GA4 vs Universal Analytics
Google Analytics

GA4 vs. Universal Analytics + An even better Alternative

May 2, 2023
11 mins read

Google Analytics has long been running the data analytics show for businesses and website owners looking to gain insights into their online presence with Universal Analytics (UA). However, UA is about to retire while being replaced by GA4.

This article will explore the key differences between UA and GA4 and whether businesses should consider switching or look for an alternative altogether.

What are Universal Analytics and GA4?

Universal Analytics and GA4 are Google Analytics versions, a popular web analytics service that tracks and analyzes user behavior on websites and mobile apps.

Universal Analytics is Google's web analytics service, launched in 2012. It used a session-based data model, where user interactions were grouped based on sessions on a set of pre-defined rules. It had limitations in user tracking across multiple devices and touchpoints.

GA4 (Google Analytics 4) is the latest version of Universal Analytics, offering a new approach to tracking and measuring. Launched in October 2020, it uses event-based tracking to treat all user interactions as individual events. GA4 has several new features and improvements claiming to offer greater flexibility and customization than Universal Analytics.

Why did Google make the change from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4?

Google has announced that Universal Analytics will stop processing data on 1st July 2023, making UA users switch to GA4. It puts an unexpected burden on the marketers and data analysts who used UA to move to a new tracking logic (session-based to event-based).

But why make the grave shift in how an analytics platform processes data? Below are some key reasons driving the change:

  • User-Privacy Converns: User privacy is the biggest concern among internet users. Its awareness has increased with the emergence of privacy protection regulations such as GDPR and CCPA. UA used third-party cookies that many web browsers and ad-blocking tools have started to block. Hence the switch to GA4, which uses a new tracking technology that relies on first-party cookies, which are less likely to be blocked and provide better user privacy.
  • Cross-Device Tracking: With the rise of mobile devices and subsequent apps, users access apps from different devices creating further data points essential for businesses to track. GA4 allows cross-device tracking instead of using UA for web insights and Firebase for apps.
  • Flexibility and customization: Tailored analytics are essential for businesses as each business is unique in its approach toward data. GA4 overcomes this challenge in UA and offers flexibility and customization to track user behavior with its event-based data model.

The upgrade has been largely taken negatively by the UA users. While GA4 has new features, it misses some key features from the previous version and received criticism for bugs. Here's a tweet from Gill Andrews, a renowned web analyst.

Tweet from Gill Andrews 
Tweet about GA4 from Gill Andrews 

5 Major differences between GA4 and UA

GA4 is a significant upgrade with its more flexible event-based data model and advanced features. Let's look at the major differences between the capabilities of the two Google Analytics solution versions.

1. App tracking in GA4 vs. UA

GA4 introduces the "App + Web" tracking concept, allowing you to track app and website data in the same property. It means you can see a unified view of user behavior across all your digital platforms rather than having to view app and web data separately.

While Universal Analytics measures screenviews in separate mobile-specific properties, consider the additional app traffic when comparing the pageview metrics between the two tools.

GA4 automatically tracks events (user interactions) such as pageviews, scrolls, and outbound clicks, so you don't have to set up tracking manually. Additionally, troubleshooting and testing your app tracking implementation is possible with its built-in debugging tools.

2. User interactions in GA4 vs. UA

Tracking and reporting of user interactions are also different between the two versions. GA4 allows you to track any user interaction as an event with its event-based tracking, including app events. However, UA uses category-action-label-value schema. It has different hit types to capture user interactions, such as pageviews, transactions, etc. For instance, if you want to track an event where visitors click the sign-up button in UA, it will have a Category of "CTA," an Action of "Sign Up," and a Label that is the destination URL.

But that's not the case with GA4, where events have no Category, Action, or Label. GA4 considers all actions as events with events' names being similar. You can differentiate between events by passing additional information into event parameters. Some event parameters are sent automatically, such as page title, and you can pass 25 custom parameters per event, with each value being 100 characters long. Also, with GA4, you can have only 500 unique event names. After that, you can create new names by archiving any previous unused names.

You can capture the following four types of events in GA4:

  • Automatically collected events
  • Enhancement measurement events
  • Recommended events
  • Custom events

When using Google Analytics 4 (GA4), the reports do not display Category, Action, and Label data. Instead of trying to transfer your existing event structure to GA4, it is recommended to reconsider how you collect and organize your data to align with the GA4 model.

3. Session calculation in GA4 vs. UA

Another notable difference between GA4 vs. Universal analytics is the high chance that session counts in both versions won't match. Here's why:

3.1 Sessions: In UA, a session for a user means a group of hits recorded in a given time period. And a GA4 session is a group of events recorded over a user's given period. Both consider the user as an individual that performs an action on your website or app. There can be more than one session in a single day or over a period spanning days, weeks, or months.

3.2 Session Timeout: In UA, a session ends:

  • After 30 minutes of inactivity by default
  • When the user closes the browser or app
  • The clock passes midnight (resulting in a new session)
  • New campaign parameters are encountered (UTMs)

In GA4, the default session timeout is 30 minutes for web traffic, but it is variable for app traffic and is based on user engagement. If the user actively engages with the app, the session will not end until they become inactive.

3.3 Session Count: In UA, a new session is started every time a user interacts with your site or app after the session timeout period has elapsed.

When users interact with your app or website, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) generates a unique session ID using the "session_start" event. All events during that session are associated with the same session ID. GA4 starts a new session depending on several factors, such as time, device, and campaign source. As a result, a user may have more than one session within a day, depending on their behavior and how they use your app or website.

Also, if a user starts a session on one device and continues on another, GA4 can still track their behavior as a single-user journey. UA does not have this cross-device tracking capability.

In GA4, you can extend the session with the "extend_session" parameter while your app is in the background. You can also override the default 30-minute session timeout for an app. Hence, you would see lower session counts in GA4 as it does not create new sessions like Universal Analytics once it ends up on the above conditions.

4. Bounce rate calculation in GA4 vs. UA

Universal Analytics measures site engagement with a metric called "bounce rate." It defines the bounce rate as a session where the user only interacts with a single page on your website or app without triggering additional hits such as events, transactions, or other interactions. The bounce rate is calculated as the percentage of single-page sessions with no interaction out of all sessions. Also, the bounce rate metric has no time threshold associated with it.

4.1 UA bounce rate = % of (No. of single-page sessions that lasted with no interaction with the page / Total sessions )

On the contrary, GA4 uses the "engagement rate" metric instead of the bounce rate. GA4 considers "engaged sessions" to measure user engagement. An engaged session lasts longer than 10 seconds and has a conversion event or at least two pageviews or screenviews. When a user does not have an engaged session, GA4 counts it as a bounce.

4.2 GA4 bounce rate = % (Number of engaged sessions / Total number of sessions in a specified time period)

As stated, GA4 defines bounce rate differently as the percentage of sessions that were not engaged sessions. Therefore, the engagement rate metric is more nuanced and useful in measuring user engagement helping you better understand user behavior.

5. Account structure in GA4 vs. UA

UA has a hierarchical account structure comprising the following levels: account, property, and view. An account is at the top of the hierarchy and contains one or more analytics properties. Each property represents a website or app and can have multiple views, which are subsets of data from that property.

In contrast, GA4 has a flat account structure consisting of a single container with multiple data streams. Each data stream represents a website or app and contains associated data. In GA4, you can set up multiple data streams for a single website or app, which allows you to track different aspects of your website or app independently. For example, you can set up separate data streams for mobile and desktop versions of your website or different sections of your app.

Another key difference is that UA has a separate tracking ID for each property, while GA4 has a unique measurement ID for each data stream. For that reason, if you have multiple websites or apps in UA, you need to set up separate tracking codes for each one, while in GA4, you can use the same measurement ID for different data streams within the same container.

Overall, GA4's account structure is more flexible and adaptable to different tracking needs. In contrast, UA's hierarchical account structure is more straightforward to navigate for smaller businesses or those with fewer tracking needs.

What is still the same between Universal Analytics vs. GA4?

There are several similarities between GA4 and Universal Analytics, as GA4 is built on top of Universal Analytics and an updated version of UA. Here are some of the areas that are the same in the two platforms:

  • Basic Tracking: Both GA4 and UA use a tracking code to collect data about website and app usage, including events, conversions, sessions, and pageviews.
  • User and Session Tracking: You can track user and session data with both platforms, including information about user behavior, demographics, and acquisition sources.
  • Custom Dimensions and Metrics: Both platforms allow you to define custom dimensions and metrics to track additional data beyond the standard tracking options.
  • Data Collection Capacity: Both platforms have data collection and processing limitations but can purchase additional data processing and storage capacity.
  • Reporting Interface: Reporting interface of the two versions is the same, with options to view data in tables, charts, and graphs and to create custom reports.
  • Integration with Google Products: You can analyze and optimize your marketing campaigns with both platforms as they integrate with Google Ads and other Google products.

If you are familiar with UA, you will find that many basic tracking and report in GA4 are similar and intuitive. However, GA4 has upgraded data modeling and machine learning capabilities. And it might require some learning and experimentation to understand and leverage the tool's potential fully.

What is a better alternative to GA4?

Despite being free, Google Analytics users have raised privacy concerns, using third-party cookies, requiring technical skills to use it, and collecting user data to improve their products and use in ad-targeting.

So should you really jump from one version of Google Analytics to another, or should you start looking for a privacy-friendly and 99% accurate data analytics tool? If you want to continue jeopardizing your and your visitors' privacy, you can proceed with the first option. But if accuracy and privacy are your concerns, then consider using Usermaven to track and analyze your web and product data.

Usermaven Dashboard

Usermaven is a privacy-friendly website and product analytics tool that offers data ownership, a simple dashboard with powerful insights, 99% accurate data, and many features.

You can read more about how Usermaven compares with GA4

It's a complete solution for marketers and product teams aiming to grow their businesses. Key features include:

Usermaven utilizes pixel-white labeling technology to achieve 99% accurate statistics using cookie-less tracking. This technology allows Usermaven to bypass adblockers that other analytics tools may be subject to due to their use of cookie-based tracking.

100% Data ownership

Unlike Google, Usermaven gives you complete website data ownership, with your analytics securely stored on their cloud server. You can rest assured that your site and product data remain under your control, and you fully own all of your data. Usermaven does not mine or harvest your data for personal or behavioral trends, and it is not monetized in any way.

GDPR & CCPA compliance

Usermaven is a privacy-first analytics solution. It is designed and developed with the core concept of providing business insights without compromising user privacy. It is hosted in the EU, does not collect personally identifiable information (PII), and fully complies with GDPR and CCPA regulations.

A tool designed for SaaS

Besides website analytics, Usermaven's product analytics maximizes customer success and business growth with its avant-garde features covering all stages of a customer journey from acquisition to retention. Some of the features include but are not limited to marketing attribution, funnel analysis, engagement metrics, feature adoption report, retention cohort analysis, and customer segmentation.


Should I use GA4 or Universal Analytics?

Using GA4 or Universal Analytics depends on your specific needs and goals. However, with the sunset of Universal Analytics in July 2023, you will be left with choosing GA4, the latest version. It's better to avoid this transition and use GA4 as it has advanced technology and features not found in UA.

Some distinguishing features of GA4 are better user privacy, cross-device tracking, machine learning capabilities, flexibility, and customization. Moreover, GA4 is compatible with your existing analytics system set up with Universal Analytics and integrated tools and services. Thus, GA4 is a better option, whether starting from scratch or continuing to use the Google Analytics platform (UA to GA4).

Can you run Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics together?

Yes, it is possible to run GA4 data on Universal Analytics simultaneously on the same website or app, also known as "dual tracking." It will result in data collection from both Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4, which can be useful for comparing any differences in data or insights. Also, dual tracking can be helpful when considering switching from UA to GA4 and don't want to stop data collection while testing GA4. However, it will lead to increased data volume and complexity. Since GA4 and UA have features that are not common, you may need to adjust your analytics strategy accordingly.

Do we have the option to revert to a Google Analytics GA3 property after using GA4?

No, it is not possible to revert to a Google Analytics property after using GA4 because GA4 has advanced features and functionality not available in GA3. Once you create a Google Analytics 4 property and start collecting data, it will be stored in your GA4 property. Since the two GA versions have no data transfer mechanism, data cannot be transferred to a GA3 property.

Once you upgrade to GA4, your data will still be available in the GA3 property, but you cannot make changes or updates to it. But you can continue using GA3 property for reporting and analysis.

Does Attribution Modeling Work the Same in Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics?

No, the attribution models of both versions of Google Analytics are different. GA4 is introduced with a new "Data-Driven Attribution Model" that uses machine learning. It automatically assigns credit to different touchpoints in a user's journey based on their impact on conversion. The Universal Analytics attribution model is based on pre-defined rules that determine how credit is assigned to different touchpoints in a user's journey. UA's pre-built attribution models include "Last Click," "First Click," and custom models.

While the principles of attribution are the same in both versions, the specific models and algorithms differ.

Why should you use Google Tag Manager for analytics?

By making Google Analytics a tag within Google Tag Manager, you can track behavioral data and conversion events, such as purchases or app downloads, without having to implement the GA snippet in your website directly.

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