Comparing GA4 and UA is risky business – but why?

Hanna Nilsson

Ah, the mystifying world of Google Analytics, where comparing Universal Analytics (UA) and Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is like mixing puzzle pieces from different boxes. Venturing into the GA4 landscape can feel like learning a new language, especially when you’re used to UA’s terminology and data structure. While it’s tempting to map GA4 metrics directly onto familiar UA metrics, this isn’t always straightforward or accurate. Let’s dive into some of the reasons.

  • Different tracking models: First and foremost, GA4 and UA operate on fundamentally different tracking models. UA uses session-based tracking, where a session starts when a user lands on your site and ends after 30 minutes of inactivity. GA4, on the other hand, embraces event-based tracking. It marks a series of interactions or events during a user’s visit, providing a more granular view of user behavior.
  • Dissimilar definitions: Some seemingly similar terms across GA4 and UA carry different definitions. For instance, ’Sessions’ in UA and ’Engaged Sessions’ in GA4 are not directly comparable. An Engaged Session in GA4 is far more specific, requiring a visit to last at least 10 seconds, include a conversion event, or have two or more screen or page views. Consequently, comparing these metrics may lead to skewed interpretations.
  • Diverse focus: UA leans more towards acquisition metrics (sessions, users, pageviews), while GA4 prioritizes engagement and retention metrics (Engaged Sessions, engagement rate, and retention cohorts). This shift of focus can lead to inconsistencies when comparing data points across the two platforms.
  • Updated cross-device tracking: GA4 offers more sophisticated cross-device tracking than UA. So, if you’re comparing Users across the two platforms, it’s crucial to remember that a ’User’ in GA4 might provide a more accurate count than the UA counterpart.

These discrepancies are not insurmountable hurdles but reminders that UA and GA4 are different tools with distinct scopes. Comparing their data can be like comparing apples to oranges, often leading to misinterpretation or confusion.

So to summarise this, we can simply say that you should be careful when it comes to comparing UA data with GA4 data. When transitioning from UA to GA4 or operating both concurrently, remember to consider these differences. Use it to complement UA data, providing a richer, more holistic view of your site’s performance, rather than directly comparing metrics. It’s also crucial to invest time in understanding GA4’s unique features and capabilities. With change comes opportunity – so let’s explore GA4 and keep an open mind to the changes that have been made.

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