Housekeeping Tasks for Google Analytics 4

We did it, everyone! Universal Analytics has officially ridden off into the sunset and Google Analytics 4 is here to stay. If you’ve been putting off incorporating GA4 into your day-to-day work until the last minute (i.e. right now), you’re not alone. As you’re settling into your first week using this new tool, take the opportunity to spruce up the place a bit. Here are some of the simplest ways to do that.

Extend Your Data Retention Settings

In an effort to preserve user privacy, Google Analytics 4 allows some user-level and event-level data to expire after a given time period

By default, data retention in GA4 is set to two months, but users have the option to extend this expiration date to fourteen months instead. We don’t see any downside in retaining that data for longer; to change, go to Data Settings -> Data Retention in the Admin panel.

Consider a BigQuery Subscription

Unlike in UA, where BigQuery data exports were only available to Analytics 360 users, Google Analytics 4 makes BigQuery integration free for all accounts (you’ll still need to pay for BigQuery, but that fee will be pretty reasonable for sites that aren’t receiving hundreds of thousands of sessions a month).

Exporting GA4 data into BigQuery will give you a way to store that parameter data for longer than the fourteen months offered in the native tool; it will also give you more access to the raw data that GA4’s interface will aggregate, threshold, or otherwise obfuscate to preserve user privacy and reduce the processing burden on their own back end (you’ll still need to make sure you’re in compliance with your country’s laws on collection and storage of user data, but if you’re complying with GA4’s terms of service on the collection side, you’re probably good there).

To configure export to BigQuery, go to BigQuery Links under Product Links in the Admin panel.

Seize the Day for Data Collection Standards

Having worked with Google Analytics for the bulk of my career, I can safely say that most Universal Analytics accounts were an absolute mess when it came to event setup. Essentially, UA allowed users to pass up to four pieces of information with an event: Category, Action, Label, and an optional Value that was primarily used for ecommerce tracking (or to associate an estimated monetary value with a non-transaction, e.g. a subscription sign-up or a click on an affiliate link). However, there was very little in the way of standardization (industry-wide or even within individual organizations) when it came to what information was collected under which parameter. As a result, no two Universal Analytics instances were measuring events in quite the same way.

Google Analytics 4 offers the ability to collect up to twenty-five parameters per event; to help users combat the added complexity with data collection, GA4 also includes standard parameters (such as those collected with Enhanced Measurement). Whenever possible, we recommend using those standard parameter names when setting up custom events. Beyond that, though, GA4 offers a nearly unprecedented opportunity to set and enforce standards around how data is collected and used within your and your clients’ organizations. Take some time to create:

  • A clear and documented process for custom events and parameters. Who can set them up? What data is collected, and what naming conventions should custom parameters use? One such rule should be that all event and parameter names always use lowercase; since both are case-sensitive within GA4 (just like they were in UA), you’ll want to avoid a situation where GA4 is considering parameter_name and Parameter_name to be two different parameters.
  • Naming conventions around Custom Reports and Explorations. If your team is left to their own devices, you’ll end up with multiple reports called “Landing Pages” in your custom reports section and multiple “Free Form Explorations” cluttering up your Explore tab. Make sure everyone who uses GA4 knows how to name their reports so they can be found again,=. and encourage frequent use of the Description fields GA4 helpfully provides to further differentiate between reports. 
  • Guidelines for using description fields. Both Custom Reports and Explorations provide a field for a description, which can be a real time-saver when it comes to understanding at a glance which report covers what data. Set some guidelines for your team about what information a description should include, and be consistent about making sure those fields are filled out.
  • Rules for UTM parameters. Better late than never — if you haven’t already established concrete rules around your UTM source and medium parameter naming conventions, now is the time to do so.

You’ll need to enforce this pretty diligently at first, but getting your team in the habit now will set you up for success for years to come. Ultimately, the goal should be to ensure that a brand-new person coming on to the team will have all the information they need to create new tracking in a consistent way, and to find the data they’re looking for without wondering “hey, what does this event really track, anyway?”

Have a Conversation about Google Signals

GA4’s data collection includes Google Signals, which collects data about logged-in Google users as they use the web even off of your website. Google Signals data can be incredibly useful for businesses that do a lot of personalized advertising; if you’ve got a robust retargeting and remarketing program going, chances are you (or your display ad vendor) are going to want to keep that extra data rolling in.

However, if you’re not building hyper-personalized paid ad campaigns, we recommend turning off Google Signals collection. GA4 represents an uneasy truce between marketers’ desire for multi-device, multi-channel user journey tracking and consumers’ desire for increased privacy as they browse the web. To stay in line with international privacy laws, Google will apply additional thresholding to reports containing Google Signals data — meaning that if GA4 has collected enough personalized data to make it possible to reverse-engineer a single user’s (or small group of users’) journey, that data will be omitted from some reports. Whether or not that tradeoff is worth it for you will depend on your unique business needs, but it’s something to approach with intentionality. 

To toggle Google Signals on or off, go to Data Settings -> Data Collection in the Admin panel.

Make Sure Enhanced Measurement Events Are Tracking Properly

Chances are, you’ve already opted in to GA4’s Enhanced Measurement, since users are prompted to do so as part of the setup process. Now is the time to take a look at the data that Enhanced Measurement is collecting and make sure that it’s tracking the things you want it to track (and not tracking anything else). Some things to check:

  • Form interactions: GA4 can automatically detect form-related JavaScript events such as form.submit() and record them as form interactions. However, since there are myriad ways to code a form, GA4’s auto-detection may not fully reflect the reality of the forms on your site. Make sure all the forms on your site are being tracked; that multi-step forms aren’t being tracked as separate forms; that forms such as your site search bar and newsletter signups aren’t being tracked unless you want them to be; and that third-party tracking code isn’t registering a pixel firing as a form submission (Facebook tracking is a common culprit here). In general, we’ve found it more useful to turn off automatic form tracking and fire form events via Google Tag Manager, but as with all things, your mileage may vary — the important thing is to ensure you’re tracking what you think you’re tracking, especially if you’ve marked form submissions as a conversion.
  • Site search: GA4 looks for common site search query string parameters (such as s or search) and records that page view as a site search, with the resultant string recorded as the search query. For most site search setups, this automatic tracking will work just fine, but it’s a good thing to double-check so your site search reports aren’t full of junk data (or no data at all).
  • Video engagement: These engagement events will only be captured for YouTube videos embedded with JS API support enabled. If you’re using another video provider, or haven’t enabled the API, your videos won’t be tracking properly. Fortunately, just about every major video platform has video engagement support for GA4 at this point — your best bet is to Google “[provider name] GA4 tracking” and see what comes up.

Speaking of events…

Get Your Imported Universal Analytics Events Under Control

It sounded so easy in the moment: GA4 helpfully offered to automatically convert all your custom Universal Analytics goals to GA4 conversion events. Why wouldn’t you take them up on that? The problem is that depending on how you had your UA events set up, their GA4 equivalents may not serve your data needs well, and they’re less likely to play nicely with future events you set up in GA4 (not to mention that as we discussed above, your UA events may not have been set up consistently or well in the first place).

Imported UA events will use the event Action for the event name, and pass the event Category and Label as parameters. Don’t forget, though, that part of the point of GA4 is to add increased granularity and consistency to event tracking, so sticking with your imported events is something of a step backward. Resist the urge to make GA4 exactly like UA. Trying to do so now will only create more work for you down the line, as GA4 is a fundamentally different tool from UA and will only evolve further away from UA as time goes by.

Take a look at the events you imported from UA, and make sure they’re conforming to the new data collection standards you set out above. Where they aren’t, you can use the Modify Event function to clean up your data and make sure your parameter collection and naming are consistent between old and new events. In some cases, you may be able to stop firing that event altogether because it’s already being tracked via Enhanced Measurement or GA4’s built-in event tracking. The sooner you do this, the more integrity your historical event data will have long-term, so don’t delay!

Add Custom Metrics and Dimensions

GA4 is great at collecting data — but if you want to get that data back out, you’ll need to ask for it. Event parameters collected for custom events, as well as many parameters auto-collected via Enhanced Measurement events, are only available for inclusion in reports and explorations once you’ve set them as custom metrics or dimensions via the Custom Definitions tab in the Admin panel (in a nutshell: metrics are numbers, dimensions are text strings). If you’re not seeing the parameter you want as an option in the Reports tab, chances are you’ve got to add it as a custom definition first. To do so, go to Custom Definitions in the Admin Panel.

Create Your First Reports

Enough setup, let’s crunch some numbers! Unlike Universal Analytics, which offered a variety of standardized reports via the sidebar, GA4’s Reports tab is pretty bare-bones. At first glance, this might make it seem like GA4 offers fewer reporting options, but that’s not the case — instead, GA4 starts out with a smaller handful of baseline reports and then offers extensive customization, filtering, and drill-down options so users can create reports that are of the most use to them. The vast dataset you’ve gathered via the GA4 is all there; it’s just a matter of slicing and dicing until you have the view you want. Think of it like an enormous pivot table with a few UX features on top, and you’ve got the gist of the Reports tab.

Take some time to familiarize yourself with the various ways reports can be customized via GA4. Remember, we’re resisting the urge to make GA4 as much like UA as possible here; take this opportunity to consider your data needs going forward, and try to create new reports that will give you the best insights into your users’ behavior that you’ll need to drive marketing decisions. Don’t worry about having to create that perfect view again next time — you can save as a custom report to view on a regular basis or share with other users in the property.

Publish a Collection

Once you’ve got those perfect reports set up just the way you like them, it’s time to start creating collections. Report Collections are a way to get back that easy drill-down sidebar experience from UA, but in a more useful format: by creating and publishing a Report Collection, you can make your most-used custom reports accessible directly from the sidebar. Best of all, with Report Collections you’re no longer subject to Google’s absolutely terrible report taxonomy and naming conventions; instead of having to remember what information goes under “Audience” and what goes under “Behavior,” you can name both your reports and the collections to which they belong according to your own data governance rules, putting the information you’re most likely to need right at your fingertips. You can even edit the built-in collections that GA4 starts users out with to better fit the way your team uses analytics data.

Of course, there’s much more to Google Analytics 4! Now that you’ve got your house in order, it’s time to take GA4 out on the open road and see what it can do. Let us know your GA4 tips in the comments!

Written by
Drawing on over a decade of digital marketing experience (both in-house & agency-side), Ruth leads the team to drive client strategy forward.

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