Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics | 8 Key Differences

The story of the most popular web analytics solution – Google Analytics –  started in April 2005 when Google acquired a statistician company Urchin on Demand. Over 15 years, Universal Analytics became so popular that new digital companies began to install this tool as the first one on their website. 

Nowadays,  over 28 million sites—including 74% of the most popular 10,000 – are using the tool. It can be recognised as one of the most popular tools on the web. 

Recently Google announced that Universal Analytics would stop processing new hits in July 2023. The good news is that they created Google Analytics 4. Many and many companies have started to use it already. They can enjoy new possibilities of Google Analytics 4, such as an event-based model, no data limit, AI-based forecasts, reports customisation and more. There is no doubt that Google Analytics 4 is the future, and since it’s free, it will overcome Mixpanel and Amplitude altogether in the long run. 

I have explained how to upgrade to Google Analytics 4 from Universal Analytics. Therefore I dedicate this blog to comparing Google Analytics 4 with Universal Analytics. Let’s get started. 

#1. Different Measurement Models

There are many online analytics tools that you can use. Although the most popular ones, Amplitude and Mixpanel, initially had an event-based measurement model, Universal Analytics was always session-based. 

The session-based model was created when most business websites were e-commerce. It is not valid anymore! Nowadays, we see more and more web (or mobile) applications than e-commerce. It was great to use Universal Analytics for e-commerce, but it’s not the best analytics tool for SaaS companies. 

But, yes… let’s start with the definition.

What does the session-based model mean?

According to Google documentation, a session is a group of user interactions with your website within a given time frame. For example, a single session can contain multiple page views, events, social interactions, and e-commerce transactions. 

The leading indicator of the session is the amount of time a user spends on the website. Universal Analytics uses 30 minutes as the standard. Every time a visitor takes action on your website, the session restarts for the next 30 minutes. The session is also restarted at midnight and when a user lands on your website through a different source( for instance, Paid Ads). 

Hit Type in UAMeasurement Type in GA4
User TimingEvent
App/screen viewEvent

What does the event-based model mean?

According to Amplitude article, event-based analytics is the method of tracking and analyzing interactions between users and your product, also known as events. Events and users are the core elements of event-based analytics. An event is any action or behavior that occurs within a digital touchpoint, such as a mobile app, email, product dashboard, CRM, or webpage.

The majority of product analytics tools use event-based models. So, Mixpanel and Amplitude, two leaders in the product analytics field, use this measurement model. 

Universal Analytics has many hits (pageviews, events, e-commerce, social interactions). There are no more of that in GA4. There is only one – event. 

This is the core change that differentiates Google Analytics 4 from Universal Analytics. Working with SaaS companies and E-commerce, I understood that questions regarding such metrics as LTV, CAC, trial-to-paid and retention rate couldn’t be answered with Universal Analytics. Therefore more and more companies use two analytics tools (mixpanel + google analytics or amplitude + google analytics). 

Google understood that and released Google Analytics 4 to help digital companies easily find answers to their questions and, of course, grow the number of businesses using Google Analytics. Let’s move to the second difference that helped Google to return their big clients back to Google Analytics 4 from Mixpanel and Amplitude.

#2. GA4 offers no data limits 

The next thing that makes GA4 one of the best analytics tools to use is the no-data limit policy. Universal Analytics has the following limitations:

  • 200,000 hits per user per day
  • 500 hits per session

At this moment, GA4 has almost no limitations, which made some big clients move to GA4 from Universal Analytics within the first months. Apart from that, some of my clients saved up to $3000  monthly on using Google Analytics 4 instead of Mixpanel or Amplitude. 

The primary limitations that GA4 has are:

  • 500 distinctly name events (but it doesn’t mean volume, you can send 300K the same events)
  • 25 event parameters

From the list above, we understand that plenty of online companies will be able to use or adapt to these limitations. 

To someone who can tell that it’s impossible to use GA4 the same way as Mixpanel, I recommend looking below at the section “GA4 + Bigquery: Native data warehouse integration”. You can also leave your comment at the bottom of this page or use the contact form

You can grab a lot of great insights using Google Analytics 4 for free and save some money along the way. Let’s move to the third key difference.

#3. Automatic event tracking in Google Analytics 4

Another great thing that Google Analytics offers, and we needed to spend time manually or pay someone to do it for us in Universal Analytics, is that it tracks some events automatically. 

No code changes are required!

First of all, there are three types of events in GA4:

  1. Automatically captured events
  2. Enhanced Measurement
  3. Recommended events

Automatically captured events

If we talk about automatically captured events, these are:

  1. first_visit
  2. session_start
  3. user_engagement

These events help you to understand when the website visitor made the first visit, how many sessions were made, how long it lasted and whether the visitor stayed on the page for more than 10 seconds. 

Enhanced Measurement Control Tab in GA4

Enhanced measurement

Apart from automatically captured events, another category of events is also measured automatically in GA4, which can help you save your time or budget. They are

  1. Scroll Depth Tracking
  2. Outbound clicks
  3. Site Search (UA had this one)
  4. Video Engagement
  5. File downloads 

These events are called “Enhanced measurement”, and you can activate them or deactivate them based on your needs.

Recommended events

Google created this type of event to guide you on how you should use some popular events to train their machine-learning models for prediction and anomaly purposes. 

Whenever you want to implement a new event in Google Analytics 4, you should follow the following steps:

  1. Look at automatically captured events. If you don’t see your event, move to the second step.
  2. Look at Enhanced Measurement events. If you don’t see your event, move to the third step.
  3. Look at Recommended events. If you don’t see your event or one of the events that can replicate your new event, create a custom event. However, if you see your or a similar event in this section, it’s better for you to use the recommended event. 

Taking into account the work Google does to categorise events and provide documentation for major niches to guide small businesses to use Google Analytics 4 more efficiently. I highly recommend that you follow the process mentioned above. 

Now, you see how many events and how many of them GA4 can track automatically. You don’t need to change the code. You don’t need to ask your engineering team to do it. Just switch a toggle, and it’s done! 

Now, when we are done with this difference, let’s move to the next.

#4. Data Streams in Google Analytics 4: Cross-device and Cross-platform reporting

If you wanted to track your product on different platforms in Universal Analytics, you usually needed to use Views to separate them or other properties. You don’t need to do it now with Data Streams in Google Analytics 4!  

Using Data Stream Filter in Explore Section of GA4

Data Streams help you separate data flows, and you can analyse all your data in one view, or you can easily use default filters in GA4 to work with data from one data stream. Just go to Explore tab, create a new report and add the new dimension “stream ID” or “stream name”, add this dimension in filters and select the data stream you want to work with.  

It’s so easy to do and so powerful.  

#5. AI and Machine Learning in Google Analytics 4

AI and Machine Learning are among the most exciting things in Google Analytics 4. You don’t need to spend time anymore trying to understand if the sales of that date or the date before that date were okay. Now Google Analytics 4 will show it to you! You activate Anomalies in Explore Reports, define the best settings for your metric, and GA4 shows you the answer. 

Apart from anomaly detection, there is a prediction in GA4. With a click, you can use Predictions to predict next month’s sales or revenue. 

Anomaly Detection in Action in GA4

Besides that, GA4 uses a machine-learning algorithm to create a data-driven attribution model for you. If you spent time evaluating which model worked better, now, Google Analytics 4 will tell you and show which channel brings the most impact to your business. Excellent!

#6. GA4 Reporting Customisation vs Universal Analytics Core Reports

I have already covered it a bit early, but Google Analytics 4 is a tool where you can customise your reports as much as possible. People like Mixpanel and Amplitude because they allow you to build reports and dashboards quickly. Google Analytics 4 has this feature. It is called “Explore”. 

GA4 Explore Section

Here you can do the same thing you can do in any other modern analytics tool. You can select the metric and dimension, apply filters, and change visualisations. You can see the individual user’s actions the same way as you see them in Mixpanel or Amplitude.

It’s so easy to use and so powerful! Forget about custom and default reports in Universal Analytics. You can make GA4 look the way you want it, the most suitable way for your business. 

If we talk about dashboards, you can customise them too. You can select what kind of data they show.

GA4 Dashboard Customisation

You can have your decent analytics platform in Google Analytics 4 in a month. Don’t hesitate to contact me to help you. 

#7. GA4 + Bigquery: Native data warehouse integration

Do you remember that day you needed to write a python script or export the data into Google Sheets from Universal Analytics to work with it differently? 

You don’t need to do it again! Google Analytics 4 will give you a native integration with BigQuery. One of the leading data warehouse solutions nowadays! You can even start to use BigQuery for free. There are options! You don’t need to pay for that! 

You can also have data from multiple sources (data streams) in GA4 and send this data into BigQuery daily or momentary. There is only one limitation you need to consider. You can send up to 1M events per day to BigQuery from all data streams you want to import data from. 

Working With GA4 Data in BigQuery

Although it’s a considerable number, please consider it carefully. If you use Mixpanel or Amplitude, check how many events they receive daily. If there are more than 1M, try to think which ones you can remove or combine. 

You should remember that it doesn’t make sense to measure some actions if you don’t use them. You can quickly check how long ago you used the specific event in Mixpanel or Amplitude. Did you use it three months ago? Most likely, it is not so important anymore. 

#8. Privacy in GA4 vs UA

The eighth difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics is how prepared they are for new regulations in the data field, such as GDPR and CCPA. 

Google Analytics 4 was built for privacy. 

Requesting data deletion in GA4

Could you make it in Universal Analytics so easy? Of course, no! You would spend considerable time removing it using filters and other techniques.

Today, when the whole world is moving towards privacy and users are so concerned about every bit of information about them, you have to use GA4.  There are not so many other choices to make. 

Final Word

I dedicated this post to discussing eight differences between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics. From my perspective, Google Analytics 4 is the future. It has so many benefits over Universal Analytics that I have no doubts about recommending using it. Since Universal Analytics is going away, you must upgrade to Google Analytics 4 as soon as possible

Is Google Analytics 4 free?

Yes, Google Analytics 4 is free. There are no costs associated with using it.

Is Google Analytics 4 better?

Yes, Google Analytics 4 has many benefits over Universal Analytics. There is better privacy data management, and native free integration with BigQuery, AI and ML models. You can customise the reports the same way as you can in Mixpanel or Amplitude. 

Should I use Google Analytics 4?

Universal Analytics will stop collecting new hits from July 2023. To gather data about your website visitors, you must upgrade to Google Analytics 4 as soon as possible. Besides that, Google Analytics 4 is way better than Universal Analytics, and it will improve your users’ knowledge. 

Can I use both Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics?

Yes, you can use Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics simultaneously. 

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