Understanding GA4 Interview with Mark Roller

XX min
Sep 27, 2023
Understanding GA4
Today we sat down with Mark Roller, Partner at Ascedia, to talk about GA4. 


Let’s start with this, what is GA-4?

GA-4 is simply Google’s free service that allows companies to record traffic and behavior on their websites. It’s the revamped version of Google Analytics.


How long has Google Analytics been the standard?

Google has been the leader in Analytics for over a decade. Before Google Analytics it was an analytics platform based on server logs, called “Urchin”. After Google bought Urchin, the first things they did were to depreciate Urchin, and base the analytics logging on JavaScript. That made Google Analytics really easy to install without ever touching server logs. From that point on Google Analytics evolved until it became the leading tool for website analytics measurement.


The cutoff date to move from Universal Analytics (UA) to GA-4 July, right?

Correct, and Google’s Universal Analytics has truly been cut off. So, no more analytics are being logged. Any company that hasn’t migrated is driving blind.

Initially migrating over form UA wasn’t straightforward. In fact, there are a lot of companies out there that still haven’t completed the migration. Or have gone ahead but did the migration wrong. Google was even offering to help because they saw so many incomplete migrations (and they want tracking data for their needs.)

Now that these marketing teams have missed the deadline, they can’t get some of the reports they have relied on fromUniversal Analytics. That information is gone.

And now they’re playing catch up. And they’re taking risk running digital ad campaigns as they don’t have the awareness in conversions. It’s a big problem.

We have been able to help get organizations set up and give them the ability to start tracking again.


Mark, let’s go down that path. If I’m one of these companies that hasn’t made the switch yet — what now?

You have some work ahead of you. That’s the short answer. You’re starting from scratch and if you don’t have Google Tag Manager (GTM), it’s even harder — it may mean going into the code and removing some old tracking tags by hand.

Are you going to do it right from the start or are you going to patch it up? Are you going to just add GA-4 tags? Are you going to do it right and put GTM on your website? So, there’s an investment required depending on how you had things set up before.


You mention Google Tag Manager . What are the differences between GTM and GA-4?

Think of Google Tag Manager as an empty container. After Tag Manager has been added to a website you can put JavaScript code inside it. So, one of the most common things put inside GTM is GA-4 tracking code.

Other code could include LinkedIn and Facebook Ad tracking pixels. You can even add code to record user interactions, track errors in code, or change UX. You don’t need a CMS developer’s help once the GTM is on your website but you need your developer’s help putting the GTM on the website.


It seems like there’s a lot of negative around GA-4. Why is that? And what are the good things about GA-4?

Let’s start with the good things. GA-4 has a nice, robust way of tracking things, and GA-4 offers new possibilities. It’s more accurate. It tracks user behavior across devices and sessions better. So overall it’s more accurate. Because of this many will experience a difference in numbers between the old Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4.

That’s where Google’s development team did a good job. Where they failed is with their UX team and their promotional team. Here’s what I mean by that.

Some of the terminology changed. Some of the terminology stayed the same, but the meanings changed. And then Google was juggling things around. Where do we put conversions? Where do we put events on the menus? Google didn’t launch all the features at once, kept revising things on the fly. And that got really confusing.

And that led people to not convert from Universal Analytics? After all, why convert when this GA-4 doesn’t seem complete? People just kicked the can down the road.

It still seems hard. Google created a lot of confusion and a massive learning curve. The whole philosophical change was great, but they did a terrible job pushing it out.


Two questions: One is it still possible to migrate? And two: How much time is required to migrate? Is this an easy thing? How much time should an organization allocate?

It depends on how robust and sophisticated the marketing team’s needs are in terms of how they want to do their reporting. Any company doing the basic reporting — that will only take a few hours to get them up and running. But one of the biggest things is working with the development or IT teams. Whether it’s us or someone else they need to make sure they follow the install instructions properly.

I’m having to work with people because they didn’t put the tags in the right place on the website. It is so important and fundamental that your Google Tag Manager container is the first thing loaded on the website. In other words, if you don’t build your house on a good foundation, it’s all messed up.

So, to get the foundation right typically requires a few hours of time. When you talk about migration — migration does not take your analytics data.

You can still access Universal Analytics data but converting over doesn’t bring anything along. That’s a misconception. The only thing you’re converting are some of the advanced tracking things you may have in place and more advanced filters.

So, let’s say a client has a report that’s just for the C suite and they want to see profitability according to users. On top of that, they want to see how many products they’re selling. Some of that tracking is more sophisticated and can take a week or a couple of weeks to get it right.

Because we may have to track things like taxes. Or do we have to track returns or order numbers? We have to track all these granular things about e-commerce and GA-4 is completely different.


What is event tracking in GA-4? And why is it important?

With GA-4 everything it records is an event. A page view is an event. A watched video is an event. You click on something — the thing you clicked on, you can make that an event if you want, and report on it differently. Filling out a form is an event. Your define the events you want, that’s the cool customization in GA-4. And you can track that stuff and build reports from it.

Imagine, you have purchase events, and you have pre-purchase events. People browsing for example. They’re not quite shoppers but they’re hitting all these events, adding stuff to a cart — pricing things out.

Some users visited an order confirmation page after they paid, they had it shipped. So, these are different events, right? Well, how do we organize those into a meta group, like a behavior?

One way to do this is to call one group of Shoppers. And they do certain types of events. Let’s call other group Buyers. And they do another series of events. Now, we have the concept of audiences.

So, now I can define each audience in GA-4, and I can say that one audience does these actions and another audience does other actions. I want to see how Shoppers look at a website differently than Buyers so I can track audiences over time. And that’s crucial knowledge for marketing teams.


There’s so much you can measure, but what are the things you should measure? Do organizations have a harder time defining what it is they should be measuring?

Yeah. With all these possibilities, what should be measured, what’s important? When it comes to this work, I have always been of the philosophy of crawl, walk, run.

First get the basics right and build up your sophistication. It’s fine to make a tracking plan and say, well, one day I want to know these detailed metrics about my audiences. But I caution over-complicating the approach, and rather refining over time.

I had a client with 50 things they wanted to track. Big questions with detailed answers. That’s a lot. Now, we can get there, but they didn’t even have the basics set up. So, we worked together to prioritize the list, what and how to track, and had a plan for moving forward.


If an organization wants to do this all internally, is there a cost for GA-4?

It’s free, with one catch — there are processing quota limitations. You have a certain number of requests you can make for GA-4 data. I hit it once with one client. They were running so many reports that they blew their quota.

To get over it, you start paying Google. When you go over your quotas, they start charging you. But I think in most cases, companies shouldn’t worry about hitting their quota.


Can you talk about some best practices you could recommend for GA-4?

Adhering to a naming convention that makes things intuitive for the next person that’s going to be in your role. That’s a big one.

Being thorough in the setup and not skipping steps is definitely a best practice.

Testing is also critical and a best practice. Nobody likes the thought of deploying inaccurate tracking. Wrong or missing data is very detrimental and there’s a lot of explanation to do!

So you have to be thorough. If there’s tracking code that’s old or not being used– get it out. Don’t leave clutter behind.

Finally, I would say, companies should set up a dedicated marketing Gmail account for GA-4 and Tag Manager. It’s difficult to transfer over ownership after a key employee has departed.


Let’s say a company has skipped some of the steps you were talking about. Are you able to diagnose where things have gone wrong?

There are steps people don’t remember to do, or skip entirely. That’s the easy low-hanging fruit.

In other instances, I hear about a problem like, these numbers don’t look right. Now Universal Analytics and GA-4 measure traffic differently, but even though the numbers are different, the percentages and ratios should be similar.

For example, if you have a conversion rate, it’s 6%, whether you have 5,000 sessions or 4,800 sessions — the conversion rate should be very close. And when the conversion rates don’t match up, it’s time to do some forensic investigating.

An investigation should explain why the numbers are different, or why they’re wrong, or why they’re better than they are. When they’re wrong it’s really hard to explain because it caused misconceptions regarding website performance throughout an entire organization.

So be thorough and test. Take your time, document what you did. Being wrong in the analytics business is not a good thing. Test. Test. Test. You got to make sure it’s all right!