GA4 and the Elephant in the Room

Aaron Burnett / 11th May 2022 / Comment / Analytics

Google recently announced that, as of July 1st, 2023, they no longer will support Universal Analytics (UA). Instead, Google will require all companies to use a new incarnation of GA — Google Analytics 4 (“GA4”). At first glance, this may seem like any other analytics upgrade announcement – it is not. This change includes risk of significant, business-level impact for any company that has not already been using GA4 for an extended period and needs ongoing access to historical performance data gathered via UA.

While the shift to GA4 will include a steep learning curve, the capabilities offered by GA4 should be positive and exciting for most users. It uses new tracking methods, data structure, user interface and report types. In contrast to UA, GA4 approaches tracking through the lens of “events” – discrete actions and interactions that may occur on a number of different devices (desktop, tablet, mobile), in various contexts (website, mobile app) over an extended period of time. GA4 also leverages Google’s machine learning capabilities to fill in data gaps that will inevitably occur as cookie-based data becomes less available due to privacy concerns and to support predictive modeling. It is a fundamental departure from all prior versions of Google Analytics.

I’m sensing an elephant in the room…

There is.  It has to do with not just preserving historical data but integrating it with new GA4 data for useful YOY analytics.

Can I migrate my historical UA performance data to GA4?

The short answer is no. Historical performance data associated with Universal Analytics implementations will not be migrated to or incorporated with GA4 analytics data. In effect, you will be “starting over” with a new analytics property and no historical record.

Google has stated that you will be able to download historical performance data for a minimum of six months after the cutover in July of 2023, but there is no means by which historical data can be uploaded to GA4 to preserve a historical perspective on performance. You learn more about that here.

How can I preserve year-over-year reporting in GA4?

To preserve year-over-year reporting, you must fully implement GA4 before July 1, 2022. In doing so, you will ensure you have a full year of reporting data prior to the July 1, 2023, cutover.

For some sites/ users, a single year of historical performance data will be fine, but most companies rely on several years of historical analytics data to interpret and contextualize current performance.

I rely on historical analytics to benchmark current performance. What can I do?

First, move quickly to implement GA4 by July 1, 2022. Doing so will at least ensure that you have one full year of GA4 data before the mandated cutover from UA to GA4 on July 1, 2023.

Google has enabled GA account holders to export historical analytics data in CSV format allowing you to preserve access to your historical data in a rudimentary fashion. You can upload this data to Big Query to enable some form of analysis. However, you currently cannot integrate your historical UA data with GA4 to maintain reporting continuity – and that’s what most clients need.

If you want to preserve your ability to evaluate future performance in the context of a complete historical record, consider securing and implementing some form of data warehouse and data visualization platform that can support such an endeavor. This approach also will enable you to maintain segmentation options like those you were accustomed to relying on in Universal Analytics.

What if I need help?

Wheelhouse DMG has its own performance marketing data warehouse and data visualization platform called Compass that was purpose-built for this type of situation. We are integrated with Google Analytics and all major advertising platforms at an API level and have been using Compass to deliver omni-channel Business Intelligence, performance analysis and dashboards to our clients for quite some time. Most importantly, we can integrate historical data from Universal Analytics with new data from GA4 within Compass, maintaining contextual and reporting continuity.

How does this approach work?

Because the data models for GA4 and Universal Analytics are so fundamentally different, integrating them to preserve a historical record requires careful planning and data mapping. It also requires a data and measurement strategy and GA4 implementation designed to support and augment reporting continuity.

  • We audit the current implementation of Universal Analytics to ensure a comprehensive understanding and inventory of current tracking scripts, containers, methods, events, parameters, and goals as well as any dashboards and reports that rely on UA
  • We develop a new data strategy through which, to the maximum extent possible, GA4 is implemented to maintain parity with and augment the approach currently used via Universal Analytics
  • Leveraging our API integration with Google Analytics, we extract, load, and transform past performance reporting data from the current Universal Analytics implementation into Compass (our data warehouse)
  • We map historical UA data (e.g., dimensions, metrics, events, goals, segments) to corresponding data collected via GA4 to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, our clients can maintain “seamless” reporting that bridges UA and GA4 implementations.
  • Finally, we develop and deliver custom dashboards and reporting consistent with the new data strategy

Transitioning to GA4 is a unique update that includes serious ramifications for most site owners who use Google Analytics. If preserving data is critical, this isn’t a change you should leave to the last minute. Move quickly to implement GA4 before July 1, 2022, so that you have a full year of data before cutover and think carefully about the role that historical performance data plays in planning for and understanding current performance.

The Wheelhouse DMG Marketing Sciences team is available to answer questions about our approach, help you apply it to your own data warehouse, and provide advice as you consider your options.  Please reach out for support and solutions for preserving reporting continuity through your GA4 transition.


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By Aaron Burnett