If you use Universal Analytics, you’re not the only one. It’s currently the most popular analytics solution in the world, touching more than 30 million websites. But in July 2023, you’ll be forced to switch to Google Analytics 4 (GA4), the company’s “next-generation measurement solution.” In March, Google made a surprise announcement that they were sunsetting the Universal Analytics (UA) product and that it would no longer process new webpage hits.

This forced shift is a massive change for the digital marketing world, and it’s sure to leave you with questions:

  • Why is Google making this change?
  • How will Google Analytics 4 differ from Universal Analytics?
  • What actions should you take?
  • What’s next?

Why Is Google Making This Change?

The switch to GA4 may be an inconvenience for digital marketers, but it’s a necessity for Google. Here’s why.

Universal Analytics is Outdated

When Google Analytics first came out in 2005, the service rapidly gained popularity, due in large part to the lack of free competitors. Log file analysis was still the most common method of analyzing website traffic at the time—two years before the introduction of the iPhone.

As the internet evolved and marketers began to rely on digital data, Google rolled out periodic updates to keep Analytics relevant including introducing Universal Analytics in 2012. Although Google has continued to refresh the product, there’s only so much they can do to improve the core of a system that is 17 years old. It’s simply outdated from a software development standpoint and has been for quite some time.

Privacy Laws Are Forcing Google’s Hand

The main reason, however, that Google is discontinuing Universal Analytics is because they have to—thanks to new privacy laws and regulations. As the largest digital advertising company in the world, Google collects, stores, and uses personally identifiable information (PII) to target individuals with ads. This practice is coming under increasing scrutiny, particularly in California and the European Union (EU).

California Privacy Laws

In 2018, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) became law, requiring that California residents be allowed to opt out of the sort of tracking that’s required for Universal Analytics or Google Ads. At the time, Google transferred responsibility for abiding by this law to its users, informing digital marketers that if PII was stored in Analytics, it was a violation of their terms and services, and suggesting that they include opt-out information in their privacy policies.

But things changed in November 2020, when California voters approved additional regulations under the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA). The CPRA enhances the CCPA in a few ways. Importantly, it introduces a new type of protected data that California lawmakers call “sensitive personal information” (SPI). This includes Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, geolocation, biometrics, and sexual orientation—with the list likely to expand in the future.

The CPRA creates a few key challenges for marketers. Say you have a form that was created a long time ago. That form has several fields, including first name, last name, email address, and so forth. When the developer created this form, they made it so that when the user was sent to a confirmation page, the URL of that page would include some of the form fields that the user entered.

For example, it might look like this: rivetica.com/thanks/request-info?first=bob&last=harvey&email=bobharvey@hotmail.com.

When the visitor arrives at this confirmation page, the URL, including their email address, is stored in Analytics. This information could then be used to determine the user’s geolocation or which pages they visited. This scenario is more common than it should be, and Google has not done much to prevent it outside of telling users that this use of Analytics is against their terms of service.

The CPRA will go into effect January 1, 2023, but there is a six-month grace period for compliance. Hence the Universal Analytics end date of July 1, 2023. While we are hearing that the deadline may be extended, we don’t expect Google to extend the life of Universal Analytics.

GDPR, General data protection regulation compliance. Server room background
EU Privacy Laws

Google is also under increasing scrutiny in the EU, where its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy law is even stricter than California’s CPRA. Whereas CPRA simply requires the ability to opt out of tracking after data has already been collected, GDPR requires users to opt in.

At the end of the day, Google is an advertising company that generates revenue from the use of personally identifiable information. If they’re going to be able to continue to do so in Europe and California—or anywhere else that creates modern privacy laws in the future—they need to fundamentally change the way they collect, transmit, store, and report data on web and app engagement, even if that means ending the use of the popular web analytics platform they created.

How Will Google Analytics 4 Differ from Universal Analytics?

On the Frontend

UA power users will likely welcome the new GA4 interface, but more casual users may struggle with it. The GA4 system seems to favor analytics specialists in that—in contrast to UA—it only provides a handful of default reports, putting the responsibility on users to create their own.

On the Backend

The most fundamental change from UA to GA4 relates to how Google collects and processes data. UA is run on a script (analytics.js) that evolved from Urchin—the log file analysis software developed to track pageviews—which Google originally acquired to create Analytics way back in 2005.

programming code script abstract screen of software developer

In contrast, GA4 uses what Google calls the “global site tag” (gtag.js), which is already used by a variety of Google services, including Google Ads. The new script is stronger from a development perspective because it can leverage just one library for a number of services. The new script also relies on first-party cookies which are more privacy-conscious than the third-party cookies used by Google Ads. Additionally, instead of revolving around pageviews, GA4 treats everything as “events”: pageviews, scrolls, video views, call-to-action clicks, and more. This is a significant step forward that will allow the new system to flex to meet marketers’ current and future needs.

What Actions Should You Take?

First, go ahead and set up a Google Analytics 4 property and make sure it’s collecting data. Google has simplified the process of creating a GA4 property, so you should be able to do it easily within your existing account. GA4 won’t start collecting data until you create a property, so if you wait until July 1 (when Universal Analytics will stop collecting data), then you won’t have any data for historical comparisons.

Then, configure GA4 to meet the needs of your organization. Set up reports, event tracking, and conversion tracking—as well as update any application programming interfaces (APIs) or other integrations, such as Data Studio reports. Establish goals related to these milestones. For example, decide that your marketing team will rely exclusively on GA4 by the end of 2022. Discuss this goal with all stakeholders to determine what updates you’ll need to make, and then schedule and delegate accordingly.

What’s Next?

The real takeaway here isn’t just about Google Analytics—it’s about privacy. As more and more people demand transparency and control related to how their personal information is collected, stored, and used on the internet, privacy laws are rapidly evolving.

Consider the following

  • While California’s CPRA currently only requires opt-outs, it’s possible that state laws could evolve to require opt-ins. If your marketing or advertising ends up targeting people in California (intentionally or unintentionally), you’ll need to be aware of your legal responsibilities to that audience.
  • The U.S. will likely implement more universal privacy guidelines in the future to avoid different states creating different standards. If your organization receives federal funding, that funding could rely on compliance with federal online privacy laws (as is currently the case with Americans with Disabilities Act standards).
  • A significant number of marketing automation tools, email marketing platforms, and customer relationship management systems collect and use personally identifiable information. Does your organization have a process in place for allowing people to opt-out of this sort of tracking?

While evolving privacy laws will have a considerable impact on Google as the largest media and advertising company worldwide, they ultimately apply to all of us. The switch from UA to GA4 proves that everyone—corporations, institutions of higher learning, government agencies, non-profits, and small businesses—need to pay more attention to privacy laws. Below are some ways you can start.

Next Steps

computer with checklist

  • Begin using Google Analytics 4 now.
  • Assign a subject matter expert to your transition to GA4 and ensure the topic is on the agenda for regular team meetings.
  • Set up a Google Alert for any new content related to GA4 and privacy laws.
  • Stay up to date on changes in privacy laws in different regions. What exactly do the laws require? When and how will they be enforced? How will they influence your organization? What do they indicate about public perceptions regarding online privacy?
  • Understand the tools your marketing team uses. How do these tools collect personal data? Could you already be using them in ways that violate privacy laws in some regions?
  • Review your website’s privacy policy. Does it provide up-to-date information about how your organization collects and uses personal data? Does it provide visitors with clear instructions for opting out of each of the tools and platforms you use for marketing and advertising? (Keep in mind, this includes any tools that agencies or contractors may use on your behalf.)
  • Make sure all email lists require double opt-in and consider having users opt in for all tracking when they visit your website.

The next time privacy laws change, don’t get caught scrambling. These transitions can be overwhelming, but a partner who is skilled in digital advertising, Google, and privacy laws can help. Connect with us today to see how we can support you.

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