Google Analytics 4 Versus Universal Analytics

Google Analytics 4 or GA4 for short, was released in October 2020. Originally it was called “Mobile + Web” but was later changed to GA4. At the time of writing this, GA4 is the latest kind of Google Analytics property available.

Note: As of October 14, 2020, new Google Analytics properties are set by default to be GA4 properties.

So what is the biggest difference between GA4 and UA properties? Based on the original name of “Mobile + Web” it’s clear to see that GA4 supports both website and mobile app analytics. The previous version of Google Analytics, Universal Analytics (UA), only worked for website analytics.

In this document we will cover the main differences between GA4 and UA. The content below is for people already familiar with UA properties but haven’t started using GA4 yet.

When you’re done reading this article, you will understand:

Okay, let’s go!

GA4 Measurement ID Versus UA Tracking ID

The “tracking” ID is the easiest way to determine if you’re looking at a GA4 or a UA property.

Measurement ID is for GA4 properties. The Measurement ID is structured so they start with a capital G and a hyphen (G-). Following that is a string of up to 10 characters. This string of characters can be made up of letters or numbers.


Example: G-DFF89CD8PJ

In GA4, to find your Measurement ID, navigate to Admin » Property » Data Streams. Next, click on the data stream you want to find your ID for. You will find your Measurement ID after the Stream URL and Stream Name in the stream details.

For UA properties a Tracking ID is used. Tracking ID starts with a capital UA and hyphen, like so (UA-). That is followed by a series of 7 numbers and a trailing hyphen with another number (-X). The trailing number maps to a specific property in your Google Analytics account and is sequential.


Examples: UA-1234567-1, UA-1234567-2, UA-1234567-3

The above example for UA tracking IDs shows what the trailing number would look like with 3 properties on the same Google Analytics account.

To find the Tracking ID for a UA property, go to Admin » Property (column) » Property Settings » Tracking Id

Side Menu Changes

You will notice that the GA4 home page still has sidebar navigation (navbar). The biggest difference is that there are now only 4 high-level menu items that are shown as icons by default (collapsed view). You have to hover over the navigation in order to see the menu names. There are also second-level menu items that can expand to show 2 more levels of menus (for a total of 4 levels).

These are the 4 high-level menu items.

You will see see some familiar UA high-level menu items in GA4, but they’re in new locations:

  • Realtime: now under Reports
  • Audience(s): now under Configure
  • Acquisition: now under Reports » Life cycle
  • Conversions: now under Configure
  • Admin

Alongside the new high-level menu items, there are new menu items in GA4:

  • Reports snapshot
  • Engagement
  • Monetization
  • Retention
  • Library
  • Custom definitions
  • DebugView

Changes to the Data Model

Events Versus Hit Types

While UA used hit types, everything in GA4 is an event.

Hit types are the foundation for UA properties handling data. GA4 not having hit types is a huge shift.

It may take some time to get used to GA4’s event data model but once you begin to understand that everything in GA4 is an event, the easier it will be to work with GA4 properties.

The below table shows how UA hit types are mapped to GA4 events.

GA4 Event Categories

GA4 organizes events into 4 categories:

  1. Automatically collected
  2. Enhanced measurement
  3. Recommended
  4. Custom

The above 4 categories are in that order for a reason. Google recommends using events in the order they’re listed. If you don’t see an event type in the first 3 categories (i.e., Automatically collected, Enhanced measurement, and Recommended), then you can create a custom event.

So when would you create a custom event? If you wanted to track menu clicks. At the time of writing this, there is no menu click event in the first 3 event categories. Therefore, you will want to create a custom menu click event.

Let’s take a look at each event category in more detail.

1. Automatically collected

These events automatically collect data in GA4. There is nothing you have to do to activate these events. No setting to toggle on or off and there’s no code to write.

Some examples of automatically collected events are:

  • first_visit – the first visit to a website or Android instant app
  • session_start – the time when a visitor opens a web page or app
  • user_engagement – when a session lasts longer than 10 seconds or had 1 or more conversions or had 2 or more page views

You can learn more about automatically collected events from Google Analytics help docs.

2. Enhanced measurement

You can turn on enhanced measurement in GA4 to get more out of automatically collected events. You don’t have to add any code for these events to work. All you need to do is turn on Enhanced measurement settings in your Data Stream.

Some of the enhanced measurements you can track are:

  • page_view: a page-load in the browser or a browser history state change
  • click:  a click on an outbound link (i.e., a click that goes to an external site)
  • file-download: a click that triggers a file download, such as downloading a PDF file
  • scroll: the first time a visitor scrolls to the bottom of a page (i.e., viewed 90% of the page)

A full list of enhanced measurement events can be found on Google Analytics help page.

3. Recommended

Unlike automatically collected or enhanced measurement, recommended events aren’t implemented in GA4. You will want to check recommended events if you need an event that’s not in the first two categories. If the event you need is in recommended, then you will just need to follow the guide for that event to make sure it’s compatible with all future releases of GA4.

What are some examples of recommended events?

  • login
  • purchase
  • sign_up

Visit the Google Analytics help page to read more about recommended events.

4. Custom

As a last option, you can use custom events. When you need to track an event that’s not in the first three categories, you will have to use a custom event.

Unlike the other events, custom events must be implemented by you. You will have to write and design the code yourself. There is also no guarantee Google will support your custom event in future GA4 releases.

You will need to read Google’s developer’s documentation when writing code to create custom events.

The code for a custom event is not the same as creating a custom event from the triggering of an existing event.

Hello Data Streams; Goodbye Views

A data stream, as defined by Google, is:

“A flow of data from your website or app to Analytics. There are 3 types of data stream: Web (for websites), iOS (for iOS apps), and Android (for Android apps).”

GA4 has data streams instead of views (from UA. It’s tempting to think that a GA4 data stream is related to a UA view but that’s not the case. They are very different.

GA4 data streams are not replacements for UA views. The only thing that appears the same is that GA4 requires your website URL attached to your data stream and UA requires your website’s URL to be attached to a view.

UA views were mainly for filtering data. This is why you could apply filters to your views, like one that excludes certain UP addresses from your reports.

GA4 data streams cannot have a filter created for them. However, you can do the following for a data stream:

  • Set up a list of domains for cross-domain tracking
  • Create a set of rules for defining internal traffic rules
  • Put together a list of domains to exclude from tracking

Data streams are where to go for:

  • Finding your measurement ID
  • Enabling enhanced measurement (e.g., page views, scrolls, outbound clicks)
  • Getting your global site tag code snippet

It’s extremely important to remember two things about data streams:

  1. After you create a data stream it can never be edited
  2. Once you delete a data stream, it can’t be undone

User ID Tracking Made Easy

User ID tracking in GA4 is incredibly easy, especially when compared to how it works in UA.

In UA, finding the user ID can be challenging. Not to mention that you have to go through a lot of steps to get it working. And there’s even more steps if you want to set up user ID as a custom dimension.

GA4 makes this so much more simple. All you do is the following:

  • Go to Admin > Property > Default Reporting Identity
  • Click By User-ID and device
  • Click Save

In order for it to fully work with WordPress though, you will have to have the code for logged-in users and send that to GA4 along with your events.

What’s Missing in GA4

Below we will discuss what’s not in GA4 but is in UA.

Views and Filters: There is no longer an ability to create filters since there are no longer views in GA4. If you have a property that was converted from UA though, there is a read-only list of UA filters under Admin > Account > All Filters.

Customization (menu): In UA properties you can create custom menus for things like dashboards, custom reports, saved reports and custom alerts. Here are the following UA customization options and their GA4 equivalent:

  • Dashboards: Right now there is no way to create a custom GA4 dashboard.
  • Custom reports: These are found in the Explorations page. From there you can create custom reports inside of GA4.
  • Saved reports: Every report that you make in the Explorations page is automatically saved.
  • Custom alerts: In GA4 these are called Insights. Custom Insights can be created from the GA4 home page. This is a new feature to GA4.

AMP: GA4 doesn’t support AMP tracking, so you will not find any data in GA4 reports. AMP tracking data can still be viewed within your UA property.

Bounce rate: The bounce rate metric has been completely removed from GA4. User engagement metrics have placed this.

Conversion Goals: While UA uses conversion goals that you can set up, GA4 doesn’t have this type of system anymore. GA4 still lets you track conversions but to do that you have to mark events as conversions.

What’s New Only in GA4

Create and modify events: You can modify events (for web) inside of your GA4 property as well as create custom events. More details on that can be found on the Google event help page.

Create and mark conversion events: As we just discussed with conversion goals, you can now mark events in GA4 as conversions with the flip of a toggle. It’s also possible to set an event ahead of time by creating it before it actually takes place.

Data filters: This is used to either include or exclude internal traffic and developer traffic from your GA4 reports.

Data streams: Refer to the section above about data streams.

Explorations and Template gallery: You will find both of these under the Explore menu section.

Explorations are not the same as reports. An Exploration gives you more understanding of your data. You are able to use metrics and dimensions that you don’t have access to in reports inside of an Exploration. This helps you to gain different perspectives on your traffic.

The Template gallery houses all the report templates available for Explorations. However, you can scroll through the templates directly from the Explorations via a thumbnail slider.

DebugView: This is an amazing new feature inside of GA4. You can now use a built-in visual debugging tool. You do still have to enable Google Analytics debug mode in your browser or device for it to work though.

With this feature turned on you will see 2 vertical “streams” of events:

  • Minutes: Shows events for the past 30 minutes.
  • Seconds: Shows events for the past 60 seconds. You can click on the seconds stream to pause it.

There will also be a report of the top events for the last 30 minutes. You will also see user properties for the browser or device that’s in debug mode.

You will find Debug View under the Configure section. You can learn more about DebugView on Google’s help page.

BigQuery linking: Google defines BigQuery as a “Serverless, highly scalable, and cost-effective multi cloud data warehouse designed for business agility.”

Unlike Google Search Console, you can link your BigQuery account to your GA4 property. Once linked you can run business intelligence tasks on your property’s analytics using BigQuery tools.

If you want to learn more about BigQuery linking you can on Google’s help page.

Analytics intelligence search history: GA4 gives you the ability to delete search queries from your search history. To help fine-tune searches and recommendations, Google Analytics Intelligence uses your search history. So being able to delete search queries helps you to better run your website. Find your search history by going to Admin > Property > Additional Settings.

Differences in GA4 and UA when Dual Tracking

When dual tracking, there are some differences you may notice when comparing your GA4 and UA reports.

UA reports show higher amount of sessions than GA4

GA4 tracks sessions differently than in a UA property. It’s expected to see twice as many sessions in your UA property. Learn more here: [GA4] About Sessions – Differences from Universal Analytics.

Realtime reports show different numbers between GA4 and UA

Google officially recommends relying on your GA4 Realtime report for more accurate real-time data. Your UA Real-Time data might show lower numbers:

You may notice low realtime data in the Real-Time report in your Universal Analytics property when you first open the report. We recommend waiting a few minutes to see accurate numbers in Universal Analytics Real-Time reports, but to get the most accurate realtime data, we recommend that you use the Realtime report in a Google Analytics 4 property.

Learn more here: About Real-Time.