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It’s Time to Migrate from Universal Analytics to GA4

Jason Hamrick | Principal Strategist, Data & Insights

Jessica Morales | Senior Digital Analyst

March 24, 2022

Well, it’s official. Google recently announced their plans to sunset the previous version of Google Analytics—known as Universal Analytics or GA3—on July 1, 2023, which means it’s time to migrate over to the next generation of Google Analytics—known as Google Analytics 4 or GA4. 

This announcement may come as a shock to many and will no doubt impact the nearly 30 million sites that leverage Google Analytics today. What little comfort we have is knowing that we’re all in this, together. 

We have just over a year to make the switch and become familiar with GA4’s new interface. This migration will require a new kind of thinking; it will require us all to adapt our internal processes, learn new technology, and become more thoughtful about how and why we collect customer data. 

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Why is Google sunsetting Universal Analytics now?
  2. What will happen to my Universal Analytics data?
  3. Can I move data from Universal Analytics to GA4?
  4. What should I expect from GA4 vs. Universal Analytics?
  5. How should I approach a full migration to GA4?

1) Why is Google sunsetting Universal Analytics now?

Google Analytics 4 was first introduced to the market back in October 2020. Until recently, we all expected that Universal Analytics would be around for at least three to five more years as there was no definitive end-of-life date announced; however, this is no longer the case. 

There are a few external factors that are driving Google’s decision to expedite this migration to GA4 and sunset Universal Analytics sooner than we anticipated. 

While Google hasn’t explicitly said one way or the other, we think the most pressing external factor is recent scrutiny of Universal Analytics with respect to data privacy laws and regulations, such as the Austrian Data Protection Authority's decision that Universal Analytics likely violates GDPR. Rather than rewrite Universal Analytics to be compliant, Google is instead choosing to speed migration to GA4, which is more compliant.

For example, in Universal Analytics, data privacy controls are opt-in, which most websites will choose to forgo. In GA4, privacy controls are the default. For instance, in GA4, IP-address anonymization is always enabled and cannot be turned off.

2) What will happen to my Universal Analytics data?

To be clear, you will still be able to use and collect new data in your Universal Analytics properties between now and June 30, 2023. 

However, all standard Universal Analytics properties will stop processing new hits on July 1, 2023. After this date, you will only be able to view historical reports of previously processed data in Universal Analytics for up to six months. If you're using the paid version of Google Analytics (known as Google Analytics 360), these properties will stop processing new hits on October 1, 2023. 

Google has not yet specified the exact date when the Universal Analytics interface will no longer be accessible to users, but our advice is to hope for the best and expect the worst. We expect that Google will pull the plug entirely by the end of 2023. This means you have a little over a year to say goodbye to your Universal Analytics properties.

At the very least, you should 1)  make the switch to GA4 prior to July 2023 and 2) export your historical data from Universal Analytics prior to December 2023. This will ensure the least amount of disruption in your reporting processes. 

While this buys you some time, we do not recommend waiting until these deadlines to act. Remember, data in Google Analytics 4 is not retroactive, which means data collection begins at the point of creation. The sooner you can deploy GA4 for your web and mobile app data streams, the sooner you can begin collecting data in GA4 for historical reporting in the future.

3) Can I move data from Universal Analytics to GA4?

Unfortunately, no. GA4 can only collect new data for which it is configured. Previously processed data in Universal Analytics should be exported and then blended with GA4 data in a separate data visualization tool, such as Data Studio or Tableau. 

4) What should I expect from GA4 vs. Universal Analytics?

Universal Analytics and GA4 are two fundamentally different products and should be treated as such. If you’re expecting an apples-to-apples migration with the same features, measurements, and processes you’re accustomed to, you will be disappointed. 

Universal Analytics is known as an all-in-one tool, with data collection, analysis, and reporting all built into a single interface. By comparison, Google Analytics 4 focuses solely on ad hoc data analysis and is meant to be paired with other advanced tools, including:

GA4 is not an all-in-one tool, so you should expect to familiarize yourself with these associated tools to successfully migrate to GA4.

Additionally, they have two distinct measurement models, which means you will need to rethink how you go about collecting data. Universal Analytics properties leverage a users-, sessions-, pageviews- and hit-based measurement model, whereas GA4 now uses an events-based measurement model, where everything that happens on a site is now considered an event—including page views, clicks, transactions, searches, etc.

We introduce more of Google Analytics 4 features in another blog post.

5) How should I approach a full migration to GA4?

If you currently use Universal Analytics, you should start planning a migration to GA4 as soon as possible, so that you have time to execute an orderly migration, rather than a mad rush in the spring and summer of 2023. 

There are a few practical steps you can take now to ensure a smooth migration to GA4:

  • Inventory your existing Universal Analytics measurements. Make note of which measurements you’d like to continue tracking in GA4.
  • Create a GA4 solutions design reference. Consider how to best structure your GA4 account to scale with your business in the years to come.
  • Create properties and data streams in GA4. Note that you can now collect and analyze multiple web and mobile app data streams within a single property, so this will require some thoughtful strategy.
  • Use Google Tag Manager’s configuration tag to initiate your GA4 analytics tracking code on your site.
  • Set up data collection. 
    • Enable enhanced measurement events, including page views, scroll depth, file downloads, on-site search results, and video engagement (if applicable).
    • Create a tag management plan and use Google Tag Manager’s event tag to deploy custom event tracking. Make sure these map back to any Universal Analytics custom events you wish to collect in GA4.
  • Export raw event data from your GA4 properties to Google BigQuery to take advantage of long-term storage without worrying about GA4 data retention limits.
  • Flow data from BigQuery into your Business Intelligence (BI) tool of choice (e.g., Data Studio or Tableau) for data visualization and reporting.
  • Set a reminder to export your historical data in Universal Analytics in July 2023 to ensure you never lose access.

Parting Ways with Universal Analytics

We know this process can feel a bit daunting, especially for those of us who have leaned heavily on Universal Analytics over the last 10 years. It’s easy to recall how much time was spent configuring metrics, collecting data, and reporting numbers to our liking—all within this convenient, single interface. Not to mention, the Google Analytics community has spent the last decade establishing best practices, templates, and tutorials to ease the learning curve for its users.

But now, we must start anew in GA4.

As we get ready to say our final farewells to what we have all come to know, love, and occasionally loathe about Universal Analytics, we have the extraordinary opportunity to usher in and embrace the next generation of Google Analytics—a tool designed especially for the future of digital analytics. We are making history together.

Have more questions? We don’t blame you.

This is a lot to digest and likely feels like a daunting enterprise. Phase2 has a dedicated Customer Data & Insights team that can provide consultation and assist you with a seamless migration.

We hope you enjoyed reading the Phase2 blog! Please subscribe below for regular updates and industry insights.

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