Author: James Clark
Google Analytics is without doubt the most popular website analytics platform in the world, accounting for over half of the market for web analytics technologies. But, why do so many website owners turn to Google Analytics to understand their audiences’ behavior? There are several compelling reasons.
First, it’s free (or at least the free version is suitable for the vast majority of users). As you would expect, it plays nicely with Google’s other products—from Google Ads to Google Search Console. It’s also well established, with a large, knowledgeable community behind it and plenty of training available. Google even offers official certification.
The latest version of Google Analytics builds on these longstanding benefits by offering a number of new features of its own. These include powerful custom reports called “explorations,” improved user engagement analysis, and the ability to combine mobile app and website usage data—all so that you can analyze how visitors are behaving on your properties and optimize to meet your business goals.
Introducing Google Analytics 4
At the time of this post’s publication, the situation is slightly confusing as “Google Analytics” could refer to not just one but two different web analytics tools: Universal Analytics (UA), which has been around for a decade, and Google Analytics 4 (GA4), the new kid on the block.
Although GA4 launched in 2019, many Universal Analytics users happily ignored it, believing that the older platform would be supported for years to come. Then, Google announced it would retire Universal Analytics in 2023. This means that if you’re on the free version of UA, you won’t be able to use the tool to collect any new data about your site traffic from July 2023 onwards.
For site owners that have accumulated historic data on Universal Analytics, it’s a good idea to begin exporting that data ahead of the deprecation deadline so that it's available as a baseline for comparison later on.
Because of Universal Analytics’ imminent retirement, GA4 is now the default for new tracking setups. (It’s still possible to create a Universal Analytics property, but the option is slightly hidden.)
For these reasons, whether you are a longtime Google Analytics user or a site owner coming to it for the first time, GA4 should now be your focus.
And if you are a longstanding user, you may be surprised by how different GA4 is from its predecessor. Although the user interface looks reassuringly familiar, everything under the hood has changed. GA4 collects, stores, and reports on data in a new way. The initial setup, too, is different. But before we dive into that, let’s look at why you would want to use GA4 in the first place.
What you can learn from GA4
As a website owner, it’s gratifying to see traffic on your site and fascinating to learn more about your users—both of which GA4 is invaluable for. But, the platform is above all else a tool for making business decisions.
For example, you can use it to inform your marketing strategy. Perhaps you spend a lot of time focusing on social media; GA4 can tell you whether that is driving users to your site and whether those users are converting. You might find that some other activity is quietly generating more revenue.
In our example above, we have discovered that average purchase revenue per user is hugely higher for email traffic than for any other channel. That’s definitely worth further investigation.
If you run a blog or a news site, GA4 can help shape your content strategy. It will tell you which content is attracting not just the most users, but also the most engaged users (based on GA4’s new engagement metrics). Knowing what works for your audience and what doesn’t can ultimately help you learn more about what they prefer.
Once you have a grasp of GA4 and its capabilities, you can start to plan changes to your site that can help you achieve your business goals. And of course, GA4 will be on hand to measure how effective those changes are. This enables you to make incremental improvements to your site based on real data. Sounds good? Let’s get started!
Setting up your Google Analytics 4 account and property
To set up Google Analytics, you’ll need a free Google account. If you have a Gmail email address, then you already have a Google account. If not, you can sign up by following these instructions.
Next, navigate to Google Analytics. If this is the first time you’re using Google Analytics, you’ll encounter a “welcome” screen; click on the blue Start measuring button to go to the “account setup” page.
If you’ve used any version of Google Analytics in the past, you’ll instead be taken to the “Home” for your most recently viewed property. To get to account creation from here, click on Admin at the bottom of the vertical, left-hand menu and then on the blue Create Account button.
(If you have an existing Universal Analytics property, you’ll see a GA4 Setup Assistant option on the admin page. This simply creates a new GA4 property based on your existing UA settings. It doesn’t migrate any of your existing data, and your Universal Analytics property will remain exactly as is.)
What you need to know about Google Analytics 4 account structures
We’re mentioning accounts and properties a lot, so it’s worth pausing to explain exactly how these two concepts work together in Google Analytics.
In short, a property represents a website or app you’re tracking. An account is a way of organizing one or more properties.
So for example, you could have an account containing a property for your business website and a property for your personal website. Or, because Universal Analytics and GA4 are two different property types, you could have an account containing a Universal Analytics property and a GA4 property for the same website.
Universal Analytics also has a third level, “views,” so each property could have one or more views. However, this concept doesn’t exist in GA4, so at the simplest level, to use GA4, you’ll need an account with a GA4 property in it. That’s what we’ll create now.
From account setup, Google walks you through a few short pages of settings, asking for information such as your time zone and email communications preferences (all of which you can change later on anyway). It’s pretty straightforward, and by the end of the process, you will have an account with a property in it—but no data yet. For that, you’ll need to set up a “data stream.”
Creating a data stream
To start viewing information about how your users interact with your site, you'll first need to feed site data to Google Analytics via a data stream. Here’s how Google defines a data stream:
A data stream is a flow of data from a customer touchpoint (e.g., app, website) to Analytics. When you create a data stream, Analytics generates a snippet of code that you add to your app or site to collect that data. Data is collected from the time you add the code, and that data forms the basis of your reports.
When you first create a property, Google will helpfully guide you to the data stream setup page. If you navigate away, it will prompt you to go back there via a big, red Go to stream setup button at the top of the screen.
01. On the data streams page, choose your platform: Web, Android app, or iOS app. Although you can have more than one data stream feeding into the same property, a simple website setup will just have the one “Web” stream. Let’s click that now.
02. On the “Set up data stream” overlay, add your website URL and a stream name of your choice (you can use the URL again if you like, or just call it “Web stream”).
03. On the same overlay, choose whether you want enhanced measurement (it’s enabled by default). This is a GA4 feature that automatically tracks certain user interactions, such as scrolls and clicks on outbound links. Although it was possible to track these interactions with Universal Analytics, they didn’t come “out of the box,” so this is a big step forward. Most of the time, you’ll want to leave it enabled and click Create stream.
04. Still under Enhanced Measurement, click the cog icon to access advanced settings for the Page View event. Here you’ll find the option to disable “page changes based on browser history events.” It’s important that you deselect this if your site is a single-page application. Without getting too technical, this refers to a website that doesn’t reload the page during the user’s journey. Wix sites, for example, are like this, so Wix site owners will need to untick the box.
05. Finally, on the web stream details page, the key piece of information is the measurement ID. This will be a “G” followed by 10 letters and numbers, in the format G-XXXXXXXXXX. You’ll need this ID no matter which method you choose to tag your website with your analytics code.
Tagging your site
How you tag your site (that is, add the snippet of code that collects and sends data to Google Analytics) depends partly on the platform it’s built on. One popular option is to use Google Tag Manager, and you’ll find instructions for this on the web stream details page.
Other platforms and website builders offer GA4 integration without needing to install a third-party plugin. Let’s take a look at how Wix handles it:
01. Go to Marketing Integrations in your site’s dashboard.
02. Click Connect under Google Analytics.
03. Click the “show more” icon (three dots, as pictured below) in the top right corner and select Edit.
04. Paste your Google Analytics 4 measurement ID in the pop-up. Note: Make sure that there are no extra spaces before the code.
05. Select the IP Anonymization checkbox if you want to hide your site visitors’ IP addresses from Google.
06. Click Save.
That’s it! Google also offers instructions for most other major platforms, from Drupal to Shopify.
Data may take time to appear
Once you’ve set up GA4, the first place you will see data begin to appear is the realtime overview (Reports > Realtime). Google warns that it may take some time for data collection to start, but more than likely, it will happen almost straight away.
The realtime report gives you a snapshot of users on your site over the past 30 minutes, including their locations, traffic sources, and “events”. Again without getting too technical, GA4 treats each user interaction on your site as an event—from session starts and pageviews, through to the enhanced measurement events we looked at earlier.
If data is showing up in your realtime report, you can be confident your setup is working. But it could still take up to 24–48 hours for data to appear in the standard reports.
Finding your way around GA4
For experienced users, the layout of the GA4 homepage is similar to Universal Analytics. You can access all the predefined reports using the menu on the left-hand side of the interface, swap between different accounts and properties using the dropdown menu in the top-left, and get to your Admin settings via the link in the bottom-left.
The universal search box along the top is a powerful feature. You can search for the name of a specific report, but you can also ask questions about your data, such as “How many new users yesterday?” for example.
A good place to start is by searching for “Home Page Tour” or “Admin Tour”—these options will give you a quick visual tour of different parts of the interface.
When viewing an individual report, you’ll see it’s made up of a number of “cards”—each card being an individual table or graph. You can customize these by clicking the “edit comparisons” icon in the top-right (it looks like a pencil and a bar graph). And, of course you can designate a date range (the default setting shows the last 28 days).
Finally, many of the cards have a small dropdown menu in the top-left that lets you change the primary dimension. For example, you may be able to change “users” to “new users.” This makes the reports much more flexible.
GA4’s standard reports
GA4 has fewer predefined reports than Universal Analytics, and is currently missing some popular UA reports, such as the landing page report. This has been something of an annoyance for migrating users!
Nonetheless, you’ll find a suite of useful reports in GA4, divided into sections including:
Acquisition: Which channels do your users come from—organic, direct, paid search or something else? Within this section, the traffic acquisition report lets you compare various channels to see which has the highest engagement rate, number of conversions, and so on.
Engagement: How “sticky” are your users—that is, how likely are they to return to the site? This section also covers events and conversions. One particularly interesting chart (shown below) plots event count over time, so you can see when there is a sudden change to one event relative to the others and troubleshoot it to keep users progressing through your customer journey.
Demographics: How does your audience break down by age, location, gender, and language? What interests do they share? The demographic details report shows engagement rate for each individual country, age bracket, gender and so on. This can help you understand who your content is resonating with—and who it is not.
Perhaps one of the reasons that GA4 doesn’t offer so many standard reports is that it encourages users to create custom reports called “explorations.” Many different exploration methods are available, from “free-form” (which, by default, presents your data as a table), through to funnel exploration and segment overlap. Fortunately, GA4 includes a template gallery with pre-built examples to help you understand how each exploration method works.
To build an exploration, start by selecting the relevant dimensions (categorical data such as country) and metrics (numerical data such as number of users), as well as adding segments, filters and so on. If you’ve used Google Data Studio, or created custom reports in Google Ad Manager, then this will be familiar to you; otherwise, it might be a bit of a learning curve.
But it’s worth persevering, as explorations are what makes GA4 so powerful. Fortunately, there are already plenty of guides online to creating useful explorations, such as that landing page report that is missing from GA4’s standard reports.
Do your future self a favor and set up your GA4 property today
One of the most important capabilities that Google Analytics offers is the ability to compare how your current efforts are performing against previous baselines. But, you need to begin tracking that historical data to be able to compare it later. The sooner you set up your GA4 property, the more historical data you’ll have to compare against, which can help you make better business decisions.
James Clark is a web analyst from London, with a background in the publishing sector. When he isn't helping businesses with their analytics, he's usually writing how-to guides over on his website Technically Product. Twitter | Linkedin