In Search Podcast: Migrate to Google Analytics 4


Welcome to the final part of a three-part discussion about Google Analytics 4 in this episode, we’re going to be looking at how we migrate to GA4.

Taking part is Jeff Sauer, founder of Jeff Analytics and Data-Driven U, Brie Anderson, owner of Beast Analytics, Jill Quick, analytics consultant and trainer from The Coloring In Department, and Dara Fitzgerald, CEO and co-founder at Measurelab.

In this week’s episode, our panel discusses how to migrate to Google Analytics 4, including:

  • Steps to migrate to Google Analytics 4
  • Redefine your conversion data
  • Define your data points
  • Collect more data than you need
  • Google Analytics 4 migration tips
  • Don’t compare GA4 to UA

How to Migrate to Google Analytics 4

1. Steps to migrate to Google Analytics 4

David: Jeff, what steps do we need to take to migrate to GA4?

Jeff Sauer: There are a lot of ways to look at migration. Short, shameless plug, we have a free lead magnet that is a migration guide. It’s a 50-page PDF with a checklist of what you can do to migrate. As you can imagine, a 50-page checklist versus a two-minute soundbite, we’re just going to scratch the surface here.

I think the easiest thing to do is to treat your migration just like you treat GA4 with the data as a fresh start. A new way to look at things. My first recommendation when I teach is to reset your strategy for 2023 before you measure anything. For a lot of people, their strategy for measurement is the exact same interface buttons that were in Universal Analytics. So they didn’t actually have a strategy. They just put in there whatever Google told them was their strategy. I think it’s a good time to develop a strategy for the first time and to mature as a business if you haven’t done it yet. And in doing that, you’ll probably find that less is more. You don’t need as many things, you don’t need a lot of this data. When it’s simpler it will feel make you feel better. If you only have three things you’re trying to track that is important to you. It doesn’t mean you don’t need to collect the other stuff. But it means that you’re only reporting on the things that are important to you.

So strategy first is really important, and it’s the perfect time to do it. Because there’s no old strategy, there’s no person who used to work before you on the analytics account strategy in place, there are no gaps to explain, and there’s nothing you have to worry about. Because we have nothing, you’re starting from zero with GA4. That’s the first thing, reset your strategy.

And then from my migration perspective, a few things are easy, some things are hard, and some things are nigh impossible. The easy ones are getting the code in place. It’s basically the same thing. There’s really not that much of a difference. However you put the old code on, you can do the same thing for the new code. If you want to do event tracking, you put the old event code in place. You can do the same method for the new event paradigm.

Now, this is where it gets tricky. All the events were a weird open data structure. You had category, action, label, and value, four different things. But they had no enforced hierarchy. Now we have event name and event parameters. And your event category might be your name or your label may be your name. But then the parameters are equal to each other. And they don’t even show up in the interface unless you define them as custom dimensions and metrics. So you have this problem where you need to adjust the data structure. There’s a setting in GA4 that says “Migrate my Universal Analytics events.” Do not touch that, just put tape over it that says “Don’t touch.” That’s a bad idea. There’s a lot of planning on your old events, that’s actually the most thoughtful thing that a lot of us need to do is old events and new events, especially on established websites.

Then we get stuff like e-commerce. E-commerce is either really easy if your platform has integration with GA4 or you have developers who are working with you. But it’s nigh impossible if you’re on something where you want native integration, they haven’t done it yet. My e-commerce platform doesn’t do it yet. Shopify announced they’re gonna do it at the end of March. So that does depends on where you’re at.

And then there are other things like integrating with your app, tracking other types of monetization, that I’m still figuring out how I feel about that. Publisher ads, I don’t even know how to get that set up. I think you have to have to integrate with Google’s publisher platform. Those are things that I haven’t had a chance to unlock yet. What I would say is to look at the new interface, dream what it could be like if you did it in a way that made sense to you, and then have your team put those action items in place.

2.  Redefine your conversion data

David: Let’s move on to Brie. Migration tips. What migration tips would you like to share?

Brie Anderson: Repeating back what Jeff said, the coolest thing about this, that most people probably wouldn’t find cool but us analysts find cool, is that you can really take this time to think of what you actually need to collect. What would be so helpful if we had information on this, and you can start collecting those things? We have a fresh start so you may as well use it. I always tell people, the first thing you do is get the tag on the site, and then you start. Then you put your conversions, and then you can do whatever other events that you decide that you want to track. And a lot of it is just sitting back down and thinking about what we actually need. Because, again, these universal properties are years and years old. So you probably have a bunch of events. I mean, there are tons of people that have events that haven’t been used in three years or events that weren’t collecting data properly, etc. So you really have a clean slate. I would definitely take advantage of that.

Another thing that I tell people is when you go to set up, in the Admin section, click every little button in that property column, because so many things are hidden in GA4. Google signals are turned off by default so if you can turn it on, talk to your legal team. If you need to filter out certain IP addresses that can be found in the property section. If you want to change your data retention from two months to 14 months, that can be found in the property section and Admin. I tell people to touch every single one of those things. Because there’s a lot in the setup, that needs to be done there that you would never know unless you just went through every single one of those things. Some of them you’ll never use, and that’s fine. But there are a lot of things hidden out of the box that you’ll want to go in there and change.

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3. Define your data points

David: And Jill, what are your thoughts on migration?

Jill Sauer: Similar to what Brie said, I think some of the boring bits are the configuration. Nobody likes having a look at that but they can be important, though, because those settings can have a big impact on the output, the reports you look at. When it comes to migrations, the success of your migration plan is going to hinder on the events that you’re tracking, because it’s a user in an event-driven model.

So if we remember that there are four parent categories. You’ve got the Auto-collected, which comes with a configuration tag, you’ve got the Enhanced Measurement, which Jeff talked about already, you then have Recommended, which is Google saying, “Hey, if you’re going to be doing forms, or logging in, or purchases, we’ve got some predefined names we’d like you to use.” And anything that doesn’t fit in the previous three is a custom event or a custom parameter. Now, if we think of these four parent categories of having event DNA, one event name, up to 25 parameters in this helix string, there is a concept in GA4, which took me a couple of reads, when I first got into it, the creating an event from an event. It feels a bit meta, and it is a bit meta. When you look at your reports, it will have the event total. And then all the parameters that are nested under that event are going to be bundled into there. Now for most people, the actual insights are by isolating a particular parameter. So for me, that is like creating a child. And how do you take that? Well, I take the DNA from the parent. So going through a customer’s website and just starting to do some sense checking from the homepage to your money pages, and then highlighting them and saying, “These actions that we want to track, which parent do they get bucketed in? And do I need to create a child?”

An example of that could be pageviews. You don’t want to be looking at and marking page views as an event conversion. It might be a thank you page. So you would go into admin, create a child where you say, I’d like to have a new GA4 event, this baby’s going to be called Thank You and when the event name equals page view and the page location equals \thank-you, have the baby, and then it will appear in the interface and you can mark it as a conversion.

So most of the migration is just as Jeff said, a clean slate to go what are the most important data points? The things we need for this data story. And how do I track it? And I color code it to make it easier to look at the first two out of the box. And as a little teaser as well because I’ve seen it on the measure Slack channel by Brian Calvos, I think. There is a new enhanced event coming called Content views, which is pulling in all of his schema data. So you’ll be able to look at your data, and not just look at page views, you can pull in all that wonderful schema data that you’re doing as well, and build reports out of it. So there’s a lot we can do with the auto in the enhanced.

For the Recommended and Custom, you will need a good brief. Your dev team or your agency or the people that you hire, they’re only as good as the brief. So having that brief to say I need recommended events, I’ve got two forms, and I’ve got a login. And when you know you’ve got that data, you can go ahead and create those child events. That’s half of the job done. If you just say, “Can you turn it on, please? And I’d like the things,” you’re going to log into the reports and go, “Well, this is a bit naff, I don’t get the data that I want.” Because you have to think through which of these categories I need, and which children I need to produce to make that data more meaningful, and that’s just time, but it’s worth it.

If we go back to my analogy of the car and the helicopter, the helicopter doesn’t need everything that’s in the car. My car is full of my kids’ crappy sweets and raisins in places that get everywhere in the backseat. I don’t want to transfer that to my brand new shiny helicopter on my new report, just because you had the data, doesn’t mean it was used. And if nobody’s using the data, don’t migrate it over. That’s just crap in crap out. So it is a really good opportunity to have that clean slate. So that’s been my mental process of going through migrations to get what you need.

4. Collect more data than you need

David: And Dara, do you encourage SEOs to clean the raisins out of their cars?

Dara Fitzgerald: I love that. I just wrote down, “No raisins in GA4” as a motto we all need to need to live by. Yeah, I honestly couldn’t agree more with the Clean Slate approach. I think it’s it’s the first chance we’ve had to let go of some of that baggage we’ve been collecting for the best part of 20 years. So let’s get rid of that stuff that people aren’t using anymore.

I just have one point to add. And I’m going to do a little shameless plug as well. We use our own framework called Pivot to help our clients migrate over to GA4, it’s a five-step process. But one thing I just wanted to add to what I also agree with what Brie said about turning things on as long as they’re not harmful, even if you don’t plan to use them, because you might use some further down the line. And one thing I’d add to that is setting up the BigQuery exports because unlike with the 360 Universal BigQuery export, where they’ll backdate once you set it up, they don’t do that with GA4. So even if you’re not actively planning to use BigQuery straight away, when you do want to, you’re going to want to have that data collected. There’s not really any reason not to set that up straight away. And that’s something we’ve seen a lot of people don’t do because they don’t realize they need to do it. That’s just one little extra I would add.

5. Google Analytics 4 migration tips

David: Let’s finish off by asking everyone to share just one final tip. And how about thinking about what SEOs need to do in terms of having conversations with other people within their organizations, with other marketing teams, or also perhaps with other platforms that are actively relying on Analytics data, maybe tools like Google Ads, for example.

Jeff, what are your thoughts about what other conversations SEOs need to be potentially having with other teams about other tools?

Jeff: So in some ways, the platform feels like a step backward, I’ve already mentioned that. But it’s because you need to plan more. I’ve been saying for a long time that GA4 is an analyst’s tool. And Universal Analytics was a marketer’s tool. And so we loved it because we had the data in our hands and nobody cared about it all that much. So we could get to what we needed, we could hack around with it, and we could play with it. It was for marketers by marketers. It is changing right now. But as we grow up our tastes change too and we need some of these things and we want some of the structure.

GA4 is way more flexible than Universal was. You can completely change the interface to match whatever you want. I’ve recreated Universal Analytics in GA4. I’ve recreated my strategy framework in GA4, it’s just been awesome. And you can do that and you can share it. You can build cool reports. The exploration reports are awesome once you get used to them. But it does take time to get used to it. So there is a higher learning curve. But once you learn it, you can do things so much faster. The time saved is insane.

Now, as far as integrations go, we’re at a weird point where the Google integrations were rolled out fast and furious. They’re all out there. They connect, and it’s arguably every Google integration but Google Ads are better or at parity with the previous Google integrations. So there are more products and there are better features. The Google Ads ones aside are not as good. But third parties have not done a very good job of doing the integrations because Google hasn’t allowed them to. For example, I really loved Keyword Hero in Universal Analytics, because it would take your Search Console and give you an estimate of keywords and put it back in there. That doesn’t work right now with GA4 it’s not possible. I’ve talked with a lot of call-tracking solutions and they would love to post calls as conversions in GA4, but it’s not possible to do that yet. I think that Google has been protecting their own house and doing everything inside really well. I think the external part is going to take even longer to catch up. And it might not even be until after July 1st that we start seeing integrations.

The other thing is a lot of people have been burned in the past with their integrations with Google. I have seen people build entire apps off of Google Analytics data, and then have it taken away and the rug was swept out from under them. So I think people are pretty gun-shy right now as to whether they’d want to even mess around with developing in this ecosystem. So I’m not sure what’s going to emerge from this. I’m hopeful that people will have a new fresh perspective, I think the big players will do it because they need to, and they have the user base. They’ll integrate, they’ll poll in data. But I’m not sure how the regular Joes are going to do it at this point.

David: Dara, I’m going to come to you because I feel that I’ve been picking on you to go last and having to come up with something different. And everyone else has shared their wonderful advice before. So I thought that it was fair to come to you after Jeff. So what are your thoughts on a more holistic success story with GA4?

6. Don’t compare GA4 to UA

Dara: One thing I’m I’d advise people is to not get too bogged down in the comparisons against Universal. It’s like in the past, when people will try and compare Analytics to Google Ads data or to CRM, you’re always going to come up short. I’d say that the fact is people have no choice. GA4 is going to become the reality and the only reality from the first of July. Obviously, there needs to be a kind of common understanding of what data is being reported on. Now going forward versus what was used with universal, but I see people get very bogged down in comparisons that aren’t even necessarily that meaningful. Comparing metrics that maybe only a subset of people in the organization are using anyway, and arguably shouldn’t be using, going back to the bounce rate point. There are a lot of metrics that that maybe people spent far too much time thinking about that aren’t actually going to going to achieve anything.

I’d say GA4, for anyone continuing to use GA, that is it, the choice has been taken away. So don’t get too bogged down in comparing against Universal. Obviously, if you’ve been tracking in parallel for a period of time, then you’ve had that time to adjust to the fact that there are differences, and gradually moved the business over to understanding those differences. But I don’t think it’s something people need to overly worry about, I think it’s very easy get lost in the details. But as long as you have an understanding of those key conversions and what the data is being used for, then there shouldn’t be a reason for too many problems.

David: And Jill, anything you’d like to add about making the move to GA4 a success in the organization?

Jill: I found one problem with quite a lot of migrations, where we did all the things and everything was tracking. And because some people are still doing the parallel where they’ve got UA and GA4, we can see the difference between the two. They were logging into their traffic acquisition report, and the majority of traffic was set to Direct and everybody was saying that that doesn’t make any sense. Universal has organic and SEO, why is 90 percent of our traffic coming into Direct? One of the problems that you might have, and again, this is probably down to the fact that not everybody has improved their integrations with GA4, is your consent management platform, those cookie banners that you have. I’ve seen this with a lot of well-known e-commerce platforms where that have a cookie banner. And what happens is the user lands on the website, UA activates and fires and the user consents and says yes, I’m quite happy, track away. But because the page load has already occurred, the GA4 one hasn’t happened yet. And then when they start navigating around, when GA4 starts collecting data, all of the information about where that user came from, gets bundled into not-set, which is why everything gets thrown into Direct. And there was nothing wrong with their collection and configuration. It was that consent management platform, so it was getting teams to talk to other teams on the website project to ask, “Who is in charge of our consent manager platform? Have we got it firing properly? It works with UA, can we get it to work with GA4?” And not everybody is adapted to that.

And squeezing in the little benefit of getting consent mode working will activate what Dara was talking about machine learning. You need to connect those dots together to make sure that you’re collecting information legally and lawfully. But this has been a common problem that I’ve seen where everything’s going into Direct and people are wondering why this is happening. And why is your cookie banner, I do have a shameless plug, where I’ve actually spoken to the delightful Michael Patten at Launch Online for about half an hour where he walks through an example of how you can check if this is a problem for you. But that is something that you might not think of in terms of integrations, but something that can mess up your ability to prove that your organic is doing something. That would be my top tip for that.

David: And last but absolutely not least, over to Brie. Brie, what are your final thoughts on GA4?

Brie: The thing about GA4 is it’s given us access to the super sporty car, we you get things like anomaly detection that you can set up very specifically for very specific metrics. And all sorts of tools, that integrate with BigQuery, there are so many things that we can do in GA4. The problem is you have to get comfortable with messing things up, learning, and being comfortable not knowing. The reality of it is like everyone has said so far, the famous quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” If you continue to go, “Well, in Universal Analytics…” The reality is that in Universal Analytics, there’s nothing as of July 1st. So we have to stop being afraid, take a deep breath, and spend 10 to 15 minutes in GA4 every day trying to get ourselves to be comfortable in the platform. And then you’ll start to uncover little things that you’ll see as so much better. Or you’ll wish this was a little bit different which you’re probably running into more of those but over time, you’ll see.

When we all started using the platform, there was no landing page report but then it did end up coming to the platform. You might make notes of some of these things that you wish you had. And hopefully, over time, you will see some of those problems resolved and it’ll just be a little glimmer of hope for you. But the biggest thing is just to get comfortable with being uncomfortable for a little bit. And let Universal go. If you love it, let it go. And start charging forward to GA4.

David: Brie, Jeff, Dara, and Joe, thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation.

And thank you for listening. Check out all the previous episodes and sign up for a free trial of the Rank Ranger platform over at rankranger.com.

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