Universal Analytics vs. Google Analytics 4 – A quick comparison and essentials steps for migration.


Why read this article?

If you’re a website owner, a marketer, or an SEO professional you’ll need to get up to speed with Google Analytics 4. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been reluctant to commit to learning a new system when the old Universal Analytics was serving you just fine. Be that as it may, the move to GA4 is upon us and in just over 100 days your old UA data will be deleted, so now is the time to act if you haven’t already.

This article discusses what this change means for website owners, the points of difference you’ll want to know about, and some advice on a practical way forward.

So feel free to side-step the learning curve and get up to speed with the need-to-know info only!

For those who aren’t aware

Google Analytics has long been the go-to platform for website owners and marketers seeking to track and understand their user behaviour. After 10 years out in the wild,  you’re probably aware that Google has now initiated a shift away from the traditional Universal Analytics (UA) system to the newer Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

Why GA4?

Ostensibly, the transition to GA4 represents Google’s effort to align with evolving digital behaviours and privacy expectations. However, for many end users, this shift also introduces challenges. These include the need to learn a new (and more complex) user interface, and to adapt to the pros and cons of a new event-based model.

The subtext with an increased privacy focus is that some aspects of data we’ve been used to accessing with UA will be not as readily available to us with GA4. This can leave the impression that it lacks some of the out-of-the -box functionality that we’ve come to rely on from the existing system.

Either way, GA4 will come with a steep learning curve for many users. It will require users to invest time and possibly resources into implementing and mastering the new set of tools, while subtly nudging them towards a closer integration with Google’s broader suite of products.

From Sessions to Events

So what does it mean that GA4 is event-based, rather than session-based?

  • Session-based (AU): Session-based analytics aggregates a user’s interactions within a single visit to a website as one cohesive “session”. This provides an overview of their journey, encompassing every page viewed and action taken from entry to exit, offering insights into the overall user experience during that session.
  • Event-based (GA4): An event-based model focuses on tracking specific user actions as discrete interaction events. These events are not necessarily tied together under a common session identifier, which makes them more atomic in comparison, with less of a linear relationship to each other.

Although it’s main framework revolved around the session-based approach, UA did also support event-based analytics through custom events, making it more of a hybrid of the two approaches. GA4 however is all-in on events, using this approach for all data collection and leaving behind the session-centric model completely.

With this distinction it’s clear to see that because of the way the data is collected, some of the related abilities to explore and analyze user behaviour will be different in GA4 than UA.

So is GA4 more powerful, or not?

Ask Google and they’ll say GA4 is a more powerful analytics platform, emphasizing its flexibility, machine learning features, and the ability to track users across platforms and devices. Its event-based model is designed to provide deeper insights into user behavior, tailored to modern web usage patterns and privacy requirements. This is a shift from UA, where users had to work with a mix of session data and separate event tracking.

From an end user’s point of view, it’s fair to assume this advantage won’t mean much to many, overshadowed by the more complex interface and the disappearance of some intuitive and useful ways to explore their data.  While “power users” will indeed be able to benefit from the universality of the data, that begs the question about which category most of us fall into?

Web and marketing professionals would have done well with a mid-level understanding of the UA system in order to gain valuable insights with UA, but they may need to commit more time and effort into getting the same value out of GA4. There are still some top-line reports available out-of-the box for simple analysis, such as page views and which channels are delivering traffic, but to cross the divide from simple insights to more deeper analysis will take more effort than it would have with UA.

Some specific pain points that UA users will notice.

Let’s delve into literal examples where the change to GA4 may frustrate users that have become accustomed to the UA approach. Not reserved for the power user, these are practical differences mid-level users may likely encounter.

Bounce Rate

Bounce Rate has no direct equivalent in GA4; Instead it measures ‘engagement’ by evaluating whether users spend at least 10 seconds on the site, visit two or more pages, or trigger a conversion event.

  • UA Example: A visitor lands on a single page and leaves without any interaction, counting as a bounce. “Bounce Rate” = 45% indicates nearly half of all sessions were single-page visits without interactions.
  • GA4 Example: An “Engagement Rate” of 70% suggests that 70% of all sessions met one of the engagement criteria—spending over 10 seconds on the site, visiting two or more pages, or triggering a conversion event.

Browser Version

In GA4, detailed information on browser versions requires custom configuration, unlike the direct reporting available in UA.

  • UA Example: Reports include “Chrome 89.0.4389.82”
  • GA4 Example: Must use custom dimensions for specific browser versions.

Data Retention

GA4 has set data retention limits to a maximum of 14 months for detailed data, which can impact the analysis of long-term trends.

  • UA Example: Data retained indefinitely or as set by the admin.
  • GA4 Example: Data older than 14 months is deleted unless exported.


A4 currently lacks a direct feature for adding annotations to data, a functionality that was readily available and utilized in UA for marking significant events.

  • UA Example: Note added on “March 15: Marketing Campaign Launch”
  • GA4 Example: No direct feature; must use external documentation.

Custom Dimensions & Metrics

Custom dimensions and metrics in GA4 are subject to limitations and require a different setup process compared to the more straightforward approach in UA.

  • UA Example: “User Type: New vs Returning” as a custom dimension
  • GA4 Example: Custom dimensions require event modifications, e.g., `user_type: new`.


Unlike in UA, GA4 has no views or view-level filters, and data stream filters are limited.

  • UA Example: Separate views for “Website Traffic” and “Blog Traffic”
  • GA4 Example: Data streams cannot be split into views; filtering is done in reports or during collection.

Standard Reports

GA4 replaces predefined reports with explorations and insights, requiring custom report creation.

  • UA Example: “Acquisition Overview” report available by default
  • GA4 Example: Similar insights require custom report creation in “Explorations”.

Goal Setup

Conversion setup in GA4 differs and is less intuitive for new users.

  • UA Example: Goal set as “Destination: Thank You Page”
  • GA4 Example: Conversions tracked by creating an event, then marking it as a conversion.

Session-Based Analysis

GA4’s focus shifts to event-based analysis, complicating traditional session tracking.

  • UA Example: “Avg. Session Duration” and “Pages/Session” metrics
  • GA4 Example: Focus on “Engagement Time” and event counts without default session duration.

Detailed Referral Data

GA4 changes how referral paths are captured and reported, offering less detail.

  • UA Example: You could see the entire referral path, such as “example.com/referral-page”, providing clear insight into exactly where your visitors came from.
  • GA4 Example: GA4 tracks referral domains, like “example.com”, but getting details about the specific page, such as “/referral-page”, may need additional configuration.

These examples illustrate the practical differences and challenges users are likely to face when transitioning from UA to GA4. While GA4 offers new capabilities and a focus on modern analytics needs, users familiar with UA’s structure and reports will need to adapt to a new way of configuring and interpreting their analytics data.

So what can GA4 do, out-of-the-box?

When you integrate GA4 into your website using just the base embed code, without any additional customization or setup, you’ll still receive a variety of reports and data insights out-of-the-box. Here are some of the key reports GA4 provides by default:

  1. Realtime Reports: View activity on your site in real time, including the number of active users, the pages or screens they’re viewing, and the events they’re triggering.

  2. User Engagement: GA4 focuses on user engagement, providing insights such as engagement rate, engagement time, and the number of engaged sessions per user. This reflects how users interact with your site beyond mere page views.

  3. Traffic Acquisition: Understand where your users are coming from, with reports on traffic sources and user acquisition. This shows how users arrive at your site, whether through organic search, direct traffic, social media, or other referral sources.

  4. Demographics and Tech: Get to know your audience with data on user demographics (age, gender) and the technology they use (device type, operating system, browser). This information is more general and requires users to opt-in for demographics and interest reporting.

  5. Event Tracking: GA4 automatically tracks a range of events without additional setup. This includes clicks, site search, video engagement, and file downloads, offering insights into how users interact with your content.

  6. Conversions: Out-of-the-box, GA4 allows you to mark specific events as conversions. You can see which events are driving conversions on your site, understanding better the actions that contribute to your objectives.

  7. Path Analysis: Explore the paths users take through your site with the path analysis tool, providing a visual representation of user journeys. This can help identify common navigation patterns and potential bottlenecks.

  8. Retention Reports: GA4 provides reports on how well your site retains users, showing how often users return to your site within specific time frames after their initial visit.

Of course, if you’ve set up events on your UA installation, you’ll likely want to do the same in GA4 to help you continue to gain deeper insights tailored to your unique needs. Unfortunately, there is no direct, one-click solution for automatically migrating your UA events to your GA4 setup. 

Must-Do Actions Before UA Data Deletion (July 2024)

For UA users, especially those not deeply technical, transitioning to GA4 presents challenges. There’s a lot of information to take on board and it’s not that easy to have a complete understanding of the ins and outs, even as we’ve laid them out above. So here’s a list of the top must-do actions to make sure you’re covered before Google deletes your UA data permanently, come July 2024.

  1. Export Historical Data: Before UA data is deleted, export important historical data and reports. Tools like Google’s BigQuery or even manual exports to CSV files can be used to save your data.

  2. Set Up GA4 Properly: If you haven’t already, set up your GA4 property to start collecting data as soon as possible. This ensures you have a growing dataset in GA4 to analyze moving forward.

  3. Familiarize Yourself with GA4: Begin exploring GA4’s interface and features. Use Google’s resources, tutorials, and community forums to build your understanding of the new platform.

  4. Identify Key Metrics in GA4: Determine which metrics and data are most important for your analysis in GA4, understanding that some direct equivalents to UA metrics may not exist.

  5. Create a Transition Plan: Outline a clear plan for your transition, including timelines for learning, data migration, and starting new tracking practices in GA4.

  6. Review GA4 Training Materials: If you do want to get more than just the out-of-the-box functionality, then Google offers training and documentation to help users transition. Look into these resources to lessen the learning curve associated with GA4’s new features and metrics.

  7. Consult or Hire Experts if Necessary: If the transition feels overwhelming, consider consulting with a digital analytics expert or hiring someone to assist with setting up and understanding GA4

Need help with a simple transition?

We can make sure your site is set up properly to collect data via GA4, so if you haven’t done so yet and you’re looking for someone to assist, please get in contact.



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