes for GA4, a solution it promises is “designed for the future of measurement.” In March, Google began automatically creating a GA4 account for new users unless they opt out (you still need to upload the new javascript tracking code gtag.js to collect data). And soon, existing users will have no choice but to migrate to the new system.

Google Analytics 4 set up prompt

Google Analytics 4 set up prompt

Brand marketers must be aware of this change and how it impacts reporting across the user journey. While both UA and GA4 share the same purpose, there are several significant differences:

Data collection

UA tracks website user behavior using cookies and client IDs, while GA4 uses event-based tracking to capture page views, clicks, scrolls, and downloads.

User identification

While UA relies on login data to track users across devices and sessions, GA4’s cross-device tracking feature is enabled by default and does not rely on a User ID.

Data modeling

GA4 introduces data modeling through machine learning techniques that create custom dimensions and metrics.

Reporting

GA4 aims to facilitate analysis rather than pure reporting, providing easy-to-use charts and customizable reports like funnels, cohort analysis, and segmentation.

Integration

While UA can coexist with GA4 and be integrated with Google Tag Manager, the different tracking codes and data model structures used in GA4 require a different implementation approach.

Overall, GA4 strives to offer a more user-centric, privacy-focused analysis approach than UA by leveraging machine learning features and making analysis easier to perform within the platform.

Multi-location brand benefits of Google Analytics 4

Despite the challenges inherent to such a major shift in reporting, GA4 offers several advantages for large organizations and multi-location businesses.

Cross-device tracking

Cross-device tracking in GA4 enables businesses to monitor user engagements across various devices, stitching sessions across browsers and devices together to provide comprehensive insights into customer behavior. This particularly benefits e-commerce companies operating in desktop and mobile channels, enhancing their understanding of customer actions.

This is made possible with the User-ID feature, and you can learn how to set it up here.

Custom reporting and explorations

Effectively managing scope mixing is a common hurdle in UA’s custom reporting, where data is categorized into four scopes: user, session, hit, and product. Attempting to merge scopes to generate intricate or comprehensive reports frequently results in reporting errors. When utilizing the Google Analytics API, users may inadvertently combine metrics and dimensions from different scopes (e.g., Pages and Sessions), leading to potentially misleading reporting outcomes.

GA4 allows each property up to 150 custom reports, with one or two data points and up to two visualizations and a table. Learn how to customize detailed reports here.

Explorations are another way to go beyond standard reporting for deeper consumer behavior insights. While standard reports focus on key business metrics, Explorations help answer complex questions about your business data, enabling marketers to perform ad hoc queries quickly, create segments and audiences, use filters and refactoring, and more. Learn how to gain deeper insights with Explorations here.

Custom report example

Custom reports example courtesy of Google Analytics

Responsiveness to marketers’ needs

This was one of the key benefits highlighted in a case study on how Google’s media team handled its GA4 upgrade. Bob Arnold, Global Digital Media Innovation Lead at Google, shared, “Supporting the work of many teams means that measurement should be responsive to each team’s unique needs. For example, the reports and insights needed by the website and app design teams are completely different from those accessed by the campaign optimization team.”

Improved privacy compliance

Privacy controls, including cookieless measurement and behavioral and conversion modeling, are designed to ensure brands comply with increasingly strict privacy laws worldwide. The European Union’s GDPR poses substantial challenges for global brands.

GA4 gives consumers greater control over their privacy, enabling them to set data retention from 2 to 14 months, turn off ad personalization, disable Google signals data collection, and more.

Enhanced events tracking

GA4 enables businesses to gather more insight into specific user interactions on your website or app with automatically collected and custom-enhanced measurement events. Businesses can track up to 300 events, or data streams, on one property and up to 30 conversions at a time.

Enhanced and custom events can help your brand team better understand what is driving conversion events, customers’ issues at various points in their journey through your web properties, how your systems behave and function, and more.

The [GA4] About events page is a good starting point for learning about enhanced event tracking and leads to further resources on event categories and what you can create and track.

Events screenshot example

Events example courtesy of Google Analytics

Predictive analytics

Google relies heavily on machine learning in GA4, enabling users to see predictive metrics around the purchase or churn probability and revenue generation. Multi-location brands with e-commerce or order online, pickup in-store component to the business can use this to predict e-commerce and in-app purchase behavior.

Probability metrics are an Exploration accessible through the ‘User lifetime’ exploration and are available to properties with a minimum level of the qualifying activity. For example, you must have at least 1,000 returning users who have triggered the relevant predictive condition (purchase or churn) and at least 1,000 returning users who haven’t in order to qualify for this feature. Learn more about GA4 predictive metrics here.

Important Google Analytics 4 cautions for marketers

Marketers should keep in mind the following as they plan their migration from UA to GA4 or a new GA4 setup.

Google Analytics 4 is not optional if you want to continue to collect data

On its help page, titled ‘Universal Analytics is going away,’ Google promises, “After July 1, 2023, you’ll be able to access your previously processed data in your Universal Analytics property for at least six months.” This means you need a plan to export the data as soon as possible.

You cannot compare Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics data

Given that GA4 and UA collect data differently, comparing the two sets of data will not give you an accurate picture. There may be a period when year-over-year data will not be available until GA4 collects enough data, so it is wise to make this adjustment sooner.

Universal Analytics and Google Analytics can collect data at the same time

Universal Analytics and Google Analytics use different tracking methods – UA using cookies and GA4 a combination of cookies and other methods, such as fingerprinting – which means that you can collect data from both Universal Analytics and Google Analytics without affecting the accuracy of either dataset. It’s essential to be aware if this is happening or if there’s a period of overlap in your marketing organization.

The new user interface presents challenges

Many users have reported substantial difficulty navigating the GA4 interface during this time of transition. With the improved privacy controls, more flexible and customizable reports, and integration of machine learning, popular features, and basic metrics are not as easy to locate.

Multi-location brands should account for a period of adjustment and provide training time and budget to support team members in learning the new GA4 system, as it’s not a seamless upgrade from one version to another.

Multi-location and franchise brands must determine how this reporting tool will be incorporated into reports distributed to – or accessible via a dashboard for – local managers and stakeholders.

Key takeaways

While the sunsetting of UA has caused some discomfort and stress for digital marketers, the automation and deeper insights that come with GA4 are a much-needed web and app analytics platform upgrade for multi-location brands. Data-driven attribution, advanced funnel reports, enhanced tracking, and greater insight across the customer journey are just a few of the benefits of GA4.

The migration process is complex, so it’s important that your technology and marketing teams work closely together to ensure you’re gathering the right insights into user behavior.



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