You’ve probably heard the whispers getting louder and louder as the July 2023 Google Analytics end-of-life shutdown looms. And you read that correctly - as of July 2023, the Google Analytics service that we’ve grown to know and love over the last decade as the product of choice for measuring our website traffic (among other features) will no longer record new data. In this article we’re going to go over what’s happening with the Google Analytics service and why it’s happening. We’ll then talk about what actions you need to take and the timing involved so you can plan.
What’s Happening with the Google Analytics Service?
Google Analytics 3
The current version of the product we know commonly as “Google Analytics” is actually version 3 of the Google Analytics service. This version has been around since 2012 and is also known as Universal Analytics, or “UA” for short.
Google Analytics 4
Google has been working on the next iteration of their Google Analytics offering, Google Analytics 4 (GA4), since 2020, and they now believe that the GA4 product is mature enough for everyone to use. Thus, they recently announced that website owners should start migrating to GA4, as GA3 will stop recording website data as of July 2023.
Why is Google Making this Change?
As you will read below, Google believes that the current approach that GA3 uses to collect website data is outdated, and that a new method of data collection is necessary to keep up with the complexities of the modern web experience. This explanation is obviously an oversimplification of the reasons behind the change, but it gets to the core idea that Google wants a better and more accurate way to track website data given the technological changes we’ve seen across the web over the years.
The Migration is NOT automatic…
While GA3 and GA4 share the “Google Analytics” part of their names, the two products are actually very different under the hood. And while a technical breakdown of these differences is beyond the scope of this article, it’s enough to understand that GA3 was designed to collect data based on page views, whereas GA4 is designed to measure events. PageViews are easy to understand – if two people visit your veneers page, then we have two page views.
As the Internet has evolved over the past 10 years, and websites have become more interactive, it now makes more sense to measure this interactivity with events such as clicks, scrolls, button presses and page views. The question used to be, “What pages did the website visitor view?” whereas the question now is, “What events occurred during the visitor’s visit?” So while a PageView used to be the main measurement point upon which we based our data, Google now sees a PageView as simply one of many types of events that occur during a visit to a web page.
Because Google has completely shifted the model from pageviews to events, they essentially needed to create a new product to reflect this change. Thus, there’s no way to simply push an update button and have your GA3 installation update to GA4.
…and it’s NOT a True Migration.
The way I and many others in the analytics world interpret the word “migration” is the idea that we take our data from one system, move it to another system, and then pick up where we left off. But that’s NOT what’s happening here. As GA4 is a completely new product with different data collection procedures (see above), it’s not possible to migrate your data from GA3 to GA4. When July 2023 rolls around, GA3 will stop recording data, and the years of data you’ve collected to date will always remain with that GA3 account. And if you’d like to keep collecting data about your website, you will need to move to GA4 or a similar analytics package. (Note, I strongly recommend that you stick with GA4 and not implement different analytics software on your website).
What’s a Website Owner to Do?
As a website owner, you have three choices. Choice number one is to do nothing, and simply stop collecting key website data in July 2023. Considering how critical analytics data is for making informed marketing decisions, this choice is not an option. Choice number two would be to install an analytics package such as Matomo or Adobe Analytics and forgo Google Analytics entirely. This approach is also a poor choice for no other reason than the fact that Google Analytics is the dominant player in the analytics market, and if you use a different package, you will be limiting the number of software integrations (e.g. paid ads, call tracking) and agencies you will easily be able to work with. Thus, your best, and only practical choice, is to switch to Google Analytics 4 as soon as possible and start collecting data.
When Should I Migrate?
Most website owners should start “migrating” their GA3 installation to GA4 now. I put migrating in quotes here because even though GA4 is a new product and requires a new website installation, you do need to copy over any existing GA3 settings to your GA4 installation. And because you can’t copy and paste these settings (e.g. goals, filters), you need to recreate each of these customizations by hand in your new GA4 account (hence the term “migrate”).
The good news for most small business owners is that the majority of small business website analytics configurations come in two varieties - either as accounts that are setup without pay per click (PPC) and conversion data, or accounts that are setup with PPC and conversion data. Both types of accounts can be migrated; and as you’d expect, accounts with PPC data simply take longer to migrate because there are more settings required to integrate (for example, sites that don’t use PPC don’t have to worry about setting up Google Ads conversion tags).
Why Not Just Wait to Migrate?
In theory one could simply wait until GA3 stops recording data in July 2023, and then install GA4 and pick up where you left off. The problem with this approach is that doing so limits your ability to check the accuracy of your new data, as you won’t be able to compare your new data against any known baseline. Google has made it clear that it’s ok for a website to have GA3 and GA4 installed on a website at the same time, and that data will not be double-counted.
Thus, the approach that we recommend, and the one we are taking for our clients, is to install GA4 now and have it run alongside GA3. Doing so allows us to check the new GA4 data against our current GA3 data to make sure that the numbers match up properly. For example, if GA3 counts 150 new visitors in a month from organic search, we’d expect GA4 to reflect very similar results. And if we see differences in the data, we can more easily troubleshoot the GA4 installation now because we still have control data to work with, and many months to test.
Practically speaking, installing Google Analytics 4 is what amounts to a mandatory update for almost anyone who runs a website on planet Earth and still wishes to use Google’s free analytics product. It’s important to start the transition as soon as possible so that you have plenty of time to compare your new GA4 data with your existing GA3 data, and troubleshoot any discrepancies long before GA3 stops recording.
Ready for more? Read our post, the "Top 10 Things Small Businesses Need to Know about Migrating to Google Analytics 4".