Briefing: Google Analytics

What communicators need to know and what they need to do

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Photo by Myriam Jessier on Unsplash
Photo by Myriam Jessier on Unsplash

I’m grateful for the expert input from Andrew Bruce Smith and Mel Cains

What is happening to Google Analytics 3 (Universal Analytics)?

Google Analytics 3 (also known as Universal Analytics) has been available for 10 years.  Google has now said this version will cease capturing data beyond July 2023 (and all previously collected data will be deleted a further three months after this).

Google Analytics started life as Urchin Analytics. Google acquired Urchin in 2005, renaming the tool Google Analytics – and giving it away free to users. You may be familiar with UTM codes attached to URLs intended to improve Google’s ability to determine exactly where a website visit comes from as well as provide more insightful campaign evaluation. The acronym UTM is an echo of its pre-Google origins – Urchin Traffic Monitor

What is Google Analytics 4?

Universal Analytics is being replaced with Google Analytics 4, which was officially launched in October 2020 after two years of beta testing. 

Google Analytics 4 is a completely new tool – rebuilt from the ground up. To all intents and purposes, it is like starting afresh with a brand new analytics platform.

Key changes to be aware of include:

  • Far fewer pre-built report formats
  • New metrics (engaged sessions)
  • Metrics no longer available (bounce rate)
  • Greater emphasis on users developing their own bespoke analysis and report formats
  • More flexibility over how website interactions are tracked and named (events)

It should also be noted that Google Analytics 4 isn’t a finished product. Google continues to add new features (or rather, allows users to continue to use features that were already available in Google Analytics 3).

What does GA4 mean for data privacy?

Google Analytics 4 is intended to better conform with tighter data protection legislation (especially in Europe), and is ready for a time when using cookies (currently essential for web usability and for tracking users) may be completely outlawed.

Why are these changes important to communicators?

Public relations has a long and troubled history with measurement, best exemplified by the persistent use of advertising value equivalence (AVE) metrics. When media coverage was the main measurable output of public relations, there was a demand for simple measures of media value.

With the rise of the internet and social media, we have moved from a world of too little quantifiable data to too much. Every tweet comes with a set of free statistics, and Google Analytics has provided more expert users with a rich source of freely-available data.

Digital marketing colleagues have long been making use of this data to track the customer journey and it’s no longer an option for communicators to claim that their work is impossible to quantify.

To restate, these changes aren’t recent. Google was born in 1997; Google Analytics first appeared in 2005; Universal Analytics arrived ten years ago. Google would no doubt argue that the introduction of Google Analytics 4 (and eventual demise of Google Analytics 3) has been known for four years.

It’s high time for all communicators to become more comfortable with data and analytics. Google Analytics may be part of this.

In his book Myths of PR, published in 2017, Rich Leigh addressed the myth that PR results can’t be measured. He described Google Analytics – and specifically Google Goals – as the PR industry’s saviour. (Goals will now be known as Conversions in Google Analytics 4.)

‘You can show your clients how many newsletter subscribers, downloads or sales came as a direct result of PR activity. You can highlight how PR activity sent X,000 unique visitors. Of these Y% converted into sales, spending £Z. That’s £ZZZ we can prove you made as a direct result of our work. Better than a meaningless ratio of [how much the client pays per month]: [the AVE of that month’s coverage], no?’

More recently, Mark Weiner in PR: Technology, Data and Insights published in 2021 laments the industry’s continuing blind spot over PR measurement. His approach is to encourage practitioners to view measurement not as an end point, but as part of a continuum that starts with data-led insight, moves on to setting measurable objectives, and ends with measurable outcomes.

It’s a universal and strategic approach. It’s also the approach adopted by industry qualifications from AMEC and CIPR among others.

What do I need to do now?

On a practical level, all Google Analytics users have to answer the same questions: Will I continue to use this tool? Or should I use another?

If the answer to the first question is yes, then it’s essential to have created and implemented a new Google Analytics 4 property by July of this year. Failure to do so will mean it’ll be impossible to conduct year-on-year data comparisons when Google Analytics 3 is phased out in July 2023.

Consideration should also be given to how historical data already captured in Google Analytics 3 can be exported before it is deleted by Google.

Next steps

  1. Familiarise yourself with Google’s helpful FAQs around the move to G4.
  2. If you haven’t already, set up a Google Analytics 4 property for your website and/or app ASAP to start collecting data now. Again, Google provides some helpful content on migrating to Google Analytics 4.
  3. Events and conversions will need setting up in your new G4 property so plan in time to do this.
  4. If you’re using Google Ads, make sure you understand how this change might impact your campaigns if you have your Google Ads campaign integrated with your Universal Analytics account.
  5. Plan ahead for how you will export your historical data from Universal Analytics. Google says historical data will be available for six months after 1 July 2023, when Google Universal Analytics stops collecting new data.

If you intend to continue to use Google Analytics, you have no choice but to implement version 4 – as well as allocate time and effort to getting familiar with a brand new analytics platform.

What alternatives are there to Google Analytics?

There are alternatives to Google Analytics, though none of them is cheaper than a completely free service.

These include Adobe (formerly known as Omniture), WebTrends, CrazyEgg and Matomo (the latter in particular is popular because it is effectively a Google Analytics 3 clone but with better GDPR and data compliance safeguards.). None of them though are entirely free – most offer a free version for a certain number of tracked visits per month after which point you then pay.