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GA4: the future of Google Analytics

By Claire Feeney, Data and Insights Executive

Space & Time


The Drum Network article

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February 4, 2021 | 9 min read

We’ve worked with many clients on tracking, integration and SEO for new website migrations or redesigns in recent months. This has bought with it a renewed focus on cookie audits and consent solutions, delivering transparency to users on what each cookie dropped on their browser does and providing opt-in mechanisms. There is also increasing chat in marketing tech circles about the solutions tracking providers and ad platforms are putting into place to support the declining availability and use of cookies.

Space & Time look into the changes and updates of GA4 and suggests ways marketers can benefit.

Space & Time look into the changes and updates of GA4 and suggests ways marketers can benefit

In October, Google made a significant announcement. Its new version of Google Analytics, GA4, would become the default when setting up a new property and prompts to upgrade from existing versions became more visible:

“Because the technology landscape continues to evolve, the new Analytics is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers. It uses a flexible approach to measurement, and in the future, will include modelling to fill in the gaps where the data may be incomplete“

Vidhya Srinivasan, Google

Our integrations analyst, Claire Feeney, has been delving into GA4. Here’s what you need to know.

What is GA4?

GA4 is the latest version of Google Analytics (GA) that combines data from both apps and websites. GA4 is the new name for the beta reporting platform App & Web and has been renamed for clarity. All Universal Analytics (UA) properties can be ‘upgraded’ to GA4, meaning a new Analytics property will be created for collecting the new data and your current GA account will not be affected. If you previously had a Firebase Analytics account (for apps), this will have been automatically upgraded to GA4.

From now, any new Google Analytics accounts will be GA4, with old versions of GA, called Universal Analytics, eventually being depreciated. You can set up a GA4 property if you have an app, a website or both – it’s recommended you set up a GA4 account alongside existing GA accounts if you have them, giving you time to collect data in GA4 without losing any data currently held in your GA accounts.

With the introduction of GDPR, websites require users to consent to cookies to track website performance. GA4 will start reducing this reliance on cookies to record certain events across platforms/devices by using machine learning to ‘fill in the gaps’ where user consent is not given for tracking, making it more stable to industry changes and preventing future gaps in your data. GA4 is built with the future in mind, so scalability and growth have been factored into the new design, along with a wider focus on tracking the complete user journey, as opposed to splitting user interaction into sessions, devices or platforms like Universal Analytics.

Universal Analytics v GA4

UA uses a session-based model to collect and report on data, meaning user interactions are grouped within a given timeframe. GA4 properties use a more flexible, event-based model, which allows for more accurate reporting and for additional information to be passed into Google Analytics with each interaction such as value for purchase, page title, user location. In this model, each user interaction is sent to GA as a standalone event meaning it is not contained within a session, as hit events are in UA properties. This means you can send up 25 additional event parameters with each event sent to GA4 – far greater than the current 4 UA allows (Category, Action, Label, Value). Up to a maximum of 500 distinctly named events can be sent to GA4, giving you a much wider set of data to monitor engagement with.


‘Goals’ in UA are now called ‘Conversions’ in GA4. In the free version of Google Analytics, UA allows a maximum of 20 goals, but this has been extended in GA4 to 30 Conversions. Goal set up differs in both, with UA allowing goals based on Duration, Destination, Events, and a custom set up (Event Category =) etc. GA4 only allows Conversions based on events – meaning any pageview goals will need to be sent as an event to GA4 before being used as a conversion. This again reinforces the recommendation of setting up GA4 alongside any existing Google Analytics account you currently have.

It’s all about events…

GA4 automatically tracks some events such as ‘first_visit and ‘session_start’. When Enhanced Measurement is enabled, it will automatically collect more events including: ‘view_search_results’, ‘video_start’, ‘file_download’, which all have their owns set of additional parameters sent with each event. This means you will start collecting useful data as soon as you set up a GA4 property, without setting up any additional tags or modifying your code. Enhanced Measurement events are not included as part of the 500-event limit.


Some new metrics to look out for in GA4


A new look

Another key change for GA4 is the way data is presented. Originally GA split data off into multiple tabs per reporting section, displaying data in topic-specific tables – for example, the Real Time reports split data into six sections. GA4 has combined all this data into one overview section, using widgets to display each piece of information. You can click into the scorecards to gain further insight, including comparing additional parameters associated with events. This new layout is a welcome improvement from the table-heavy Universal Analytics interface, making it easier to spot key trends and anomalies in your data. Link sharing and PDF download for certain reports (not Real Time) are available in both UA and GA4.

The homepage in GA4 is now customizable and replaces the ‘Dashboard’ feature in UA – with far fewer limitations on scorecard size, shape and placement.


Identity Spaces

Identity Spaces are types of identifiers used by Google Analytics to identify users across devices and platforms. This allows GA to link up user activity from one device/platform with activity on another, providing insight into the full customer journey.

Universal Analytics attempted cross-device reporting with their User ID property, but this added limited value to data collection as it wasn’t possible to link this data up with data from other Analytics properties or to deduplicate data collected across both the User-ID and normal UA properties. UA only has one Identity Space it can use to properly link users across devices – Device ID. GA4 uses three different Identity Spaces to create a more complete picture of your customer’s journey, and their relationship with your site across all available platforms and devices, by unifying and deduplicating interactions across all devices and platforms.

GA4 Identity Spaces

  1. User ID: if you create your own User IDs for signed-in users, you can import this data into GA4 and use it to enhance cross-device reporting. To use this feature, you must create persistent IDs for your users, and include the ID in the data sent to GA4.

  2. Google Signals: GA4 can use data from Google Signals – where a user is signed into their Google Account and allows this information to be collected – to associate data collected with a particular user on your site

  3. Device ID: Device ID is based on the user’s browser cookies for websites and the app-instance ID for apps.

When GA4 is processing data, it uses all available Identity Spaces to link up data across platforms, first looking for User ID then checking for Google Signals and finally Device ID if no other data is available. This allows them to create a single user journey for all data linked to the same identity. This makes GA4’s cross-device reporting far more powerful than Universal Analytics, where one user can appear to be a different user each time on a different device or platform.


User data in GA4 can be used to create audience lists, which can then be linked to Google Ads or Search Ads 360 and used for ad personalization on Google Ads Search Campaigns. You can create audiences based on user actions and attributes, but this is limited to only targeting the last used device for a given User ID. Audiences can be set up based on certain events or event parameters allowing you to target users based on their interaction with your site as well as user characteristics such as location.

GA4 is the future of analytics so watch this space for more information on its advanced capabilities and new features – and how to get the most out of it.

Claire Feeney, data and insights executive at Space & Time.


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